The Rise of China and International Relations Theory

by Jean Kachiga (Author)
©2021 Monographs VIII, 274 Pages


This book examines succinctly the substantive assumptions of each one of the main international relations theories, namely realism, liberalism, constructivism, the English school, critical theory and idealism, against China's choices and behavior as an international actor. The author seeks to articulate how China's choices and behavior alternatively reflect and vindicate, or challenge and reject reigning assumptions of international relations theory.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 China’s Rise in Modern Historical Context
  • 2 Bound to Differ
  • 3 China’s Challenge to International Relations Theory
  • 4 China’s Rise in the Prism of Realism
  • 5 China’s Rise in the Prism of Liberalism
  • 6 The Rise of China in the Prism of Neoliberalism
  • 7 Is China a Realist or Liberalist Power?
  • 8 China’s Rise in the Prism of Constructivism
  • 9 China’s Identity Redefined
  • 10 China and the Cultures of Anarchy in the International System
  • 11 China’s Rise in the Prism of the English School
  • 12 China’s Rise and the Critical Theory
  • 13 China’s Rise and Idealism
  • 14 China’s Foreign Policy and International Relations Theory
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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International relations theory examines the behavior of actors and the phenomena in the international realm beyond nation-states. Modern international relations theory consequentially begins, in time and space, with political developments in the center of Europe, since the Napoleonic Wars. Off the heel of emerging unitary states (The Dutch Republics), newly formed nations (Germany, Italy), and established nations (Spain, Austria, France, Great Britain), European nations had gradually taken a justified interest in the ordering of relations among themselves. The aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars commanded a reasoned interest in scrutinizing the behaviors of relevant international actors for their implications. The numerous states, rivalries, and wars logically demanded strategizing both intellectually and martially. They also produced intense diplomatic activity as well as new concepts to guide their relations, and practices that resonated years later in the first half of the 20th century. Concepts such as realpolitik, balancing power through alliances, and war as a tool of foreign policy—many of which already known due to the rivalries between the Greek city-states, as revealed by the Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian Wars (431–404 BC)—kept their validity among those approaching international affairs from the realist perspective. Those using this perspective therefore consider Thucydides the intellectual forefather of these concepts. Like in the time of Thucydides, these nations responded to the need of ←1 | 2→creating conditions in which vulnerabilities were lessened, security maximized, and overall conditions for peace strengthened. In Europe, they aimed at keeping “new Napoleons” from threatening the rest of the continent’s nations and beyond.

Once in the 20th century, the World Wars ensured continued interest in international affairs and relations. The first half of the 20th century has allowed, in fact, the intensification of such an interest and in many ways has cemented the pursuit of modern international relations theorizing. The interwar period has seen emerge the consciousness of a causal link between the succession of events (see E. H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis: 1919–1939) and the existing structure of the international system of states, which requires thinking about the world as a closed system, as Hartford Mackinder described (1904). Consumed and concerned by the ever-present menace of the World Wars, and then by the possibility of a nuclear war, the state of international affairs quasi-naturally resulted in an intellectual leaning toward the realist approach to international relations. By then, the center of political gravity had shifted. It has crossed the Atlantic Ocean. It now resided in North America, more precisely in the United States. The realist approach to international relations throve with the writings of H. Morgenthau, K. Deutsch, and A. F. K. Organski, to name just a few. It became an academic discipline. It throve just as well in the political culture of the United States, which had spearheaded the West against the Soviet Union as an ideological rival and a superpower nemesis. The United States was preoccupied with the implications of its growing influence in world affairs, the imperatives of ideological rivalry with the Soviets, and the possibility of a nuclear holocaust. It was no coincidence that theorizing about international relations emerged in Europe, and it is no coincidence that it was cemented, as a discipline, in the United States. Europe and North America laid its bed.

The time, space, and historical context of the emergence of international relations theory and discipline have had the following two consequences. First, because international relations theory and discipline historically emerged in a specifically Western context, it produced an analysis reflective of both the experiences and the identity of those acting (political actors) as well as of those theorizing (scholars). To their identity belongs a long-established history of civilization worldviews, cultural norms, and customary practices as well as an intellectual heritage of epistemic inquiry rooted in taxonomic, rationalist, positivist, materialist, and deductive logic. The practice of, and the theorizing on, international relations, consequently had to reflect this intellectual context. This context explains the materialist, positivist, and deductive main theoretical approaches to international relations, namely realism and liberalism. They are taxonomic as they ←2 | 3→proceed through establishing categories and their substance and attributes. They are materialist, as they premise states’ materialist interests in military capabilities and economic prosperity. They are rationalist as they use concepts and provide them with content to produce knowledge. They are positivist as they rely on observable phenomena and quantifiable factors. They are deductive as they proceed with the constructing of hypothesis to test, and to produce inferences. We do not imply that there is, per se, anything wrong with these approaches. We simply imply that they leave room for non-materialist, post-positivist, critical, and many other approaches. In fact, this is the reason why constructivism and the English School emerged. It is as well the reason why critical theories of post-modernism, post-structuralism, and even the feminist approaches found their place in theorizing international relations. These subsequent approaches to international relations emerged as a result of dissatisfaction of those not completely sold to the assumptions of the positivist approaches. And this interest in theorizing international relations will certainly produce further new approaches and assumptions. This is what is now being noticed in China, where the interest in international relations has been growing.

The second consequence of international relations theory emerging in the West is that it reflected in its content, Western perspective and dominance of international affairs. Consequently, any erosion of such a dominance will open up international affairs to new perspectives. The erosion is underway. East Asia is the region whose share of influence in world affairs has been growing, benefiting from Western erosion. The East Asian perspective, therefore, is bound to seek its place among the other approaches to international relations, like the post-positivists approaches had done. Spearheaded by China, East Asia has now started to move into the center of gravity of world affairs and to express the need for a different perspective. Signs of it can be already observed both through ways in which China justifies its policy choices and the new theoretical grounding of some of its scholars. These scholars could articulate a Chinese perspective. What could become the Chinese school of international relations is most likely to infuse a new perspective and probably challenge the dominant approaches and assumptions. Both scholarship and policy choices in international relations from China will enrich the discourse and analysis of international affairs.

So far, the body of theoretical approaches to international relations, examining the nature of the international system and the behavior of actors within, is elaborate enough to suggest that there was no possible behavior of international actors not yet accounted for. In other words, the implicit assumption, based on the elaborate body of work in international relations theory today, suggests that ←3 | 4→for each policy choice, from which derive foreign policy and for each international actors’ behavior, there is a theoretical approach accounting for it. While scrutinizing China’s behavior as an international actor, one naturally seeks to find which assumptions and descriptions China’s policy choices reflect; or whether its behavior is accounted for by existing theories.

Recent scholarship has been preoccupied with fitting China’s behavior into theoretical boxes, and, in the process, validating or discharging other approaches. This attitude of course suggests that there is nothing an international relations actor can do that has not already been theorized. What if China’s behavior does not squarely or simply fit the templates or matrix laid out by the existing theories? What if China was to prove through its behavioral choices that existing theories do not adequately exhaust the possibilities of international actors? After all, China is the state that chocked the entrenched orthodoxy of political and economic ideologies as it maintained simultaneously political communism and economic free market capitalism. What if China took the liberties of going beyond the existing cannon of international relations theory? Of course, China may still end up resembling in its behavior any other state constrained by the structural exigencies of the international system.1 In any case, there is room for any state actor to use agential capacity and to surprise the world of international relations theory. And if any state can, China can. Although states generally end up finding their place in the system and behaving accordingly, some choose not to fit into the place left for them and the role expected for them to play. This is what we call taking liberties. It reflects the capacity of an agent to shape processes and procedures in the system within which it operates. Whether a state will take such a liberty depends on a number of factors such as size, capabilities, ambition, interests, identity, degrees of satisfaction with the status quo order, and so on.

What about China? Is China a state that is likely to take liberties with its choices and behavior to affect processes and structure of the existing order? China seems to meet the prerequisites that position states to seek the reshaping or reshuffling of the status quo order. First, China is beginning to outgrow the place it has occupied and its growing clout calls for a new role. Second, China’s identity is unique enough to cause deviation from existing behavioral norms. Third, China’s size, interests, ambitions, and capabilities are growing significantly enough to induce increased relevant influence. There are reasons to expect of China, behavior ←4 | 5→that international relations theory has predicted. There are reasons, as well, to expect behavior not yet accounted for in the repertoire of international relations theory. This is what has already been observed in the Chinese political leadership’s careful orchestration of its diplomatic activity as it becomes conscious of the new role it is called to play in the international system. China has become a shareholder benefiting from the system structure, but is also realizing how confining the system structure is, to its identity, culture, and history. Like any other state, China will have its interests but the choice it will make to pursue them may be refreshing and surprising simply because of its identity.

All these reasons point to first, a potential challenge that the rise of China poses to both international politics and relations; and second, to theorizing about international relations. Our goal here, therefore, is twofold. With the first goal, we seek to scrutinize China’s actions as an international relations actors to find out whether it comes with fresh behavior, a new attitudes not accounted for in the existing international relations scholarship. This interest derives from the basis that China has a number of identity features, distinct enough to allow the anticipation of potential novel behavior. After all, all very important international actors have been Western, sharing a specific Western history and social metaphysics, or ideational values, with the exception of the Soviet Union. And in the case of the Soviet Union, there was indeed new behavior relevant enough to the international order.

We will find answers to this first question of interest through a systematic observation of China’s foreign policy behavior and activity in the pursuit of its national objective. And we will then use predictions, expectations, and assumptions of the main international relations theoretical perspective (realism, liberalism, institutional liberalism and neoliberalism, constructivism, the English School, critical theory, and even idealism), as reading grid to establish how China’s behavior vindicates them, deviates from them, or simply discards them. As for the second question of interest, namely a potential challenge from China to international relations theorizing, here as well, the assumption is whether China would indeed demonstrate through its behavior that states’ actors can still display new type of behavior that deviates from, or discredits in some ways, the canon of the existing international relations theory. Should that be the case, China will have demonstrated the limits of international relations theorizing, and entice or stimulate new theorizing. Such challenge to theorizing international relations may as well come from a different source. It may come from the academic source. Indeed, the interest of Chinese scholars in international relations theory has been rising, and soon there will be more students and scholars in the field from China than ←5 | 6→anywhere else around the world. Their domination in the field will naturally depend on the quality of their scholarship. But before then, and in the meantime, there has already been dissenting voices to be heard among current Chinese scholars of international relations. These scholars, Qin Qin (2016), Tang (2012), Yan (2011), Zhang (2012), and Tingyang (2003, 2009), to name a few, have begun questioning the validity, the explanatory power and therefore the universality of international relations theory from the West. They generally suspect the lack of non-Western societal experiences perspective in existing international relations theory. This has been a reason good enough to prompt an interest in production of international relations theory from a non-Westerner, in particular, a Chinese perspective. These scholars have embarked on a project designed to provide answers to the question asked by Acharya and Buzan (2007),2 namely why has there not been a non-Western international relations theory?

To find answers to what is the second question of interest, namely, finding the challenges to theorizing international relations, and how such challenges have been addressed so far, we will canvas the literature, and focus on the most significant ones, the most representative and indicative of the expressions of the responses to the challenge. In this second question of interest around a non-Western international relations theorizing, the debate revolves around questions of whether a Chinese perspective in international relations should just be an enrichment, or a contribution to existing theory, and therefore Chinese scholars interest should simply be distributed along the existing assumptions of international relations? The debate revolved as well around the question whether China’s interest in theorizing international relations should produce a Chinese school, the like of the English School, using new assumptions; or whether China should develop a new social metaphysics, new lenses from which to view the international system and relations among state. These questions have been driven by the argument according to which, like any social scientific theory, international relations theorizing has a historical, a cultural origin and context, and therefore is produced by scholars who are parts of a specific social metaphysics and epistemic culture, which is reflected in their intellectual production. It could even be worse, namely when theory is produced to support a specific agenda, as famously Robert Cox (1981)3 ←6 | 7→has cautioned. At the same time, the same Cox’s words of caution should also be valid for Chinese scholars who may be tempted to produce scholarship designed to support or sell the political agenda of those who might be interested in them. China remains an authoritarian, if not totalitarian state. Scholars are not beyond, at least not yet, any political influence. Yong Deng (1998: 309) wrote, “China’s developing international studies area are intertwined with official thinking.” He has been supported by Xue (2016) who noted that universities and academic research centers were now playing a role in collection and analysis of foreign information under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). Deng wrote further (p. 309) that Chinese publication of scholarship still requires clearance. He conceded that “there is no doubt that the Chinese scholars enjoy some freedom in expressing their views, however, the degree to which scholarship writing reflects and influences official thinking is extremely difficult to establish.” In any case, from both the state and government side and the academic side, China has been actively pursuing an agenda designed to refine its original view and description of the world and its community of states and to suggest it to international systems and international relations, and in the process, to no longer coast as a “free rider.”

My interest in writing the book lies in shedding light onto the fact that the extensive scholarship in international relations theory has become almost deterministic in assigning roles, and in expecting behavior and choices on behalf of actors within the international system that reflects the assumptions posited. It is a product of material interest-based behavior. It is a product of rational choice and deductive logic. It is a product of a systemic and structural reasoning. This perspective puts more weight on the system than on behavior, which is seen as its corollary. In fact, in this age-old question of structure-agency interaction, agency is limited by the constraints of structures in the pursuit of its interests. This perspective leaves out the historical context of which Hegel and Marx spoke. It leaves out the possibility of changing social metaphysics, as the consciousness of people and nations can change, and their views of their world. It leaves out the possibilities of new transformations that new paradigms may induce. The world has existed before the Westphalian order. This Westphalian order has been tested by the transformations brought about by the intense interdependence of globalization and the digital technology. There are already cracks in the Westphalian order with the growing consciousness of the fragility of this planet, which if anything were to go wrong in it, we will all be affected. It may take the next transformations, induced by new consciousness or new technologies, to crack further open the Westphalian order. More importantly, putting more weight on the international structure seems to reduce agential capacity, seen as a victim of the constraints of ←7 | 8→the structure in which agents act, and also seen as a victim of an attitude vis-à-vis the material world, anchored in a social metaphysics that remains unquestioned. The world of international politics, however, is dynamic; and so should be the views and attitudes developed by those looking at it, or living in it. The world can be changed by agency. Such a change, consequently, occurs as a result of change of perspective. The Chinese philosopher Zhu Wenli simply states that “ a change in ideas often paves the way for changes in behavior.”4 And there are those who look at it not through the lenses of structure-agency duality. They are those who believe that duality is always relational, not etched in stone, here the structuration theory at the sociological level, therefore state level, comes to mind, and that it is subject to change and flexibility to serve the ever-changing identity and need of agency. The latter is the perspective of the Confucian tradition, in which China is grounded, and with which China seems to renew. From this perspective, the international level, its processes, norms, actors’ identities, and interests are all relatively perceived. This confers to China’s approach a pragmatic essence that explains its choices of policy and flexibility in their pursuit.

Systemic structures, if and when not natural but social, ought to be bendable when they need be, because they do not exist as objects, in and for themselves. The international system is not a static and independent object to which, properties, among them state-actors, have no other choice but to conform. This core belief of constructivism justifies all those states that take liberties to daringly embark on new behavioral courses. Taking liberties does not mean going “rogue.” While going rogue is choosing to be indifferent or rejecting of international norms, taking liberties is about enriching the processes and structure of the international system with new behavior by actors. This seems to be the international vocation of China—becoming instrumental in shaping the international system of tomorrow through new initiatives.

This book, therefore, explores China’s policy and behavioral choices: how it seems to take liberties in concocting such choices and, in the process, provides to the international relations theory new insight to consider in producing new theories. We note and argue that China is cautious and methodical in its approach, aware of the danger it might face. Eager to continue its rise, China has started to carve a path whose features are not easily explained by just the one or the other existing theoretical approaches to international relations.


VIII, 274
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (February)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. VIII, 274 pp.

Biographical notes

Jean Kachiga (Author)

Jean Kachiga earned his Ph.D. from the University of Frankfurt in Germany. He teaches in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the State University of New York at Brockport.


Title: The Rise of China and International Relations Theory