China’s leadership in the G20 and generally in global governance is a major – and puzzling question.  A recent piece by British international relations expert, Barry Buzan (“China in International Society: Is ‘Peaceful Rise’ Possible?” The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 3 (2010) pp. 5-36) of some fame for the “English school” caught my eye.  

The ‘China threat’ narrative remains dominant and reflects cynicism that China can, or will, rise peacefully.  The China threat perspective remains a serious hindrance and drag on the US-China relationship.  This threat perspective runs from a deep realist to a more benign English school perspective but in one manner or another it encourages other great powers – and especially the United States – to hedge against an emerging rival. 

The examination of the ‘tea leaves’ of China’s future behavior leads to a debate among specialists over China’s appropriate designation: is China most appropriately labeled a ‘status quo’ power, a revisionist or possibly even a more radical power.  The difficulty in such analysis is that it is difficult to pinpoint Chinese policy and then impute motivation to that behavior and draw some summary estimate of Chinese leadership.  So, is Chinese policy on climate change – say on international verification - status quo or revisionist?  Buzan concludes that a mixed label, ‘reformist revisionist’ best captures China’s policy stance – China accepts many of the institutions (organizations plus norms and values) but it wants to reform others and possibly, according to Buzan, to change it’s own status.  This apparent reform impulse is most evidently is most evidently targeted on the ‘politically liberal institutions’ of global governance. 

The good news is that China has indeed constructed a peaceful rise for the last 30 years.  The bad news is that China is unlikely to maintain such a peaceful rise for the next 30 years – at least not by the means it has used in the near past.  But it is Buzan’s contemporary characterizations that seem most interesting and compelling.  He recognizes that in China’s rise, China has a strong tendency to “take a very self-centred view of it’s own development.”   This inward looking perspective is, as Buzan note, most frequently described as ‘Chinese characteristics,’ but marks what is, “an inward-looking type of national exceptionalism.”  In addition examining China’s leadership also reflects an absorption with domestic development and a reluctance to take on great power leadership.  Finally, Buzan acknowledges that there is an element of rather prickly defensiveness.  Such defensiveness emerges around liberal and democratic values and is often asserted in its evocation and adherence to ‘developmentalism’ where China declares itself a developing country and part of the global south and condemns policy for failing to recognize China’s developing country status or implying the inequality of the proposed policy.  In sum Buzan suggests that China’s course of leadership and its vision for the global governance leadership is culturally and politically nationalist combined  - largely for instrumental reasons – with economic liberalism. 

With a focus on cultural and political nationalism and economic liberalism Buzan suggests that the Leadership should pay more attention to the regional level.  It is clear that China has developed a serious and effective regional governance strategy. Buzan, and others, see this regional policy as an alternate path to a peaceful rise.  But at the regional level there is a serious obstacle.  And that obstacle is the poor state of relations with Japan.  As Buzan argues:

China cannot construct a peaceful rise Asian international society without Japan, and it cannot make itself at home in a peaceful global level international society without achieving peace with its major neighbor. 

Unfortunately Japan has been woven into China’s nationalist framework and its own description of history.  Though many in China believe that Japan must take the first step, Buzan believes, and it makes senses that to transform the relationship with Japan China will have to take the first step and maintain a new more collaborative course than China has in the past.  Given the strong nationalist feelings that are embedded broadly in the Chinese people, this task will require much persistence.  

Thus, in examining the possibilities for global governance leadership, the expert should keep in mind the following:

  • China maintains an inward-looking type of national exceptionalism;
  • It is absorbed by the challenge of rapid domestic development; and
  • It frequently reacts with a prickly defensive posture to situations and policy challenges.
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