China, U.S. Foreign Policy

After unipolarity: China’s visions of international order in an era of U.S. decline

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Last updated: October 5, 2011

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In 2010 China’s GDP surpassed that of Japan, making it the second largest economy in the world after that of the United States. Despite the global economic downturn, China’s GDP grew 10.3% the same year, and it is expected to continue rising at double-digit rates. With increased economic power comes political influence, calling into question the dominance the United States has enjoyed since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In a 2011 report published in International Security, “After Unipolarity: China’s Visions of International Order in an Era of U.S. Decline,” scholars from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and Ohio State University explore this issue. The report distills ideas and current major schools of thought among thinkers and policy makers in China — the climate of ideas around the Chinese Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army — about the proper way to proceed on the global stage.

The report’s findings include:

  • Though China continues to accommodate the U.S. in many ways, it is also pursuing a strategy of deligitimizing American power. Its tactics, both rhetorical and concrete, include: “(1) denouncing U.S. unilateralism and promoting the concept (if not always the practice) of multilateralism; (2) participating in and creating new international organizations; (3) pursuing a proactive ‘soft power’ diplomacy in the developing world; (4) voting against the United States in international institutions; and (5) setting the agenda within international and regional organizations.”
  • Chinese strategists remain “pluralistic” in their views, and “Chinese ideas about alternative world orders remain inchoate and contested within China itself.” There are, generally speaking, three competing visions within China about how to forge a new global order. These can be summarized as: a new Chinese order; a modified liberal order; or a negotiated order.
  • Within the vision of a new Chinese order, the following are key aspects among Chinese intellectuals: “(1) Chinese traditional philosophy provides a better framework than the current order to deal with world problems; (2) U.S. hegemony is losing international legitimacy; (3) Chinese political and economic systems are gaining legitimacy and provide the basis for a better social model for the world; and (4) China should build a global datong (Great Harmony) society, in which emphasis is given to social welfare and collective goods. This vision aims to undermine the legitimacy of U.S. hegemony.”
  • The vision of a modified liberal order is less confrontational and accepts the legitimacy and benefits of much of the existing global system structured around capitalism and democracy: “The U.S. unipolar distribution of power gives way to either a U.S.-China bipolar system or a multipolar ‘great power concert’ system, but it is still an international order dominated and run by the major states, which establish a relatively stable system of cooperation and managed competition.”
  • The third vision of a negotiated order “neither rejects Western culture nor ignores the potential values of traditional Chinese ideas. Instead, it champions an order of ‘peaceful coexistence with differences,’ in which the Chinese worldview is recognized by the United States and the rest of the world as being different but legitimate.” It “supports a hedging strategy of avoiding direct confrontation with the United States but preparing favorable conditions for China to shape an emerging world order in the long term.” This vision of the future “appears most consistent with what China is currently doing.”

Tags: China, Asia


Writer: | October 5, 2011

Analysis assignments

Read the Ohio State and Harvard Kennedy School study "After Unipolarity: China’s Visions of International Order in an Era of U.S. Decline."

  1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
  2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
  3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

Read the issue-related BBC article "U.S. Senate Backs Debate on Currency Law Amid Yuan Row."

  1. What points do the report and article raise that may be key for journalists to watch in terms of China-U.S. relations in the coming years? What are some of the complications of covering the relationship from an unbiased perspective?

Newswriting assignments

  1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
  2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
  3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
  4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.

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