The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a key political actor in the Chinese state. Together with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese state institutions, it makes up the political foundation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the early years after the founding of the PRC in 1949, the military played an important role in state consolidation and the management of domestic state affairs, as is expected in a state founded on Leninist principles of organization. Since the reform process, which was initiated in the late 1970s, the political role of the PLA has changed considerably. It has become less involved in domestic politics and increased attention has been directed toward military modernization. Consequently, in the early 21st century, the Chinese military shares many characteristics with the armed forces in noncommunist states. At the same time, the organizational structures, such as the party committee system, the system of political leaders, and political organs, have remained in place. In other words, the politicized structures that were put in place to facilitate the role of the military as a domestic political tool of the CCP, across many sectors of society, are expected to also accommodate modernization, professionalization, and cooperation with foreign militaries on the international arena in postreform China. This points to an interesting discrepancy between form and purpose of the PLA. The role of the military in Chinese politics has thus shifted over the years, and its relationship with the CCP has generally been interpreted as having developed from one marked by symbiosis to one of greater institutional autonomy and independence. Yet these developments should not necessarily be seen as linear or irreversible. Indeed, China of the Xi Jinping era has shown an increased focus on ideology, centralization, and personalized leadership, which already has had consequences for the political control of the Chinese armed forces. Chances are that these trends will affect the role of the PLA in politics even further in the early decades of the 21st century.
Sofia K. Ledberg
China’s engagement in Africa since around 2000 has been exponential, and Beijing is now perhaps the major player on the continent. With this has come criticism, mainly but not exclusively from the West, which has berated China for turning a blind eye to malgovernance. Initially, China sought to pretend that it was only in Africa for economic reasons and that politics were irrelevant. However, as China’s stake in different African countries developed, Beijing was forced to acknowledge that governance was indeed a factor that needed consideration. This realization was perhaps crystallized around the situation in Sudan. A relative shift in China’s position was hence observed. Under Xi Jinping, however, a newly confident China has been promoting its own definitions of governance, something that enjoys broad support among many African leaders. A clash of definitions as to what constitutes governance and development between China and the West is now quite apparent.
Support for democracy, human rights, and good governance reforms in Africa has become a prominent objective in engagement by European Union (EU) institutions, EU member states, and the United States with African countries since the early 1990s. Western actors have gradually increased democracy aid, used sanctions, and developed a range of other instruments to support political reforms on the continent. Academic research has analyzed the “substance” and “content” of political reforms that Western actors seek to promote, what instruments they use, and how effective these instruments are in different political contexts. This body of work comes to mixed conclusions as to whether and under what conditions external support has contributed to democratic reforms in African countries between 1990 and 2015. Yet, evidence suggests that external democracy support has made some positive contributions and has been more effective in Africa compared to other regions. However, after a period of 25 years during which democracy support gradually became an important element in the United States’ and European cooperation with African countries, this agenda is now under considerable pressure. Domestic challenges to democracy within Europe and the United States, domestic dynamics in African countries, and the rise of China as an alternative political model make it difficult for European and other external actors to contribute to political reforms on the continent. In this new era of uncertainty, there are three main areas to which policymakers as well as academic research should pay more attention. First, more debate is needed how the contestation of democratic norms in Europe and the United States affects not only the legitimacy but also the decision-making processes on democracy support. Second, more research is needed how urbanization, demographic change and digitalization and their combined effects influence political reforms in Africa and what implications emerge for democracy support. Finally, how China’s more proactive and assertive foreign policy will affect democracy support in Africa is an area that policy-makers and researchers should follow closely.
European Union–China relations have despite different histories and values, economic and political development, geographic distance and interests, not only strengthened over time in institutional terms, but also moved beyond the core area of economic interactions to involve political, security and cultural cooperation. On the whole the relationship is based on partnership and neither sees the other as a potential enemy. Both support a strong United Nations, the existing international trade system, the non-proliferation regime, and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change among others. These joint perspectives are particularly valuable given the retreat of President Trump from a number of hitherto US honored international agreements and commitments, such as on multilateralism, arms treaties and international governance. On the down side initial expectations that growing economic interactions between the EU and China would narrow the gap on human rights and democracy issues between the two parties have not materialized and the EU can no longer pretend to shape the China in its own image. There are also a number of unresolved problems affecting the partnership. Among these are disputes over trade imbalances, investment access regulations in China and human rights issues, on the one hand, and the persistent arms embargo sanctions and unfulfilled market access status for China, on the other. Overcoming these is not being helped by existing misperceptions that Europeans and Chinese have about each other. Furthermore, as China continues to gain economically, partly through the Belt and Road Initiative, seeks to broaden its international relations policy with Chinese characteristics, and moves to an aggressive maritime policy in the East and South China Sea, the EU will find the partnership more testing at both the bilateral and multilateral level.
China’s economic rise has been accompanied by the maturation and increasing professionalization of academic disciplines in China, including the discipline of international relations. The emergence of an indigenous international relations discipline in China has led to an intense debate about the development of a distinctive “Chinese School” that draws on China’s intellectual traditions and historical record to inspire the development of new international relations theories. While the debate continues, the outlines of a Chinese School are becoming clear. The Chinese School of international relations theory draws on Confucian concepts of relationality and hierarchy to theorize the character of the relations between countries rather than focus on the attributes of countries themselves. It also highlights the historical existence of interstate systems organized in a hub-and-spoke pattern around a single, central state. The premodern East Asian world-system in which China was embedded and classical Chinese scholars developed their ideas was a central state system. Premodern China was always by far the dominant state in East Asia, with the result that international relations in the East Asian world-system exhibited a hub-and-spoke pattern centered on China, as in the tributary system of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Moreover the Confucian worldview that ultimately came to be China’s state ideology served in effect as the governing moral code of the system as a whole. The combination of a central state structure with a universal moral code created what in Chinese is called a tianxia (“all under heaven”), a world-embracing system of governance centered on a particular state, in this case China. In a tianxia system international relations tend to be hierarchical because of the clear power differentials between the central state and other states. They can be either expressive (showing social solidarity) or purely instrumental, depending on the stance taken by the central state. Chinese School international relations theorists tend to assume that the “best” (most stable, most peaceful, most prosperous, etc.) world-system configuration would be a tianxia system dominated by expressive rationality and centered on China, but this is no more self-evident than the widely held Western preference for a liberal, rules-based order. What Chinese School international relations theory really offers the discipline is a new set of concepts that can be applied to the theorization and empirical analysis of today’s millennial world-system. This postmodern interstate system appears to be a central state system with a universal moral code, an American tianxia based on individualism. The historical Confucian Chinese tianxia may be the best precedent for modeling this system.