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The International Environment and China’s Role amid Great Changes Unseen in a Century


Dai Changzheng, a national security scholar at the Beijing-based University of International Business and Economics, argues China’s external environment is becoming more challenging due to rising tensions with the United States and heightened risk of pandemics, economic crises, and regional conflicts. Yet, Dai suggests that Beijing now has significant power to shape its external environment, given its substantial economic growth in past decades. Dai recommends Beijing advance and preserve China’s interests in this new environment by deepening ties with developing and regional countries and actively participating in global governance institutions.

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Against the background of great changes in the world unseen in a century,  international political and economic relationships are undergoing profound transformations. The globalization process has encountered setbacks in recent years under the impacts of global recession and the “epidemic of the century.” Populism and anti-globalization are prevalent in some developed countries. In these countries, hegemonism and unilateralism, zero-sum games, the Cold War mentality, “black and white” dichotomies, and even the clash of civilizations have become important ideas for managing foreign relations. On this basis, some Western countries have adopted policies of “decoupling” and “withdrawal,” causing difficulties for the global supply of public goods. Global governance faces serious challenges, and risks of all sorts are proliferating.


In the face of profound and complex changes in the international environment, developed countries have adopted unilateralist policies out of consideration for protecting their vested interests. This has made the problems of unbalanced development and uneven distribution of benefits in the international community more pronounced. The global COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that it is increasingly difficult for the global governance framework centered on developed countries, which was formed after World War II, to adapt to the monitoring, prevention, and governance requirements of sudden crises. Developed countries such as the United States are increasingly inclined to shirk their global governance responsibilities, or engage in “small circles” that exclude the vast number of developing countries from the governance process. Developing countries have increased their ability to participate in global governance as their own strength has grown, but their voice in various kinds of international systems is still weak. They remain in a relatively marginalized position in an international order made up of rules and systems dominated by Western countries. The United Nations, an international organization established after World War II to maintain international peace and security, is at the core of the international system. However, its performance in dealing with the COVID-19 epidemic and resolving regional conflicts has been mediocre, and it has not delivered the results people expected. Contradictions and differences among the major powers are conspicuous within the United Nations at present, leading to a weakening of the organization’s authority and its ability to participate in global governance. Under this great change, strategic competition among powers has intensified, and the willingness of countries to cooperate with each other has weakened. In terms of global governance, this has further led to the emergence of disorder and a governance deficit. The proliferation of global challenges is in stark contrast with the inefficiency or even ineffectiveness of the international community in responding to those challenges, raising deep questions about the prospects for peace and development.


Historically, the likelihood of war has indeed been higher when there was a transfer of power between major powers in the international system. In the history of international relations over the centuries, there have been numerous power shifts between major powers, and each shift has led to the emergence of a new hegemonic power and its corresponding challengers. By summarizing the history of international relations over several centuries, George Modelski points out that long cycles are a basic feature of the international political system, and that in every cycle there is a system-determining phase in which a world power becomes the leader of the system through hegemonic war. Hegemonic war is the determining factor in filling the leadership position in the global political system, and it marks the emergence of a successful power as the new leader of the system, whereas the previous leader then withdraws from its hegemonic position. Thus, the history of world politics is nothing but the cyclical turnover of hegemonic powers, and hegemonic war is a cyclically recurring phenomenon. It is a necessary condition for a country to achieve leadership. Similarly, Robert Gilpin argues that changes in the international system are essentially changes in the benefits available to individual actors in the system relative to the costs they have to pay, and therefore actors will always attempt to change the international system to advance their own interests. Change in the international system is a process from stability to instability and back to stability again, and this process is often accompanied by hegemonic wars. Hegemonic war determines which state can occupy the dominant position in the system, and creates a new status quo reflecting a new equilibrium in which power is redistributed. Viewed from this perspective, phenomena such as changes in the balance of power, power shifts, and hegemonic wars are the norm in international relations; changes in the international system are always accompanied by the rise and fall of hegemonic states; and war and conflict are the ultimate means of adjusting interstate relations. Even in the 21st century, Western scholars still believe that the modes of operation and internal mechanisms of international politics are unchanging. While there have been some changes in international relations along with economic and social development and scientific and technological progress, those changes have not altered the fundamental nature of international relations, and war and peace, order and constraint, and freedom and equality are still the fundamental issues in international relations. This view reflects the static perspective of Western scholars in understanding international politics, that is, they believe that the fundamental issues in international relations are unchanging, and that so-called changes in the international system are only the turnover of hegemonic states. In the more than one hundred years since the birth of international relations as a field of study, despite the emergence of many international systems, violence has remained the ultimate means of resolving international disputes. The rise of a state is often inseparable from violence and war, and a peaceful hegemonic turnover is almost an impossible scenario. For this reason, Gilpin points out that the nature of international relations has remained unchanged for thousands of years, and that international relations has always been a cyclical contest over wealth and power between independent states within a state of anarchy.

从历史角度来看,国际体系中存在大国之间权力转移的情形时,确实爆发战争的可能性较高。在几百年的国际关系发展历史上,曾经出现过若干次大国之间的权力转移,每次转移都会导致新的霸权国和与之相对应的挑战者的出现。乔治·莫德尔斯基(George Modelski)通过总结国际关系几百年来的历史指出,长周期是世界政治体系的基本特征,而在每一个周期中都存在着一个体系决定阶段,在这个阶段里一个世界大国通过霸权战争成为体系的领导者。霸权战争是填补世界政治体系中的领导地位的决定因素,它标志着一个成功的大国成为体系的新领导者,而原有的领导者则退出了霸权位置。因此,世界政治的历史不过是霸权国家的循环更替,而霸权战争则是周期性出现的现象,它是一个国家取得领导地位的必要条件。与此类似,罗伯特·吉尔平(Robert Gilpin)也认为,国际体系的变化实质上就是体系中的个体行为体所能获得的收益与所要付出的成本的相对变化,因此行为体总是会试图改变国际体系以增进自身的利益。国际体系的变化是一个从稳定到不稳定再回归稳定的过程,而这一过程往往伴随着霸权战争。霸权战争决定了哪个国家可以在体系中占据支配地位,并且制造了新的现状,反映了权力重新分配的新的均衡状态。从这种观点来看,均势变化、权力转移、霸权战争等现象是国际关系中的常态,国际体系的变化总是伴随着霸权国的兴起和衰落,而战争与冲突则是调整国家间关系的最终手段。即使到了21世纪,西方学者仍旧认为国际政治的运作模式和内在机理是始终不变的。尽管随着经济社会发展与科技进步,在国际关系中出现了一些变化,但是这些变化并没有改变国际关系的根本性质,战争与和平、秩序与约束、自由与平等仍然是国际关系中的根本性问题。这种观点反映了西方学者理解国际政治的静态视角,即认为国际关系的本质问题是始终不变的,所谓的国际体系的变化也只是霸权国家的更替。在国际关系学诞生以来的一百余年中,尽管出现了很多国际制度,但是暴力仍然是解决国际争端的最终手段。一个国家的崛起往往不能脱离暴力与战争,和平的霸权更替则几乎是一种不可能出现的情况。正是由于这个原因,吉尔平才会指出上千年来国际关系的本质没有发生任何变化,国际关系始终是独立的国家在无政府状态下对于财富和权力的循环往复的争夺 

Based on this static understanding of international politics, the Western world’s attitude toward China’s rise is relatively pessimistic, and there is even a view that considers conflict between China, the rising country, and the United States, the defender of the status quo, to be unavoidable. In fact, the United States has indeed intensified its military, political, and economic suppression of China in recent years in the hope of slowing down or even cutting off China’s peaceful development. At the same time, economic crisis, regional conflicts, and the epidemic of the century have combined to further complicate China’s external environment. It was in this context that General Secretary Xi Jinping said “the world has entered a period of turbulence and change,” and emphasized that “in the coming period, we face an external environment of increased headwinds and countercurrents, and we must prepare to deal with a series of new risks and challenges.” In the report of the 20th Party Congress, General Secretary Xi Jinping further pointed out that the changes in the world, the times, and history are unfolding in an unprecedented manner, and that “human society faces unprecedented challenges. The world is once again standing at the crossroads of history, and the way forward will depend on the choices made by the people of all countries.” In the past 20 years, especially since the Global Financial Crisis broke out in 2008, with the rapid growth of China’s economy, China has significantly narrowed the power gap between it and the United States, and gradually distanced itself from other major powers. China’s rise has created serious status anxiety for the United States, that is, fear that its hegemony may be challenged or lost. Compared to rising countries in terms of status expectations, hegemonic countries are more susceptible to status anxiety due to the influence of “loss aversion” because they are more concerned about the possibility of losing their hegemonic position. This explains to a certain extent why the United States has been suppressing China by every means possible in recent years, because serious anxiety over the possible challenge to its hegemony has affected its external behavior.


China’s rise has caused anxiety and uneasiness in Western countries led by the United States, for two key reasons. First, China’s economy has grown rapidly since 2000, and its comprehensive national strength has risen apace. China is now firmly established as the world’s second largest economy, and may surpass the United States to become the largest economy in the future. China’s military power has grown significantly along with its rapid economic development, and its ability to defend its territory, the sovereignty of its territorial waters, and other legitimate interests is also improving continuously. China’s strength is nearing that of the United States, making some increasingly inclined to believe that a so-called “Thucydides trap” is likely to reappear—that is, when a rising country threatens to displace a country defending the status quo, serious structural pressures will arise such that even a small spark may trigger a large-scale conflict. Second, China’s rise is of a completely new kind that is different from the Western model. This shows that there is not just one path to national rejuvenation and modernization in the world. Socialism with Chinese characteristics has proven that it is entirely possible for a country to become prosperous and strong without relying on the Western model of colonial plunder. Although China has made it clear that it will not export the Chinese model externally and will not ask other countries to copy its practices, the fact that China has grown rapidly from a poor and weak country to a world power is likely to attract a large number of developing countries to learn from and emulate China’s experience and path, and this is something the Western world, led by the United States, does not want to see. The growth of power and the enhancement of the demonstration effect of “China’s path” constitute challenges to Western hegemony in both the material and conceptual dimensions. It is for this reason that the United States and other Western countries have intensified their containment and suppression of China. As early as the Obama administration, the United States implemented the “Asia pivot” strategy, hoping to use the South China Sea and other issues to restrain China. After the Trump administration took office, it launched a “trade war,” a “financial war,” and a “science and technology war” against China, advocated the “decoupling” of China and the United States, and used the COVID-19 epidemic to stigmatize China with no limitations. The Biden administration has continued to step up implementation of the “Indo-Pacific strategy” since it took office, in order to maintain the United States’ dominant position in the Asia-Pacific region and use it to further contain China. Compared with the Trump administration, the Biden administration has paid more attention to the role of allies when implementing the “Indo-Pacific strategy,” strengthening interactions with traditional allies such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia through bilateral and multilateral alliances, and actively building a “united front” with India to suppress China. At the same time, the Biden administration has continued the Trump administration’s practice of economic suppression of China, and continued to stigmatize China in the name of democracy and human rights.


In the face of profound and complex changes in the international environment, China’s own strategic positioning is changing as well. At the beginning of the 21st century, the CCP Central Committee put forward the major judgment that the first 20 years of the century should be a “period of strategic opportunity” with great potential, and that China must grasp it firmly. In fact, China has indeed seized this precious period of strategic opportunity, and this has greatly enhanced its overall national strength. In 2000, China’s economy accounted for 3.58% of the world economy, while in 2021 it accounted for 18.37%, surpassing the European Union. During those two decades, however, the international environment has changed continually. The events of “9/11,” the Global Financial Crisis, turmoil in North Africa and Western Asia, Brexit, the rise of populism, U.S.-China competition, the COVID-19 epidemic, and the Ukraine conflict have all had impacts from outside on China’s peaceful development. During this period, China has paid close attention to the external environment and responded in a timely manner. Its perception of the “period of strategic opportunity” has changed constantly as well, going through stages such as “showing great promise,” “changing connotations and conditions,” “proliferating risk points,” and “coexisting strategic opportunities and risks and challenges.” The changes in the external environment have led to an increase in the risks and challenges China’s development faces, but this does not mean that China’s “strategic opportunities” have disappeared, or that the external environment will become purely unfavorable to China’s development. On one hand, the report of the 20th Party Congress affirmed that “China’s development has entered a period of coexisting opportunities and risks and challenges, with a greater number of uncertain and unpredictable factors.” On the other hand, it also emphasized that “the historical trend of peace, development, cooperation, and win-win outcomes is unstoppable, and the will of the people and the general trend determine that the future of mankind will be bright.” At present, China’s per capita GDP is equivalent to only about 18% of that of the United States. According to the experience of countries with relatively successful economic development historically, China is fully capable of maintaining a higher economic growth rate of about 5% over the next decade or so. China, for its part, must also strive to maintain a comparatively high economic growth rate for a longer time in the future and deepen its impact on the world economy, as this will help strengthen China’s own ability to withstand external shocks. China still needs to further deepen its domestic reforms and open up to the outside world at a high level in order to strengthen its ability to cope with external risks and challenges.


The great changes unseen in a century require China to go beyond the narrow and static perspective of international relations, and to tear up the so-called “law of history” that says that conflicts are bound to break out between status quo-defending countries and rising countries. Unlike the individualistic world view of the West, the Chinese adhere to a holistic world view that sees everything in the world as interconnected, and believe that all things are in a state of relationality. The biggest problem with the individualistic world view is that it assumes that individuals are rational and selfish, and therefore can sacrifice the interests of others without hesitation in order to maximize their own interests. In the context of anarchic international relations, this is manifested in the pursuit of power by states in order to maintain and promote their own interests. This pursuit of power by all states for their own interests leads to mutual suspicion and mistrust among states, which in turn leads to conflicts among them, because in the pursuit of power, a state always wants to have more power than other states. Relationality, in contrast, which is born out of a holistic world view, regards different actors as being in a kind of social relationship, and believes that there are sustained interconnections and interactions between them. Understanding international relations from this perspective, then, it is the process of interaction between actors in a structured social relationship that determines interstate relations, rather than the characteristics of the actors themselves. It was under the influence of this mode of thinking that China developed the concepts of “universal harmony,” “unification of the world,” “do not do to others what you would not have them do to you,” “treat others as you would yourself,” and “honor old people as you would your own parents, and care for the children of others as you would for your own.” Through the inheritance and development of these ideas, contemporary China has successively put forward the concepts of establishing a new international political and economic order, building a harmonious world, and constructing a community of common destiny for mankind. This holistic mode of thinking views all countries of the world as a whole. Whether they are developed or developing countries, they are all in a relationship of mutual dependence and symbiosis. All countries face common opportunities for development, as well as common risks and challenges. Only by joining hands can all countries work together to create a bright future for the human community.


From China’s perspective, therefore, the great changes unseen in a century do not in any way imply chaos and disorder. The objective external environment facing China has changed dramatically over the past two decades, and some of the conditions that once contributed to China’s development may no longer exist. Nevertheless, as its own strength has grown, China’s ability to take the initiative in shaping the external environment has also improved significantly. The period of strategic opportunity is not just a product of the objective environment, but is also the result of active shaping. At present, China’s comprehensive national strength already has the potential to shape the international environment and situation in China’s favor. Promoting common interests, shaping common perceptions, and focusing on mutual benefits and win-win outcomes should be the basic principles for shaping the external environment. To this end, China proposed and actively implements the “Belt and Road” initiative, advocates building a community of common destiny for mankind in international relations, and adheres to the concepts of “proximity, sincerity, beneficence, and tolerance” in neighborhood diplomacy, “shared, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable” in global security, and “common cause, common construction, and common sharing” in global governance, thereby proactively shaping a new type of international relations characterized by “mutual respect, fairness and justice, and win-win cooperation.” When China’s economic power was still not strong enough, the main factor determining its diplomatic approach was the international situation, but now that China’s level of economic development has exceeded the world’s average level and is likely to surpass that of the United States in the 2030s, China’s own changes, especially the adjustment of its development strategy, have become a more important factor affecting its diplomacy. China not only needs to adapt to changes in the external environment, but also to proactively shape the international environment so that it can evolve in a direction favorable to China. In shaping the international environment in the future, China’s main directions will be to give more attention to neighboring country relations and developing countries, develop multilateral diplomacy through partnerships, actively promote changes in the global governance system, and build new global governance mechanisms.


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戴长征 (Dai Changzheng). "The International Environment and China’s Role amid Great Changes Unseen in a Century [百年未有之大变局下的国际环境与中国角色]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in International Social Sciences [世界社会科学], December 12, 2023

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