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China is What States Make of It: Evaluating the Possibility of “Peaceful Rise”
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It is the purpose of this paper to evaluate the potential for China’s peaceful rise within the rubric of Alexander Wendt’s constructivist theory. The crux of the argument centres around the perceptions of China’s rise and how the systemic framework of the international system conditions such perceptions. The paper will note however that constructivism is flawed due to it's a priori belief in anarchy, and that China’s rise may well constitute the creation of a different world order altogether.


Wendt, Constructivism, China, China’s Peaceful Rise


Wendtian constructivism is an attempt to “build a bridge” between the rationalist and reflectivist approaches to the study of international relations (Wendt 1992 & 1999; Keohane 1988a: 379 first delineated them as distinct and incompatible). This project spawned the infamous phrase “anarchy is what states make of it” and outlined a radical way to conceive of the international system as a constitutive realm, and not as a strategic realm governed by systemic forces (Reus Smit 2009: 223). In this paper it will be argued that viewed through the prism of Wendtian constructivism, China’s peaceful rise depends upon the intersubjective perceptions with which it is received. Thus China is what states make of it, and the version of the international system in which it rises, i.e. Hobbesian, Lockean or Kantian, will greatly determine the trajectory of that rise. It will be shown that a double hermeneutic complicates this process (Giddens 1987: 19). This risks precipitating a vicious cycle of escalating tension and a diminished chance that China could rise peacefully. It will also be argued that despite fitting elegantly into the conceptual framework created by Wendt, China’s peaceful rise does not relegitimize what is ultimately an ontologically flawed project, due to its Euro-centric bias and a priori belief in anarchy.

Wendt’s 1992 article Anarchy is What States Make of It laid the foundations for an expansive social theory of politics (Wendt 1992). Wendtian constructivism is comprised of two main tenents. First is that the international system is a constitutive realm, not a strategic realm. The second tenent follows logically from this ontological point; “identities are the basis of interests” i.e. if systemic forces are not driving actors, then ideational forces and perceptions are (Wendt 1992: 398, Finnemore argued a similar point when she stated “norm shifts are to the ideational theorist what changes in the balance of power are to the realist” Finnemore & Sikkink 1998; 894). Taken together these concepts can help us to better understand China’s rise, and the potential for peace. During the course of this paper, due to the extreme brevity of the question, the discussion will be centered on a theoretic argument of the utility of these concepts in explaining China’s rise, and not the nuanced specifics of the rise itself.

Owing to the fact that “identities are the basis of interests” international relations cannot be understood without knowledge of the underlying preferences of actors (Wendt 1992: 398). We cannot presuppose any interests as being ontologically prior to the identities of the actors themselves, as proven by Wendt’s convincing thought experiment of two states “ego” and “alter” meeting each for the first time. In this framework, we cannot presuppose a priori that China’s rise will cause certain reactions from the US or other major actors, without understanding their perceptions of China and of themselves. Wendt argues that the perceptions of actors and the extent to which a constitutive consensus internalizes norms, three distinct macro level structures would develop from the “permissive” nature of anarchy (Wendt 1992: 403, Wendt 1999: 255). These structures, Hobbesian, Lockean and Kantian, are mutually constituted and inhabited by actors in the international system (Geertz 1977, Wendt 1999).

Wendt asserts that he is “statist, and a realist” (Wendt 1992: 425). He does so because it is clear that despite anarchy within the international system, mutually constitutive norms such as statehood have emerged. This is either because the norm of statehood is “guaranteed” by a credible enforcer, or because the norm has been internalized, thus alleviating this need (Kratochwil 2000: 87). In the former case, the macro-level structure is Hobbesian, and realist. If this is the structure of the contemporary international system, then statehood and the broader normative structure is underwritten by American hegemony (see Gramsci 1971, Cox 1981, Linklater 2009 and wider Historical Materialism literature for a similar argument). Under this formulation, institutions are epiphenomenal to the interests of the strongest states in the system, and relative gains take primacy. In a Hobbesian world, China’s rise inevitably strains the system, as it puts pressure on the ability of the guarantor to underwrite the international system.

The nature of the system is not apodictic. This is the ontological foundation of Wendt’s theory. If China today rises in a Hobbesian world, it is only because this is the current normative structure that has been socially constructed, and mutually reinforced by the actors in play. To asses the extent to which the world is Hobbesian, we could point to the plethora of China threat literature, and objectively note the US’s “pivot to Asia” policy, among many other instances of realpolitik in the region. Moreover there is a double hermeneutic at play which complicates matters (Giddens 1987: 19). To the extent that China’s peaceful rise may be misinterpreted by others, that misinterpretation will affect Chinese policy, which could create the risk of self-fulfilling prophecies. The US pivots to Asia because it is worried of the threat of a rising China, China is worried about the threat of an encroaching US and thus bolsters its forces, and consequently the US sees recourse to ever increasing troop build-ups.

The predominance of realist scholars in the US and in China further reinforces the idea that the international system is Hobbesian in construction (for the US see Mearsheimer 1990, Waltz 1979, Dyer 2014, and for China see Pei Minxin 2014, Yan Xuetong 2006 and Colonel Liu Mengfu 2013 [however it must be noted that a plurality of voices exist in China’s Foreign Affairs communities, and these range on a scale from the arch-realist PLA to the more moderate Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group]). The more these thinkers dominate the discussion, the more likely that policy and perception will be driven by realist thinking. There is thus a risk that territorial issues such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu island disputes, and increasing Chinese presence throughout the developing world is likely to be normatively constructed as threatening and will precipitate policy responses from other actors (for an example of this kind of negative construction in relation to Sino-African relations, see Hirono & Suzuki 2014). The notion that perceptions and signaling are key to China’s rise is hardly unique to Wendt’s theory (see Ramo 2004: 8, Nathan & Scobell 2012, Shi 2001, Haggard 2003, and on the role of signaling see Kang 2005: 552 and Fearon 1994), but the notion that a macro-level normative construction is a consequence of, and informs, these perceptions is uniquely his.

However this is not to say that China cannot rise peacefully. A Hobbesian world is the easiest to escape normatively, because culture matters little and norms are not deeply shared (Wendt 1999: 255). This is not to say that the building of a Kantian society, in which common norms and perceptions are securely embedded, is easy. It is unlikely that such a system could universally exist, given the deep divergence in the culture and history of dominant powers such as the US and China. Certain aspects of the system, such as the predominance of states, however are deeply embedded. In this tension between Hobbesian and Kantian aspects of the international system, we can argue that the international system broadly resembles a Lockean construction. Therein common norms exist and mitigate the egregious risks of a purely Hobbesian system (Kratochwil 2000: 87). It is in such an international system that China could rise peacefully, as long as the double hermeneutic risk of a downward spiral does not reinforce realist tendencies (see Buzan 2013: 33 for an English School interpretation of this phenomenon).

We must remember that Wendt’s theory is but one of a vast plurality that seeks to explain the international system. All theory is an inevitable abstraction, necessarily simplified to provide utility (Donnelly 2009, Waltz 1988). Wendt’s theory however has a deeper problem than mere oversimplification. Ontologically it is flawed, particularly in reference to the East Asian experience. The crux of Wendt’s theory posits that in the international system nothing is axiomatic (Reus Smit 2009: 223, Wendt 1992 & 1999). The system of statehood, the notion that states may balance against each other, even the idea of democratic peace-all of these are socially constructed. However Wendt posits anarchy as an ontological certainty. In this context, he inadvertently subscribes to a Waltzian conception of the international system (Kang 2004: 171, Waltz 1979, Wendt 1992).

In Theory of International Politics Waltz defines hierarchy as the opposite of anarchy, and extrapolates that the two cannot co-exist within the international system (Waltz 1979). This is also Wendt’s ontological foundation, but it ignores the history of East Asia (Kang 2004: 177). Even a casual reading of the history of East Asia would see a hierarchical system, with China, the zhongguo (middle kingdom) seen as tianxia; the center of the system, with a heavenly mandated emperor (see; Ren 2009: 135, Feng 2011: 210, Gong 1984, Kang 2004, Bennett & Stam 2003). In place of anarchy and the consequent creation of a sovereign system of competitive states, East Asia was historically hierarchical and suzerain (Pilling 2013). It may well be the case that a similar system could come into being again, which would render euro-centric theories of IR predicated on the existence of anarchy incompatible with a restored Eastern hierarchy of states.

To conclude, Wendtian constructivism provides a useful conceptual framework to understand China’s rise from a European perspective in which the international system is anarchic. In this understanding peaceful rise is possible if the macro-level structure avoids Hobbesianism, and rival actors do not misinterpret China’s rise. However we must remember that historically anarchy does not exist a priori, and thus a hierarchy of states may emerge. This uniquely East Asian international system would categorically undermine Wendt’s theory, and the wider ontological foundations of IR as a whole. More research is clearly needed, but this essay serves as a brief sketch to outline some of these underexplored issues with China’s peaceful rise. (1644 words)

Barclay Bram Shoemaker is a British Council Scholar studying Mandarin at Fudan University, Shanghai. He has an MSci in International Relations from the University of Nottingham, UK. In 2014, he won the International Affairs Forum student writing contest, and his work has also appeared in the Diplomat, The Millions, and Ballots & Bullets.


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