The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Contemporary World Politics and China’s Role

April 24, 2009

Professor Wang Jisi, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, spent roughly one month in Japan as a visiting fellow at the Tokyo Foundation in March and April 2009. As China’s foremost expert on international politics, Professor Wang is known as a highly influential scholar on the country’s foreign policy.

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The first characteristic of contemporary world politics is that, as the negative effects of globalization become steadily more apparent, non-traditional security issues and lopsided economic development are growing more pronounced.

China in a Globalized World

The thirty years since China launched its policies of reform and opening could be described as the period during which the country has gradually become integrated into the world economy. China is one of many countries to enjoy the enormous benefits of the global economy. Like these other countries, it is also facing the downside of globalization and the serious challenge of non-traditional security issues. In 2008 alone, the country was struck by major natural disasters like the crippling snowfalls in the south and the earthquake in Sichuan Province, in addition to incidents that called into question the safety of its food products and production facilities. Global events, such as the rise and fall of oil prices and the financial crisis that originated in the West, have also taken their toll on China’s economy.

At least four major challenges lie ahead as China continues to develop. The first is a shortage of resources (particularly energy and water). The second is the deterioration in China’s natural environment. The third is the disparities in the country’s socio-economic structure (growing gaps between rich and poor, between different regions, and between urban and rural areas). And the fourth challenge is the threat of major natural disasters and disease epidemics.

To confront these challenges, the Chinese government has set forth a doctrine emphasizing scientific development and social harmony. First, it intends to embark on an integrated effort to switch to a new growth model, expand domestic demand, and develop in harmony with nature. China is also working to forge an appropriate balance among economic construction, population growth, resource consumption, and protection of the natural environment; to place democracy and constitutional government on a sound footing; and to set Chinese society as a whole on a path toward civilized development through enhanced production, higher quality of life, and environmental improvement. Only by proceeding down this path will China be able to deal appropriately with every new security issue and to achieve sustainable, safe, and rapid development.

China’s contributions to world economic growth and the elimination of poverty are widely recognized. But in the face of new challenges, China will be compelled to take on a new global role. As well as pursuing sustainable development based on its domestic circumstances and becoming an engine of growth for the world economy, it will have to make further contributions toward protecting the resources shared by all humankind.

If it is to adhere to this policy, China will have to minimize economic friction and resource competition with other countries while refraining from expanding its military capabilities. China will also be compelled to make its own innovations, broaden its investment in science and technology and education, and contribute proactively to international cooperation.

The second characteristic of contemporary world politics is the worldwide resurgence of religious forces and various forms of nationalism.

Mediating Between Religions and Ethnic Groups

As a major civilization with ancient roots, China has witnessed a good deal of global ideological turmoil and cultural innovation. China’s opening up to the world not only led to economic reform but also provided a conduit for importing the world’s cultures and ideas, allowing China to absorb the quintessential elements of various civilizations all over the world. Chinese civilization is essentially an amalgam of different cultures, religions, and ethnic traits, and is accordingly very diverse. Chinese people advocate the mutual fusion of civilizations and cultures; they do not support separation, enmity, or ethnic division, let alone the settling of religious, sectarian, ethnic, or national conflicts by means of violence. The role that China can and, indeed, should fulfill is that of a nation that mediates between different civilizations and peoples and promotes global harmony.

China wishes to strengthen both its own culture and its cultural influence on the rest of the world; in other words, it hopes to bolster its “soft power.” Strengthening a nation’s cultural soft power entails a process whereby the country and its peoples distinguish the cultural traditions they hold most dear from those of other nations and ethnic groups and make them part of humanity’s universal value system. In reality, the concept of harmony advocated by China is also expressed in other cultures and religions throughout the world; only the modes of understanding and expression differ.

China’s strengthening its soft power does not mean that other countries’ soft power will be diminished. What China’s people should and will do is, first, to achieve harmony in their own country and tolerance between different ethnic and religious groups. At the same time, they will deepen common perceptions and promote mutual understanding with countries of differing social systems and values.

Given China’s history of blending diverse cultures, if it implements its economic and cultural reforms simultaneously, there is little doubt that Chinese civilization can take on a unique role in international affairs.

The third characteristic of contemporary world politics is that the centers of power and wealth and the engines of growth are shifting.

A Changing Balance of Power and the Direction of China’s Growth

China, India, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, and other emerging countries are seizing the opportunity for growth provided by globalization, rapidly augmenting their national power and exerting greater international influence. Westerners are purportedly remarking that “The East has growth, while the West has debt” and that “History’s torch is passing from West to East.”

Geographically speaking, China is an “Eastern” country; therefore, it must work toward economic cooperation and security in the East or, in other words, the Asia-Pacific region. China does not determine its security policy or organize or participate in military alliances based on a demarcation between East and West, however. China maintains a policy of openness in its cooperative relations with the rest of the Asia-Pacific region, while also taking into consideration the interests and requests of countries outside the region. Its economic cooperation has already become global in scale. Its strategic planning is not constrained by the concept of “East” and “West”; nor does it engage in such practices as jockeying over “spheres of influence” with other major powers.

China has experienced the most rapid development of any emerging economy, such that its demands on external resources and markets have reached considerable proportions. Additionally, as a socialist state under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, a great deal of attention has come to focus on what role China will fulfill in the process of the shift in international power and wealth. The history of international relations shows that, as a rule, when a new great power emerges, it destroys the existing balance of power, dealing a blow to global stability and provoking international conflict. There are those who believe that China’s rise will prove no exception to this rule and that this is all the more reason why confrontation and collision with the United States is inevitable. This way of thinking has gained considerable sway.

China takes this brand of thinking very seriously as it goes about its international affairs, for it is a problem to which the country cannot avoid responding. The world wants to know how China will assess and leverage its power and influence, which continue to grow stronger by the day. China is aware that, no matter how much it professes its peaceful intentions and stresses its status as a developing country facing the hardships and hurdles this entails, the world’s trepidation over its growing presence is likely to increase rather than decrease and that in the face of this anxiety it must remain unperturbed and objective.

Merely disclosing general information and refuting the “China as a threat” argument falls well short of what is needed to overcome this problem. It is more important for the country to follow a set pattern of behavior and have a clearly defined strategy, and to shatter the historical precedent of the so-called tragedy of great power politics.

Amid the shift in global wealth and power, China must calmly and objectively consolidate its power and, without becoming overconfident, must carefully analyze the various changes in the international equilibrium. It must also adhere to the principles of international ethics and avoid being unnecessarily sucked into the maelstrom of international political conflict.

To this end, first China must uphold its policy of not entering into alliances and must refrain from conducting politics as part of a group of major powers. Second, it must maintain a cooperative posture and a policy of openness toward all countries without using ideology and social structure to draw distinctions or determine the degree of closeness in bilateral relations. Third, China must develop its own innovations and, starting with the expansion of domestic demand, create a new, modernized template for development in which it does not rely excessively on material resources. Following these precepts is sure to spur other countries to view China’s development as a predictable and stabilizing factor in the process of transition occurring in the international framework.

These three fundamental characteristics and trends serve to reveal the fourth and most important characteristic of world politics today—namely, that international rules and order are about to experience major changes.

An Active Role in Determining International Rules

As a country that has actively taken part in and reaped the benefits of economic globalization, China has gained new awareness from the world’s existing political and economic structure and has experienced the process of gradually adapting itself to this framework. Since joining the World Trade Organization (WTO), China has come to play an active part in many key international organizations, abiding by the accompanying rules and fulfilling its obligations. At the same time, China has become the focus of greater attention and expectations from the international community, and the chorus of voices calling for the country to assume even more responsibility in world affairs grows louder by the day.

Henceforth, China will play a more active role than it has thus far by reappraising and adapting to existing international rules. In other words, China will adhere to the current rational order and to international rules. As the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, for example, China will submit concrete plans for conserving energy and reducing emissions before the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012 and will participate in the discussions and planning of a new international framework. And as a major consumer and producer of energy, China is sure to have a greater say in how such issues as fluctuating world energy prices are addressed. It must also contribute to international frameworks for nuclear nonproliferation, arms reduction, and the peaceful use of space in its capacity both as a nuclear power and a country whose space program is rapidly becoming more sophisticated. Furthermore, if the Doha round of WTO negotiations were to fail, it would no doubt be necessary for China, as a major trading nation, to work with related countries to seek a solution.

China’s active participation in setting international rules and its contributions to improving international political and economic stability will serve to substantiate and promote its proclaimed commitment to peaceful development and cooperation in building a harmonious world.

In conclusion, there are four duties that China must carry out amid a world political situation that grows more complex each day. China must (1) adhere steadfastly to its plans for sustainable growth; (2) encourage harmony among the peoples of the world; (3) ensure the stable transition of the international regime; and (4) advocate rational international rules and order.

I believe that a diplomatic strategy that enables China to fulfill its international responsibilities must first of all be based on three aspects of national interest: sovereignty, security, and development. At the same time, it must also take into account the international situation and the world’s expectations of China. Chinese scholars have an important duty to research both domestic and international frameworks and their interactions thoroughly and, based on this research, to submit policy recommendations to the nation and respond to international public opinion.

This English translation is based on Tokyo Foundation Research Fellow Takashi Sekiyama ’s Japanese translation of Professor Wang’s original Chinese text.

    • Dean, School of International Studies, Peking University
    • Jisi Wang
    • Jisi Wang

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