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Diplomat: What West Doesn’t Get About China

Author: Allen Carlson
April 21, 2012

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China's loudest and most nationalistic voices aren't necessarily its most influential; behind the monochromatic official announcements lies a debate and lack of consensus about Chinese direction, both internal and external, Allen Carlson writes in the Diplomat.

China's rise on the world stage and the United States' supposed decline are perhaps the two most discussed trends in international politics today. Many feel we are seeing two great ships of state passing in the night, with the former poised to lead and the latter at risk of falling behind. While the degree to which this has occurred is open to debate, the sense that a new strategic threshold is being crossed is accepted on both sides of the Pacific.

Yet the ancillary (but no less important) suggestion that the Chinese somehow have a clear and unified vision of what this new order should be is entirely contestable. It's true that many Chinese opinion-makers increasingly are confident of – and even boastful about – their country's emergence as a global player. Moreover, their worldview often combines equal measures of great power calculation, nationalism and a mercantilist approach to economic competition. This leaves little room for long-term cooperation with other states or constructive engagement in international institutions. And, as a result, the outlook for Sino-U.S. relations and China's relationship with the rest of the international system can often seem bleak. But this analysis has a fundamental problem: it overlooks real ferment within the Chinese political establishment regarding each of these issues.

Although many Chinese do hold zero-sum visions of international relations, that view hasn't yet cornered the market. On the one hand, there are signs within China of a military pushing for more rapid modernization and advocating more forceful policies toward both its neighbors and the United States. On the other, the Chinese Foreign Ministry remains actively engaged in a wide array of bilateral and multilateral exchanges. Moreover, in recent years, debates have ebbed and flowed within the Chinese foreign policy community over how to think about Sino-Japanese relations, the possibility of China's rise remaining a peaceful one, and the distribution of power within the existing international order.

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