Two approaches to Chinese international relations theory: a historical review and evaluation

LU Peng

【Abstract】Chinese scholars’ efforts to construct a Chinese theory of international relations (IR) have achieved great progress in the last decade. Three distinct Chinese IR theoretical branches, namely, the “Shanghai School,” the “moral realism,” and the “relational theory of world politics,” have been proposed consecutively. These Chinese theoretical works are created by two approaches of knowledge making, each of which has its research agenda. The first approach starts from ancient Chinese Thought and arrives at the unique Chinese understanding of the modern world. And the second approach starts from traditional Chinese logic of social practices and arrives at The Chinese way of making sense of the modern world. While the “moral realism” and the “Shanghai School” mainly follow the approach of Chinese thought, the “relational theory ” is primary a product of the approach of Chinese logic. These two approaches have contributed to the progress of Chinese IR analogue studies in the past decade; however, both need further improvements. While the approach of Chinese thought needs to address the spatial-temporal correlation between ancient Chinese thought and the modern international reality, and the approach of Chinese logic has to deal with the underlying epistemological issues. The future development of Chinese IR theory requires the combination of both the Chinese thought approach and the Chinese logic approach, in order to provide solid epistemological foundation of theory tenable ontological position of international relations.

【Keywords】 relational theory of world politics; moral realism; “Shanghai School”; Chinese IR theory; international relations theory with Chinese characteristics;

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(Translated by CHEN Man)

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    [2]. ② The academic community does not have a clear definition of the Chinese IR theory. Chinese scholars mostly understand it as a theoretical understanding of international relations based on Chinese experience. Wang, Y. World Economics and Politics (世界经济与政治), (1): 22 (2004). Zhang, J. Foreign Affairs Review (外交评论), (3): 76 (2005). Miao, H. Journal of International Security Studies (国际关系学院学报), (3): 6 (2007). Qin, Y. World Economics and Politics (世界经济与政治), (11): 23 (2008). The understanding of the Chinese IR theory applies to both the theory of international relations with Chinese characteristics and the Chinese school of international relations theory. However, it is worth noting that the theory of international relations with Chinese characteristics and the Chinese school have significant differences in the choice of theoretical sources, the specific methods of theoretical construction, and the issues addressed. This study, therefore, regards the theory of international relations with Chinese characteristics and the Chinese school as two stages in the construction of the Chinese IR theory.

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    [10]. ⑤ Lu Lingyu has similar problems in the exploration of the path of Chinese school generation. Lu’s research does not distinguish the different paths taken by Chinese scholars in the practice of theoretical construction. Instead, the Chinese scholars’ theoretical construction attempts are attributed to the “core issue-driven path” proposed by Qin Yaqing, and then the “conceptual guiding path” is proposed as a useful supplement to the “core issue path.” From this perspective, “relational theory,” “Qinghua approach,” and “Shanghai School” are all interpreted as the theoretical construction process under the guidance of their respective core issues. Therefore, from the perspective of path analysis, Lu does not compare the different paths of knowledge construction, but discusses different choices of theoretical construction perspectives and theoretical sources under the same path. Lu, L. Chinese Journal of European Studies (欧洲研究), (5): 148–149 (2016).

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    [18]. ① The main difference between the ideological approach and the thinking approach is the concrete practical process of constructing knowledge, rather than the result of this intellectual practice. On the one hand, the thinking approach also generates ontological understanding of the world in theoretical construction. Therefore, generating ontology is not a measure to distinguish these two kinds of knowledge paths; on the other hand, the logic of thinking covers both method and epistemology, that is, how to choose the source of knowledge and how to combine various sources of knowledge to generate knowledge of the world, and how to justify the rationality of this knowledge process and the reliability of the knowledge generated. Hence, epistemology is not sufficient to characterize the knowledge practice with the logic of thinking as the research object. Therefore, this study uses the ideological approach and the thinking approach as two categories to distinguish the practice of China’s international relations theory construction.

    [19]. ② A typical example is the discussion about whether the proposal of “being enthusiastic and pressing on” means a fundamental shift in China’s diplomatic strategy. Qin Yaqing, who followed the ideological path and Yan Xuetong who followed the thinking approach provided different answers. See Yan Xuetong, “From Keeping a Low Profile to Striving for Achievement,” Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2014, pp. 165–170; Qin Yaqing, “Continuity Through Change: Background Knowledge and China’s International Strategy,” Chinese Journal of International Politics,” Vol. 7, No. 3, 2014, pp. 311–313.

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    [28]. ③ Lu, P. World Economics and Politics (世界经济与政治), (12): 103–106 (2010).

    [29]. ④ Not all the discussions of China’s international relations theory have been consciously centered around the core issue raised by Qin Yaqing. For example, Yan defines the core issue of “moral realism” as “how to realize the process of power transfer.” See Yan, X. Transfer of World Power: Political Leadership and Strategic Competition (世界权力的转移:政治领导与战略竞争), Beijing: Peking University Press, 3 (2015). However, the subsequent analysis indicates that the existing theoretical research on China’s international relations has answered the question of “China’s peaceful integration into the international community” from different angles. Therefore, this study still regards this issue as the core issue of the Chinese school. Another consideration for doing so is to help to understand more deeply the similarities and differences between these theoretical views by comparing the solutions and answers to the same theoretical questions from different theoretical perspectives.

    [30]. ⑤ Qin Yaqing, “International Society as a Process: Institutions, Identities and China’s Peaceful Rise, ” Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2010, pp. 130–131; Barry Buzan, “China in International Society: Is Peaceful Rise Possible?” Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2010, p. 5.

    [31]. ① Yan Xuetong himself defines the core issue of moral realism as “how the rising power replaces the leading country and rises successfully,” that is, the transfer of the “world power center.” See Yan, X. Transfer of World Power: Political Leadership and Strategic Competition (世界权力的转移:政治领导与战略竞争), Beijing: Peking University Press, 3 (2015). Although the core issue of moral realism is inconsistent with Qin Yaqing’s core issue of “China’s peaceful integration into the international community,” however, considering the key concerns of moral realism for China’s rise and the affirmative conclusions on China’s peaceful development, this study still regards moral realism as an answer to the core questions raised by Chinese international relations scholars.

    [32]. ② According to Yan Xuetong and other scholars involved in the “Qinghua approach,” the study of the “Qinghua approach” on the political thoughts of the pre-Qin states began in 2005. Yan, X. Quarterly Journal of International Politics (国际政治科学), (3): 150 (2009). Xu, J. & Sun, X. International Review (国际观察), (6): 19 (2014). However, this study takes the published literature as the standard, and still sets the starting point of the “Qinghua approach” in 2007 when Yan Xuetong’s research on Xunzi’s international political thought was published. Yan, X. Quarterly Journal of International Politics (国际政治科学), (1): 139–144 (2007). A basic consideration for doing so is that the existence of the path depends to some extent on the fact that the knowledge practice has preliminary results, thus separating the path of practice from the path of imagination.

    [33]. ③ Yan, X. & Zhou, F. World Affairs (世界知识), (24): 44–45 (2004).

    [34]. ④ Whether Yan Xuetong has changed his opposition to Chinese IR theory or the Chinese school is controversial. One fact that cannot be ignored is that since 2007, scientific predictions have been greatly reduced in the academic research of Yan, and the theoretical research based on ancient Chinese thoughts has gradually increased. According to this, the “Qinghua approach” is regarded as the attempt to construct Chinese IR theory or Chinese school, as well as an indispensable part of the Chinese school. Another reason is that even though Yan still objects the Chinese school; however, according to many observers, his theoretical research in recent years was dedicated to the generation of the Chinese school. In this sense, Yan is similar to Kenneth Waltz, that is, although Waltz himself strongly opposes, his theory was still labeled as “neorealism” by the academic circle. See Yan Xuetong, “Why Is There No Chinese School of International Relations Theory?” pp. 252–253. A noteworthy phenomenon is that more and more Chinese and Western scholars regard the moral realism proposed by Yan based on ancient Chinese diplomatic thoughts as an important part of research of Chinese IR theory and even the Chinese school, and compare it with other branches of the Chinese school. Hence, this paper also categorizes moral realism into the Chinese school.

    [35]. ⑤ Yan, X. & Huang, Y. Quarterly Journal of International Politics (国际政治科学), (4): 98–102 (2008). Yan, X. Quarterly Journal of International Politics (国际政治科学), (3): 159–161 (2009).

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    [54]. ① The correlation between the “Qinghua approach” and historical facts is also questionable. See Hui Victoria Tin-bor, “Building Castles in the Sand: A Review of Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power,” Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 5, No. 4, 2012, p. 426; Zhang Feng, “The Tsinghua Approach and the Inception of Chinese Theories of International Relations,” p. 88.

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    [57]. ① A typical case of Western centralism in the field of international relations is the theoretical interpretation of the central position of the Peace of Westphalia in the formation and evolution of the international community. This Western theoretical vision began in the 19th century with Western scholars of international law who separated European international relations from international relations outside Europe. The former solved the anarchy of international relations because of its European cultural and social contractual norms. Due to the lack of the former’s characteristics, the latter can only stay in the darkness of anarchy unless it reaches the Western “standard of civilization.” And only then it is allowed to enter the international community. It is worth noting that not only the British school has a strong Western centralism, but the constructivists also have the same position, see Turan Kayaoglu, “Westphalian Eurocentrism in International Relations Theory,” International Studies Review, Vol. 12, No. 2, 2010, pp. 204–213.

    [58]. ① Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan, “Why Is There No Non-Western International Relations Theory? An Introduction,” International Relation in the Asia Pacific, Vol. 7, No. 3, 2007, pp. 287–312; Chen Ching-Chang, “The Absence of Non-Western IR Theory in Asia Reconsidered,” International Relations of the Asia–Pacific, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2011, pp. 1–23; Andrey Makarychev and Viatcheslav Morozov, “Is Non-Western Theory Possible? The Idea of Multipolarity and the Trap of Epistemological Relativism in Russian IR,” International Studies Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, 2013, pp. 328–350; David Lake, “White Man’s IR: An Intellectual Confession,” Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 14, No. 2, 2016, pp. 1112–1119.

    [59]. ② Amitav Acharya, “Global International Relations (IR) and Regional Worlds: A New Agenda for International Studies,” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 4, 2014, pp. 647–657; Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan, “Why Is There No Non-Western IR Theory? Ten Years On,” pp. 8–9.

    [60]. ③ Chinese scholars’ preference for Chinese experience in the process of knowledge generation is not unique to the practice of Chinese school construction in the past 20 years. In fact, from the late 1920s, at various stages of the development of China’s international relations discipline, this tendency exists to varying degrees and affects the knowledge practice of Chinese scholars. The only difference is the different ways of arguing its rationality in the historical periods. For a historical evolution of the inclination of Chinese experience in the discipline of Chinese international relations, see Lu Peng, “Chinese IR Sino-Centrism Tradition and Its Influence on the Chinese School Movement,” Pacific Review, forthcoming.

    [61]. ① The dominant position of ontological issue in the study of international relations theory is generally accepted by researchers. Therefore, the focus of theoretical research is on the agent, the structure, and the relationship between the two. For a systematic analysis of this ontological problem, see Colin Wight, Agents, Structures, and International Relations: Politics as Ontology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. In recent years, there have been more and more criticisms of the actor-structure problem. For example, Tang Shiping pointed out that this problem limits the horizon of international relations theory research, so the international system should be used to replace the international structure in the theoretical research. See Tang Shiping, “International System, Not International Structure: Against the Agent-Structure Problem at in IR,” Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 7, No. 4, 2014, pp. 484–485. However, it is worth noting that similar criticism is only about how to choose the ontological issue and not the dominant position of the ontological issue in theoretical research.

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    [63]. ③ Qin,Y. Social Sciences in China (中国社会科学), (3): 74 (2009).

    [64]. ④ Qin,Y. Social Sciences in China (中国社会科学), (3): 75–76 (2009).

    [65]. ① During this period, other Chinese scholars also mentioned the Chinese way of thinking when discussing China’s international relations theory. For example, when Ren Xiao of the “Shanghai School” talked about the generation and maintenance of the endogenous order in East Asia, an important reason he mentioned is that the Chinese people have a thinking way of extrapolation. See Ren, X. World Economics and Politics (世界经济与政治), (7): 9–10 (2013). However, Ren was not able to carefully analyze this way of thinking, and more importantly, from the content, he talked more about the principles of Chinese people, not the way to know the world. Therefore, this study still regards Qin Yaqing as the main representative figure of the thinking approach.

    [66]. ② Barry Buzan, “China in International Society: Is Peaceful Rise Possible?” pp. 18–29.

    [67]. ③ Qin Yaqing, “International Society as a Process: Institutions, Identities and China’s Peaceful Rise,” pp. 138–141.

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    [70]. ⑥ Yan Xuetong, “From Keeping Low Profile to Striving for Achievement,” pp. 165–170.

    [71]. ⑦ Qin Yaqing, “Continuity Through Change: Background Knowledge and China’s International Strategy,” p. 313.

    [72]. ⑧ Qin Yaqing, “A Relational Theory of World Politics,” International Studies Review, Vol. 18, No. 1, 2016, pp. 7–8.

    [73]. ⑨ Qin, Y. World Economics and Politics (世界经济与政治), (2): 8–10 (2016).

    [74]. ① Su Changhe’s analysis of the important role of the ruling of law in the knowledge process of Chinese people’s understanding of the world also follows the thinking approach. See Su, C. World Economics and Politics (世界经济与政治), (10): 30–32 (2013).

    [75]. ② Qin Yaqing, “A Relational Theory of World Politics,” p. 7.

    [76]. ① Qin Yaqing, “A Relational Theory of World Politics,” pp. 5–9.

    [77]. ① Qin Yaqing, “Continuity Through Change: Background Knowledge and China’s International Strategy,” p. 294.

    [78]. ① Su Changhe’s using relational theory to analyze the symbiotic international order is a valuable attempt by Chinese scholars to consciously combine thinking and ideological approaches to construct the Chinese school. See Su, C. World Economics and Politics (世界经济与政治), (1): 7–9 (2016). However, Su did not make too much analysis on the epistemological level of relational theory, and soon turned to the ontological aspect of the symbiotic system. Therefore, there is still a considerable distance from the real integration of these two approaches.

    [79]. ② Su, C. World Economics and Politics (世界经济与政治), (9): 16 (2013).

This Article

ISSN:1006-9550

CN: 11-1343/F

Vol , No. 01, Pages 73-93+158-159

January 2018

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Article Outline

Abstract

  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 The ideological approach and thinking approach of constructing the Chinese IR theory
  • 3 Conclusion
  • Footnote