Major theoretical paradigms concerning the interpretation of China’s foreign policy – Realism and Liberalism, have helped combine a multiplicity of theories and insights to truly be able to analyse the Chinese foreign policy and interpreting China’s economic growth. This article aims to highlight the essence of the realist tradition, the ideas of liberal viewpoints and the continued relevance and appeal of the two theories in the contemporary foreign policy of China. An acceptable and notable account defines foreign policy as the “statements, and actions of an actor-often, but not always, a state-directed toward the external world and the response of other actors to these intentions, statements and actions”.
The Realists argument
More often than not, it is these ‘responses of other actors’ and the subsequent ‘intentions, statements and actions’ that for realists, make security a perennial concern. Being the principal actors in the global system, states tend to worry about who is stronger or less influential and what power trends appear to be. In such a scenario, cooperation is far from possible in international affairs. Due to a state of international anarchy, there is no central authority that can protect states from one another, so each state must rely upon its strategies and resources for self-sufficiency and protection. Finally, for realists, power is the centrepiece of foreign policy: Cetris Paribus, the key to understanding state policy lies in focusing on who has the most influence and what they are doing with such power. The realist understanding of power and wealth, regarding the idea of global wealth as a fixed sum and global economic competition as a zero-sum game, has enduring relevance in the ‘relative gains problem’ and the challenges of imbalances of payments. Considering these key tenets of realism — at least part of the time — various confusing aspects of the Chinese foreign policy become considerably easier to comprehend.
China’s most notable periods of development after Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening up” policy (Gaige Kaifang) in 1978 saw the emergence of great Chinese achievements. This is highlighted in China’s usurping of Japan as the world’s second-largest economy in 2011, the three decades of nearly 9.78 per cent average yearly gross domestic product (GDP) growth since 1979, and the lifting of a sizeable 610 million people out of poverty. “The most remarkable economic transformation in human history” has led to a significant ‘rise of China’ phenomenon, confirmed by multilateral regimes such as the United Nations (UN), which cites a major “shift in global dynamics and evolving geopolitics” in a more “south-orientated world”.
Why China is no longer committed to Deng Xiaoping’s policy of “peaceful rise”, is clearer if one puts on the realist lens. That approach made sense when China was weaker. One could imagine the then- a not so influential China to meekly embrace the many arrangements and institutions founded by others. But realists understand that a more powerful China would eventually want to modify any features that were not in China’s interest, as Beijing has begun to do in recent years.
One such modification or rather a reinforcement of China’s growing economic engagement as seen in its foreign policy is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As seen in many parts of the world and especially Africa, the BRI narrative reinforces many realist interpretations. These are further substantiated by Xi Jinping’s declaration of a “China Dream” resulting in the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, as well as retired People’s Liberation Army Colonel Liu Mingfu’s foreign policy directives in terms of security that China needs to “take over from the United States as the world’s greatest military power”.
Critique of the realists’ viewpoint
However, the above two facets of Realist concern upon close observation indicate (military expansionism and economic rise of China) that Realism cannot fully account for them. The indisputable economic rise of China has been coupled with the “world’s largest military build-up” by virtue of a substantial expansion of military spending, increased engagement in the UN peacekeeping forces outnumbering those of all permanent members of the UN Security Council in terms of deployment of troops and technological advancement. This would superficially adhere to Realist interpretations of a China that wants to “change the international system” and “obtain global hegemony”. Realist interpretations are further bolstered by the Taiwan Anti-Secession Law. Going by a senior US defence official’s opinion at Pentagon stating “the balance of cross-Strait military forces continues to shift in the mainland’s favour” supports this.
Nevertheless, singularly focussing on Realist interpretations of China’s rise through a military lens would lead to an exaggerated and oversimplified version of reality. As Statistics compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) 2018 figures show in terms of military expenditure as a percentage of GDP, China’s (1.9 per cent) military expenditure is considerably lower than that of the United States (3.2 per cent) and lower than that of Russia (3.8 per cent), France (2.3 per cent), India (2.4 per cent), and Saudi Arabia (9.8 per cent). Therefore, “As a percentage of GDP, Chinese military expenditures do not appear to have reached levels where one could conclude that the Chinese economy is being militarised and mobilised to balance against US power.”.
The liberals argument
The regime of multilateralism, may not have completely done away with realist approaches and protectionist policies but has certainly ushered the world into a more interconnected and globalized economy, leading to institutionalization of mutual co-operation and universal acceptance for a free-trade liberal doctrine. The following parts throw light on interdependence (in particular, economic interdependence) when assessing Liberalist tenets on the rise of China as it seems to be one of the more powerful strands (if not the most powerful strand) in the Liberalist theories. Richard N. Cooper defines economic interdependence as the sensitivity of economic actions between various countries to “economic developments within those nations”. Xi Jinping correctly points out that China contributes to, and is a proactive member of, the G20, The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), The United Nations Security Council, the Shanghai Cooperative Organization and The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) mechanism.
Due to the promises of “common development” and “win-win cooperation” that Beijing posed as the central theme of the Belt and Road initiative, the liberal argument carries the burden of proof to demonstrate evidence of economic advancement in partnering countries, which not only denigrates the Realist interpretation of China’s rise, but wholly supports the Liberalist interpretation.
Critique by dependency theorists
The idea of the new international economic order despite, the deliberations of free and equal trade rules and regulations under the liberal doctrine of the Uruguay round failed in actually materializing some of the long-standing issues. Lack of access to the agricultural markets especially in the US and EU nations, continue to hinder the economic progress of the global south (mostly agrarian labour-intensive economies), where majority nations have a comparative advantage in agriculture. Thus the main idea of rampant expansionary economic foreign policies by the Chinese in Africa originates as a consequence of unequal trade regimes that have existed in the form of rules and regulations which favour the rich industrialized countries at the expense of the developing nations (African countries imported mainly manufactured goods in exchange for raw materials, thus forgoing the dynamic growth effects of technology-intensive manufacturing industries).
Critique of the liberals viewpoint (military)
However, some drawbacks presented under the liberal framework include events such as those at Gwadar, along the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) in which the China Overseas Port Holdings Company assumed control in 2013, and if these become a trend, there will be reason to doubt China’s intentions to provide a win-win environment as jobs move away from residents and to imported Chinese nationals. The lack of achieving common ground and favourable outcomes under the current foreign policy of China as seen in multilateral regimes that foster liberal doctrines of economic interconnectedness, such as World Trade Organisation (China member since 2001) can further be useful in understanding Chinese foreign policy narrative stemming from liberalism including some of its shortcomings in the case of China towards being less likely to engage in conflict with other nations, given the known conditions at the Taiwan Strait and South China sea.
In conclusion, considering the current foreign policy having implications on China’s rise, it would be interesting to notice increased forms of cooperation, inculcating common and shared objectives, especially among the Belt and Road nations. Further matters of national sovereignty and issues of border disputes as seen with the case of India boycotting the Belt and Road Forum meeting for the second time require greater clarity and support of designated frameworks. In addition, a military standoff seems remote given an economic deterrent, being China’s trade interaction with the rest of the world accounts for nearly 50 per cent of its GDP, nevertheless as a consequence of international anarchy and to uphold national security, it naturally continues for even some supporters of liberalism to maintain status-quo and encourage increased military spendings.
This becomes highly relevant towards addressing the failings of Liberalism but also, avoiding the extremes of Realism, before a multiplicity of theories, lenses and insights could be used to give an accurate interpretation of China’s foreign policy.
 Deborah Gerner, (ed.) Foreign Policy Analysis (1995, p.18)
 Ravenhill, J. (ed.) Global political economy. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 3rd edition [ISBN 9780199570812] Chapter 2
 Callahan, 2013, p. 26.
 Yee and Storey, 2002, p. 7.
 The 2005 Anti-Secession Law commits China to a military response should Taiwan declare independence, or even if the government thinks all possibility of peaceful unification has been lost.
 Johnston, Alastair Iain, 2003, ‘Is China a Status Quo Power?’, International Security, Vol. 27, No. 4, pp. 5–56.
 Cooper, Richard N., 1972, ‘Economic Interdependence and Foreign Policy in the Seventies’, World Politics 24:02, pp. 159-81.
 “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.”
 Small, China-Pakistan Axis, 101.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
The author is a graduate student of Economics at University of London. He’s a former visiting scholar on China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ at Peking University, Beijing. He has also worked as a Research Intern in the Economic Policy Group, Bangalore and Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S), Chennai.