The rise of China (and India) as a challenge to the West

Scientific Essay 2009 12 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Region: South Asia


The rise of China (and India) as a challenge to the West

In his controversially discussed book “The Clash of Civilizations” Samuel P. Huntington (1996: 512ff.) draws a future scenario in which China and the United States of America start a disastrous, escalating war. He locates the centre of this world war in the Asian region. This provides a good starting point for the analysis of China and India as rising powers and the perception of their rises as a challenge or even a menace to the West.

Twenty years after the Cold War, it seems to most of us that the relations between the United States, Russia, China[1] and India, to mention the major powers in East Asia, are complex, but quite stable. But, does today’s stability ensure tomorrow’s peace? Or may a so called multipolar order not be dangerous for the world as a whole but for the predictions of a theory like realism? And, how can we characterize the international system: multipolar, unipolar, uni-multipolar?

The first question I want to investigate in this context is if war among the new and old great powers is obsolete or not? The second question is related to the first one: What role do the domestic political regimes and institutions play in the rise and receptions of these “new” great powers?

Looking at China today, we see an immense increase in economic development. Since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping gave his famous speech on the priority of economic development, Chinese economy is growing around 9 percent every year for 30 years.[2] In this timeframe about 400 million people left poverty behind. The average income is seven times higher. Today China trade and investment are very open. Chinese export quota adds up to 70 percent. (Zakaria, 2008: 121ff.) China is the country in the world, holding the biggest foreign currency reserves, worth 1.5 trillion dollars. It is the biggest creditor of the US society. (Zakaria, 2008: 124)

I’m going to discuss the downsides of this success later. But talking about the (self-)perception as a rising power, the Chinese economic growth is probably the most important feature. By just taking a brief look at Chinese foreign policy, we can see that China has to deal with various issues. The most prominent among them are the Taiwan issue, the Spratly islands conflict with Vietnam mainly, the historical difficult relationship with Japan and some disputed border line conflicts, e.g. with India.

For conceptualizing the question if war among great powers is obsolete we need to perceive China as a great power and ask whether China is a status-quo power or a revisionist power. To get a useful approach on the latter question I try to theorize Chinese foreign policy by three grand foreign policy theories: realism, liberalism and constructivism.

The Greek historian Thucydides claimed famously: “What made war inevitable, was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta."[3] A shift in power caused by growth led to a bellicose behavior. By giving this statement, Thucydides reveals himself as maybe the first political realists and is therefore the starting point for the Realist perspective.

Mearsheimer (2005: 2), a often cited neorealist, sees a potential for a future war because “the ultimate goal of every great power is to maximize its share of world power and eventually dominate the system.” To achieve world hegemony seems almost impossible; states seek to be the regional hegemons. That means that China wants to shape the behavior of neighboring states without being interfered with other powers. China´s goal is therefore to push out the United States in Asia. Regional hegemony is China´s way to reintegrate Taiwan, while the United States will work in order to stay in Asia: “the United States does not tolerate peer competitors.” (Mearsheimer, 2005: 4) China is a revisionist power which is going to challenge the established powers, basically the US power in Asia. War between them is therefore likely. Among realists there are also optimistic voices pointing out that a rising power does not necessarily act aggressively. Even though China´s economic power is growing it is still much weaker, compared to the United States. And, Chinese power capabilities are not as strong as many analysts have claimed. (Friedberg, 2005: 24ff.) According to Brzezinski (2005: 2) China does not have the military power to engage in war with the United States. Moreover, “China is determined to sustain its economic growth.” (Brzezinski, 2005: 1) The aims of a rising power can be limited and there is no high probability to go to war. China seeks to get involved more and more in the world economy. The security dilemma, which is stressed by pessimistic realists as they see the action of the counterparty as a threat, appears muted. (Friedberg, 2005: 27ff.)

Some of these arguments are tied with optimistic liberals. The growing economic interdependence between the United States and China has strengthened the mutual interest in peace between the two countries and the region. The increasing participation of China, as well as the United States, in international institutions helps to form “greater, mutual understanding and even trust […]” (Friedberg, 2005: 14)Liberal optimists believe that the economic development of China will on the long run lead to a democratic system in China. Democracy is in the eyes of liberals a force of peace. They expect that Chinese relations with the United States “will stabilize and that, ultimately will enter into the democratic “zone of peace.” (Friedberg, 2005: 16) Trade relations will lead to growth and growth will lead to more democratic elements in the Chinese political culture. Therefore, liberal optimists estimate chances of outbreak of war as unlikely. Liberal pessimists, instead, claim that the transition period from authoritarianism toward democracy is likely conflictive. Militant nationalist appeals, applied by the elites, will gain ground in case that political and social instability will emerge during the transition period. There are strong national sentiments towards Japan, Taiwan and the United States. Moreover, a democratic China is no guarantee for peace. Relations between China and the United States are strained in an atmosphere of suspicion. The ideological differences “tend to reinforce the dynamics of mutual insecurity at work.” (Friedberg, 2005: 33)

The Constructivist optimists claim that the increasing participation of China in international institutions is crucial. It will adopt the norms of international behavior and integrate them in their concept of national identity: “Participation and norm change are thus mutually reinforcing mechanisms.” (Friedberg 2005: 36) The socialization of China shows its desire to be accepted as a modern country and a responsible member of the world community. Constructivist pessimists stress that “positive change is likely to be a long time in coming.” (Friedberg, 2005: 37) National identity is historically shaped. There is a persistence of hostility towards Japan in case of China. Many Americans still see the Chinese regime as potentially dangerous and emphasize the important role that the United States play as the defender of freedom in Asia. Interactions with the outside world can have a contrary effect by misinterpretations of actions and harden the US-China relations. The accidental U.S.-bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrad 1999 serves as an example. Perceptions of the United States became less favorable. (Friedberg, 2005: 38f.) War among them cannot be excluded.

All of these approaches can claim strong arguments and catches some aspects of reality. Therefore, the U.S.-China relationship can be portrayed along a spectrum that “extends from pure cooperation at one extreme to unrestrained competition and conflict at the other.” (Friedberg, 2005: 40) To obtain a closer look it might be useful to analyze some of the categories that were mentioned in the different theoretical approaches.

Nationalism can be a strong force that might lead a nation towards a different behavior. According to Gu Xuewu (2005) there are four different forms of nationalism that are prominent in China. The traditionalistic nationalism identifies the imperialistic interventions in China as “the main reason for the country´s decline and demands a reduction of foreign influences in China.” (Xuewu, 2005: 3). The liberal nationalism is more complex, because on the one hand it promotes the introduction of liberal democracy; on the other hand it is nationalistic, because “they do identify with the Chinese state as a countering power against pressures of outside forces of China.” (Xuewu, 2005: 3) The liberal nationalism is skeptical towards the United States and Japan. In their view these two powers try to prevent China from rising to a great power. (Xuewu, 2005: 3)

The pragmatic nationalism stresses modernization and industrialization as the way to recreate a strong China. To achieve this, they prefer to cooperate with the Western Countries and Japan. They support the centralized state to become a rich and strong power. (Xuewu, 2005: 3f.)

Recently, there is a new form of nationalism: realistic nationalism. It derived from the pragmatic realism, but is distinct in three aspects. They use the term “peaceful rise”[4] to describe China´s development towards Great-Power status. the pragmatic approach which uses the term “development and peace”. The second distinction is the acceptance of the international order which is dominated by the United States. China as a status quo power will not challenge this order and opt instead to cooperate within this order and its “rules of the game”. Finally, the “peaceful rise” strategy tries to deal with foreign concerns that a rising power causes instabilities and signifies a threat to the existing status quo. This means also that the most obvious tension, the status of Taiwan, will decrease. (Xuewu, 2005: 4f.) Current, the pragmatic nationalism and the realistic nationalism are prevailing while both other nationalisms work more in the background. Therefore a prediction that China is not going to challenge world order as soon as it feels strong enough cannot derive from this analysis.[5]

The strategy of “peaceful Rise” as well as the term “Development and peace” are accompanied with the increasing importance of Chinese soft power. According to Joseph Nye (…) it is “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” Soft power implies multiple different tools; among them are financial aid, influential public diplomacy, constant visits by officials, support of Chinese and Chinese-related businesses and the promotion of one´s language, in the case of China the immense spreading of Confucius institutes (Kurlantzick, 2006: 3; Gill/Huang, 2005: 18f.) Chinese participation in regional and global institutions[6] can count as a kind of soft power policy in order to spread their influence through these institutions. These soft power approaches are not constricted to the East Asia region, although they are most prominent there, but also involve other continents. Interesting examples of Chinese aid and Chinese international economic relations can be seen in Africa where it deals with Simbabwe, Sudan or Nigeria which is seen very skeptical by the international Community, especially the United States. (Zakaria, 2008: 149-150)

China could achieve very respectable success in different areas. They could strengthen their political and economic position very well and managed to improve and establish their image as a regional dominant nation in some East Asian nations at the expense of Taiwan and Japan. (Kurlantzick, 2006: 4) While Chinese participation in most institutions is hardly seen as conflictive, other soft power approaches are being watched carefully in the Western World. In their view China is promoting their development model, called Beijing Consensus in the style of the Washington consensus, which could serve as a model for unstable democratic systems and as a confirmation for authoritarian regimes, that a top-down system is the best way to succeeding economic development. (Gill/Huang, 2005: 20) China is exporting ideas that are antagonistic to democratization, anti-corruption and good governance policies of the United States. The conclusion might be that “Beijing eventually may want to shift influence in Southeast Asia away from Washington. “ (Kurlantzick, 2006: 4) This action reminds of the US-Monroe Doctrine, established in the 19th century to prevent European interference in Latin America. But recently, it looks like China is promoting its charm offensive in Latin America, which calls particular alert in Washington, due to the Monroe Doctrine. (Gill/Huang, 2005: 20) Recently there are talks about a Chinese-American partnership in Latin America that shows China´s global ambitions in a traditional American region. (Godement, 2009c: 2)

As we can see the soft power strategy is intertwined with harder, security-related goals. One can analyze a big gap “between an increasingly cosmopolitan and confident foreign policy and a closed and rigid domestic political system […] ( Gill/ Huang 2006: 30) Therefore China is still subject to skepticism and is polarizing the international community.

This brings us to the case of India. India, China´s neighbor and increasingly important partner and rival, is also perceived by many theorists and politicians as a coming new great power which represents a very different model of development. It is not clear whether India will strengthen a 2005 proclaimed strategic partnership with the United States, cooperating with China to push out American influence in East Asia or compete with China. China and India are both successful economies, but their models of development are quite different. China has an autocratic system, India is a democracy. India is building from the ground and China has a top-down approach. The economic development model of China relies on foreign direct investment (FDI), while India seeks to further strengthen their homegrown entrepreneurs. (Huang/ Khanna, 2003) These differences are not a casualty. Both are two emerging global powers and newly regional powers but their models derive from different political systems. China is growing faster than India in economic terms.[7] But there are arguments that we have to consider that India started later and is therefore in an earlier phase of its economic development. And, due to its democratic system it is determined to grow slower. But the advantage of its system lies in a solid middle class and its homegrown entrepreneurial spirit.[8] Huang and Khama (2003) believes that this “success may enable it to catch up with and perhaps even overtake China.” Talking about India´s power we have to acknowledge that “the country has just enough power to resist the influence of others.


[1] With China I refer to the People´s Republic of China PRC) and not to the Republic of China (ROC) which is also called Taiwan

[2] If the data for China are accurate, remains a question; but they will give us a roughly overview; cf. Huang/ Khanna (2003): Can India overtake China?, available at: http://www.hvk.org/articles/0703/6.html, (last visit: December 16, 2009).

[3] Thucydides, Thuc 1.23, available at: http://www.wfu.edu/~zulick/300/thucyd/thucydidesguide.html, (last visit: December 16, 2009).

[4] The concept was developed by Zheng Bijan (2005): China´s “Peaceful Rise” to Great Power Status, Foreign Affairs, 84(5), pp. 18-24.

[5] The pragmatic nationalism and its representatives are cautious about the way they talk about China´s ambitions to rise to a big power; this goes back to Deng Xiaoping who taught the Chinese elite to „hide one´s capacities and bide one´s time“. (Xuewu, 2005: 4); therefore it´s difficult to conclude whether Chinese foreign policy is status-quo oriented or revisionist. Cf. Johnston (2003): Is China a Status Quo Power, p. 49ff.

[6] According to Johnston (2003: 12ff.) “China´s membership in international institutions and regional organizations has increased dramatically in the post Maoist-period.”; most prominent are China´s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, but also to Nonproliferation and arms control regimes as well as egional economic integration that exclude the United States like ASEAN Plus 3. (Johnston, 2003: 52)

[7] According to Lynette Org (2004) Chinese GDP grows by an average of 9 percent annually while India´s GDP grows by 6 percent; cf. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/FD30Ad04.html (last visit: December 16, 2009)

[8] India´s industry is contrary to China high-tech oriented which could be an advance in the future; Many Indian knowledge-based firms compete internationally with the best, among them are Infosys, Wipro, Ranbaxy and Dr. Reddy´s Lab. (Huang/ Khanna 2003).


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
487 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
Dresden Technical University – Zentrum für Internationale Studieun
China India the West war politics new great powers Clash of Civilizations Huntington




Title: The rise of China (and India) as a challenge to the West