China: Global Power Diffusion Altering the Landscape
© 2016 FrontLine Defence (Vol 13, No 5)

There is an intensifying debate within Western academia pertaining to Beijing’s current and future intents and actions towards the United States, and the international order it has constructed. A rising power’s relationship towards established (also known as status quo) powers – the order’s principal architects and supporters – is a core issue in the field of International Relations (IR) theory and, as a result, this body of literature (specifically models of power transition) have increasingly shaped and informed Western assessments of China’s rise since the early 1990s. In particular, the sudden change in power between rising and established powers is seen as a historically routine condition resulting in intense security competition and usually all-out war with the tendency of rising powers becoming revisionist ones increasingly determined to remake the international order to its advantage while declining established / status quo powers become more willing to employ force to preserve the order and its privileged position within it.

IR models are important conceptual tools to assist in such analyses, but a number of shortcomings must be taken into account before employing them as explanatory devices for predictive purposes (or as prescriptive justifications informing policymaking). First, definitions of a defacto revisionist power (particularly with hegemonic ambitions) usually rest on simple definitions that are mutually exclusive between status quo and revisionist powers, which China does not fit into. Second, the appropriateness of explaining the relationship of the United States and China as undergoing a classic power transition, within which theories based on previous historical examples can be applied, is highly doubtful given the forces and factors underpinning and driving the current transition in world power dynamics.

The Sources of Chinese Revisionism
Assessments of China as an inevitably revisionist power stem from two primary theoretical sources: 1) By intent: the existence of a strategic culture amongst the Chinese leadership with the long-held goal of establishing a world-wide Chinese hegemony; or 2) By design: changes in the relative distribution of power will inevitably transform Beijing into an unsatisfied state with an increasing desire and ability to restructure international politics to its advantage. Clearly, the incommensurability between a liberal-democratic order and an authoritarian system will inhibit the ability to reconcile power transition anxieties due to deep seated distrust of the other’s governance systems and values.

Revisionism by intent argues the current Chinese leadership is guided by a long-held philosophy of hegemonic aspirations. Significant changes, therefore, in its foreign and domestic policies since the time of Mao, specifically its abandonment of a world-wide communist revolution and increasing interaction and integration within the contemporary international system since the late 1970s, are simply a re-tooling of strategies in support of, rather than abandonment of, such hegemonic ambitions. The past two decades of Beijing abiding by the rules and regulations of the system, as exemplified by entry into numerous international institutions, is thus a transitional strategy to ‘lay low and hide capabilities’ in order to continue its upward mobility in power and influence without triggering a countervailing great power reaction to its rise.

With growing confidence that the shift in international power has moved decisively towards its advantage, China has embarked on a more ‘assertive’ foreign policy footing since 2008, which is most apparent in East Asia with its use of military power to intimidate neighbours and neutralize American military superiority in order to construct a regional system dominated by Beijing, in support of  an even grander, global-wide hegemonic end-state.

The major issue with these analyses is that they are more a description of how the world would operate under Chinese hegemony rather than a compelling case of an enduring hegemonic mindset held by successive generations of Chinese leaders. Given the difficulties in ascertaining goals, intents and decision-making processes of China’s senior political organizations, caution must be employed when making wide-ranging and universal assessments of strategic aims – especially those that are long-held, fixed, unquestioned and impervious to change.

Apprehensions that an authoritarian China will never socialize into the international order to a degree that alleviates concerns from established powers, discards the possibility that China is (and has in the past) been willing to reconfigure its ultimate aims in accordance with global power changes constraining possibilities of action.

The second source of revisionism – by design – argues the underlying explanatory variable lies not in the strategic culture of the regime but in the structure of international politics itself. International politics, such arguments explain, is an anarchic realm with states having to provide for their security in which the material distribution of power (specifically economic and military aspects) influences their intents and behaviours towards one another.

Sudden changes within the distribution of power, furthermore, are seen as fertile periods for conflict and war to break out between rising states and established ones. Political scientist Graham Allison’s recent analysis reveals that 12 of the past 16 such power transitions over the past 500 years have resulted in war.

Theories of power transition, while differing on the exact processes that lead to war and conflict, agree that the fundamental cause is the changing distribution of power. This generates growing dissatisfaction in rising states, which increasingly then come to contest not only the dominant position of the established state(s) but the entire system they have constructed.

Taken to its furthest extent, some scholars assert that all rising powers are by definition revisionist powers. The deterministic characteristic of power changes, therefore, reframes policy-making questions away from how to influence Chinese decisions away from revisionism and towards the power assets and strategies needed to contain and stunt its rise before it can seriously challenge the United States. Western structural theories of power transition, as well, are increasingly popular and cited in Chinese academia justifying the development of a more robust and active foreign policy opposing the United States.

Structural theories of power transition, though, suffer from a lack of operationalizing the concepts for status quo and revisionist powers into useful evaluation criteria beyond simple and mutually exclusive categorizations; drawing the ire of other IR scholars and historians due to the reduction of complex historical events into a few law-like axioms, with inexact definitions, applied to the entirety of world history without being an accurate explanation of such events.

Classifying any state that changes the relative distribution of power as revisionist, for example, lumps a large and diverse group of states together despite varied differences in their intents and relationships with established powers and the international order. On this point, professor of political science Randall Schweller from Ohio State University, has argued that while China is undoubtedly a revisionist power given its dissatisfaction with its position and role in regional and global institutions, it has yet to be determined whether it is a ‘revolutionary’ power willing to employ military power to achieve unlimited aims of challenging the entirety of the current international system rather than carving out a greater degree of freedom from U.S. primacy in its immediate locale.

Professor of China in World Affairs at Stanford University, Allastair Ian Johnston,  has offered the most rigorous analysis of Chinese views towards five predominant international norms – sovereignty, free-trade, non-proliferation, self-determination and human rights. Noting that Beijing is an ardent supporter of some while vigorously opposing others, he concludes this essentially excludes China from being considered either a status quo or revisionist power.

The difference, as well, between the promotion of change within the current international order (such as the creation of new regional and global institutions) vice advocating and constructing an oppositional order (such as developing an alliance of states opposed to the West) is lost in the many structurally-informed assessments of China as inevitably revisionist – blurring the distinction between whether Beijing’s behaviour is actually system-threatening or simply ‘not to the liking’ of the U.S. as it becomes a more influential and engaged actor with a greater ability to shape the contours of the international order.

Other Side of the Equation
While China’s meteoric rise is unprecedented, its surging economic wealth is based more on demographic rather than technological power, of which the U.S. remains the unquestioned world leader with both the most powerful military in history and with soft power assets (film, sports and consumerism) that China currently cannot compete with.

This does not diminish the pace and scale of China’s rise, but on top of the large asymmetries that exist between it and Washington, the international order it confronts is equally unprecedented in terms of challenges Beijing faces in any attempt to control or overthrow  it unilaterally compared to previous aspirants to great power status.

The presence of nuclear weapons among major (and some minor) states, globalization, economic and financial interdependence, and the concurrent rise of other emerging powers have created a system that is easy to join yet hard to overturn. China has immensely benefited from the current order economically and strategically, with the United States being a non-threatening superpower shouldering the burden of providing a peaceful and stable order. There is, therefore, little incentive for China to assume such duties via a hegemonic challenge but, if it decided to do so, its tough geopolitical neighbourhood with other emerging and powers like Russia and India (which are wary of its rise) would make it difficult to recruit allies in restructuring international politics into a system dominated by Beijing.

The aftermath of the 2008 global recession has been identified as a major inflection point in Chinese foreign policy (the ‘Assertive’ turn), but it was also a pivotal moment for the United States as the financial crises left a deep, self-inflicted wound that resulting in heightened concerns that the United States is weaker than previously assessed. In addressing risks to the United States’ status as the world’s lone superpower, commentators have by and large avoided addressing changing economic policies and focused instead on repurposing and marshalling military power against China, which effectively attempts to deal more with a symptom/outcome of weakness but not the real cause of American vulnerability. Beijing’s revisionist ambitions may, in fact, be an opportunistic readjustment in foreign policy due to an assessed weakened United States rather than the unfolding of a deliberate and comprehensive Chinese global challenge.

The privileging and advocacy of military power as the primary (and perhaps only) resource capable of maintaining dominance for the United States, is to further misunderstand China’s rise, which is conditioned on complex economic and political linkages within the international order and would necessitate severe measures (such as economic sanctions, exclusion from international institutions, military containment alliances) to reverse Beijing’s augmentation of power and influence.

Others argue that whether Beijing supports or opposes the international order is the real issue – not China’s rise or whether the U.S. should defacto oppose it. To this end, over the past two decades there have been arguments presented by successive U.S. Administrations that Washington’s acceptance of China as a great power rests on whether or not Beijing is a ‘responsible power/stakeholder’ willing to provide public goods, specifically security ones in support of international stability.

Many analysts remain highly skeptical that – if Beijing begins to reconstruct and employ its military in support of global security goods via global power projection assets (such as aircraft carriers and permanent deployments overseas; stability operations; and freedom of the seas patrols) vice its current focus on frustrating American military power in East Asia – this would alleviate Washington’s concerns of China’s growing military power. Here too, there is little incentive for Beijing to deploy military power in support of such operations in any meaningful way.

Remaining regionally focused, Beijing has nonetheless slowly begun to transform its military, both in mandates and force structure, for increased joint operations and overseas deployments in support of its expanding economic interests (specifically Sea Lanes of Communications for natural resources imports); to protect its citizens abroad (such as evacuations from war torn states); and to augment its status as a great power (like contributions to peacekeeping operations). As a result, there are areas in which Beijing’s interests will coincide with the United States, namely the maintenance of stability of the global commons for the freedom of navigation and international trade. China, however, is not a supporter of liberal norms such as democracy and human rights, which have been cornerstones (but not the only or even primary rationales) for American uses of military power over the past two decades.

The degree of Chinese support of liberal norms is not the real concern, however, but whether Beijing emulates the United States in terms of determining when and why international regulations and institutions can be overridden. The United States has operated under a philosophy of exceptionalism (though to a lesser degree since President Obama assumed office) in which certain international norms (such as respect for state sovereignty) and processes (such as obtaining consent from the United Nations Security Council) have been circumscribed in the promotion of other norms (regime change of authoritarian states) and interests (freedom to unilaterally act) that can be largely justified via a moral philosophy of dividing the world into right and wrong.

The promotion of themselves as the power with the moral righteousness and wisdom to determine which aspects of the international order can be overridden, could easily be replicated by China, for example, in its objections to international law and norms in the resolution of maritime disputes in East Asia under the belief they are justified in so doing as a large state attempting to right the wrongs it has suffered during the past ‘Century of Humiliation’.

Tensions in East Asia should not be downplayed, but despite significant changes in its foreign policy, Beijing has not embarked on a full assault of the international order, nor the U.S. position of global dominance, as its grand strategy has remained the same since the end of the Cold War: Peaceful Rise and Development.

Beijing appears to have concluded that warlike rises to power are impossible in the current international order and thus has not embarked on massive military development, building of alliances, or challenging U.S. leadership at every turn. Some argue this is only due to a reluctant acceptance by Beijing that it is too weak to outright challenge the US militarily, but one should not dismiss Beijing’s assessment that the use of military power has by and large been neutralized as a system-changing agent. This does not mean an end to efforts to marginalize Washington’s influence in East Asia, to expansion and modernization of its military, or to building international institutions with themselves in a leadership position, but these are not the same as a complete rejection of and challenge to the current order.

Diffusion is the New Status Quo
As Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye has aptly highlighted, power is not just shifting gradually from the West to the East, it is becoming more diffused through­out the system at large, with certain processes taking on a life of their own beyond the control of a select few states as in the past.

Diffusion is happening in an uneven manner across various multi-nodal fields, with powerful state and non-state actors vice militarily, where the U.S. is still by far the most dominant. Other states are developing niche capabilities that increasingly limit Washington’s freedom to manoeuvre in East Asia.

There is, furthermore, an emerging consensus that American unipolarity is fading, but it is uncertain how and what future new configuration among the great powers will develop.

The United States, while not hegemonic, will nonetheless remain the most powerful state in the decades to come. China is a large contributor to such system alteration, it is also encapsulated by the changing nature of power itself, presenting opportunities and placing limitations on its interest development and achievement in this newly evolving system. The world will not be exclusively run as a bi-polar system between the U.S. and China which, while being the biggest and most influential pair internationally, will increasingly make up a smaller percentage of population and economic wealth in the years to come.

Within this altering landscape, therefore, Beijing and Washington must make painful adjustments to their interests and relationships, not just with one another but the inter­national order at large if they are to successfully navigate towards a new status quo.

Engagement with China and other emerging powers cannot be solely conditioned on being ‘responsible’ – for above all else, these states are indispensable agents in the stability and prosperity of the international order. With this in mind, the key challenge for Beijing will be to avoid achieving narrow interests at the expense of building reliable and stable relationships with other major powers and, in the process, constructing a more consistent foreign policy (which at present is full of contradictions and dichotomous language).

For the United States, the major challenges are to avoid overreacting to the new international dynamic of power diffusion; to avoid blaming China entirely for the dilution of their power and influence in global politics; and to understand that military solutions are not decisive strategies to maintain their place of primacy.

How the U.S. and China navigate a reconfiguration of their relationship will be a defining example for the inclusion of other emerging states, namely India, which, while concerned strategically about China, is not a U.S. surrogate. It remains uncertain how New Delhi will interact and operate in and with the international system over the next 20-30 years as it becomes a great power itself.

China does not sit well within a status quo or revisionist power definition; nor, for that matter, does the United States. Their interaction is not with respect to a static world order, simply competing over the hierarchy of states, but rather a future status quo of managing the transition of a system towards a new balance in which there may not be historical precedence in terms of complexity, number and types of actors and linkages, and dangers in terms of system debilitating technologies.

Periods of power transition are anxious times, within which the possibility of misunderstandings and miscalculations are augmented, and thus, even if China does not harbour system-wide hegemonic ambitions, they may not be able to properly convince the United States of this position given its new-found determination to be treated as an equal with Washington in order to secure ‘core national interests’.

The last three power transitions in world history, however, have been peaceful and thus there may be structural factors – such as the presence of nuclear weapons, globalization, institutionalism and complex independence – which, while enabling change of the status-quo, at the same time heavily influences how, and to what degree, this transition will unfold, especially with respect to the use of military power.

None of these factors are a deterministic guarantee for peace but there must be a realization that the contours of China’s rise, and its implications to the international order, is not simply based on whether leaders in Beijing harbour revisionist motives – either by intent or design – but rather one in which the United States also plays a critical role in determining the pathways and processes as their relationship unfolds in this period of change.

Adam P. MacDonald is an independent academic based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He can be reached at