China's Struggle for Status: The Realignment of International Relations

November 13, 2008

In 1989, after the Chinese Government cracked down on the pro-democracy movement, China found itself in a serious international crisis. Western powers, led by the US, imposed various sanctions on the country and Beijing was isolated. But less than 20 years later, Beijing would host a spectacularly successful Olympic Games, which put the nation at the centre of the world stage.

How did China move from the periphery to the heart of world politics? Yong Deng, a professor at the United States Naval Academy, provides us with a vivid account of China's climb up the international hierarchy. For years, he has watched China's rise closely. The two photographs on his book cover, one of the Goddess of Democracy in Tiananmen Square and the other of the Beijing 2008 Olympic torch, are reflective of its contents.

In 1989, when Chinese students and intellectuals demanded political reforms, the model in their mind was one of Western liberty and democracy; the plastic Goddess of Democracy installed in the square during the pro-democracy movement is thus symbolic of such an aspiration.

Almost two decades later, at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, China showcased its most renowned inventions: silk, fireworks and gunpowder, paper and printing, and the compass. The message was clear: China has stood the test of time and stayed rooted in its own culture.

The transformation from cultural inferiority to cultural confidence is key to China's rise on to the world stage. Deng evaluates China's actions during this transformation and examines national intellectual and policy discourses on how China should pursue great-power status without repeating other states' errors.

China has so far succeeded in responding well to the different concepts of "China threats" in the West, in managing its troubled relations with Japan, its partnerships with Russia, India and Europe, and in expanding its influence in Asia and Africa. While rejecting the Western dominance of international discourses, it has sought to present its own via such concepts as "peaceful rise" and "the harmonious world".

Since the Tiananmen crackdown, media and policy circles in the West have been strongly critical of Beijing, especially with regard to democracy, human rights and environment protection. While these are legitimate reasons to criticise China, Deng suggests, it is also important to see what China has done in pursuing its progress.

The second message Deng seeks to convey is equally meaningful. Although highly unwilling to construct a theory of China's international relations, Deng is dissatisfied with Western theories of international relations, particularly those of the US, where he received his doctoral education in international studies. With China becoming increasingly important to the West, scholars and policymakers have made enormous efforts at understanding China's international behaviour using existing Western theories of international relations. However, these theories are hardly capable of explaining China's policy decisions.

In contrast, Deng is reflective when he examines China's international behaviour, and his book offers a meaningful dialogue with mainstream international relations theories. China's Struggle for Status is also valuable for anyone formulating theories of China's international relations.

China's Struggle for Status: The Realignment of International Relations

By Yong Deng
Cambridge University Press
312pp
£45.00 and £15.99
ISBN 9780521886666 and 714150
Published 26 June 2008

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