Chinese viewpoint in realism

An “academic” China began participating in the development of IRT and especially in the multipolar strategy more than 30 years ago, for which there exists a specific Chinese term, duojihua(multipolarity or multipolarism). In an article from early 1986 entitled “Prospects for the international situation”, Deng Xiaoping’s national security advisor, Huan Xiang indicated that the world’s superpowers were effectively losing the ability to control their own camps, hence the beginning of political multipolarity. The first step in this direction was the emergence of the strategic USSR-USA-China triangle following the “quintipolar” world including Japan and Europe. Active discussion took place from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s.

The editor of the National Defense University’s journal, International Strategic Studies, subsequently decided that an article by General Huang Zhenji would be suitable as a culmination to the discourse despite the fact that it was rather sharp in tone and “unusual” in style. The main points of General Huang in 1997:

  • The US’ decline is inevitable and underway
  • The US’ global influence is already severely restricted
  • Quintipolar multipolarity is inevitable, especially in terms of the growing tensions between the United States, Japan, and Germany
  • The emergence of the “Third World” has changed global politics and will contain the United States
  • Local wars are certain even though “peace and development” will be the main trend in the “uncertain” transitional period of coming decades

Chinese researchers have understood the global political order of the past two centuries in different ways than their Western partners. China’s authorities believe that global politics is a system or “strategic pattern”, among which they distinguish five different pattern periods:

  1. The Vienna System: 1815-1870
  2. The Transitional System marked by Germany and Italy’s unification and the Meiji reforms
  3. The Versailles System: 1920-1945
  4. The Yalta System: 1945-1989
  5. Transition period…

Contemporary Chinese political scientists derive their doctrine of multipolarity from the Cold War era, based on the five later mentioned principles of Eastphalian world order: Mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, Non-aggression, Non-interference in internal affairs, Equality and mutual benefit, Peaceful coexistence.

By the end of the 1990’s, at least three approaches to future multipolarity had been developed in Chinese academic discussions. The post-Cold War period, its characteristics and continuity, was called as “transition period” (not unipolar period). Likewise, there has been large argumentation on terms like poles, pluralization, multipolarization, large nations and powers. Any transition period is by definition not uncertain, the period could continue for 20, even 30 years. However, a “transition period” always has an ending time constituting itself in a new structure different from that of the Cold War period.

Overall, Chinese researchers and analysts have argued that China should not be purely passive but can and even should aid the inauguration of the multipolar trend and accelerate its tempo, although Chinese scholars have often criticized the work of social scientists, especially those relying on abstract Western theories, for ignoring the special features of the Chinese case. However, there are nowadays a number of studies regarding Chinese foreign policy and international behavior through the lenses of neorealism. 

According to Chinese researchers, Waltz’s balance-of-power and Walt’s balance of threat theory and alliance – deterrence formation are quite easily seen in the China-USSR-the US triangle during the Cold War as well as during the thaw era in the 1970s. In the post-Cold War era, neorealism explains quite well the cooperation development between China and Russia reacting and counter-balancing the growing common threat from the US.The process culminated in the April 1996 announcement that the two countries had established a “cooperative strategic partnership,” a shared concern about the way the US was wielding its unprecedented power encouraged China and Russia to move closer together.

This partnership policy was China’s attempt to promote the multipolar order, strengthen bilateral ties between China and other major states worldwide and balance the unipolar position of the US as well as to lower possible fears of China’s growing power and dominance. The international political development since the mid-1990s seems to beconsistent with the expectations of structural realism.

Because of China’s traumatic history of domination by foreign powers during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the leaders in Beijing attach a high priority to respecting the legacy of the past. Among the hot historical memories (Opium War, Japan, Taiwan) none is hotter than the half century of Sino-Japanese relations between 1895 and 1945. History is the essential side of the Chinese behavior on the international scene. In a broader sense, China’s past experience limits the strategic options, which Beijing will consider in such ways that confound structural-realist expectations based simply on assessing capabilities.