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The idea of power transition, or power shift, has recently been much in vogue in scholarly, policy, and even popular discourse. It has, for example, motivated a resurgent interest in the power-transition theory and the danger of the so-called Thucydides trap. China’s recent rise has especially motivated an interest in these topics, engendering concerns about whether this development means that China is on a collision course with the United States. These concerns stem from the proposition that the danger of a system-destabilizing war increases when a rising power catches up to a declining hegemon and challenges the latter’s preeminent position in the international system. Thucydides’s famous remark about the origin of the Peloponnesian War, claiming that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable” in ancient Greece, has frequently been invoked to support this view. Whereas power shift is a generic term referring to any change in the balance of capabilities between two or more states, power transition is a more specific concept pointing to a reversal of positions whereby a rising latecomer overtakes a previous dominant power in the international system (or at least when this latecomer approaches power parity with the dominant power). Power-transition theory presents a contemporary version of Thucydides’s explanation of the Peloponnesian War. It calls attention to the changing power relationships among the world’s major states and provides a seemingly cogent framework to understand the dynamics that can produce war between these states and their respective allies. A careful reader will immediately find the preceding paragraph unsatisfactory as it contains several important ambiguities. For instance, what do we mean by “major states” or “great powers,” and what do we have in mind when we refer to changes in their relative “power”? Also, does the power-transition theory claim that war is likely to break out when there is a change in the identity of the world’s most powerful country? Or does it also say that war is likely to occur even in the absence of a late-rising state overtaking, and therefore displacing, an incumbent hegemon? If so, how closely does the late-rising state have to match the incumbent’s power capabilities before the power-transition theory predicts a war between them? Would the latecomer have to reach at least 80%, 90%, or even 95% of the incumbent’s power before an approximate parity between the two is achieved? Does the power-transition theory pertain only to the relationship between the world’s two most powerful states, or does it apply to other states? And if power transition is a necessary but insufficient condition for war, what are the other pertinent variables and their interaction effects with power shifts? Finally, what do we mean by war or systemic war? The answers to these questions are not self-evident. How they are dealt with—or not—is in itself suggestive of the power relations in the world being studied by scholars and these scholars’ positions in this world and their relations to it.

Article

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.

Article

Richard Ned Lebow and Simon Reich

American realists, liberals, journalists, and policymakers speak of American hegemony as if it were an established role, although a threatened one given the rise of China. They describe hegemony as essential to international political and economic stability, and a role that only America can perform. These claims are highly questionable, as there is no evidence that the United States is a hegemon nor that it has provided the benefits American international relations theorists attribute to a hegemon. To the extent these benefits are provided, it is the result of the collective efforts of numerous states, by no means all of them great powers. American assertions of hegemony are viewed with jaundiced, if not hostile, eyes by other states. Hegemony is a fiction, propagated by Americans to gain special privileges, justify an interventionist foreign policy, support the defense industry, and buttress national self-esteem. In practice, the quest for hegemony is a threat, not a prop, to the global order.

Article

China’s economic impact on Africa in the 21st century has been enormous. China became Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009 and has subsequently widened the gap with Africa’s second largest trading partner. China is Africa’s largest bilateral source of loans and an important provider of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)-equivalent aid, although well behind the European Union and the United States. Annual foreign direct investment flows by Chinese companies are growing and are now in the same league as companies from other major investing nations. Increasingly, African leaders are focusing their economic relationships on China and, because of China’s economic success, some of them are also looking to China as an economic and political model. The future in Africa of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the use of the renminbi (RMB) as an international currency are less clear. China’s influence on African economies comes with challenges. China has developed a significant trade surplus with Africa. Although resource-rich African countries have sizable trade surpluses with China, most African countries, especially the resource-poor ones, have trade deficits, some of which are huge. The influx of inexpensive Chinese products is also stifling Africa’s ability to produce similar goods. African governments welcome Chinese loans, which are usually used for infrastructure projects, but there are signs these loans are contributing to a debt problem in an increasing number of countries. Most Chinese aid to Africa consists of the concessionary component of these loans. Small Chinese traders have flocked to Africa, competing head-to-head with African counterparts. This has led to growing antagonism with African market traders, although African consumers welcome the competition. While Western countries collectively are much more important to African economies than is China, Beijing has become the single most important bilateral economic partner in a number of countries and is challenging the United States and Europe for economic leadership across the continent. China’s most significant competition in the coming years may be less from the United States and other Western and Western-affiliated countries such as Japan and more from developing countries such as India, Brazil, the Gulf States, Turkey, and Indonesia.

Article

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.

Article

Scholars have heatedly debated whether and how culture impacts and shapes a state’s foreign and security policy in particular as well as international relations (IR) in general. The cultural approach to the studies of foreign policy has experienced two major waves since the end of the Cold War. We saw a revival of cultural studies in national security and foreign policy with the rise of constructivism in international relations in the 1990s, while into the 2000s, the culture approach focused on terrorism and globalization. Despite its achievement, the cultural approach continues to face theoretical and methodological challenges in conceptualization, measurement, and generalizability. Therefore, the cultural approach to foreign policy needs to work on demarcating the boundary of “cultural variables,” focusing on mid-range theorizing and placing the cultural variables within a context.

Article

Following the end of the Cold War, the hegemony of the United States in Latin America was intimately related to the globalization of the hemispheric political economy. Free-trade agreements (FTAs) were crucial to this process, helping to extend and entrench the neoliberal model. As a result of the region’s political turn to the left during the 2000s, however, the Washington Consensus became increasingly untenable. As U.S. trade policy subsequently moved in the direction of a “post-Washington Consensus,” the “Pink Tide” fostered the creation of Latin American-led approaches to integration independent of the United States. In this context, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was designed to catalyse a new wave of (neo)liberalization among its 12 participating countries, including the United States, Canada, Chile, Peru, and Mexico. The TPP codified an updated and comprehensive set of rules on an array of trade and investment disciplines not covered in existing agreements. Strategically linking the Asia-Pacific to the Americas, but excluding China, the TPP responded to China’s growing economic presence in Asia and Latin America. Largely a creation of U.S. foreign economic policy, the United States withdrew from the TPP prior to its ratification and following the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. The remaining 11 countries signed a more limited version of the agreement, known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which is open to future participation by the United States and other countries in Asia and Latin America. The uncertainties in the TPP process represented the further erosion of Washington’s “free trade” consensus, reflecting, among other things, a crisis of U.S. hegemony in the Americas.

Article

Bas Hooijmaaijers and Stephan Keukeleire

Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) have, since the beginning of the 21st century, gained greater influence in global political and economic affairs and, since 2006, also steadily developed and increased their political dialogue and cooperation. South Africa joining the BRICS political grouping in 2011 was matched by a strengthening of the BRICS dialogue. This was reflected in the broadening range of issues covered, the increasing level of specificity of the BRICS joint declarations and cooperation, and the institutionalization of BRICS cooperation in various policy fields, including the creation of the New Development Bank (NDB). Notwithstanding the increased interaction between the BRICS states on the various political, economic, and diplomatic levels, the countries differ considerably in their political, economic, military, and demographic weight and interests and in their regional and global aspirations. China particularly stands out among the BRICS due to its political and economic weight. There are sufficient reasons to question the significance and impact of the BRICS format. Still, the BRICS countries have found each other in their commitment to counter the “unjust” Western-dominated multilateral world in which they are generally underrepresented. The EU did not develop a “BRICS policy” as such, which is understandable given the major differences between the BRICS countries and the ambiguous nature of the BRICS format. To deal with the various emerging powers and complement its predominantly regional partnerships, the EU instead institutionalized and deepened the political and economic bilateral relations with each of the BRICS countries, including through the objective of establishing a bilateral “strategic partnership” with each of these countries. However, the analysis of the EU’s relationship with the BRICS countries indicates that the label “strategic partnerships” mainly served as a rhetorical façade which belied that the EU failed to turn these relationships into real strategic partnerships and to behave strategically toward the BRICS countries. Another challenge for the EU appears when analyzing the BRICS within the broader context of various emerging power constellations and multilateral frameworks, including variations of the BRICS format (such as BRICS Plus, BASIC, and IBSA), multilateral frameworks with one or more BRICS countries at their center (such as the SCO, EAEU, and BRI), and regional forums launched by China. Taken together, they point to an increasingly dense set of partially overlapping formal and informal networks on all political, diplomatic, and administrative levels, covering an ever-wider scope of policy areas and providing opportunities for debate, consultation, and coordination. Whereas most of these forums are in and of themselves not very influential, taken together they have an impact on the EU and its traditional view on multilateralism in several ways. Seen from this perspective, the BRICS and other multilateral forums pose major challenges for both European diplomats and European scholars. They will have to make considerable efforts to understand and engage with these various forums, which are manifestations of an increasingly influential and powerful non-Western world wherein the role of Europe is much more limited.

Article

The crackdown on Falun Gong by the Chinese Communist Party demonstrates the unintended consequences of the deep penetration of politics into religious affairs in an authoritarian regime. Falun Gong emerged in China in the early 1990s as a state-sanctioned health practice, or qigong. Initially it focused on treating physical diseases and promoting general health, and therefore received recognition from the state, which has granted legal status to only the five institutional religions while relentlessly suppressing secret religious societies. Qigong, however, has contained spiritual elements since its inception. In the mid-1990s, Falun Gong began to reveal and highlight its spiritual teachings. While this differentiation strategy brought it a huge following, it sent alarming signals to the ruling Communist Party. As the state sought to curb its influences, Falun Gong responded with open defiance. In particular, its tenets of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance encouraged the practitioners to launch a “truth clarification” campaign, targeting local political authorities and media outlets. The campaign achieved moderate initial success, but Falun Gong’s persistent and coordinated efforts to demonstrate its “apolitical” nature convinced the state that it was indeed a politically subversive force. Falun Gong’s political defiance culminated in a large, 13-hour sit-in protest near the central government compound in Beijing. Three months later, the state officially banned Falun Gong and mobilized its entire security and propaganda apparatus to eliminate Falun Gong in China.

Article

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.