The Chinese Approach: An Attempt to Theorize from the Lens of Non-Western International Relations Theories

In recent decades, there has been growing dissatisfaction with mainstream Western international relations (IR) theories and their inability to fully explain and understand international politics from non-Western perspectives. This has led to calls for greater diversity and inclusion of non-Western voices, experiences, and concepts in IR theory and practice. One important development in this regard has been the emergence of Chinese IR theory that aims to provide an alternative perspective rooted in China’s philosophical traditions, historical experiences, and strategic culture.

This article examines the evolution of Chinese IR theory as an attempt to theorize international relations from a non-Western, Chinese perspective. It provides an overview of the main concepts, propositions, and debates within this burgeoning field of study. The first section traces the origins and development of Chinese IR theory. The next section outlines some of the core concepts and principles underlying the Chinese approach, including Tianxia, relationality, harmony, morality, and strategic culture. This is followed by an analysis of how Chinese IR theory challenges and provides an alternative to mainstream Western theories like realism, liberalism, and constructivism. The article also examines some of the major debates within Chinese IR theory, including around its identity as a truly ‘Chinese’ theory versus one shaped by Western IR. It concludes with an assessment of the significance and potential contributions, as well as limitations, of developing IR theory from a Chinese, non-Western perspective.

The Origins and Development of Chinese IR Theory

The development of a self-consciously Chinese school of IR theory can be traced back to the early 1980s, though its conceptual and philosophical foundations draw from ancient Chinese traditions and thought (Qin, 2016). Disenchantment with Western-centric IR theories led some Chinese scholars to advocate the creation of a “Chinese school” that could better represent China’s interests, experiences, and perspectives in international affairs. This push gained momentum in the 1990s following the Cold War and rising Chinese power and influence. Since then, there has been a steady expansion of Chinese IR scholarship seeking to theorize international relations from a Chinese standpoint.

Several factors have driven the evolution of this Chinese IR theory. First, there was a sense that mainstream Western IR theories failed to fully capture China’s unique historical experiences as well as the continued relevance of its ancient strategic thought (Yan, 2011). Western theories were seen as rooted in Western history and philosophy, making them inadequate for explaining Chinese strategic behavior and foreign policy. Second, the power transition occurring with China’s rise required new concepts and theories to describe and guide its international strategy in a way that served Chinese interests and desires (Qin, 2018).

Third, there was a reaction against the prevalence of Western IR theory in Chinese academia and a sense that this dominance constrained independent Chinese theorizing. Developing a Chinese IR theory was thus part of a broader push for theoretical pluralism and non-Western perspectives in the field of IR. Finally, critical geopolitics and post-colonial theory helped inspire Chinese IR scholars to challenge Western theoretical hegemony and create space for alternative worldviews (Callahan, 2008).

However, the process of constructing a Chinese school of IR theory has not been straightforward. There are continuing debates over what defines ‘Chinese’ IR theory given China’s extensive interaction with Western ideas and the diversity of views among Chinese scholars themselves. The development of Chinese IR theory has been described as an “arduous process of learning” (Qin, 2016, p. 32) but one that promises to provide valuable new insights into the conceptual foundations of international relations.

Core Concepts and Principles of Chinese IR Theory

Chinese IR theory aims to reimagine global politics from a Chinese cultural perspective based on its philosophical and strategic traditions. This section outlines some of the key concepts underpinning the Chinese approach that differ from mainstream Western IR theories.

Tianxia

The concept of tianxia, variously translated as “all under heaven” or “world institution”, is a foundational idea in Chinese IR theory (Callahan, 2008; Zhang, 2011). It envisions the world as a unified moral-political order centered on the Chinese emperor as the Son of Heaven who rules tianxia through virtuous power and morality. This Sino-centric hierarchical system regulates interstate relations through rituals and norms that sustain harmony.

Tianxia thus challenges the Westphalian notion of anarchy and instead sees the potential for more cooperative global governance built on Confucian ideals of morality, hierarchy, and unity. The tianxia system represents a non-Western cosmology and political philosophy that provides an alternative starting point for IR theory. However, some question whether tianxia accurately reflects China’s own embrace of Westphalian sovereignty (Hammond & Richey, 2015).

Relationality

Relationality is another key element of the Chinese worldview applied to IR theory. Instead of seeing actors as autonomous unitary agents as in much of Western IR, Chinese thought views the world in terms of dynamic relationships binding actors together (Yan, 2011). Entities are defined not by their individual attributes but by their changing relations with others. This provides a more holistic, interconnected, and process-based ontology compared to Western IR’s atomism and rationalism. Relationality also forms the basis of the Chinese emphasis on morality in IR as ethical actions sustain beneficial relationships.

Harmony

The pursuit of harmony is a core principle running through China’s strategic thinking and IR theory (Zhao, 2009). Derived from Confucianism, daoism, and other traditions, it sees harmonious relationships as essential to prevent disorder and conflict. Chinese scholars criticize Western IR’s focus on competition and conflict as failing to understand the possibilities for harmony in global politics. China is cast as a benign power seeking win-win outcomes and harnessing its cultural wisdom to harmonize international relations, in contrast to confrontational Western approaches. However, critics contend that China’s insistence on harmony and win-win solutions can also mask assertive policies.

Morality

Morality is central to Chinese philosophical traditions and thus forms a key component of Chinese IR theory’s alternative vision (Yan, 2002). The moral cultivation of leaders, building ethical relations between states, and tying morality to power and governance are seen as essential for global peace and stability. In contrast to the amorality of much Western IR theory, the Chinese approach infuses IR with normative concerns rooted in its holistic worldviews. However, the emphasis on morality and ethics in Chinese IR thought has been critiqued as idealistic and as downplaying power politics.

Strategic Culture

The notion of strategic culture connects China’s ancient strategic thought to the contemporary quest for Chinese IR theory. It holds that China exhibits unique strategic dispositions shaped by its history, philosophy, and attitudes like defensiveness, pacifism, and the flexible use of power (Johnston, 1995). This distinguishes China from Western ways of war and provides cultural explanations for its strategic behavior that Western theories miss. The role of strategic culture in IR remains contentious though with disagreement over whether it represents a coherent logic guiding Chinese strategy.

Challenging and Providing Alternatives to Western IR Theory

A core aim of Chinese IR theory is to challenge the universal applicability of Western IR paradigms and demonstrate how they lack explanatory power from a Chinese perspective. Chinese scholars have critically engaged with mainstream Western theories to highlight their conceptual constraints and biases as well as offer Chinese-based alternatives.

Realism and Power Transition Theory

Realism’s focus on power, anarchy, and zero-sum competition is seen as failing to reflect moral and cooperative strands in Chinese thought (Zhao, 2005). The Chinese approach does not reject power but sees it in relativist terms enabled by virtue and relationships. Similarly, power transition theory is criticized for misrepresenting China’s peaceful rise strategy which aims to avoid confrontation with the US and stabilize relations (Zhang, 2011). Chinese IR theory posits different sources of power and conflict avoidance based on concepts like tianxia.

Liberalism and Democratic Peace Theory

Liberalism’s individualism and rationalism do not fit China’s collectivist and holistic relational perspective (Qin, 2009). Its atomization of society contrasts with Chinese emphases on community and the state’s moral role. Liberal democratic peace theory also does not explain China’s history of conflict with democracies nor its peaceful rise strategy. Chinese IR theory sees democracies acting aggressively and political system differences as not precluding friendship in international relations.

Constructivism

Constructivism is appreciated for recognizing the social construction of international relations. But Chinese scholars argue idealist strands of constructivism reflect Western enlightenment thinking rather than Chinese relational epistemology (Zhang & Chang, 2016). Constructivists are also criticized for still relying on Western concepts like anarchy. The Chinese approach foregrounds different socially constructed elements of global politics like identity, culture, and shared meaning.

By engaging with mainstream Western theories through these kinds of critiques, Chinese IR scholarship demonstrates their deficiencies and limitations from a non-Western perspective. It aims to displace their theoretical dominance by offering alternative Chinese conceptualizations and explanations of international relations. However, some contend that Chinese IR theory tends to misrepresent Western theories or set up simplistic dichotomies rather than genuinely integrating Chinese and Western ideas (Breslin, 2009).

Debates within Chinese IR Theory

While loosely categorized as the Chinese school of IR theory, there is significant diversity and debate within this emerging field. Key tensions include whether a distinctly Chinese IR theory is feasible or desirable and disagreements over its core characteristics and utility.

The Possibility and Desirability of a ‘Chinese’ IR Theory

Some scholars question if a genuinely ‘Chinese’ IR theory is possible given China’s extensive exposure to Western IR ideas and the infiltration of Western language and concepts into Chinese IR discourse (Geeraerts & Men, 2001). It has proven difficult to clearly disentangle Western from indigenous Chinese thought. This raises doubts over claims of a unique and coherent Chinese approach. Others argue efforts to construct nationally bounded Chinese or Western theories are misguided in a globalized discipline like IR. Some thus call for transcending divisions between Chinese and Western theory to build a more universal IR discipline drawing on diverse traditions and perspectives.

Chinese Cultural Essentialism

Critics worry the push for cultural authenticity in Chinese IR theory leads to essentialist portrayals of Chinese and Western thought as homogeneous and mutually incompatible (Callahan, 2008). This can reflect ideological agendas to glorify China’s cultural-strategic exceptionalism versus a more open, multidimensional view attentive to hybridity and internal variation. The risk is reproducing Orientalist dichotomies, stereotypes, and essentialized accounts detached from China’s contemporary realities.

Paradigmatic Status and Theoretical Substance

Some believe Chinese IR theory exhibits sufficient coherence in concepts like tianxia and harmony to constitute a distinct paradigmatic alternative to mainstream Western IR theories (Qin, 2018). But others argue that beyond shared principles, Chinese scholarship remains theoretically fragmented and lacking systematic explanation of the drivers of international outcomes (Swaine, 2011). This raises doubts over whether Chinese IR theory offers substantive theoretical innovations rather than just different terminology.

Identity Debates

A core question is whether Chinese IR theory represents a distinct national or cultural approach defined by Chineseness versus a more universal, inclusive theorizing drawing on various intellectual resources (Acharya & Buzan, 2010). Identity debates reflect disagreements over whether Chinese IR theory’s main contribution should be to represent Chinese interests and perspectives or to integrate diverse worldviews into the discipline. Calls persist for Chinese IR scholars to clarify their theory’s identity foundations.

Relevance for Policy and Practice

Some analysts see Chinese IR concepts like tianxia and harmony as idealized visions disconnected from real-world policy, while others argue they can usefully inform China’s foreign policy strategy and institutions (Kai & Hamzah, 2016). Their role remains contested – whether Chinese IR theories are explanatory frameworks, sources of political legitimacy, or action guides. Debates continue over striking a balance between their normative and practical functions.

Despite these unresolved debates, the discussions shaping the evolution of Chinese IR theory reveal its significance as a site of epistemological and theoretical contestation. While fragmented, it provides resources for constructing alternative IR frameworks originating from non-Western thought and experiences.

The Contributions and Limitations of Chinese IR Theory

The emergence of Chinese IR theory as a self-conscious research program represents a major development in the expansion and pluralization of IR theory beyond Western paradigms. Assessing this endeavor involves examining both the potential contributions of Chinese IR theory as well as its limitations.

Potential Contributions

  • Provides non-Western concepts and explanatory frameworks that reveal overlooked dimensions of international relations.
  • Challenges parochialism and ethnocentrism in mainstream IR arising from its Western-centric knowledge production.
  • Helps balance representation and perspective in IR theory and reduce ‘theory dependence’ on the West.
  • Stimulates critical self-reflection within Western IR on its assumptions and limits.
  • Enriches theoretical and philosophical resources available for understanding international relations.
  • Expands the horizons of IR theory by incorporating non-Western traditions of thought.
  • Contributes to post-colonial and ‘Global IR’ critiques of knowledge politics in the global South.
  • Provides cultural insights into Chinese strategic thinking and foreign policy.
  • Shows conceptual alternatives where Western theories exhibit explanatory weaknesses.
  • Initiates dialogues between Chinese and Western theories to drive theoretical innovation.

Limitations and Critiques

  • Fragmented and lacking a coherent theoretical core beyond shared principles.
  • Abstraction from China’s internal socio-political realities.
  • Light on substantive explanations of causes, processes, and effects in IR.
  • Insufficient testing and application to empirical cases.
  • Risk of cultural essentialism in dichotomizing ‘Chinese’ and ‘Western’ thought.
  • Disconnect from foreign policy practice; normative more than explanatory.
  • Reproducing East-West binaries it ostensibly challenges.
  • Reinforces state-centrism and existing global hierarchies.
  • Susceptible to ideological agendas of the Chinese party-state.
  • Downplays indigenous diversity and Chinese engagement with Western IR.

Conclusion

The emergence of Chinese IR theory represents an important attempt to theorize international relations from a non-Western perspective based on China’s philosophical and strategic culture. Concepts like tianxia, relationality, morality, and harmony underpin Chinese IR theory’s alternative vision that foregrounds different ontological and normative assumptions than mainstream Western IR paradigms. Scholars have used Chinese IR theory to critically engage with realism, liberalism, and constructivism, highlighting conceptual gaps and biases while proposing new Chinese-derived frameworks.

However, Chinese IR theory remains fragmented, contested, and limited in substantive explanatory reach. Debates persist around what defines ‘Chinese’ IR theory given China’s hybrid identity and the risks of simplistic cultural essentialism. Yet the development of Chinese IR theory signals the rise of non-Western IR scholarship that provides valuable new perspectives on global politics and promises to reshape the theoretical horizons of the discipline. It represents an attempt to de-center Western dominance in IR knowledge production in favor of multiple, global theorizing rooted in diverse philosophies and experiences.

References

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SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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