Off to China… 2) The ‘Peaceful Rise’ Thesis


Part one of this post is here. I found this very provocative map here. For the official claim that China’s rise to global power is to be peaceful, read this. For the best academic argument for China’s peaceful rise, try this.

Hawks and realists tend to see China through the lense of history. Lots of other powers have risen in the past to challenge established powers, and usually conflict ensued. Everyone says that peace is preferred and war unnecessary, but in the end, jealous, bitterness, and the ideological pleasures of domination take hold. Minor conflicts grow and worsen; at some point, a hot war or protracted cold war begins. You could throw this model onto Germany (twice), the Punic-Roman competition, Japan’s 19th century rise at China’s expense, the USSR’s rise in the 40s and 50s, etc.

By contrast liberals and especially constructivists  look more at China specifically. Instead of seeing her as just one more hegemon with the same characteristics as others, China’s unique features because a causal possibility for peace. Here is a quick-and-dirty summary:

1. China is getting rich in the current world economic order (epitomized by its membership in the WTO), so why would she rock the boat? Right now she is gaining wealth and prestige, while dumping public goods/security provision on the US military (especially in Afghanistan, which war helps her more than us). Given this great benefit, a peaceful rise makes sense.

2. China has a history in the Sinocentric world order of treating the smaller peoples around it with some generosity. (I actually disagree with this empirically, but so be it.) The idea here is that the Chinese tributary system, especially of the Ming and Ching, only relied on violence when absolutely necessary. Much of Chinese pre-modern hegemony was based in ritual and moral suasion. So future Chinese hegemony in Asia will look back to this model rather than the Nazi or Roman ones in Europe.

3. Globalization has made a collision less feasible and valuable to the riser. This is a Thomas Friedman argument, rather similar to the one made before WWI by Norman Angell. The idea here is that globalization makes war less useful as a tool to pursue national interest and may in fact be remaking the idea of national interest altogether. In this new flat world, war is an anachronism of the nation-state era. The costs of war in the interconnected era are higher, because wars break all these international trade and financial connections that have made China so rich. Also, the benefits of war have declined, because in net-world, holding territory is not really a valuable economic commodity anymore.

4. Globalization and modernization are changing China into a status quo power, possibly prepared to accept US leadership. This is the cultural variant of the argument above. Here the idea is that as China joins the world to get rich, she will also learn from the world to be nicer. This was basically the gamble of the Clinton administration – economic modernization would entrain political liberalization – when it agreed to PMFN 15 years ago.

5. The Chinese elite have seen what happens to other, aggressive risers, and they have learned. This is a Ned Lebow learning argument, and the one I find most persuasive (probably because Ned was on my comps committee in grad school). The idea here is that the rise and fall of powers need not be some mechanical process, as if these states are robots. Instead, later hegemons and risers can learn from earlier ones. Ideally, they learn to avoid the mistakes of the past risers who collided and provoked wars.

6. Chinese made a policy choice to rise peacefully, and we should believe them. Call this the naive argument. One would accept at face value what the Chinese say. Words have meaning; pacta sunt servanda. So if the Chinese say they will rise peacefully, we should take them at their word and not fall back on pre-set notions of realism that permit blithe ignorance of anything the Chinese have to say.

7. The Chinese are nice. This is the most cultural and sino-specific of all the arguments I have heard. It is the one I heard the most last weekend in Beijing. Basically it says ‘we Chinese are different. We are nice and not belligerent. If you see us as a threat, that is your problem, in your head. Instead of telling us we will be mean and nasty someday soon, why don’t you come to China now and see how nice we are.’ As ridiculous as it sounds, I find this one somewhat persuasive. I have generally tilted against the peaceful rise school, but my time in China really gave me pause…

12 thoughts on “Off to China… 2) The ‘Peaceful Rise’ Thesis

  1. If they are so nice* then why are they supporting African Dictators with arms, training and material with which to suppress Africans? Ahh, I forgot, Africa doesn’t count, those lesser humans deserve to be Colonized de facto (for now) by China via their own leaders. Later, maybe when China is powerful enough, they will rid of the African Big Men and do it themselves. The Western world won’t care because so long as China guarantees them access to Africa’s vast natural resources, they will be content that Africa remain a ward of China.

    Dr. Bob when you were in China did you happen upon the treatment of African immigrants in China? Yes, China convinced these African Dictators to let Africans immigrate to China (I guess as an act of goodwill) only to treat them as non-humans once they got to China. African immigrant communities have be rioting in China. The Chinese authorities have even killed a few of their African guests. This sort of news doesn’t make it on US press. Makes China look bad. You would have to read The Financial Times, The Economist or African papers to find out about it.

    Anyway, as I have stated before, Africa’s lot is the fault of Africans themselves. Billion of people are controlled by a few tyrants. Reminds me of Gandhi telling the Indians that they, indeed, outnumbered the British India.

    *It is funny, my Chinese friend also told me the same thing vis a vis Africa. Said something to the effect that China’s involvement in Africa is not like European Colonialism, yada, yada. In a way he was correct. China empowers the Big Men to do the job for them. Actually, China’s colonialism is more British light. Unlike French, Belge, and Portuguese Colonialism, the British controlled their territories in Africa via indirect rule.

    Talk about peaceful rise, if you get a chance research China’s raid on Niger uranium mines. Niger sits on of the world’s vast uranium deposits. No wonder France has stepped up her efforts to slow China’s influence in Africa.


  2. Dr. Bob:

    Have you ever read the materials coming out of Chinese military doctrine and academies. You would be shocked. There is one Western scholar who translated one of the authoritative doctrines. Happened a while back, of course it doesn’t seem to be getting to much PR.

    Excellent blog post and very informative. Thank you.

    PS: What about NK? You were in China when all of this NK stuff was going on. What did the Chinese say about NK? The Chinese ended the conference by ultimately shielding NK. How nice of them.


  3. There is something really disturbing about the argument coming out of some parts of US academia suggesting that China’s influence on Africa is a good thing. In effect that Africans should welcome Chinese political and social indoctrination; and that this will lead to development in Africa. This is a racist notion much as France’s policy of “ASSIMULATION” in their African Colonies. Africa and China have nothing in common other than rice being a staple. The entire phenomenon of the African “Big Man” is a post colonial beast not inherent to African culture.

    These Academics are advocating the destruction of traditional Africa culture. One of them posting their reasoning on Foreign Affairs magazine a few months ago.

    It never ceases to amaze me how US Academics treat Africa. Never.


  4. PhB – This was an excellent post, very interesting and informative. I’m interested to hear how your trip affects your opinion of China’s rise.


  5. Dr. Bob:

    I found this interesting article from Der Spiegel Online, it is more along the line of the Baron’s article somewhat. Still very interesting.

    I keep thinking, would these Chinese businesses have treated an American businessman in the same manner?

    The article is titled “The Flip Side of China’s Economic Miracle”,1518,698058,00.html#ref=nlint

    I am still very curious as to how your Chinese counterparts reacted when you asked them about NK.


  6. Dr. Bob:

    You should also read “The Beijing Consensus: How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century” by the British scholar Stefan Halper. If my memory serves me correct, Halper hails from Oxford. Anyway, he was once squarely in the “China Peaceful Rise” camp until he lived and studied in China.

    His thesis is that where-as the developing world once looked to the development model a la liberal democracy. Increasingly, the developing world will look to at development via the China State run authoritarian model. Yes, you will have development, but your individual liberties will be sacrificed.

    When Americans think of China’s rise, they only think in terms of a military confrontation. I do think that there will be a few “incidents” in the future. These “incidents” won’t lead to full scale war. They will be just that, “incidents”. Anyway, China can still play in the WTO while still being China. In fact, I agree with Halper that China will attempt to change the narrative away from liberal democracy to their authoritarian style. This is the issue. It won’t affect the US and the West but it challenge Western ideology on the world stage. Where-as the developing world once looked to the US and the West as the model for development, they might look to China, because China’s authoritarian style “gets things done”. You want a road. Here is your road. The Western model, however, you need to study the environment, wages, etc., etc., before you can to survey to build the road, probably a year later.

    In both cases you get your road. In the authoritarian model, you get your road now, but you sacrifice the “liberties” that the West has long cherished. In the Western route, you get your road a year later but you have hope at real self determination some-time in the future.

    China’s involvement in the largest land mass in the world, Africa, is case in point. The Europeans understand this fully. Which is why France has ramped up her hearts and mind campaign in African big time (read BBC Africa, The Financial Times, The Economist, Le Monde Diplomatique, Le Monde, etc). Americans on the other hand barely travel outside their state and barely read foreign news sources therefor they can’t comprehend this.

    China is setting a new example. Who will follow?


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