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The Implications of China’s International Position

[Editor’s note: On March 7, 2011, at the press conference of the 4th Session of 11th National People’s Congress in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said that, in its international position, China is still a developing country. Yang expressed the opinion that China can only play its role within its abilities because, based on the United Nation’s standard, China has 150 million people living in poverty. [1]

Mr. Yang’s views on China’s international position are a response to the international community’s question whether China should shoulder more responsibility in international affairs and whether the fact that China is now the second largest economic entity in the world means that it should no longer be considered a developing country. Why does China claim in public that it is still a developing country and how does China really view its position in the world? Below are excerpts from China’s media reports and experts’ studies on the topic.]

I. China’s International Status Is a National Strategic Topic

Regarding how to handle international affairs, China has its own unique perspective on how to position the country publicly. In the field of social sciences, China has actually designated the study of China’s international position as a long-term national project. [2] From the participants in the project and from the remarks of top Chinese scholars, one can get some idea of Chinese thought on the topic.

On November, 19, 2010, the Research Institute of Globalization at the China University of Political Science and Law organized an academic conference in Beijing, “China’s Current International Position.” Participants included the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Beijing University, People’s University of China, Tsinghua University, Fudan University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, National Defense University, China’s Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, China Foreign Affairs University, the University of International Relations, Beijing Normal University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, Beijing University of Aeronautics & Astronautics, the University of International Business and Economics, Minzu University of China (formerly known as the Central University of Nationalities), Sun Yat-Sen University, the East China University of Political Science and Law, as well as leaders and scholars from different departments and institutes at our university (the China University of Political Science and Law), such as the Department of Propaganda of the CCP Committee, the School of Public Administration and Politics, and the School of Marxism. In addition, the chief editors from several academic journals also attended the conference, including Social Sciences in China ( 《中国社会科学》), Contemporary International Relations (《现代国际关系》), and The Contemporary World & Socialism (《当代世界与社会主义》). [2]

Professor Cai Tuo, director of the Research Institute of Globalization, hosted the opening ceremony. Zhou Jian, director of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, gave a speech in which he pointed out that the most prominent feature of 2009 was the coexistence of crises and the need for reform; different countries made the switch from coping with the crises cooperatively to competing for leadership during the post-crisis era. Given such an international background, it is of great significance to handle China’s international standing well. Professor Chen Yugang of Fudan University believed that, in considering China’s international position, China must have a global vision and be sober-minded about its goals and strategies in building the global order, so that China can have input. [2]

II. Has China’s International Status Changed?

In his article published in the semi-monthly internal circulation (controlled by the Propaganda Ministry) of Xinhua News Agency, Qian Wenrong, a prominent scholar at Xinhua’s Research Center of International Studies addressed the question, “Has China’s International Status Changed?” [3]

Qian asked, “With the increase in China’s overall strength and the improvement of its international status, we often hear the phrases ‘a responsible big country,’ ‘China model,’ and ‘Chimerica.’ During the second round of the ‘China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue’ at the end of May, the two countries both adopted an amazingly mild attitude. On many topics, such as the exchange rate of China’s currency and the issue of North Korea, the U.S. and China tried very hard to avoid conflict. The cooperative attitude stirred up further thinking: Is China still a developing country? Has China’s international status changed?”

Qian answered these questions from three different perspectives on international relations and stressed that these are the important relations China must handle well within the multi-lateral structure of the United Nations.

1. The Relationship between China and the Present International System

“Some say that China is a ‘loyal defender’ of the current international system. They believe that ‘complying with the present international order and system is a manifestation of being responsible,’ and that ‘China has given up the role of challenging the international system.’ Some have warned [China] ‘Be sure not to challenge the current international system.’ These views are a reproduction of those held by the scholars and politicians of Western countries, particularly the U.S.

“As everyone knows, it was Western countries that designed the current international system. It must go through reforms. Its disadvantages and its lack of rationality and justice have become increasingly obvious. The financial crisis that started in the fall of 2008 exposed the existence of serious problems within the financial system, a system that the U.S. and the entire Western world formulated. In addition, the crisis of climate change similarly revealed the serious problems that exist in the production and lifestyle of the Western capitalist system.

“Our basic policy toward the current international system is neither to completely overturn it and start a new one nor to ‘defend it loyally.’ Rather, we should make use of the good parts and reform the negative ones.

“Today’s world is in the middle of a big change; so is the international system. Especially now that the U.S. is experiencing the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression of 1929, the demand for reform is especially high. It is fair to say that now is the best time to reform the current international system. We should take an active role in the reform together with other developing countries.”

2. The Relationship between China and Developed Countries vs. between China and Developing Countries

… “The continuous improvement of China’s international status is a result of two major factors. One is the constant improvement of its overall national strength; the second is that we have always remained united with the vast developing countries and gained support from these countries. A number of facts have proven to us that on every crucial occasion, it was the developing countries that truly lent us support. Without them, during all the international struggles, we would have stood alone without any outside help.

“First of all, we must be determined to firmly stand together with developing countries, and earnestly execute this strategy. This is the foundation for our nation’s long-term interest. We must not forget the interests of developing countries, and we should not give up this principle for the sake of establishing good relations with a certain developed country. We must have a long-term strategic vision; we should not focus only on maintaining a ‘friendly’ relationship with one or several big countries. Otherwise, it will fundamentally endanger or damage our nation’s strategic interests.

“At the same time, some Western developing countries are conspiring to damage the relationship between China and developing countries. We must not fall into their traps. The Western media slander us, saying that China is exploring the so-called ‘new colonization’ in Africa. That is one of the ways they seek to destroy our relationships with developing countries.”

3. The Relationship between China’s National Interests and Global Interests (All Human Being’s Common Interests) …

“Every country in the world bases its foreign policy on its national interests. However, some developed capitalist countries, while pursuing their own national interests, do not mind hurting other countries’ interests. They interfere with other countries’ internal affairs, and even wage war in order to maximize their national interests. The U.S. is particularly guilty in this regard. “Ever since 2005, when former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Bruce Zoellick asked China to be a ‘responsible stakeholder,’ ‘big responsible country’ has become a popular term in China. … As a matter of fact, as to how China can become a ‘responsible stakeholder,’ Zoellick put forward 10 requirements, all of which had one goal: that China must maintain the international system established on the basis of the new and old colonialism and the hegemony of the U.S. and other Western countries.

“As a big country among developing countries, and a standing member of the Security Council, China certainly should be a responsible country. … However, we are by no means to be responsible according to the rules and standards that a certain superpower or a certain group of countries set up. We absolutely cannot take whether or not China seeks to maintain an international order and system formulated and led by Western countries as the prerequisite to judge whether China is a “responsible power.” We can not change China’s international position as such.”

III. China Has Its Own Agenda for International Responsibility

Liu Jianfei, professor and deputy director of the Institute for International Strategy, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Party School, explained China’s international responsibility as follows: [4]

“China is an Asian country, the biggest Asian country. China’s international responsibility, to a large extent, manifests in maintaining the peace and stability of Asia and promoting mutual development in our region. Therefore, we should pay more attention to Asian affairs. China must be more careful when handling the issues that have an impact on Asia’s peace and development, for example, the Afghanistan war, Burma’s issues, and nuclear problems on the Korean peninsula. It is not possible for China to take the same stand in handling these issues as that of the superpowers outside of Asia.

“China is a rising big country and is the only socialist giant. For these two reasons, China must be particularly careful when undertaking its international responsibilities. When a rising big country takes on national responsibilities, other superpowers often misinterpret its intention. Talks like ‘responsible country’ and ‘[China] threat’ often come up. The identity of a big socialist country is more vulnerable to Western superpowers’ hostile attitude. As the ‘China Collapse’ and ‘China Threat’ have gradually lost their market, the term ‘responsibility’ has become their main weapon to contain China.
“As China makes further progress in becoming a superpower, China will certainly undertake more international responsibilities. … In today’s world, after all, national interest is the first priority. When China undertakes international responsibilities, it is unlikely that China will sacrifice its own interests.” [4]

[1] Xinhua, “In its International Position, China is Still a Developing Country,”  March 8, 2011.
[2] Beijing Planning Office of Philosophy and Social Conference on Science, “The Present China’s International Position,” November, 19 2009.
[3] Xinhua, “Has China’s International Position Changed?,” June 2, 2010.
[4] Outlook Weekly, “Handling China’s International Position,”  January, 11, 2010.