“Peaceful Rise and the Limits of Chinese Exceptionalism”, an interview with Raquel Vaz-Pinto

1) What is, in your opinion, the importance of having analyses about China published in a magazine from a Southern country? Does it contribute for the comprehension of the South-South political agenda?

I consider it to be extremely important. The South-South dialogue has been one of the most impressive features of the last thirty years. There is an enormous common ground between countries that despite sharing some characteristics are highly heterogeneous. Notwithstanding, there is also room for competition and, in some instances, tension and conflict. This is to say that there is more to the South-South political agenda than meets the eye and, in particular, when we are dealing with such a special country as is China. This country has already been defined as a Janus-faced entity, i. e., it is able to reap the best of both worlds. It is a developing country and at the same the second biggest economy in the world and also a permanent member of the Security Council of the United Nations. This double identity really marks Chinese foreign policy and, in particular, when dealing with other Southern countries. Although China is a main commercial partner it is also pursuing a very aggressive foreign policy, for instance, concerning arable land in countries such as Brazil or Argentina. On balance, by analyzing all these issues we are in better conditions to contribute to the comprehension of the South-South political agenda and its ability to influence international society.

2) You focus on the domestic challenges as limits to the maintenance of China’s exceptional rise, and defend that the strategy for maintaining its economic growth must begin at home (please correct me if I’m wrong). Do you believe that China can overcome these challenges in a short or medium term, so that this growth won’t be drastically slowed down?

My main point is that in order for China to continue to rise it can no longer base its strategic narrative on a peaceful approach. Although it is true that the main pillar of this rise as been an outstanding economic growth, it is no longer enough. Not only is it spilling-over to the political, diplomatic and military realms, it is also facing growing pains. In my view, if China wants to continue to rise and to truly become a global power or even a superpower, it needs to deal with some key domestic issues. The point is that because these issues stem from the process of economic growth, for instance corruption or massive urbanization, they will be extraordinarily difficult to tackle with but they will determine the ability of China to think strategically. We are already observing the slowing down of the economy and, in 2013, China «only» grew around 7, 5% and this is linked to the notion that in order for growth to benefit Chinese society it has to be sustainable. This sustainability has already been emphasised by Hu Jintao and it will continue to be so by this 5th generation. The challenges are Herculean but we have witnessed the impressive resilience of the Chinese leadership mostly after 1989. We still have to wait and see how Xi Jinping’s first mandate will go and that should give us some clues as to the elite’s ability of tackling these domestic obstacles.

3) Is China’s new role as a global player only a spill-over of its economic weight? Wouldn’t the Chinese leaderships know that this economic power would eventually affect the political and military realms? And if so, wouldn’t they know that the exceptionalism would reach its limit, and elaborate different strategies to be used further? What would be an alternative to the Chinese exceptionalism?

China’s new role as a global player is underpinned by its economic weight, but it is also reinforced by its history and strategic culture. Unlike other emerging powers China has one of the most enduring civilizations in the world and a long history of being an Empire. Throughout the centuries the way China dealt with this outside world has left an important blueprint even for today. In other words, it is the return of the Middle Kingdom to its rightful place in the world, albeit a different and more competitive environment. By pursuing a peaceful rise, the point that Beijing is trying to make is that it just wants to focus on its economic development and, of course, by doing so it is developing the rest of the world as well. Nowadays, China is a victim of its own success and is clearly at a crossroads. It is «testing the US waters» and trying to understand the limits of what it can do and how it can project its power. We can witness this very clearly in the South China Sea and all the disputes with Japan, Vietnam or the Philippines and the emphasis on building a blue-water navy. In my view, Beijing has reached the limits of its strategic exceptionalism and is now showing that it is just like any other rising power. Beijing is already developing a more offensive take in which it is trying to reoccupy its central place in Asia. It is indeed the return of the Middle Kingdom.

4) In your article, you talk about nationalists, globalists and the defensive realists, identifying yourself in the third trend. Is there the same perception inside China? Do the ruling elite or the people of China believe that solving the challenges at home is essential to keep the international rise? Or is there another dominant point of view among them?

There is a very lively and comprehensive debate occurring within the Chinese elite and, in particular, its intellectuals. The recent survey – «China 3.0» – made by the European Council on Foreign Relations identified three broad approaches namely, nationalists, globalists and the defensive realists. It seems to me that the third approach is the one that is better able to deliver a strategy that enables China to continue rising, and that is why I paraphrase Richard Haass by saying that strategy begins at home.  The focus on the domestic hurdles can be observed by the recent measures adopted by Xi Jinping concerning the fight against corruption or the call for a lesser weight of the state in the economy. At the same time, I would argue that the nationalist approach has been gaining ground and is very appealing because, for instance, it calls for strategic parity with the US. We are not yet able to fully understand the level of change required by this approach and, therefore, to understand the intensity of the revisionism espoused by «this» China, but it has been preeminent in the debates. Even more when nationalism has clearly replaced ideology and is more and more a driving force of Chinese society. But whatever the strategy adopted by Beijing one thing is certain: it will have a global impact in the world.

Read the article:

VAZ-PINTO, Raquel. Peaceful rise and the limits of Chinese exceptionalism. Rev. bras. polít. int.,  Brasília ,  v. 57, n. spe,   2014 .   Available from <http://www.scielo.br/article_plus.php?pid=S0034-73292014000300210&tlng=en&lng=en>. access on  18  Oct.  2014.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0034-7329201400213.

Raquel Vaz-Pinto is Assistant Professor at the Catholic University of Portugal and President of the Portuguese Political Science Association.

Joana Soares is a member of the Tutorial Education Program in International Relations and a member of the Laboratory of analysis in International Relations – LARI (joana.l.soares@gmail.com)

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