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The IR theory that best explains the Rise of China is Civilizational Theory. Ideally a civilizational analysis would best explain China’s rise, but unfortunately over the course of the history of the discipline of IR civilizational analyses have been marginalised. I contend that China is a Civilizational State that acts as a nation state. Liberalism and Realism reflect an international landscape where the primary actor is the sovereign nation-state. In this context, both Realism and Liberalism are inadequate, but as China is much more than a nation state but as Weiwei Zhang argued: China’s rise should be understood as an amalgam of the world’s oldest continuous civilization and a huge modern state which is a product of hundreds of states amalgamated into one over the past thousands of years of history.[1]

Most scholarship on China is predominantly through a Realist or Liberal lens. But both theories are inadequate in explaining the rise of China. They are caught in a binary trap of looking at China either in positive or negative absolute terms, whereby Western thought over China has resulted in a paradigm where perspectives are either ‘China is threat’ or ‘China is an opportunity’. However, these conventional IR theories do not account for a long-term civilizational perspective. By projecting such theories onto China, it will result in an analysis, although well developed, very narrow and limited. That is not to say elements of Realist or Liberal statecraft cannot be found in Chinese international relations. To the contrary, I would say that the fundamental IR theory that resonates the most with the Chinese mindset is classical Realism, however being a civilization they are not bound to this theory alone.

My argument is that Western IR theories like Realism and Liberalism do not explain China’s rise to power, because they cannot adequately account for China’s status as a Civilizational State and moreover that it is the Civilizational state that determines the Realist and Liberal theory itself. It is not that IR theory can explain China’s rise but it is China that explains theory, as it is used in response to international affairs.

In order to develop my thesis, this essay is set out in three main sections. The first will analyse how a civilizational state acts above-and-beyond liberalism and realism. Secondly, how China responds to the predominate Western worldview. And finally, the synthesis of the two views into the Realpolitik of a civilizational state, where I will outline the key argument that a civilizational analysis best explains China’s rise and therefore it is China that explains conventional IR theories rather than the other way around. Furthermore, I will try to discern an overall pattern within Chinese Realpolitik that is characteristic of its civilizational status.

China’s Realist Fundamentals

China has always held a Sino-centric worldview. By perceiving itself as the centre of the universe, it considered foreign states to be sub-states that were to be loyal to the Empire.[2] These Sub-states were part of a tributary system that pledged loyalty to the center. As an Empire, China gravitated towards Realist instincts for survival and built the Great Wall of China in order to halt the Mongolian invasions. Over the last 2,000 years China’s statecraft practiced a form of Imperial Realism. It will become apparent that a civilizational analysis is required to understand the Chinese patterns of rise and fall, from Great Power to Regional Power.

The Chinese affinity for realism was retained when Mao Zedong ascended to power. Francis Fukuyama highlighted the idea of Communist-China being an altered version of Imperial China, as they both were a highly centralized bureaucratic government, built on impersonal recruitment and formal rules.[3] The similarities between their imperial and communist chapters of history are also reflected in the type of realism that Maoist China espoused: Revolutionary Realism. This would lead to another attempt at Sino-centralism, with China being the leader within World Communism, especially after the Sino-Soviet Split. Furthermore, these ideas ultimately saw the experiments of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. These concepts were extremely detrimental to Chinese civilization as it halted its quest to reassert itself as a superpower by exiling itself into geopolitical isolation for many years.[4]

With the ascension of Deng Xiaoping, China as a civilizational entity sought to maintain control over its sphere of influence, or in historical terms, to maintain the tributary system by going to war with Vietnam in 1979.[5] In regards to foreign policy, Deng’s China revealed that despite the liberal reforms, there was still an undercurrent of imperial realism present. This was reflected in its attitude towards Vietnam. Due to the Sino-Soviet split[6], China viewed Vietnam as being ungracious when it refused to halt receiving Soviet assistance.[7] When Vietnam refused, China acted with the mentality of viewing their region as their sphere of influence where its surrounding neighbours were sub-states that must pay tribute, much like their ancient ancestors. Most scholarship focuses on Deng’s economic liberalization, but it is China’s war with Vietnam that indicated a civilization on the rise again.

The Realpolitik of Liberalism

I would argue that it was when China joined the UN as a member of the Security Council, where IR scholars became intrigued by China and made the error of projecting Western definitions upon it in an attempted to explain its place in the global landscape. By taking its position at the Security Council, China acceded to participating in a liberal international organisation. Moreover, China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation is further evidence of its support of liberal multilateral institutions and a willingness to accept the norms and regimes of international trade. Although Liberalism can offer some understanding of China’s rise, my argument is that China only did so to ensure it maintained its status as a civilizational entity in an increasingly globalized world. The Security Council is supported by China, who feels that civilizations should have their own sphere of influence that also acts as a bulwark against one superpower achieving global hegemony.

Perhaps this was the key reason for President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. This meeting ended decades long Sino-American hostility and saw a major shift in geopolitical relations within the Cold War context.[8] After the Sino-Soviet split, China made the pragmatic decision to maintain their long march of reclaiming their civilizational greatness by taking the opportunity to create a triangular balance of power.[9] They assessed their new set of circumstances and decided to avoid a war with Moscow and discarded ideology for security.[10] However, Beijing retained its skepticism about US intentions by the possibility of more subtle US strategies to overcome the USSR by using the PRC.[11] Regardless, this saw a boost for détente and an unofficial Sino-American alliance which served the dual purpose of containing the potential Soviet hegemon, while bringing China further into the international system.[12]

Since the Nixon visit and Deng’s premiership, China set a new course to regaining its civilizational power and discarded their revolutionary mentality.[13] The new foreign policy perspective now advocated ‘independence and peace’. This meant that China now supported ideas that would be beneficial to the international and regional peace, along with the national and common interests of the peoples in the world. Furthermore, this new mindset saw the abandoning of internationalism for nationalism within China’s foreign policy.[14] This new approach, over the last forty or so years, saw China establish diplomatic relations with all other nations, regardless of ideology. China was now a member of the global society.[15]

The Need for Civilizational Theories to Explain the Rise of China

Liberal theories would explain the rise of China through its economic power while Realist theories would explain China’s rise through its growing military might and irredentist claims in the South China Sea. The realist position is exemplified by John Mearsheimer’s realist concerns that China will eventually be seduced by the opportunity to overtake US hegemony and that China will not accept a subordinate role and thus support a multipolar world in order to free itself from US unilateralism.[16] He asserted that China’s rise would not be peaceful, as a threatened America will react aggressively to a threat to their dominance.[17] In contrast, Western Liberalism views China’s rise as a great opportunity for Southeast Asia and indeed the world economy. It would provide regional stability through the use of international organizations such as ASEAN and the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area legislation. The abovementioned fear would not come to pass, as China’s history is not aggressively imperial. The Beijing Consensus reflects this, where it promotes economic development, innovation, and national self-determination.[18]

As previously stated, China as a civilization is compelled to adopt Western institutions of global governance in order to function within the modern world. While in accordance to Western notions of statecraft and trade, it is adopting these for a particular reason. China’s liberal foreign policy and support of multilateralism may appear to be in accordance with Liberalism, but it is a foreign policy that is driven as a response to US unilateralism. China adopts liberal and realist policies only to assert itself as a reaction to US domination. This is apparent by on one hand taking the realist position of avoiding a direct confrontation with US hegemony and the use of soft power to assert Chinese independence, by offering a liberal option of attaining regional stabilization through a non-militaristic force within Southeast Asia, while simultaneously promoting a multilateral international system. China’s foreign policies are not explained by its adoption of Realist or Liberal theoretical positions or through a realist or liberal prism, but towards what end they are used. China as a civilizational state desires a balance of power between other civilizational entities and its foreign policy, whether in terms of the Beijing Consensus or its position against Taiwan[19] and its claims in the South China Sea, is a direct response to restraining American hegemony and bringing global governance back to a true balance of power. As a civilizational state China is classically Realist, but in terms of being one of the three superpowers in the contemporary world, the others being Russia and America, China pragmatically promotes Liberalism to maintain an international order, but more importantly to respond to the unilateralism and hegemony of the USA. Therefore it is China that explains theories. And in this case Liberal and Realist theories are inadequate in explain China, as these are simply a response to events.

This distinction on which my thesis is based confuses Western IR scholars, as they tend to think in strictly Westphalian terms. I submit that in order to truly understand the Rise of China, one needs to adopt the Civilizational Theory that is espoused by Arnold Toynbee’s Study of History, which proposes that civilizations rise through challenge and response[20] or Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, that international conflict is due to cultures.[21] As Huntington explains, Westerners view nations as the principal actors, but this has been the case for only a few centuries, with the norm of humanity being civilizations.[22] Therefore, it is best to view civilizations cyclically, going through different stages of rise, dominance and fall. Once this is realized, the contention of China being too vast for fit within an IR theory can be explained. China has originated within the ancient world and has experienced periodical rises, while adopting whatever ideology or tactics needed to not only rise once again, but to remain in a dominant position for as long as possible. China is a civilization that is rising once again, not because it is reaching military and economic parity with the USA, but because it is realizing it is in a civilizational period of ascendency. This explains its realist foreign policy within its Sino-centric sphere of influence and its liberal and multilateral foreign polices in world politics in response to the hegemonic aspiration of the other two great superpowers.


In conclusion, although there always been a deep realist streak within Chinese thought, it is imprecise to impose Western IR theories onto China. Due to China being a civilizational-state, it transcends Westphalian assumptions, as it is too vast to be contained by such disciplinary typologies. However, knowing that it must function within the modern international system, it adopts and disregards various IR policies when it see fit, most notably realism and liberalism. It is China that defines IR theories when it suits their means. So to understand the rise of China, we need to understand China as a civilizational state through a civilizational theoretical lens.


Fukuyama, Francis. “The China Model”, New Perspectives Quarterly, (2011): 40-67.

Goh, Evelyn. “Nixon, Kissinger, and the “Soviet Card” in the US Opening to China, 1971–1974”, Diplomatic History Vol.29 No.3 (2005): 475-502.

Huntingron, P, Samuel. The Clash of Civilizations?, Foreign Affairs (1993): 22-49.

Ji, You. China’s Anti-Secession Law and the Risk of War in the Taiwan Strait, Contemporary Security Policy, Vol. 27, No. 2 (2006): 237-257.

Mearsheimer, John. The Gathering Storm: China’s Challenge to US Power in Asia, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 3 (2010): 381–396.

Meserve, J, W & Meserve, I, R. Revolutionary Realism: China’s Path to the Future, Journal of South Asian Literature, Vo. 27, No. 2 (1992): 29-39.

Ramo, C, Joshua. The Beijing Consensus, Foreign Policy Centre (2004) United Kingdom.

Tingyang, Zhao. Rethinking Empire from a Chinese Concept ‘All-under-Heaven’, Social Identities, Vol. 12, No. 1, (2006): 29-41.

Toynbee, J, Arnold (1981) A Study of History, Oxford University Press

Weiwei Zang, The China Model: A Civilizational-State Perspective, The World Financial Review.

Weiwei Zhang. The implications of the rise of China, Foresight, Vol. 6 No. 4 (2004): 223 – 226.

Xiaoming Zhang. Deng Xiaoping and China’s Decision to go to War with Vietnam, Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 12, No.3, (2010): 3-29.

Xuetong, Yan The Rise of China in Chinese Eyes, Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 10, No 26 (2001): 33-39.

Yaqing, Qin. Why is There No Chinese International Relations Theory?, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, Oxford University Press, (2007) United Kingdom.

Zhimin, Chen. Nationalism, Internationalism and Chinese Foreign Policy, Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 12. No. 42, (2005): 35-53.

[1] Zang Weiwei, The China Model: A Civilizational-State Perspective, The World Financial Review. 2012, 1.

[2] Zhao Tingyang, “Rethinking Empire from a Chinese Concept ‘All-under-Heaven”, Social Identities, Vol. 12, No. 1(2006): 35.

[3] Francis Fukuyama, “The China Model”, New Perspectives Quarterly (2011): 43.

[4] Yan Xuetong, “The Rise of China in Chinese Eyes”, Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 10, No 26 (2001): 35. It is greatly debated among Chinese scholars what exactly saw China decline, but they are united in the belief that isolation was the major factor.

[5] Zhang Xiaoming, “Deng Xiaoping and China’s Decision to go to War with Vietnam,” Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 12, No. 3 (2010):19.

[6] Zhang Xiaoming, “Deng Xiaoping and China’s Decision to go to War with Vietnam”, Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 12, No.3, (2010): 26.

According to Chinese scholars, the PRC’s decision to wage war against Vietnam was due to an overreaction towards the USSR, which caused them closer ties towards the US. It was believed that an attack on Vietnam would deal a blow to Soviet expansion.

[7] Zhang Xiaoming “Deng Xiaoping and China’s Decision to go to War with Vietnam”, Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 12, No.3 (2010): 25.

 [8] Evelyn Goh, “Nixon, Kissinger, and the “Soviet Card” in the US Opening to China 1971–1974”, Diplomatic History, Vol.29 No.3, (2005): 475.

[9] Evelyn Goh, “Nixon, Kissinger, and the “Soviet Card” in the US Opening to China 1971–1974”, Diplomatic History, Vol.29 No.3 (2005): 476.

[10] Evelyn Goh, Nixon, Kissinger, and the “Soviet Card” in the US Opening to China 1971–1974, Diplomatic History, Vol.29 No.3, (2005): 476.

[11] Evelyn Goh, “Nixon, Kissinger, and the “Soviet Card” in the US Opening to China1971–1974”, Diplomatic History, Vol.29 No.3, (2005): 488.

[12] Evelyn Goh, “Nixon, Kissinger, and the “Soviet Card” in the US Opening to China 1971–1974”, Diplomatic History, Vol.29 No.3, (2005): 499.

[13] Qin Yaqing, “Why is There No Chinese International Relations Theory?”, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, Oxford University Press, (2007): 3.

[14] Chen Zhimin, “Nationalism, Internationalism and Chinese Foreign Policy”, Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 12. No. 42 (2005): 46.

[15] Zhang WeiWei, “The implications of the rise of China”, Foresight, Vol. 6. No. 4 (2004): 224.

[16] John Mearsheimer, “The Gathering Storm: China’s Challenge to US Power in Asia”, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, (2010): 387.

[17] John Mearsheimer, “The Gathering Storm: China’s Challenge to US Power in Asia”, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, (2010): 386.

[18] Joshua Ramo, “The Beijing Consensus”, Foreign Policy Centre (2004): 11-12.

[19] You Ji, “China’s Anti-Secession Law and the Risk of War in the Taiwan Strait,” Contemporary Security Policy, Vol. 27, No. 2 (2006): 237.

[20] Arnold Toynbee (1981) A Study of History, Oxford University Press.

[21] Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs (1993).

[22] Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs (1993): 24.