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China’s rise and Asian security

The author analyzes the growth of economic power of China and China's interaction with its immediate neighbors in the security sphere. There are suggestions that the Chinese version of "Monroe Doctrine" can be true, but being realistic, it seems that this is an exaggeration. However, according to other analysts, it can be a reality. 

A strange and seemingly contradictory phenomenon is haunting scholars of international relations in this early decade of the 21st century. On the one hand, market capitalism spreads throughout the globe, integrating not only former communist countries but also countries like China and Vietnam which are ruled by communist parties. On the other hand, such global integration is gradually negated by the increasingly strengthening power politics between China and its neighboring countries, and ultimately between China and the United States. Debated are how we should understand China's rise and the so-called G-2 era, and what will happen in the long-term Asian Security?

This paper tries to answer these questions by way of discussing relevant theories, building an alternative theory, that is, "regime competition" as a key concept in understanding world politics, and applying the theory to China's external relations.

  1. Rise of China and Theoretical Discussions
  2. Rise of China

Thanks to more than 30 years of "reform and opening" policies, that is, developing market capitalism, China has constantly grown economically, militarily, and politically.

Economically, China's GDP surpassed Japan's in 2010 and is ranked the second largest economy in the world, with more than 7 trillion dollars in 2012. China recovered its position as the number 2 economy in the world it had held 100 years ago.

Militarily, China's defense spending has been growing by a double-digit number for the last 20 years. China's arsenal has been expanded and modernized, as symbolized by the commissioning of its first aircraft carrier Liaoning and testing of their second stealth fighter J-31 which appears to become China's future aircraft carrier-based fighter jet when the country builds a second, catapult-based carrier succeeding the current ski-jump style flight deck built on the old Ukrainian carrier Varyag. Homeported in Dalian, the Liaoning has transformational implications for Chinese force projection in East Asia.

Politically, China quitted the decades-long policy of "biding time" and began to behave like a great power. China maneuvered with show of force in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, alarming neighboring countries in the region. Alarmed by their fierce reactions, China has tried to ameliorate "China bashing" with the slogan of "Peaceful Rise," but neighboring countries still harbor a Sinophobia as the increasing Chinese military may come to the fore any time in the regional conflicts, repeating the millennium of domination by the middle kingdom in the region.

China is entering a hard phase on the road to a great power. Economically, despite the GDP, Chinese per capita GDP is only a fraction of those advanced countries including the U.S. Chinese economic growth rates cannot but slow down as other East Asian economic models have shown. Gradually, the FDI-based Chinese economy will face more technological nationalisms as it has to seek higher technology investments from abroad. Accordingly, Chinese military technology will stay for some time behind that of the U.S. and other democratic countries, which limits Chinese military modernization. Politically, as an authoritarian country, Chinese soft power far lags behind its hard power and other democratic countries, though Beijing is stepping up its soft power investments like Confucius Institutes.

Despite critical lackings in qualifications as a great power, its sheer population size and rapid economic growth rates have undoubtedly raised China as a power and will continue to do so in not only absolute but also relative terms. The power transition to China and its status as a member of the G-2 will continue for the foreseeable future. To foretell the future, it is almost certain China will have a larger GDP than the U.S. in the 2020s, ceteris paribus.

Theoretical Debates

As China's rise has global implications, debates are focused on whither China. Initial questions include: Will the powerful China challenge the international order set up by the old hegemon United States?; Will it risk a hegemonic confrontation with the U.S,?; What will Chinese intentions be in utilizing its huge capabilities?; Will China be more nationalistic rather than internationalistic?; Will it be threatening to other countries?; What will result from all these developments?

Both classical realism and neo-realism share critical assumptions. First, states pursue as ―ultimate" goals, "freedom, security, prosperity, or power itself." Though realists do not make it explicit, states also pursue, when possible, imperialist domination and hegemony. Consequently, states are threatened by others pursuing exploitation and oppression, and consequently security or self-preservation emerges as a top priority. Second, states pursue "political power," which is an "immediate" aim which plays a means for the ultimate goals, because under the structural conditions of anarchy in international relations, competition for domination and self-preservation ultimately requires the power. States can increase power by self-help or alliances. Third, if these assumptions are met, then distribution of power or polarity will determine international relations and state behaviors. Neo-realism is similar to modern economics where corporate behaviors differ depending on market polarities like monopoly, duopoly, oligopoly, and free competition. Fourth, political power is ultimately determined by "armed strength as a threat or potentiality." If not, power becomes comprehensive enough to include authority, expertise, technology, etc., which loses analytical attributes.

Applied to US-China, realist theories predict that their relations will change depending on the polarities. Based on the prospects of China's GDP and consequently per capita GDP growth, there will be formed "an unbalanced bipolarity" between the two countries by 2025, and "a balanced bipolarity" by 2050. In the transition, China will keep neutrality under US polarity, between neutrality and hostility under unbalanced bipolarity, and ultimately ―a grueling competition" will characterize the balanced bipolarity, as power transition theories suggest [1].

Unlike neo-realists who emphasize "structure," liberals focus on relations and "processes." They argue anarchy does not necessarily mean disorder. Based on a revised prisoners' dilemma game where they can communicate and on iterative games, they show how "cooperation under anarchy" can occur even with same assumptions as realists. In history, states have preferred increasing interdependence through trade and direct investment and accession to international regimes in return for increasing limits to their sovereignty. As they all benefit from trade as modern economic theories show and so share a common goal of not disturbing trade, they develop international regimes that could facilitate further cooperation. Today, the world is far more institutionalized than, for example, the pre-WW II era. Applied to US-China relations, China will not break basically cooperative relations with the US and other trading partners. As the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) is jokingly called the Chinese Capitalist Party, the "capitalist peace" will be maintained with the capitalist China's rise.

In synthesis, both perspectives need to be revised and refined. Important here is to compare theoretical assumptions to reality and evaluate their relevance.

First of all, most realist theories are now outliving their destiny and rarely relevant in the 21st century world. Initially created in the early 1930s when war clouds were casting over Europe, the classical realism was corroborated by the actual occurrence of the World War II. It was again confirmed by the ensuing Cold War. However, in this 21st century, critical realist assumptions cannot stand the transformed reality. Today, except in a few regions like the Middle East, few countries feel their survival at risk. The age of imperialism is gone and today imperialist adventures would have to pay an insurmountable cost, as shown in the US invasion of Iraqi. The norms against imperialism are institutionally strengthened by democratic peace. Today two thirds of the states are classified as "free" or "partly free" by the Freedom House and they cannot go to war without the approval of their people who will fall first victim to wars should they occur. In this situation, many countries scarcely worry about national security and use of force, but concern themselves more with economic prosperity, and other forms of power such as technology, knowledge and expertise. Unlike force, these powers are exercised within institutionalized rules.

Today the polarity principally based on force does not determine many outcomes in international politics. Further as security concerns become questions of lesser importance than preservation, they do not always occupy top priority in the 21st century, as exampled by the agreement of China, Japan, and South Korea in November, 2012 to start negotiations on an FTA in the immediate wake of most fierce territorial conflicts over Senkakus (Diaoyutao) and Dokdo (Takeshima) since the end of the World War II. Here the traditionally high politics of security did not weigh highly than the traditionally "low politics" of economy. Once survival is not at risk, security questions are weighted in terms of cost and benefit against economic questions.

Emerging from and reflecting the new interdependence in the 1970s, liberalism ―describes‖ more appropriately what is happening now in the international politics. In other words, liberalism is "descriptive" of the phenomena such as interdependence, international cooperation and institutionalization. Going further beyond descriptions, however, we need to investigate why this has been happening.

Since the emergence of states in the ancient times, they were plunged into a pool of states where they had to compete for survival, that is, a realist world. In Western Europe, the realist world reemerged after a millennium of interval called feudalism. In order to win the competition and survival, they have been pressured to build externally competitive regimes. When market capitalism emerged as the most efficient economic mode of production in history, states gradually or abruptly as in Japan, adopted the system. Precursors in this competition have dominated the modern realist world. Those who didn't external threats were dormant and slow in adopting capitalism.

Capitalism clashed with the traditional goals of the ruling elite, that is, exploitation and oppression, making the society and state out of kilter. Where developed, capitalism began to democratize political regimes, neutralizing the authoritarian states and forcing the elite to compete for government power. In time, democracy was more efficient than authoritarianism not only in governance but also economic production. Wisdom of democratic many is superior to limited intelligence of the ruling few. Also, capitalism emerged as a better alternative for prosperity to increasingly costly and destructive exploitation of other peoples. This competition for building more competitive regimes are continuing today in order to produce more efficiently, which remains a better alternative to the traditional way of conquering other states. This type of competition will determine and characterize not only China's foreign policy but US-China relations.

A Dynamic Analysis of Whither

In this 21st century, the structure that will determine China's external policy is not the structural polarities derived from the distribution of power. More and more, the structural division is being formed between states and entities that readily use or threaten to use force, and states that eagerly replace force with international law and negotiations. China is no exception to the global pressure under which most states are placed. Even the unipolar US was not an exception in that it did not get enough support from other powers in its "overstretch" to Iraq and its power was much limited in the Iraqi civil war that ensued its quick occupation, showing limits of unipolarity both inside and outside of Iraq.

Another structural element is China's internal politics. Most prospects on China's foreign policy commit a sin of static analysis, that is, project current China into the mediumto longterm future. This is a trap in which social scientists fall frequently. China will undergo serious changes, in the near and medium-term future and the changes will certainly change China's external policy [2].

Though the CCP has successfully managed to lead China's "modernization" very efficiently and consensually up to now, the country is unavoidably entering a new era. Up until now, China underwent big economic changes, which, in its turn, brought about big social changes. Income and consequently asset gap between the rich and poor have grown large to a dangerous degree, with its Gini's coefficient surpassing 0.5 recently. It is an explosive degree and in 2011 more than 180,000 social protests and demonstrations were reported out in this country which used to have crime rates only one tenth of the Japan's. Contrasted to this, is the NYT report that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's relatives have been controlling "assets worth at least $2.7 billion." The report allegedly laid bare the corruption and hypocrisy of the secretly shrouded communist leaders.

In tandem, the social grievances began to create chasms in the political leadership as exampled in the former Chongqing (CCP) party chief Bo Xilai incident. Starting out as a member of ―princelings,‖ Bo implemented populist policies with an iron fist in Chongqing, going against Hu Jintao's liberal policies. There are no correct answers to capitalist China's problems unlike the socialist era and diversity of economic and social interests began to divide the party leadership, resulting in policy and power struggles. Rising social protests and splits within the political elite are symptoms towards democratization. Together with China's per capita GDP over $5,000, political democratization in China has begun. In the process of democratization, China may be more nationalistic in its external policy until it moves to a higher phase after democratization. However, it should also be true that China in democratic turmoil and explosive social demands will have to focus on internal politics.

In external politics, China does not have much room to diverge from its current policies. First of all, Chinese leadership is firmly committed to continuing economic development through integrating into the world market. This has been the motor force for China's rise and the leadership should accept the rules of market economy game to continue with the prosperity. This also applies to Russia, which does not necessarily share values with democratic countries, but has to pursue capitalist growth. Though China shifted emphasis from "biding time" to "peaceful rise," Chinese leaders including the new CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping have explicitly expressed support for this policy. If there are disruptions in their FDI-led economic growth, it will definitely exacerbate the daunting task of bringing economic justice back to the "People's Republic" at a time when it is gearing up from "an easy phase" to a higher and hard phase in economic development where "the tendency of growth rates to fall" sneaks in.

Chinese foreign policy includes political, economic and security issues. Politically, China's human rights will remain a problem with the US, but the issue will not threaten the basic relations between the two countries. The Clinton administration initially adopted a linkage policy binding the issue to the renewal of MFN status, but abandoned under pressures from American corporations which invested in China. The issue will continue to be raised, especially due to American domestic politics, until China democratizes, which is not unforeseen. The US takes issue with China's perennial trade surplus and foreign exchange manipulation. This issue too, however, is not a structural issue as China is committed to capitalist and internationalist economic growth ideologically and practically. The conflicts surrounding mercantilism and protectionism tend to occur with developing economies elsewhere too and the international trade regime will take care of the problems.

China does have security issues with neighboring countries and ultimately with the US. Though China does not have survival issues externally, it has territorial disputes with India on the Himalayan border, with some Southeast Asian countries on Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, and with Japan and Taiwan over the Senkakus (Diaoyutao) in East China Sea. Territorial disputes, which involve especially delimiting broad EEZ (exclusive economic zone) areas with affluent resources, are "critical," though not "vital," issues [3]. The question is whether the countries concerned try to resolve disputes by force or by international law and negotiations. Force was mobilized in the late 1990s and recently in 2012. The US urged reduction of tensions and resort to international law. Certainly, China would not like US involvement in these issues. However, so far as the issue is left for international law and the US does not side with any particular country on the ownership, China will not ruin its fundamental relations with other countries, which will essentially negate its outward economic development, though this does not necessarily mean China will accept smoothly the legal and non-violent resolution.

Even though China tries to resolve these conflicts, resorting to its growing and regionally dominant power and in a unilateralist way, it has fundamental limits. First, in addition to its internal politics of democratization, the world will see more democracies as time goes on and will see more embedding of democratic peace as a resulting outcome and as intersubjective norms among states. China's realist policy would have to face insurmountable resistance from the international society. Second, if China tries to form favorable semi-alliances, it has a fundamental weakness. China is surrounded in both East and South China Sea by countries that have zero-sum interests against China. Further, China has disputes with India which has virtually no possibility of allying with China. The country stands on the opposite side in the border conflicts, has an economy that is competitive with the China's and complementary to the US's. Also, India shares democratic values with the US. The combination of the US high-tech armament with India's population as huge as China's will continue to stand in the way and will ultimately discourage any China's ambition to practice "power politics" in the region.


As China rises higher, it will not always be peaceful. There may be show of force and even small military clashes. However, there are fundamental limits to China's possible resort to realpolitik.

First, in this 21st century world of non-imperialism where China's fundamental survival is not threatened, any China's resort to unilateral force would be resisted by the democratic majority of the world. Unlike realist precepts, anarchy is not necessarily a Hobbesian state of nature dictating wars of all against all. Today's anarchy is what today's states make of it. Today, realism is hardly "realistic" in most regions of the world. Fundamentally, China could not overcome the superiority of a plausible alliance of the US, India, and unfavorable surrounding countries in military terms for a long future. These negative environments for a Sinoadventurism will foist a Bismakian grand strategy on the rising China.

Second, Chinese resort to power politics would cost its economic growth the country cannot give up. With any large disruptions, China could not endure with its trade dependence on the global market reaching more than 50%, not to speak of incoming FDIs. Also, the country needs more economic resources as its internal demand for economic justice continues to intensify. It would be contradictory if China challenges the norms of peace despite the risk of ruing its economic base which makes the challenge possible.

Third, a dynamic analysis envisions a China that democratizes and shares more values such as human rights, free market economy, and peace, with a majority of states in the world.

After all, predictions that Chinese version of the "Monroe Doctrine" will "be on the horizon," will, not hopefully but empirically, turn out to be a realist, not realistic, exaggeration.



  1. Chen Jian. The China Challenge in the 21st Century: Implications for US Foreign Policy. -Washington, DC: US Institute of Peace,
  2. Jian, Chen. Bridging Revolution and Decolonization: The ‗Bandung Discourse‘ in China‘s Early Cold War Experience // The Chinese Historical Review . 2008. Vol.15, no.
  3. Jian, Chen. China and the Indochina Settlement at the Geneva Conference of 1954 / in Mark Lawrence and Frederik Logvall eds., The First Vietnam War: Colonial Conflict and Cold War Crisis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,

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