A Rising China and Security in East Asia: Identity Construction and Security Discourse

October 22, 2009

China is the West's only serious rival for global dominance. Unlike its relationship with the defunct Soviet Union, the West depends on this competitor (the US survives on its lending), yet, more reminiscently, reviles and fears its political values. Beijing, nominally Leninist, is fiercely authoritarian. The only other example in recent times of such a crucial trading partner-cum-authoritarian global adversary is pre-First World War Germany vis-a-vis Britain and France: a disquieting precedent. The fact is that countries almost never gain great global power except via catastrophic war.

What the Chinese think of other nations matters as never before, but finding this out in a single-party tyranny is not easy. China has interesting political debates, but much stricter limits on what can be said than in the democracies. Still, the country is abuzz with think-tanks and academics publishing on foreign policy, some of them increasingly influential with the ruling elite. Rex Li's book draws on their output to provide a useful overview of Chinese thinking about the world.

The Chinese see continued intensive trade with the US as its path to modernity, yet increasingly distrust America. They see its "War on Terror" as a means of extending American dominance, not promoting democracy and liberalism. They fear collaboration between the US and Japan aimed at containing China. They are happy with post-Soviet Russia's desire to co-operate, but are wary of a possible swing towards the West. Many Chinese see the growing assertion of non-Western civilisational values in many parts of the world as disproving the assumed inevitable triumph of liberalism.

Will China fit into an international system dominated by the West - or is it, like the Kaiser's Germany, going to try to impose its own international order by force? Tackling this big question, Li analyses the views he has gathered in light of current theories in the academic discipline of international relations. But these seem like blunt instruments - they treat nations too alike to tell us much.

Take Li's own favoured, postmodernist-derived theory, reflected in his title. According to this, international antagonisms are explained by countries' struggle to construct their identities: each casts another country or group of countries as the necessary "other" against which it defines itself. China defines itself in terms of a US seen as blocking its global aspirations; conversely, the US, having lost its long-time Soviet enemy, picks on China as its despotic "other".

It seems plausible. Yet why doesn't China choose, let us say, Mongolia as its "other"? Obviously because the US affects China's destiny infinitely more in material terms. Saying Chinese hostility to the US is - aside from material factors - because of a "need for identity construction" is dressing up a commonplace thought in fashionable academic jargon: societies with substantial contact will have many ideas about each other, both hostile and friendly.

As for the future, Li offers a view that some might see as platitudinous: the West has good reason to hope China will broadly accept the current international system, but shouldn't be surprised if it tries to break it by force.

To assess China's possible future behaviour, it would be more useful to show what it actually is - socially, politically, economically, culturally, historically. Theories treating countries alike can't predict their actions where it matters. Specific circumstances are everything.

For instance, Kaiserite Germany launched a world war because it had one large but relatively weak neighbour, Tsarist Russia: a tempting target for expansion. Do China's neighbours such as Russia, Japan or India fit that bill? China's future matters too much to be left to generalising international relations theories.

A Rising China and Security in East Asia: Identity Construction and Security Discourse

By Rex Li. Routledge, 320pp, £85.00 and £24.99. ISBN 9780415449403 and 9410. Published 19 November 2008

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