Is There a Chinese Understanding of International Relations?

This article is part of the TRAFO Series “Doing Global International Relations”.



by Tim Rühlig

Many politicians, academics and the wider public in the “West” fear China’s rise. They fear not only a loss of influence in world affairs, but also the mysterious image China projects to outsiders: Its old civilization, its tradition of conceptualizing politics very differently, as well as the fact that China remains an authoritarian state to this day contribute to China being regarded the most “radical other” among the major powers in world affairs.

Also in China many political scientists discuss its otherness, its uniqueness. This manifests itself for example in the ongoing debate about a “Chinese School of International Relations” (CSIR). What the core of such a CSIR is, whether it only helps to understand the particularities of China or even offers a different understanding of global affairs beyond China, remains subject to discussion. However, given the liveliness, attention and plurality of the debate, there is good reason to consider such a CSIR to be one potential perspective of a more global IR.

In this blog post I argue that we should take this discourse on and the search for a CSIR seriously. It may be the case that because of its historical experiences and political tradition, China conceptualizes and approaches politics very differently than (scholars in) the West. From this point of view, we would need a different theory to make sense of its foreign policy. At the same time, however, I believe that we need to critically investigate whether and in which ways Chinese theories of IR are not merely analytical tools but also part of a political agenda to change international relations and foreign affairs. After all: claiming that China is different does not prove Chinas difference.


Screenshot Chinese IR and IR in Chinese

At first glance this argument may appear to be critical of the CSIR because it seems to argue that CSIR – in contrast to “Western” political thought – is only political propaganda and not an analytical tool. However, I do not argue that Chinese IR theories are particularly ideological. “Theory”, Robert Cox rightly pointed out, “is always for someone and for some purpose”. Hence, although Western IR theory likes to pose as neutral, it is anything but that, often serving a political perspective such as preserving the status quo of Western dominance and/or a capitalist world order. In other words: clearly neither is neutral.

In essence, while I am sympathetic to any attempt to a Global IR that broadens the perspective for non-Western political thought, I also believe that alternative theories and ontologies, like a CSIR, should be treated as political agendas, which are subject to power political considerations. Hence, social scientists should be prepared to investigate the selective utilization of historical legacies for contemporary political purposes. In sum, I opt for an approach that is critical towards both established Western IR theories as well as the emerging debate of a CSIR. The difference between mainstream IR theories ranging from (neo-)realism to liberalism, constructivism and Marxism and Chinese theoretical approaches is not that one is analytical and the other political in nature, but rather that the first have obviously impacted the understanding and making of world affairs, while the latter try to do so. The explanatory power of the first is thus at least partly an effect of them being influential for many decades.  Thus: Whether a CSIR helps explain current foreign affairs or different ideas of political order has to be subject to empirical research and cannot be assumed.

All this being said: How can we study Chinese foreign policy today? And how should we use theory? In order to propose one way to approach this complex situation, I introduce an empirical research agenda that asks, how history is referred to in today’s China, how it manifests itself politically and how it is introduced and responded to in the Chinese and international arena. This approach may help us on the one hand to better understand the content of a “Chinese” school of IR; on the other hand, it helps us to find out, whether the CSIR materializes into political beliefs, actions and decision-making which may give way to a new international political order.

In order to elaborate further on and flesh out this argument, I shortly summarize some core elements of the emerging CSIR. In this context, I aim to demonstrate the plurality of CSIR theories which reflect different ideas and epochs in Chinese history. This may serve as a first indicator that history is too complex as to deduce a theory of politics from it. Afterwards, I aim to show that things are even more complicated because Western ideas have been infiltrating and influencing China ever since the late 19th century (at the latest). In a last step I point to recent trends of China’s integration into a globalizing world – which raises further questions about the role of a CSIR, which is based on the country’s past. I conclude by proposing, how to study this complex situation.

China’s history as a civilizational state at the center of the world reconsidered

In recent years, domestic and international workshops and conferences such as ISA conferences are filled with panels on the role and importance of a CSIR. Voices advocating such a genuine Chinese conceptualization of international relations not only come from the West. For example Zhang Weiwei, professor of international relations at Shanghai’s Fudan University and former interpreter of many Chinese leaders including Deng Xiaoping, writes in his book The China Wave (2012: Pp. 47-48):

“Some people think that the Western model represents the supreme ideal of mankind, and all China should do is to make an economic, social and political transition to the Western model. But to my mind, if a civilizational state like China follows the Western model, the country will experience chaos and break up. […] China’s rise is due to its own model of development which the West does not endorse, but China is likely to continue to move along its own chosen path and become the world’s largest economy with all its impact on the world at large.”

What is key in this quotation from Zhang’s book is not the uniqueness of China but the characterization of the country as a “civilizational” instead of a nation state. In (very) short: a civilizational state defines itself in terms of its superior civilizational culture that it aims to spread to the less-civilized people in its periphery. This hierarchical understanding of the world does not know any states as defined by clear-cut geographical borders or different distinct people. Instead, it is the morally superior culture that distinguishes the civilizational state from its surroundings. Whoever takes over this culture and acts morally is then regarded as a member of the civilized people. For example, the last Chinese imperial rulers, the Qing dynasty, were of Manchu origin. However, it is believed to have taken over the Chinese culture and tradition, becoming essentially Chinese (whether we agree that there is something essential about China does not matter for this perception). The modern idea of a nation state, distinguishable by territory and borders as well as a people (maybe even based on common ancestors and bloodline), is alien to a civilizational state. Consequently, a civilizational state does not aim at control but influence. Its aim is to spread the culture as far as possible into the periphery. In order to achieve this, a civilizational state asks for tributes that symbolize the acceptance of the superiority of the center’s culture, but it does not aim at fully incorporating and controlling other countries.

Whether this idea of a civilizational state mirrors China’s historical reality is not crucial for the purpose of this blogpost. Instead, the self-conceptualization as a civilizational state that is at the center of the world is important here. This way of understanding the world differs fundamentally from the conceptualization of a Westphalian world with distinct sovereign entities interacting in an anarchical international system.

Notably though, the idea that China is a civilizational state is neither uncontested within China nor is it the only existing Chinese idea of the political or the international. Most prominently at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, scholars around Professor Yan Xuetong have developed a widely cited literature on an international theory based on the Confucian concept of tianxia, most often translated as “all-under-heaven”. Another prominent example is the work of Professor Qin Yaqing, President of the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, which is funded by the foreign ministry. Qin has argued that while the understanding of the political in the West is mostly based on the existence of “rules” relationality is key in the Chinese tradition . As can be seen, there is a remarkable variety between all these approaches . They do not even interpret the same concepts in a consistent way as a comparison of the usage of tianxia in Yan’s work with the oeuvre of the famous political philosopher Zhao Tingyang from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, one of China’s leading think tanks, reveals.

This diversity is hardly surprising: Zhang, Yan, Qin, Zhao and all the numerous others in China who aim at introducing a Chinese school of international relations refer to what they believe is characteristic to China’s civilizational history lasting for around 2,500 years. Naturally, China’s history has been complex and multilayered and so has been the development of the conceptual understanding of politics, society and international relations in this long period of time. In other words, the unambiguousness of any theory cannot possibly reflect the historical developments of both politics and the theorizing of it.

What follows from this? The belief that studying history properly will suffice to understand how China politically functions is misleading. What is interesting about the described concepts is how they refer to history and how they aim to utilize it for their political purposes. In that sense, these theories are rather political attempts to redefine China’s foreign policy or strengthen the country’s international soft power than analytical tools to cut up reality. Hence, we should not believe in any historical determinism but analyze whether such understandings and references become politically influential or not.

China’s experience of colonialism: bringing state sovereignty in

It is not only the plurality of Chinese IR theories that makes me question, how much they help us to understand current Chinese affairs. Following the Opium Wars in the second half of the 19th century, China experienced (semi-)colonization by several European powers and Japan. Until this day, the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century when China was internationally weak – defeated in several wars and internally shaken by revolutions and civil war – is referred to as the “century of humiliation”. In this period, Chinese leaders as well as academics and political thinkers learned to value the concepts of nation state and sovereignty because the concepts helped to justify China’s right to regain control over the territory and the demand that colonial powers should leave. This fundamental change of the Chinese state’s self-conceptualization has deeply impacted the whole society which holds today a high sense of nationalism including the idea of bloodline and nationality. For this reason, the principles of sovereignty and non-interference became the normative corner-stones of China’s foreign policy. Given the fact that Hong Kong and Macao returned to Chinese sovereignty only in 1997 and 1999 respectively and Taiwan, though considered an apostate province, remains effectively beyond the control of the People’s Republic of China, the memory and legacy of this “century of humiliation” is present in the political thinking and discourse until this day.

It is important to note that the Chinese leadership shares this appreciation of sovereignty with many other formerly colonized countries. They became natural allies for the country over decades whenever it came to questions of the international political order. Hence, it is no accident that the 60th anniversary of the Bandung Conference was celebrated also by Xi Jinping, CCP Secretary General and President of China.

Ongoing change: China’s rise in times of globalization

Finally, the discussion about a CSIR comes at a time when Chinese leaders reconsider the country’s role in the world. For many decades they followed late-leader Deng Xiaoping’s advice to “keep a low profile”, utilizing the international system to serve its own domestic developmental interests instead of challenging it. China stayed as neutral as possible, held up the idea of non-interventionism and aimed at catching up with the developed world. This turned out to be a success: By now, China has become the second largest economy and one of the most powerful international actors in the 21st century. Its leadership has very well understood that it cannot stay out of international affairs with the power it holds. Not only are voices in China gaining importance that call for a more active foreign policy, but expectations from the international community that China should shoulder more responsibility are increasing as well.

Significantly, sovereignty and non-intervention in the absolute sense that the Chinese leadership has supported in the past are of very limited value in redefining the country’s international role: China’s rise is largely the result of its integration into the globalized world economy. Hence, a stable and secure international environment is crucial for the continuation of its development. This holds also true in times when the country aims to change its model of growth towards a more consumption-based one – especially since such a transition will most likely take a while and lead through a bumpy and risky road. Consequently, the recent “Belt and Road” initiative that aims to open-up and deepen trade relations with many regions around the world (but most significantly in Southeast and Central Asia) includes a security component. Put simply, if Chinese politicians want to deepen the country’s trade relations with countries such as Pakistan and make infrastructure projects in these regions a success, they have a lively interest in a stable and secure Pakistan including its neighboring countries. Hence, what appears to be a purely economic project based on win-win cooperation while leaving the other countries’ sovereignty intact, raises China’s security’s interest and engages the country much more deeply into the security concerns of the region.

This is very well understood in Beijing and leading experts in think tanks and universities talk and discuss the changing role of China and its relation to non-intervention and sovereignty. nTherefore, it can hardly be seen as a surprise that the Chinese military engages much more and more robustly in UN peacekeeping operations in recent years (e.g. in South Sudan and Mali). At the same time, this does not mean that the Party has overcome its discomfort with interventionism altogether. In fact, different considerations, traditions and believes are simultaneously existent among (foreign) policy-makers and their advisors. Chinese IR schools have and may become another source of influence in this context enriching the complexity even further.

Hybrid solutions to empirical challenges instead of unique and pure approaches

What does all this mean for research about China’s foreign policy and its impact on the future international order? Clearly, ancient Chinese ideas of an international order stand in contrast to its valuation of state sovereignty and interventionism in more recent decades. This, in turn, is not compatible with China’s position as a great power in a globalized world of the 21st century. So how can we make sense of China’s role in world affairs?

Should we then abandon the discourses on a Chinese school of IR based on the old, Confucian past and civilizational state approaches? No. But rather than taking for granted that they have become politically influential like Western IR theories, there is the chance to observe whether, when and how such new theoretical approaches take root and whether and how they reshape (foreign) policy-making in China and – in the future – possibly beyond. But it should be kept in mind that “Western” IR theories have taken also root in the political thinking in China and their influence will not disappear because some scholars claim that Chinese think differently. Hence, it is most likely that ideas of a CSIR merge with traditional mainstream IR theories, adapting themselves to the deep believe in sovereignty as well as needs in times of globalized international affairs. Chinese leaders do not act in a vacuum, but react to the outside world. The result will most likely be a hybridity of different traditions demonstrating inconsistencies and contradictions in Chinese foreign policy-making that are the result of different perspectives and influences that are institutionalized in different bureaucratic agencies within China.

I doubt, whether we will be able to make sense of this hybridity by carrying out solely conceptual research. Instead, I opt for an empirical approach that bears in mind the different theoretical approaches but focuses on how politics are carried out and discussed; in order to then critically assess which kinds of ideas are influential and how they inform discourse and practices in today’s China. An approach which takes these factors into account may well be part of a more global IR.


Tim Rühlig is a PhD Candidate at Frankfurt University, Germany, and currently a visiting research fellow at the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing. In line with the blog post he carries out a comparative PhD thesis that approaches China’s approach to the changing role of state control and state sovereignty in different case studies ranging from security (Responsibility to Protect) to economic (WTO Dispute Settlement Body and WTO rules on banking) and issues of political authority (one country, two systems in Hong Kong). These empirical findings will be finally related and compared to conceptual considerations including the “Chinese school of International Relations”.


Further Readings on TRAFO:

Antonia Witt, Felix Anderl, Stefan Kroll, Philip Wallmeier (2016), Clues, Careers, and Curricula – Doing Global International Relations, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Amitav Acharya (2016), Developing Global International Relations: What, Who, and How?, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Anthoni van Nieuwkerk (2016),  Reflections on (not so) International Relations … and what scholars from the Global South can do about it, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Frank Mattheis (2016), New metres for a wider world: interregionalism and Global International Relations, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Catherine Baker (2016), South-East European Studies in the ‘House of International Relations’, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Amaya Querejazu (2016), Andean Cosmovision and Global Governanc,  TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.



Citation: Tim Rühlig, Is there a Chinese understanding of International Relations?, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 28.09.2016,

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