The rise of great powers can hardly be said to be a smooth process. As China gains more clout, recent conflicts and disputes over certain Chinese policies and actions can be viewed as perhaps inevitable concerns or even impetuousness from its neighbors, and especially from the dominant United States. Thus, China’s rise naturally will have to be a long-term and complex journey.
What exactly helps to realize and safeguard ultimate success and lasting peace for a rising great power? The formula surely includes both comprehensive national power and a dominant international system that is based on the prevailing values, rules, and institutions. The question is: what exactly is this system, and what impact will China’s rise have upon it?
In Immanuel Wallerstein’s view, the modern world economic system began with the commencement and development of capitalism in Europe in the 16th century. How have the nation states been bonded together in the development of modern and contemporary international relations? I suggest that there have been several “sub-systems” or practical mechanisms since the Westphalian era to define and regulate international relations in Wallerstein’s world system.
Nation states and the later dominant nations in the world system have designed and practiced international relations through different mechanisms or “paradigms” under the dome of Wallerstein’s world system. We may describe these mechanisms as “paradigmatic systems,” which includes the “treaty system” that originated in Europe, the global “colonial system” particularly under the control of Great Britain, and the “alliance system” in contemporary world politics under U.S. leadership. These “paradigmatic systems,” in different historical periods, have regulated international relations, influenced politics among nations, and also shaped their mutual epistemic recognitions.
China actually did not completely (at least voluntarily) participate in the above three “paradigmatic systems” – in fact, it could not do so. Given China’s history, culture, and perhaps its unique geolocation, a Confucian community based on the idea of China’s cultural superiority and a “China-centered” tributary system had reigned as the predominant order for perhaps over 2,000 years in East Asia. This order or system had remained relatively stable and closed until it faced significant challenges in its later period. The signing of the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689 between Qing China and Tsarist Russia can be regarded as the first clash between the traditional East Asian order and the Western treaty system.
Nevertheless, in modern and contemporary world history, China has remained somewhat, if not completely, estranged from the three “paradigmatic systems” originating from the West; it was not until several decades ago that China started to join the international community. Even then, China has remained significantly “estranged” from the currently predominant “alliance system” under the U.S. leadership.
So what can we expect from a rapidly rising China as a part of the contemporary world system? In Wallerstein’s view, the world system is a social system that has boundaries, structures, member groups, rules of legitimation, and coherence. The current paradigmatic system – the alliance system – is more based on the widely shared values, rules, and institutions that most benefit its members, which may just be regarded as a de facto prevailing “coherence” in today’s world, though the system faces various challenges. As China’s rise continues, could it also suggest a new paradigmatic system that is different from (or maybe even better than) the previous ones, particularly today’s alliance system? Or, more specifically, could a rising China provide the world with new “coherence”?
A rising China has both the need and the obligation to think about these questions. As an increasingly involved and also concerned rising great power in the international community, bringing a certain coherence to the world system might just be something that ultimately determines the outcome of both China’s further rise and the realization of its dream of “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” in the contemporary world system. Of course, once China finds that it is necessary to do so, it may discover that figuring out how to provide public goods to the world system is just as important as deciding what to provide.
As the currently predominant alliance system still prevails to some degree, a rising China may need to prove its peaceful rise through certain commonalities rather than excessively focusing on dissimilarities. The emphasis of “Chinese characteristics” certainly best serves China’s national interests given the current world situation and China’s traditions in its foreign policy. However, as its rise continues and may gradually mature in the future, China also needs to provide the world more commonly accepted public goods, which may help China to find and design new coherence for the world system.
Of course, crafting a new coherence does not necessarily means a direct challenge to the prevailing system. Rather, it may further facilitate China’s peaceful rise within existing frameworks. Thus, it is still premature to talk about an intended “system change” by China. Meanwhile, it is notable that during the G20 summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized that as China has benefited from the international community during its development, China today is willing to provide the world with more public goods. This is truly constructive, in view of highlighting the commonalities of its overall rise in the world, and the possible coherence China may need to provide to the world in the future.