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China - a Partner or a Foe?
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Introduction

The peaceful rise of China as a great power has been considered as one of the most significant geopolitical developments of the 21st century. The rapid growth of China's economic and military-political potential is prompting an academic debate in contemporary international relations scholarship about whether a powerful China will pose a threat by imitating revisionist behavior (Buzan 2010; 2018; Mearsheimer 2010; 2014; Mastro 2022) or whether Beijing will perceive that today's western order is hard to overturn and easy to join (Johnston 2003; Ikenberry 2008).  While there is a plethora of academic works insisting on the "China threat" position, yet, there is no clearly reasoned evidence or argument in the existing academic literature that China is a foe.

Therefore, drawing on the conceptual framework of the Power Transition Theory of Organski and Kugler, this article will support the stance that China is a partner state, closely integrated in the modern international system with its high participation rates of international organizations and average compliance with international norms.

1.Theoretical Framework

The Power Transition Theory (PTT) posits that wars and shifts in global leadership occur when rising powers challenge the dominant hegemon. In terms of fundamental distinctions between PTT and Realist standpoint, the following aspects should be addressed. In contrast to realism, which perceives international relations as anarchic, the  PTT sees international relations in a strict hierarchy with a power subordination (Organski, Kulger 1958). Also, the Theory finds striking parallels between domestic and international politics as a country's ability to project power in the international arena is strongly related to its internal power base. Finally, under the framework of PTT, states are not power but gain maximizers, meaning, their behavior is conditioned by the potential net gains they can acquire. If the net gains from  conflict outweigh  the net  gains of maintaining the  peace, the rising power will initiate a war.

From this perspective, the rising state's dissatisfaction with the existing system and its role in that system is crucial (Gilpin 1981). Regardless of its power potential, if a rising state is satisfied with the status quo, the latter  will not challenge the system from which it benefits. 

In accordance with PTT, Organski identifies five categories of states: dominant nations, great powers, middle powers, small powers and colonies. The level of satisfaction with the status quo is directly proportional to the place the given state occupies in the hierarchical system.  (Organski, Kulger 1958).

In terms of power transition possibility, theorists place significant emphasis on the second level of the hierarchy; great powers, because the major challenger emerges among them. Simultaneously, in order to retain the status quo the dominant state must enjoy the support of great powers who are satisfied with the status quo. If the challenger finds allies among the great powers, also unhappy with the existing international arrangements, the success rate of power transition will increase, while the net gains of  accommodating with  the status quo will decrease (Ikenberry 2001).

2.Partner or a Foe?

When  applying the PTT on China to reveal its posture as a partner or as a foe, this section will rely on three variables: China’s dissatisfaction with the status quo, net gains from the current international system, and the possible allies among great powers.

It has become a conventional wisdom among scholars to draw parallels between new rising powers and earlier precedents such as Germany and Japan. However, historical analogies are analogies and not explanations or causes,  particularly in the case of China, which has a distinct strategic culture and preferences.

Beijing has never been as much integrated into the institutions of the existing international system as it is now (Johnston 2003). China's status as a great power was asserted by Beijing  itself  as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, when the Chinese economic model proved its effectiveness and flexibility in the face of the West, seizing credit for keeping the global economy afloat (Nathan & Scobell 2014). The increase in the participation of international institutions is directly proportional to the remarkable economic growth of  Beijing over the past few decades. Becoming a member of WTO in 2001, PRC as an export-oriented nation, leverages the system's free trade principles and open markets to access a wide range of consumers. Furthermore, during the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs held in June 2018 in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping underlined the importance of China taking an even more  active role in global institutions (Xinhua 2018).

Along with the active involvement of international institutions, another important aspect is Beijing's compliance with international norms; sovereignty, free trade, WMD non-proliferation, human rights, self-determination. While China endorses the first three norms, it has, however, reservations regarding the latter two: self-determination and human rights. These reservations are mostly due to territorial conflicts with Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Thus, China has an average compliance level with international norms. Nevertheless, the average level of compliance does not imply that Beijing is dissatisfied with the international system. Moreover, there is no state that has complete compliance with international norms, not even the US, the founder  of those norms. Therefore, drawing on China's active involvement in the institutions of the existing international system, as well as its average level compliance with international norms, it is clear that Beijing is not dissatisfied with the modern international system (Ikenberry 2010).

Moving on to the net gains that China obtains due to embracing of the international system, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is of primary importance. The mega-project of Beijing, the BRI, which already involves 149 countries, is predicated on the international norm of "free trade". Through BRI, China ensures its access to world markets, expanding its global footprint. These enormous net gains are feasible within the western-order and not outside of it. In addition to economic advantages, China benefits also politically. Under the globalized international system, Beijing  gained access to cutting-edge technology and scientific advancements, which is the main engine behind PRC’s  ongoing military modernization.

As a final variable, the PTT supposes that a rising power will not go into confrontation and a power transition will not occur unless the challenger gains allies among great powers. From this perspective, it is unambiguous that China lacks support among great powers to undertake a power transition. Furthermore, with the exception of Russia, practically all of the great powers are in close cooperation with the present hegemon, the US, as its NATO and non-NATO allies (Liff 2018). The acknowledgment of being encircled  by the US alliance network, compels China to be cautious and restrained in its global moves. In addition, given its interconnectedness with the incumbent hegemon, the economic benefits that Beijing gains by accommodating to the international system and its arrangements, outweigh the gains that Beijing would acquire if it pursued a confrontation, at least in the immediate future. Yet, China is not even pursuing the formation of alliances. Although Beijing has been repeatedly accused of being in a loose alliance with Russia and materially supporting the latter in the Ukrainian war. However, it should be stated that there is not only lack of objective evidence that documents China's supply of weapons to Russia, but also that China was the first state to come forward with a peace plan to end the war in Ukraine in February 2023 (MFA of the PRC).

Conclusion

By applying PTT  to China, this essay concludes that there are insufficient causes to view China as a foe. Therefore, considering China's satisfaction with the current status quo, as expressed by active membership in international institutions and overall acceptance of international norms, as well as Beijing's net gains from the current international order, which outweigh the net gains from the conflict, and finally the great powers' loyalty to the incumbent  hegemon, it is reasoned that China is more inclined in maintaining the international system and peace as a partner state  until there is a key change in at least one of the above three variables.

Asya Gasparyan holds a Master degree in International Relations from the Yerevan State University of the Republic of Armenia (2021-2023). She was also Erasmus+ Academic Mobility former student at the University of Minho, Portugal (2022-2023). Previously she was an intern at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia, Department of International Security (2021). Currently she works as a Research Fellow at the Regional Studies Center (Armenia) which is an independent “think tank” conducting a wide range of strategic research and policy analysis, and implementing a number of educational and policy-related projects. Additionally, she holds a role of the Case Manager at Repat Armenia Foundation dealing with Armenian diaspora engagement processes.

 

References

Buzan, B. (2018). China’s rise in English school perspective.  doi:https://doi.org/10.1093/irap/lcy005

Gilpin, R. (2002). War and change in world politics. Cambridge:https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139680738.008

Ikenberry, G.J. (2008). The Rise of China and the Future of the West: Can the Liberal System Survive? https://www.jstor.org/stable/20020265

Johnston, A.I. (2003). Is China a Status Quo Power? International Security, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4137603

Kugler, J. and A F K Organski (2011). The Power Transition: A Retrospective and Prospective Evaluation. https://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~fczagare/PSC 346/Kugler and Organski.pdf.

Mastro, O.S. (2022). Understanding the Challenge of China’s Rise: Fixing Conceptual Confusion about Intentions. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s11366-022-09805-3

Mearsheimer, J.J. (2010). The Gathering Storm: China’s Challenge to US Power in Asia. https://doi.org/10.1093/cjip/poq016

Nathan, A.J. and Scobell, A. (2014). China’s search for security. https://www.rand.org/pubs/commercial_books/CB531.html

 

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