October 23, 2007: What China Will Want APSA Press Release

For Immediate Release
Bahram Rajaee, (202) 483-2512

What China Will Want: The Future Intentions of a Rising Power

Washington, DC— Uncertainty over China’s future strategic goals is pervasive in policy circles today. But while China’s growing influence has profound consequences for the international system, understanding the ideas embraced by China’s leadership about its foreign policy goals is essential to predicting future Chinese intentions.

So concludes new research by political scientist Jeffrey W. Legro (University of Virginia) that appears in the September issue of Perspectives on Politics, a journal of the American Political Science Association.  The article is at /imgtest/POPSept07Legro.pdf.

“The ‘rising China’ problem is not just about power, but purpose,” observes Legro, and rarely does a “pressing policy issue connect so directly to a critical gap in the scholarly literature.” China’s future foreign policy aims remain a mystery to external observers, who largely fall into one of two schools of thought that arrive at sharply different conclusions about that country’s intentions and their implications for the United States.

The first school asserts that as Chinese power grows, it will inevitably seek to challenge the existing global order—one that would erode U.S. interests and power and requires a robust response. The second school argues that conflict can be avoided by engaging China and supporting its continued interdependence and political and economic liberalization.  Legro notes that both perspectives downplay the impact of ideas in shaping the view of China’s leadership on foreign policy goals, and as a result, are unlikely to lead to effective policy solutions.  “China’s diplomatic future…is likely to be more contingent than either the power or interdependence positions allow,” observes the author. He argues that “national ideas about how to achieve foreign policy goals” are the key to gaining insight into that conditionality.

The author assesses that China’s outlook on the international order has shifted since the 19th century but most notably has tended to favor integration.  Current trends of globalization and a growing middle class also do not necessarily translate into future Chinese support for more of the same in the future.  Notably, China’s leadership justifies its current integrationist posture as the best means for national economic development and the protection of Chinese independence. “The durability of China’s integrationist foreign policy,” notes Legro, “will depend on how results match social expectations related to economic growth and sovereignty.”  New ideas about China’s foreign policy based on such results will likely lead to new strategic intentions as well.

“In terms of policy,” states Legro, “this argument cautions against the choice that exists…in the current U.S. policy debate: engaging, containing, or hedging against the rise of China.” Instead the United States must assess how its policy undermines or supports the way that Chinese leaders justify their actions at home. And U.S. leaders, Legro advises, must also be forward looking: “it makes sense…to be proactive—to pay attention to the potential replacement ideas circulating in China and their backers—ones that may someday be conceptual kings.”

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The American Political Science Association (est. 1903) is the leading professional organization for the study of politics and has over 14,000 members in 80 countries. For more news and information about political science research visit the APSA media website, www.politicalsciencenews.org.

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