China’s International Leadership: Regional Activism vs. Global Reluctance
China's International Leadership: Regional Activism vs. Global Reluctance
Xiaoyu Pu 0
0 Political Science Department, University of Nevada , 1664 N Virginia St, Reno, NV 89557 , USA
Since the late 1990s, China has been actively seeking a leadership role in its region, while taking a more reluctant attitude toward global leadership. Drawing upon recent research on status in international relations, this article seeks to explain the variation in China's leadership at regional and global levels. A rising power does not always maximize its status on the world stage. China seeks an active role in East Asia due to its strong interests and identity commitment within the region. However, China takes a more reluctant approach toward global leadership, because higher status brings additional responsibilities and risks. Due to various limitations, China cannot become a new hegemonic power. But China can be a co-leader in regional and global affairs, and it can also be a more active leader in the developing world.
The election of Donald Trump as the US president has generated uncertainty in
international politics. As America under the Trump presidency has become more
inward looking, China has implemented a much more active global diplomacy,
developing new international initiatives and hosting many multilateral meetings.
Does a more inward-looking America provide golden opportunities for China to
play a more prominent role on the global stage? According to strategic thinker and
, the answer is yes because ‘‘Trump could be the
best thing that has happened to China in a long time’’. According to
former vice foreign minister of China, the political development of 2017 has
accelerated the arrival of the ‘‘post-American era’’, which began after the 2008
Is China ready to become a new global leader? The answer is not that clear, as China
is sending contradictory signals. Largely abandoning Deng Xiaoping’s low-profile
approach in global affairs, Xi Jinping has implemented a much more ambitious foreign
policy, proposing new international institutions and hosting high-profile summit
meetings. Some Chinese diplomats have started to talk about China’s leadership in
global governance more explicitly. In January 2017, senior Chinese diplomat Zhang
Jun commented that China would assume world leadership if needed
However, in February 2017, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi cautioned about the
inflated expectation of China’s global role, saying, ‘‘China has no intention to lead
anyone, nor does it intend to replace anyone’’
. During his speech at the
Summit Meeting for the Belt Road Initiative in May 2017, Xi Jinping expressed
China’s intention to contribute more to global development, but Xi also reassured his
international audience that ‘‘In pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative, China has no
intention to form a small group detrimental to stability’’ (Xi 2017).
What kind of role should China play in regional and global affairs? Why does
China sometimes seek active leadership while at other times demonstrate reluctance
in international leadership? Drawing upon recent research on status and rising
powers, the article seeks to address these questions. The first section will discuss the
analytical framework of status and rising powers. The second section explains
China’s active leadership role in East Asia. The third section investigates the
reasons why China is reluctant to play a global leadership role. The fourth section
evaluates the prospects and limitations of China’s international leadership. The
conclusion summarizes the findings and implications.
2 Status and Rising Powers
In international relations, status can be defined as the following: ‘‘collective beliefs
about a given state’s ranking on valued attributes (wealth, coercive capabilities,
culture, demographic position, sociopolitical organization, and diplomatic clout)’’
(Paul et al. 2014, 7)
. Status competition among emerging powers and established
powers is often viewed as a zero-sum game. A rising power’s demand for higher
status is a potential threat to the status of the established powers. One former
Pentagon official even claims that China has a ‘‘secret strategy’’ to replace the USA
as the leading world power
. From the perspective of status
competition, the conflict between China and the USA seems to be inevitable. As
China is pushing forward its foreign policy agenda, the USA has been pushing back
against China. For some strategists, this rivalry between the USA and China is seen
as inevitable. Admiral Harry Harris, Jr., the commander of US Pacific Command
(PACOM), recently said, ‘‘I believe China seeks hegemony in East Asia’’
. In his new book, Destined for War, Graham
argues that China
and the USA are heading toward a war neither wants. The reason is Thucydides’s
Trap, which is a deadly pattern of structural stress that results when a rising power
challenges a ruling one.
However, in the contemporary world, the role of status is more nuanced. Status
can be a driving factor as well as a mitigating factor in international rivalry. First of
all, status drives international rivalry, because status is often viewed as a scarce
resource. In particular, if international status is viewed as a positional good, it is a
scarce resource that cannot be shared by all nations
(Schweller 1999; Hirsch 1976,
. In international politics, the struggle for status has been recognized as one of
the major sources of conflict (Lebow 2008). In some contexts, status competition
among great powers is even viewed as a zero-sum game.
Second, status often drives international rivalry because nation-states (especially
emerging powers) often want to have higher status. Traditionally, the status concern
of emerging powers is the gap between their desired high status and others’
recognition of their status. There are psychological and political motivations to
close the gap. Status discrepancy is the core issue of the power transition problem in
world politics. According to power transition theory, the onset of war between a
dominant and a rising power grows more likely as the gap in relative strength
between them narrows and as the latter’s grievances with the existing order move
beyond any hope of peaceful resolution
(DiCicco and Levy 1999)
. In international
relations, emerging powers are especially sensitive about their status. Lebow (2008)
categorizes such countries as ‘‘parvenu powers’’ and describes them as
psychologically insecure, with a strong motivation to show off their power and status. For
countries like China and India, historical trauma and national humiliation at the
hands of Western colonial powers have constructed a post-colonial ideology that
pushes them to strive for more power and status
. Historically, an
emerging power that sought higher status would act assertively, and this struggle for
higher status might lead to conflict during a power transition. Given that emerging
powers want to have higher status, the struggle for the change in position can lead to
zero-sum competitions and conflicts
(Larson and Shevchenko 2009; Deng 2008)
The existing arguments of status scarcity are not necessarily wrong, and they are
still valid in some contexts. However, I contend that these two arguments are not
always valid. Status competition can be mitigated in a number of ways.
First, status is fundamentally social and cultural, which means that it is not
always scarce. Scholars conventionally conflate status with class or power, but
status is ‘‘more fluid, more easily changed than class or power’’
(Best 2011, 12)
status is primarily rooted in social interaction and social context, the standards of
status are subject to change. In domestic society, there are various social spheres
with different status symbols and status criteria. As people in domestic societies
achieve status in various ways, the criteria of status change over time and across
societies. Instead of seeing status always as a scarce resource, we have seen an
emerging phenomenon of status abundance
. Prizes proliferate in every
corner of our society, from ‘‘Academy Award winner!’’ to ‘‘Best Neighborhood
Pizza!’’ In international politics, while some institutions such as the United Nations
Security Council (UNSC) are highly privileged status clubs, we see the proliferation
of international clubs from the G20, Davos, and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China
and South Africa), to the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum. Because there are different
criteria to rank countries, states that seek to have a distinct positive national identity
might choose different strategies to achieve status, including the strategies of
competition, emulation, or creativity
(Larson and Shevchenko 2009)
Second, even in a competitive context, status politics is not necessarily a
zerosum game. It is useful to make a distinction between status as a positional good and
status as a club good. When status is viewed as a club good, it will not always be
scarce. If status is regarded as a positional good in some absolute sense, status
competition is a zero-sum game
(Hirsch 1976, 27)
. According to this view, the
pursuit of status is inherently competitive because status is relative and scarce. This
would imply that great power competition could be positional, in that as one state
gains status, another loses it. This zero-sum view of status competition is qualified
by the notion of a ‘‘club good’’
. A club is ‘‘a voluntary collective that
derives mutual benefits from sharing one or more of the following: production costs,
the members’ characteristics, or an impure public good characterized by excludable
(Sandler 1992, 63)
. Club goods are often partially rival in their benefits,
owing to congestion or crowding. Crowding means that one user’s utilization of the
club good decreases the benefits still available to the remaining users. In social life
as well as in international politics, members of elite groups typically restrict
membership to an organization to preserve its status and privileges. If anyone can
become a member of the club, then membership is not worth much
international politics, there are different kinds of power clubs, such as the club of
the Western industrialized economies (G8), nuclear powers club, permanent five at
the UNSC, and emerging power club (the BRICS countries).
Finally, emerging powers do not always want to have higher status. For instance,
while most studies assume a rising India will always struggle for more recognition
as a great power, India sometimes seems to complain about the over-recognition of
its rise in the international system. China is striving for great power status while
trying hard to maintain the image of developing country status
(Pu and Schweller
Based on the above discussions, I have developed the following propositions to
explain the variations of a rising power’s international leadership endeavor.
Proposition 1 The stronger a rising power feels it belongs to a certain
community, the more is it willing to pay the cost to play a leadership role in this
Proposition 2 When joining a high-status club will be too costly, a rising power is
likely to be reluctant to take a leadership role in the community.
3 China in East Asia: Seeking an Active Leadership Role
China has traditionally been a dominant power in East Asia, and it wants to regain
that regional leadership. Based on China’s identity and historical legacy in East
Asia, China has demonstrated both the desire and potential capabilities to play a
leadership role in regional economic order, but China’s attitudes concerning
regional security order are much more ambiguous.
China’s desire to play a leadership role in Asia is rooted in China’s historical
status in the region. East Asian countries worry about the possibility that China
might have the expansionist goal of rebuilding a new version of a tributary system in
East Asia. China seems to be sending complex signals about its status and role in
Asia. Since the global financial crisis, Chinese elites have hotly debated China’s
status and role on the world stage. The ongoing debate reveals a high level of
uncertainty about China’s position in the world. While the notion of the ‘‘revival of
the Chinese nation’’ implies the clear goal of ‘‘making China great again’’, China’s
ultimate place on the global stage is unclear. Many Chinese want China to become
richer and stronger, but disagree on whether China should eventually seek
. East Asia is strategically important to China for
various reasons. China has been a predominant power in East Asia for thousands of
years, and the Chinese view that regional leading status as natural instead of
something that challenges the status quo
Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, China has pursued a more active regional
diplomacy. From October 24 to October 25, 2013, Beijing hosted a major
conference on China’s regional diplomacy that laid out some long-term goals for
China. According to Xi, China must strive to make its neighbors more cooperative
in economics and security
. Xi identified a four-part philosophy to
guide diplomacy toward regional neighbors, centering on efforts to convey or
realize amity, sincerity, mutual benefit, and inclusiveness. These are all positive
features that generally resonate with earlier approaches to nearby states
. In recent years, China’s leaders and some of its intellectuals have rekindled
an interest in the philosophy and history of a more traditional Chinese order.
Contemporary Chinese philosopher
argues that traditional Chinese
ideas provide a better philosophical framework for solving global problems,
asserting that the Chinese theory of Tianxia is simply ‘‘the best philosophy for world
governance’’. Here, it is worth pointing out that rising powers often portray their
visions of order in similar terms of universal solutions to global problems. The
Tianxia worldview claims to build a post-hegemonic order but, when articulated, it
often gives the impression that China seeks to impose its views on the world.
China has tried to use its economic power to expand its influence in Asia. It has
also tried to reassure its neighbors that it will be a peaceful regional power and that
its rise provides more opportunities to regional countries
. President Xi
officially launched the initiative of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) on
a state visit to Indonesia in October 2013. Facing diverse challenges and growing
problems in its own economic model, China has had to find a new engine of
economic growth. Xi has called this next phase of growth the ‘‘new normal’’
. This term envisions a fundamental change in China’s economic
development. China will pursue a rebalancing effort to diversify its economy, embrace a
more sustainable level of growth, and distribute benefits more evenly. The ‘‘new
normal’’ is in its early stages, but if China manages to sustain it, the Chinese people
can count on continued growth and improvement in their quality of life as China
becomes further integrated into the global economy.
Many developing Asian countries are faced with the task of upgrading their
inadequate and inefficient road, air transport, port, and railroad infrastructure.
Deficient infrastructure presents critical barriers to achieving local economic growth
and regional integration. The majority of South and Southeast Asian countries come
out very poorly in international comparisons of quality of transportation and other
critical infrastructure. For such countries, infrastructure underdevelopment is a
major obstacle to economic advancement. Outdated port infrastructure has made
intra- and inter-regional maritime transportation extremely costly in many Asian
countries and impeded their formation of maritime cooperation with China.
Moreover, they lack the financial resources to upgrade their existing facilities. The
World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) combined do not have
adequate capacity to meet this enormous investment demand, while the long
construction cycles of infrastructure development projects have deterred private
investors. In this context, the aim of the AIIB is to fill this investment gap regarding
infrastructure development in Asian countries. Beijing is, however, also hoping that
AIIB will further expand China’s diplomatic influence in Asia and beyond. AIIB is
part of China’s geo-economic strategy, which focuses on ‘‘the use of economic
instruments to promote and defend national interests, and to produce beneficial
(Blackwill and Harris 2016, 20)
China has taken an ambivalent attitude toward East Asia’s security order. As a
dominant power in East Asia for thousands of years, China has always worried that
an outside power will establish a military bases around China’s periphery capable of
encroaching on China
(Kissinger 2012, 50–51)
. This obviously poses problems for
existing US alliances in the region. At the Conference on Interaction and
Confidence Building Measures in Asia, in Shanghai, President Xi unveiled a new
‘‘Asian security concept’’, calling for Asian security to be left to Asians
Xi’s speech generated some speculation that China would seek to exclude America
from Asia. China’s efforts to keep its periphery free of any potentially hostile great
power presence and pressure represent a long-lasting trend that shows an
understandable wariness toward outside powers
(Sutter 2008, 72)
The USA has been a leading power in the Asia-Pacific region since World War II
and does not want to be pushed out of Asia by an exclusionary bloc. As China’s
power and status grow in Asia, the USA increasingly sends signals to its allies and
friends intended to maintain its credible commitments in the region. ‘‘Because the
United States regards Asia as the most important region in the world for its
longterm interests, there is special sensitivity to the potential long-term significance of
any Chinese actions in Asia that suggest that the PRC is either assuming a more
hegemonic posture toward the region or specifically seeking to constrain the
American presence and activities there’’
(Kissinger 2012, 50–51)
. At the same time,
even if China is complaining about the American military presence, it has been
ambivalent about US alliances
. Beijing might increasingly express its
frustrations of the strengthening of US alliance in Asia, but it cannot provide an
alternative security structure that could realistically replace the current system
. Furthermore, the USA has often used its alliance system to constrain the
risky behaviors of its allies in Asia
Above all, China has demonstrated both the desire and capabilities to play a
leadership role in the regional economic order, but China’s vision of regional
security is more constrained. Today’s China is different from the ancient Chinese
empire. The distribution of power and geopolitics in East Asia is far more
complicated. The USA, as a non-East Asian power, has been the dominant power in
East Asia since World War II. East Asia has always been a very crucial platform of
Chinese diplomacy and foreign policy, and in terms of China’s comprehensive
diplomacy East Asia is regarded as the ‘‘priority’’ for China’s diplomacy. China’s
assertive behaviors in maritime disputes generate tensions and uncertainty in the
area. However, Chinese foreign policy in Xi Jinping’s era also has demonstrated
more continuity than change. Reassurance continues to be a big part of Chinese
foreign policy. While China’s assertiveness poses challenges for regional order, it is
important to note what China is not doing, or at least has not yet done: China has not
used military force to retake islands occupied by other claimants in the South China
Sea, and China does not seek to challenge US global primacy
the recent ‘‘assertive turn’’ in Chinese foreign policy
(Chen et al. 2013)
, it is
premature to conclude that China has completely abandoned its low-profile
approach in world affairs
4 China’s Global Leadership: a Reluctant Approach
In recent years, China has carefully crafted its image as a strong nation through
various high-profile projects such as the Beijing Olympic Games, Shanghai Expo,
and One Belt One Road Initiative. With an ambitious slogan of ‘‘the Chinese
Dream’’, President Xi aims to rejuvenate the Chinese nation. According to
, a professor at China’s National Defense University, China and the USA will
pursue an Olympic-style competition for global leadership.
However, Beijing sometimes tries to avoid taking a high-profile role. In 2014, the
International Comparison Program of the World Bank estimated that China’s
economy was likely to surpass that of the US in size sometime in 2014.1 Instead of
celebrating its coronation as the world’s number 1 economy, China’s National
Bureau of Statistics emphasized it did not endorse the results as official statistics.
The Chinese media, far from trumpeting the news of China’s elevation to the
world’s largest economy, played it down or ignored it altogether
multilateral forums such as the United Nations General Assembly, Chinese leaders
continue to emphasize China’s status as a developing country. While the
international audience increasingly views China as an emerging superpower that
should take a leadership role, many Chinese elites and the public still emphasize that
China is a developing country and that China should not be eager to take a
leadership role in global affairs
China is not a ‘‘status maximizer’’ on the global stage. While China might enjoy
a high status in international affairs, China’s leaders and bureaucracies—ill
prepared for the country’s sudden high profile in global affairs—remain resistant to
change when it comes to Beijing’s global status and responsibilities, emphasizing
that China remains a developing country. China declines to actively participate in
those international clubs that might symbolize high status in the international
1 This is based on purchasing power parity (PPP).
hierarchy, such as the G-2 or G-8. The identity of a developing country has always
been an important theme in China’s diplomacy
; yet, China’s
national identity has evolved and it is increasingly a country with a conflicted
. Since China has developed the second largest economy in the
world and become a major player in the global economy, can it still be considered a
developing country? The picture is indeed complicated. Since the start of the
opening and reform era, China’s economy has developed rapidly, but China has
been hesitant to give up its preferred identity as a developing country. The identity
of a developing country has been a useful solidarity tool to consolidate support from
many actual developing countries. This partially explains why China is unwilling to
join higher-status groups such as the G8, which is primarily composed of Western
China’s reluctant approach is shaped by the legacy of Deng Xiaoping’s teaching
of tao guang yang hui (which generally means ‘‘low-profile’’ approach)
. Deng proposed such a low-profile approach to international affairs at a
particular time when China was sanctioned by the West after 1989 political
repercussions. Deng’s strategic thinking about China’s international posture has had
a lasting impact on China’s diplomacy (Irvine 2010). Two decades after the end of
the Cold War, China has emerged from a marginalized position to that of an
emerging superpower on the world stage
. However, officials still think
China should keep a low profile.
China’s reluctance to take on global leadership is driven by its policy of strategic
reassurance. China has repeatedly reassured the established powers that its future
posture will be peaceful and non-threatening. Chinese leaders are so eager to
reassure the world about China’s non-threatening intentions that they have even
changed the slogan of ‘‘peaceful rise’’ (heping jueqi) to ‘‘peaceful development’’
(Glaser and Medeiros 2007)
. While the change from ‘‘peaceful
rise’’ to ‘‘peaceful development’’ is simply a change in terminology, the change
further emphasizes the reassurance message of the Chinese leaders about China’s
intentions and strategy. In other words, while the fundamental message of the two
concepts is essentially the same, ‘‘peaceful rise’’ has a more competitive tone
because the notion of ‘‘rise’’ indicates an improvement in China’s status and
possible decline of other countries’ status. Thus, Chinese leaders preferred to use the
term ‘‘peaceful development’’ instead of ‘‘peaceful rise’’
(Glaser and Medeiros
China’s reluctance to take on global leadership is also related to its calculation of
the trade-off between the enhanced status and increased responsibilities. A great
power has unique privileges and responsibilities in governing world affairs.
Although a rising power might be eager to have more privileges and influences by
joining a higher-status club, the cost of taking on greater responsibilities might not
be what a rising power wants. In history, rising powers tended to avoid paying the
costs of system management, but these types of behaviors are relatively
understudied. For instance, during the era of its rapid economic rise, Japan had
chosen to ‘‘maintain a low posture in international political affairs, to cooperate with
other nations rather than take the initiative, to defend its own interests rather than
assume responsibility for preserving peace and order around the world’’
Above all, China takes a more reluctant approach toward global leadership
because higher status brings additional responsibilities and risks. In 2009,
thenChinese Premier Wen Jiabao spoke at the Copenhagen summit, and he made
China’s position as a developing country exceptionally clear. Wen emphasized the
principle of ‘‘common but differentiated responsibilities’’ on environmental issues
and claimed that thus China should be treated as a developing country
. At a recent meeting of ministerial- and provincial-level officials in 2017, Xi
Jinping emphasized that ‘‘China is still in the primary stage of socialism’’, and
‘‘China’s international status as the largest developing country has not changed’’
. Despite its rising profile on the global stage, China will not abandon its
developing country status anytime soon.
5 Limitations and Prospects
China’s international leadership has become more influential in lockstep with
China’s growth in material power. When China was relatively weak in the 1980s
and 1990s, its foreign policy strategy stressed integration within the Western-led
international order. While the Chinese government still emphasizes that ‘‘China will
never seek hegemony’’, there are increasing voices both in China and abroad to
explore the possibilities of the Chinese hegemony
(Schweller and Pu 2011)
. If China
seeks to become one of several respected great powers, its goal might be compatible
with regional stability and peaceful change of international order. However, if China
seeks to restore a hegemonic ‘‘Chinese world order’’, it will remain an illusion.
The USA has maintained a strong military and diplomatic presence in the world
since the end of World War II. Despite the hype about US decline, the USA remains
far more powerful than China economically and militarily. Recently, the USA has
strengthened its military, diplomatic, and economic presence in Asia through the
implementation of Obama’s rebalancing to Asia. Even strategists advocating that
the USA should readjust its grand strategy argue that the USA should share power
with China instead of entirely withdrawing from Asia. For instance, Charles Glaser
argues that the USA should reduce or terminate its relationship with Taiwan, but the
USA should continue maintaining its alliances with Japan and South Korea, where
American core interests are concerned
While China’s rise is real, China also has significant limitations on its ability to
project power. Geopolitically, China is surrounded by several major powers and
strong middle powers who are not likely to accept unvarnished Chinese dominance.
India is a rapidly emerging power with nuclear weapons, Japan has both economic
and technological potential to be a strong military force, and a resurgent Russia can
check Chinese power in Central Asia.
China is also facing a variety of domestic challenges that will limit its power
potential, including its aging population, slowing economic growth, and widespread
pollution. Unlike previous rising powers challenging leading states, China’s
technological and military capabilities are much lower relative to those of the
USA. Further, converting economic power into military might is far more
challenging than it was in the past. Thus, even though the rise of China is real,
China is still far away from becoming a peer competitor of the USA in the
(Brooks and Wohlforth 2015)
If China seeks to dominate East Asia, China’s hegemonic agenda would generate
a ‘‘self-defeating’’ mechanism. The more China pursues a hegemonic agenda in
Asia, the more likely will it face backlash. Here, it is useful to make a distinction
between power and influence: power refers to resources, while influence refers to
the ability to convert those resources into outcomes
. If China wants to
increase its influence in Asia, China should not only increase its resources, but also
seek cooperation and recognition from other countries. As China pursues a more
assertive policy, other countries might push back against it. Despite voices
advocating a more accommodating approach to China, Washington has continued to
respect its treaties and other obligations to allies in the region such as Japan, South
Korea, the Philippines, and Australia. Meanwhile, the USA has also been nurturing
emerging strategic partnerships with nations such as Vietnam and India. China’s
assertive posture in regional policies has thus generated complex reactions across
Finally, the ideational and historical foundation to support the reemergence of a
‘‘benign Chinese hegemony’’ is questionable. Some argue that studies of historical
systems in Asia point to the role of a peaceful ‘‘Confucian China’’ sustaining a
stable Chinese-led order
. From this perspective, Confucianism
represents a particular perception of Chinese security strategy under which China
is reluctant to use force against its enemies. However, it is important to notice that
there is a distinction between the poplar Chinese narrative and historical facts. In
history, some leaders of rising powers have actually believed this rhetoric, while
others have cynically made such proclamations for self-serving purposes. From a
comparative perspective, it makes strategic sense for a rising power to promote the
rhetoric of its benign international leadership: it also provides an ideological
foundation from which to critique the existing hegemony, and it might reassure
weaker powers or neighboring countries, thereby reducing the risk of balancing. But
some international relations scholars are skeptical about the allegedly peaceful
nature of the Chinese empire in ancient dynasties. According to
China was strong, the constraints of any pacifist culture were limited, and China’s
rulers typically pursued an offensive strategy. Despite the dominance of an
antimilitarist Confucian culture, warfare was not uncommon throughout Chinese
history. The historical records indicate that we should not overestimate the impact
of Confucian culture on the strategic decisions of Chinese leaders. The narrative of a
benign Chinese hegemony might be more appropriately viewed as an ancient myth.
Despite these limitations and constraints, China could still play an international
leadership role, at least in two respects. First, China could be a co-leader in a
multilateral platform, and the format of China’s leadership could be more inclusive
and flexible, including a type of facilitative leadership
(Chen et al. 2017)
should wisely seek status as club good instead of as a positional good. Club goods
might be competitive in some context, but it is not a zero-sum game. If China seeks
to become one of several great powers, the established powers (including the USA)
might accommodate China’s increasing demands within the existing international
order. If China seeks international status as a positional good and replaces the USA
as a new global leader, conflict between China and the USA would be inevitable.
Thus, seeking co-leadership might send a reassuring message of China’s long-term
intentions. Furthermore, given China’s limited power, it would be more realistic for
China to act as one of the collective leaders in global governance. For instance,
regarding global climate change, China should collaborate with other partners such
as Europe, India, and Brazil instead of playing a leadership role alone (Sengupta
Second, China could play a more active leading role in the developing world. As
the largest developing country, China’s industrialization and economic emergence
sets a successful example for many developing countries. While it is debatable if the
China Model is applicable outside of China, some practical knowledge of China’s
modernization could still be transferable to other developing countries. As China
becomes richer, it could afford to provide more aid to other developing countries.
Given China’s authoritarian political system, its soft-power campaign has not been
very effective in most of the West, but it has achieved some relative success in the
developing world. For instance, China has increased its impact and soft power in the
Latin American region not just because of its expanding economic presence: ‘‘China
also offered the power of its example as a country that had emerged relatively
quickly from internal conflict and widespread poverty to reach middle-income status
with gleaming new skyscrapers, gains in science and technology, impressive
transportation infrastructure, and relative domestic peace’’
China has been actively seeking a leadership role in regional affairs, but it is more
ambivalent about taking a leadership role in global governance. While status might
still be competitive in international politics, status politics is much more fluid and
dynamic than a purely zero-sum game. A rising power does not maximize its status
all the time.
While China’s potential as an international leading power is real, we should also
notice the limitations of Chinese power. Unlike historical East Asia, today’s East
Asia has a different geopolitical landscape. Maintaining a strong military and
diplomatic presence in the region, the USA is unlikely to withdraw from East Asia
for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, China has important limitations to
projecting its power. China is surrounded by several major powers and strong
middle powers. Furthermore, unlike previous rising powers challenging leading
states, China’s technological and military capabilities are much lower relative to
those of the USA.
If China’s ultimate goal is to become a more influential co-leader in regional and
global governance, its aim might be compatible with that of other countries. China
has demonstrated both the desire and potential capabilities to play a more active role
in regional economic integration. China’s goals concerning regional security remain
much more ambivalent. However, if China seeks to restore a Sino-centered world
order, the scenario will remain an impossible dream. Given various limitations, a
more realistic goal for China is to become a more active international leader in
multilateral platforms, as well as in the developing world.
Xiaoyu Pu is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno. His research
has appeared in International Security, International Affairs, The China Quarterly, The Chinese Journal
of International Politics, Asian Affairs as well as in edited volumes. He is a co-editor of The Chinese
Journal of International Politics (Oxford University Press) and an editorial board member of Foreign
Affairs Review (Beijing). He is the author of a forthcoming book entitled ‘‘Limited Rebranding: Contested
Status Signaling and China’s Global Repositioning’’.
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