Ideas and Identity in China’s Foreign Policy

Ideas and Identity in China’s Foreign Policy (project manager: prof. D. Mierzejewski)

Since Opium Wars, China faces a problem with presenting itself contrary to others. Building individual identity for the “state” that tend to be “all under the heaven” (tianxia天下) might be seen as a mission impossible. The world described in ‘Shang Shu’ (尚书), model of auxiliary states – fuguo (服国), or Confucian vision of the great unity – datong (大同), in which all the relations were based on moral relations between members of the community rather than on material interests . At this point, the a clash between two different perceptions of the world in the XIX Century plays an important role in shaping today’s China international behavior. More than one hundred years of debates inside China shows that the Western ideas are not easy to assemble.

In the late nineteenth century, especially after the humiliating defeat in the war with Japan in 1895, China’s intellectual elite began to lose confidence in the usefulness of Confucianism and traditional imperial institutions, realizing the weakness of the empire in face of challenges posed by the Western powers and rapidly modernizing Japan – a moment that Liang Qichao, one of the most prominent Chinese nationalists of the early twentieth century, pointed as an “awakening of the Chinese people from the 4000 year dream”. During this period the most important contemporary Chinese ideology began to take shape – nationalism, understood both as an attempt to define the ethnic identity of the Chinese nation (zhonghua minzu) and the desire to determine its position and identity in international environment that was created on the basis of Westphalian order. The resulting intellectual ferment combined with social pressure led to the republican revolution and the fall of the Qing empire (1911/1912). In the period of social, economic and political disintegration of the Republic of China, during which none of the social classes had a dominant position, politicians and intellectuals were trying to diagnose the causes of China’s weakness, searching for the way of modernization and ideas that would lead to integrity and creation of a strong modern nation-state after century of national humiliation. During this period two main rival political and ideological forces emerged: the Nationalist Party (GMD) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Their ideologies were formed during a period of a dramatic socio-political turbulence of 1920s and 1930s and in response to the external threat that followed (Anti-Japanese War). The CCP victory in 1949 marked the next phase of China’s search for its own international identity. Mao Zedong and his successors have been subsequently trying to develop its own model of foreign policy in interaction with Western ideologies of marxism, nationalism, liberalism as well as in accordance with China’s own political and philosophical traditions. The next crucial point to consider is the decision to introduce reforms after 1978 that brought a sudden fascination with Western ideas among Chinese elite throughout 1980s. However, the June 4th 1989 incident ushered in changes in the content of intellectual debate shifting toward national and cultural content thus seeking an identity distinct from liberal democracies. Hence it all created a basis for a broader discussion on ideological characteristics of China’s transformation and to determine a place of China’s international identity within.

Since then, starting with Kang Youwei’s utopian “Book of Datong,” through Sun Yatsen “undone Republic,” the failure of 1930’s under Jiang Jieshi, via Mao Zedong struggling for destroying and building “China’s man,” up to the stable nation built by Deng Xiaoping China has been trying to build its own international identity. The “open the door” decades have enhanced China’s success, but also created a variety of material and non-material problems. The second kind of problems might be recognized as related to the value system, identity, and self-perception. Having looked into China’s internal debates, it could be stated that China is still on its way to looking for the major set of values. This leads to the conclusion that in its foreign behavior, China uses identity politics that empowers the oppressed to articulate their oppression because of its own experience, and it should be understood as a process of consciousness-raising.

Although unexpectedly for the Chinese policy makers, China’s macroeconomic success has elevated China to the second World’s largest economy. After being engaged in the World affairs as the UN member or WTO member the question “who China is?” become more that evident. The Author resumes the “new-old” questions raised by John K. Fairbank in 1966: “Communist China? – how far Communist? How far Chinese? How to evaluate the impact of China’s vast cultural heritage and historical experiences have had upon the China’ s international behavior?” . Moreover, in the context of today China the question on how far China has been different from the West might be considered as one of the most important. The problem of being self, identity leads to the dilemma of how to transmit and build the platform for understating this values for the foreign audience? Does the principles, that shape the identity, have to serve to maintain and preserve national interest in the “no-China World”? How constant or changeable is Chinese foreign policy over a period of time, especially in the transition from the Cold War to a post-Cold War era, and why?

How wide is the gap between ideals and reality, between policy pronouncements (principles) and policy performance (behavior), and between intent and outcome in Chinese foreign policy, and why? In this context Authors analyze ideas in China’s foreign policy: traditional studies namely the impact of Confucianism, Legalism and China’s traditional view of tianxia, nationalism, Marxism-Chinese internationalism, pragmatism and liberalism. All above mentioned ideas will be analyze in Chinese discourse and the Author will try to show the impact into foreign policy.Taking the constructivist approach the Author’s major objectives is to explain that the major policy action taken by the People’s Republic of China is basically based on spreading efforts to promote its principles and via this constructing the identity. The principles builds its identity as a positive and responsible power. And as a consequence Chinese hopes to have an soft-influence and be different from the other actor at the international arena. Following the constructivist approach the Authors admit that, not only material issues play an important role in international relations, but so does rhetoric (understood as a diplomatic language) in shaping the understanding of foreign policy motivations, especially in relations between triangle China, big powers and developing countries. In terms to answer above mentioned question the Author presents the constructivist approach as the most suitable to describe the reality of nowadays China.

Adapting the constructionist assumptions the authors undertake to interpret the developments related to ideas’ flow as formulated in the following hypothesis:

The changes in Chinese foreign policy are all resultant of interaction and socialization between traditional Chinese ideas and the Western mindset. As China interaction with other has been growing China will redefine its national interest that will be defined as buiding its own identity based on own ideas.

The above mentioned assumptions provide to the conclusion, that the international relationship should not be explained from a short-time perspective, but rather in from of a broader perspective on the issue. This kind of perspective has been rotted in the social approach to the global affairs. Taking China as a unique example, the Authors explain its behavior and motivation via analyzing three basic parts of actor’s international performance: ideas, identity and influence.