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G20: What Kind of Great Power is China?

08 Sep 2016
By Melissa Conley Tyler FAIIA and Ella Pyman
Zhongguo. Photo Credit: Steve Webel (Flickr) Creative Commons

It was an important symbolic moment this week when China hosted the world’s most powerful leaders at the G20 Summit. It offered a counterpoint to current anxieties about China’s challenge to global order by demonstrating that Beijing can act as a significant contributor to global governance.

There seem to be few outside China these days that take China’s rhetoric about a peaceful rise at face value. China’s maritime assertiveness and the rapid pace of its military modernisation have caused alarm and, for many commentators, confirm that China’s pursuit of national interest is an imminent challenge to the status quo. However China’s presidency of the 2016 G20 is emblematic of Beijing’s significant investment in contemporary global governance structures. It shows that China can act as a system shaper—adapting existing institutions to expand its strategic space—as much as it can act as a destructive force.

It seems only a short time ago that visiting Chinese delegations would emphasise that they came from a poor, underdeveloped country unable to take on global responsibilities. Calls on China to take a role as a great power following the 2008 financial crisis were met with outright opposition in some quarters. Officials and analysts argued that China was being flattered into becoming a global actor, responsible for the provision of public goods and maintenance of global financial stability that a country at China’s level of development did not have the ability to undertake.

How times have changed. Increasing ease with a global role was evident when President Xi Jingping proposed to establish a “new type of great power relations” during his trip to the United States in 2012. It has become evident that Xi’s approach to foreign policy is a dramatic departure from Deng Xiaoping’s “hide one’s capabilities and bide one’s time” (韬光养晦 tāoguāngyănghuì). Rather, Xi promotes a “China Dream” (中国梦zhōngguómèng). While the phrase has its origins in a patriotic poem called Flowering Spring by Shi Jing which features the poet waking up in despair after dreaming of the former Zhou dynasty, its current use has most often been interpreted to refer to a collective hope of a strong China: economically, politically, diplomatically, scientifically and militarily. It aims to bring about a great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and a concomitant shift to being a great power.

What is less clear in Chinese discourse is what being a great power actually means. In Western scholarship the reference point is often based on quantitative metrics such as raw materials, population, military preparedness and industry capacity in an attempt to quantify the elusive notion of a country’s power or influence in international affairs. By contrast, China has historically taken as read that it is a great power: it is the ‘middle kingdom’ (中国 zhongguo) which rules all under heaven. Unlike the European system, which was plagued with incessant military competition among expansionist states, China suffered only intermittent border disputes and brief periods of military build-up. The question was thus not capability as much as what sort of great power China would decide to be.

Mencius, the second most prominent scholar in Confucianism, recognised two distinct approaches to foreign policy: bàdào (霸道) and wángdào (王道). A bàdào state uses military force and is heavily reliant on coercion in its unyielding pursuit of national interest. This approach is never an ideal end in Confucianism. A bàdào can aggressively pursue its national interests but will be disliked by other states which will likely view its use of force as brutal and barbarian.

Mencius advocated that China should be a wángdào state: gentle, virtuous and benevolent, even if physically powerful; not taking advantage of or bullying other states, instead preferring to attract and obtain respect from others by maintaining a virtuous character and remaining considerate of others’ interests. Mencius states that “from the west, from the east, from the south, from the north, there was no one who thought of refusing submission” to the cultural influence of a wángdào state.

Understanding the term ‘great power’ in this context suggest that the more apt translation is ‘great state’: the ‘great’ not referring to geographic size such as a big country (大国 daguo) or powerful country (张国 zhangguo) but to a respectable state that is morally noble (伟大的国家 weidadeguojia).

The hawkish appeal of bàdào to a country always conscious of its ‘century of humiliation‘ is undeniable. It easy to see how Chinese nationalists have been seduced by the notion of power and influence suggested by ‘rise of China’ commentaries. There are elements of Chinese foreign policy that tend in this direction.

However, there are other aspects of China’s conduct that point towards a wángdào foreign policy. For example, in establishing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China showed a willingness to invest in the development of its regional neighbours; a charm offensive, perhaps, but not domination by force. Beijing chose actively to promote membership, even though this diluted its control of the institution, measured in capital control, to 30 per cent.

Neither did Beijing demand a veto power equivalent to the US in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) nor a citizenship requirement for the president similar to the US in the IMF or Japan in the Asian Development Bank. In this example, Beijing is clearly attempting to reconfigure a global governance system away from a US-centric model; what is interesting is that it is doing so in way that suggests it understands that meeting others’ needs is the best way to maximise its influence. The G20 is a similar example.

It would thus be foolish to overlook the symbolism of China’s G20 summit this week. Hosting the G20 affirms a vision of China supporting structures of global governance and committing to provide international public goods which resonates with a wángdào approach. It is undeniable that China is establishing itself within global governance as a great power; whether China will interpret this as being a ‘powerful country’ or a ‘great state’ is yet to be seen.

Melissa Conley Tyler is National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Ella Pyman is an intern at the Australian Institute of International Affairs. This piece is based on a presentation to the T20 ahead of the Hangzhou G20 Summit.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.