How should we explain and understand the “great changes unseen in a century”? One important perspective [considers] how China defines itself [in the context of] China’s relationship with the international system. We often describe the 40 years of Reform and Opening as the process of China’s integration into the international system. Over these years, Western academic and policy circles have constantly debated whether China is a revisionist power or a status-quo power in relation to this international system.
China and China’s rise are variables with important systemic relevance to the changes unseen in a century. What exactly does the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” that we propose to realize actually entail [for the international system]? Perhaps neither the terms ‘revisionist power’ or ‘status quo power’ can accurately describe China’s position in the international system; perhaps we may say that we are a nation that seeks a fair and befitting position in the evolving international system.4
Below [I] undertake a simple analysis [of this issue] from three dimensions: the system, institutions, and norms.
One: Systemic Order
How can we understand the evolving international system? In the expression “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” what is the system that present-day rejuvenation aims to achieve?" To a large degree, this should be a reformed system that matches the altered structure of international power. It should be a more representative international system in the manner it defines rules and allocates benefits. [China’s] process of rejuvenation is the process of seeking a fair and befitting position in a reforming international system; it represents a new type of interaction between China and this evolving international system, a process in which the two are simultaneously changing and co-evolving. China is both an important driving force in stimulating the evolution of the international system, and is also a constituent part of the international system that is continuously adjusting itself as the system evolves. Therefore, perhaps [words like] “integration,” “revisionist,” and “maintenance [of the status-quo]” cannot be used to accurately describe China’s relationship with the international system against the backdrop of “great changes unseen in a century.”
Integrating into the system and maintaining the status quo are primarily a passive process, a process of learning, internalizing and being accepted, a process in which the West teaches and we learn. Revisionism means that there are changes to the existing system. On the one hand, over the past forty years the large scale and rapid growth China has achieved within the international system is unprecedented in the history of mankind, and therefore [we] should not have the strategic goal or intention to fundamentally change the international system; on the other hand, from [the PRC] legally recovering its seat at the United Nations in the early 1970s to the aftermath of the global financial crisis in 2008,5 China’s historic advance towards the center of the world stage already represents a major change in the relationship between China and the international system.
In recent years, following the collective rise of emerging nations and the accelerating development of globalization, the academic international relations community increasingly prioritizes research on theories of relations among non-Western countries. An important component of this research is discussing international relations in the context of different eras, places and social cultures. Based on the historical experience of China and Greater East Asia, scholars have conducted research on the “Tianxia” system, the system of Great Unity under the Qin Empire, the hierarchical East Asian system with China at its center, an international system based on relationalism, and so on.⁶
These systems are all different from the modern Westphalian international system. That is to say, the modern Westphalian system that arose from the lived experience of Europe is, in fact, a secondary system that contains internalized regional characteristics; it expanded along with the global expansion of European power and does not possess any claim to natural universality.
From the post-World War II regional order in East Asia, one can also see why Asia does not have its own version of NATO: this is an issue of mutual recognition [and aceptance]. The American liberal hegemonic order has in fact not completely taken root in the context of the culture of East Asian societies. As the international balance of power changes, it is inevitable that the international order and international system will evolve. In this process, is it possible for great powers to strike a “grand bargain,” accommodate each other’s core concerns,7 improve the order of the system, and bring their interests into balance? These phenomena may first appear in regional and secondary systems of international relations.
Two: International institutions
From an institutional perspective, China’s experience in shaping and leading international institutions has occurred primarily in its neighboring region and Greater East Asia. This region’s approach to institutions has its own distinctive characteristics and [has] successful experience in constructing institutions.
The East Asian approach to institutions is a sort of soft institutionalism possessed with a strong sense of pragmatism; the extent of institutionalization is relatively limited and there exists a relatively greater tension between nation-states and international institutions. The process of Asian integration that has occurred over the past 20 years, with ASEAN as the central institution and the minimally institutionalized “ASEAN Way” as the basic norm, has not only preserved regional stability and peace, but also promoted cooperation and development, injecting great vitality into the region.⁸
China is a participant in, defender of, and contributor to the institutional process in East Asia. Through regional institutional cooperation, the region collectively shared in growth and China successfully realized its rise as a great power in parallel with the process of regional integration.
The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that China proposed and established is now recognized in academic and policy spheres alike as a successful case study in creating a [new] international institution. Why was the AIIB able to obtain international recognition within a short period of time? As a China-led and established international institution, the reality of AIIB’s rapid development is a result of the interaction and co-evolution of China and the international system; it is the result of bargaining and mutually coordinated adaptation. The proposal to establish the AIIB was initiated by China, primarily because the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank and other existing international institutions were unable to cater to the demand for infrastructure development, and also because the reform of international institutions lagged behind [the new configuration of global power] and China was unable to play a role commensurate with its power.
From its earliest conception, to the formal proposal [stage] and then to its ultimate establishment, the AIIB has traveled a long and complicated course. At the beginning, China put forward some proposals and tentative plans that stirred up significant controversy. But the Chinese side swiftly made adjustments, drew on the successful practices of relevant and already existing international institutions, accepted some of the suggestions on institution building from the existing development banks, and quickly established cooperative partnerships with the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and others. Thus, the entire process of AIIB’s development was a process involving the mutual adaptation of rules, interests and status. China ensured the long-term achievement of its strategic goals through flexible and pragmatic adjustments to its strategy and tactics. This strategic goal is to shape the [international] system through the establishment of rules and institutions and, at the same time, to seek a fair and befitting position within the system.
Three: Concepts and Norms
From the perspective of ideas, norms and value systems, is it possible for the American-led international system and the value system of American-style globalization to realize a certain level of 'peaceful coexistence in spite of difference'⁹ with local East Asian value systems? A recent study on norms undertaken by some scholars suggested that the best example of “Eastern” norms and discourse, in this case represented by Chinese [concepts], successfully entering into the Western system of norms and concepts was Sunzi’s The Art of War. There are two primary reasons for its success:
First, The Art of War does not have an excessive level of regional specificity; second, in relation to norms and discourse, it does not draw a distinction between the self and the other. It both embodies the accumulation of [a specific] society and culture, but also has universality. The case of Sunzi’s The Art of War can perhaps inspire us to contemplate how to realize a regional system of norms and discourse and how to draw closer to and integrate with the Western-led values system in a mutually interactive way.
In addition, there is an example of a local norm [i.e., local to the region] that complements and seeks the same outcome as a Western-led international norm. The concept, affirmed by China and many Asian nations, is “peace through development.” [It finds its analogue in] a norm revered in the West, “peace through freedom.” Using the case study of UN peacekeeping missions, some scholars undertook research comparing these two norms. Generally speaking, UN peacekeeping missions led by China first stabilize the situation, then focus on promoting regionally specific development programs, using economic development to bring about lasting peace and stability.
In contrast, peacekeeping missions led by Western nations focus on institution building: the first thing they do, after stabilizing the situation, is build democratic institutions [with the intention of] safeguarding peace through these institutions. Practical experience shows that peacekeeping and peacebuilding are most effective when these two norms work in concert. The development of Myanmar in recent years is an excellent example.
On the one hand, Myanmar instigated a historic process of democratic political transformation; on the other hand, the process of stabilizing northern Myanmar primarily followed the concept of “peace through development” and [the Myanmar government] actively sought out China’s support, seeking material development gains from the construction of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.
In summary: to [discover] how to find and realize a position in the international system that is fair and befitting to China, to [discover] how to best realize the co-evolution of China and the international system, [we] must proceed from the order of the system, international institutions, and concepts and norms. These are the core questions of “great changes unseen in a century.”
4 Both Chinese intellectuals and spokespersons for the Chinese party-state speak of China’s desire to occupy a“fairer and more befitting” (正当)position on the international stage. The variations permutations of this phrase(正当定位，正当位置. 正当立场, 正当地位, etc) capture the common Chinese belief that the post-WWII configuration of world politics was an expression of Western, and especially American, neo-imperialism. In this sense, it is not“fair”. The phrase also conveys that this configuration is outdated and does not reflect the change in China’s economic and military strength, as well as the unique contribution the Party believes it is making to world history and politics. In this sense, it is not “befitting” China’s current circumstances and role in world affairs.
5 These two important points of inflection in China’s prospects for growth and power are often referred to by Party and Party-proximate documents. Analysts have referred to the 2008 financial crisis as the beginning of the end of American hegemony. See, for example, this 2009 essay by Yuan Peng, now President of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), the think-tank linked to the Ministry of State Security. 袁鹏 [Yuan Peng], “金融危机与美国经济霸权：历史与政治的解读” [“The Financial Crisis and American Hegemony: Interpreting the History and Politics],” 《更新时间》[Renewal Times], available at
7 This alludes to the concept of “core interests” and “major concerns” common in Chinese diplomatic discourse. See the glossary entry for CORE INTERESTS (核心利益).
8 ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, was founded in 1967 with the signing of the Bangkok declaration. The original signatories (Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia,Singapore, and the Philippines) were united mostly by their opposition to growing Communist influence in Southeast Asia. After the conclusion of the Cold War, ASEAN expanded to include Brunei,Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. From its earliest days ASEAN has been defined by a commitment to economic co-operation and non-interference in the internal affairs of other ASEAN states. ASEAN decisions must be unanimous,leading to a consensus seeking style of politics that emphasizes personal relationships between ASEAN leaders and behind-the-scenes negotiations carried out away from the public eye.
This “ASEAN Way” has been extremely useful to Chinese diplomats, who rely on smaller countries in ASEAN dependent on Chinese largess–like Laos and Cambodia–to veto proposals that conflict with Chinese interests.
9 This is an allusion to Analects 13.23: “君子和而不同，小人同而不和” In the Edward Slingerland translation, the passage reads as: “The Master said, ‘The gentleman harmonizes, and does not merely agree (tong ). The petty person agrees, but he does not harmonize.’
The passage is usually interpreted to mean that a virtuous man can disagree with another’s perspective, but still respect him and co-exist peacefully.