Why is China “still” not a revisionist power?

Soldiers of People's Liberation Army (PLA) march in formation during the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China, on its National Day in Beijing, China October 1, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The US National Security Strategy in late 2017, and subsequently, the US National Defense Strategy in early 2018 labelled Chinese behaviour as a “revisionist” state trying to challenge and replace the international order. Aaron Friedberg, former advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney claimed publicly that China is clearly a “revisionist power” seeking to alter “existing order in Asia” and “wider world”. Ely Ratner, former advisor to Vice President Joe Biden said America’s engagement to integrate China has “largely failed“, positing China as a “revisionist power”. Condoleeza Rice, an American political scientist wrote in foreign affairs arguing that “China is not a ‘status quo’ power”.

I argue, in this piece, that policymakers, pundits and academics characterizing Chinese behaviour as “revisionist” is premature and incomplete. Their analysis favours confirming evidence that supports their “revisionist hypothesis” while neglecting the dis-confirming evidence. This article suggests it’s too early to describe China as a revisionist state at this juncture. The article proceeds first by describing the meaning of intentions. It then explores the concepts of “status quo” and “revisionist” power in the context of international relations (IR) theory. Further, it argues how Chinese revisionism against US-led liberal order is problematic and ill-conceived through providing evidence that justifies a balanced Chinese behaviour.

Souvenirs with portraits of Chinese President Xi Jinping and former Chinese leader Mao Zedong are displayed at a souvenir shop in Beijing, China, 26 February 2018. / Image: EPA-EFE/ROMAN PILIPEY

Intentions and Theory of IR

Intentions are defined as what the state intends to do. Domestically, it’s the policymakers’ actions towards a particular state or world order. Systemically, it’s how the structure and natural factors affect what state might intend to do. But generally, it’s how “states deal with international order”. In broad, there are two ways – “status quo/integration” and “revision”. The former emphasizes acceptance of dominant principles, rules, norms established by “international society”. The latter signifies dissatisfaction with this order and intent to revise or replace it.

Defensive realist, as argued by Glenn Synder “need not distinguish between revisionist and status quo power”. Kenneth Waltz argues “excessive accumulation” of power is self-defeating as it promotes balancing behaviour. Thus, prolonged status-quoism is the norm. In contrast, Offensive realist like John Mearsheimer believes status quo powers are rare in the international system, as structure incentivizes power maximizing behaviour at the expense of the rival. Since states are “primed for offence”, thus states are mostly revisionists. Hans Morgenthau argued the policy of status quo is aimed at “maintenance of distribution of power” at a particular moment but talks little about how adjustments are dealt with. More precisely, Robert Gilpin offers three broad criteria to identify a revisionist state. He argued revisionist states are those that permanently seek to alter the distribution of power, the hierarchy of prestige and governing world system. Organski and Kugler defined status quo power as those who construct the “rules of games”(system), that disproportionately benefit them and challengers are those that want their proportionate share in world order by either altering or revising the system.

Despite the importance of the terms – status quo and revisionist – in international relations, their conceptualization remains vague, abstract and “under-theorized”. In short, we lack concrete parameters to test whether a state is a revisionist or not. We now move on to describe those parameters and ask analytical questions, which will refine our understanding of the state’s intentions.

G7 leaders/Image: Vox

US-led Liberal International Order

Does China pose a challenge to the liberal international order? Is China a “dissatisfied” state trying to replace the world order? To answer this question, rather than assuming the “existence of a single US-dominated liberal world order”, we here assess multiple “issue specific orders” and China’s response to such order. For the sake of simplicity, we analysis – military order and politico-economic order.

Military order

The parameters to test whether China is altering the military order include – distribution of power and territorial disputes.

Distribution of power measures whether China has “extraordinary growth in military expenditures” and whether such military expenditures affect the balance of power (BoP) in the South-East Asian region. Official estimates suggest that Chinese military expenditures “multiplied by almost 12 times in nominal terms between 1994 and 2012 – a double-digit annual growth rate”. But in sharp contrast, for nearly a decade (2009-2017) Chinese military expenditures remained at1.9 percent of Chinese GDP“. This suggests in recent times Chinese expenditure has relatively softened, but not absolutely. Moreover, China is financing much more defensive capabilities, rather than offensive capabilities. US “offensive defence” strategy has compelled China to invest heavily in A2/AD defensive capabilities to deter American aggression. In short, China is defensively balancing against American offence in the East Asian region. In response to China’s growth, most of the countries in the Southeast Asian region have increased their defense budget. This suggests regional BoP is heavily skewed towards defence while measuring offence-defence balance. To conclude as Michael Beckley puts it ” balance of power will remain stable for years to come” in the region.

A J-31 stealth fighter (background) of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force lands on a runway after a flying performance at the 10th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, Guangdong province. /Image: VOA/ REUTERS/Alex Lee

Regarding territorial disputes, we assess the issue of sovereignty of Taiwan, past disputes in the South China Sea and its outcome. China lacks actual control over Taiwan and won’t accept its formal independence. But the accusation that China is violating the “norm of self-determination” is misconstrued. UN documents on decolonization and national liberation in the 1960s acknowledged the right of oppressed people to set up their own sovereign state, but “it also attempted to protect newly independent, decolonized states from further dismemberment”. China’s case is similar to other countries like India, thus any conclusion based on this fact is incomplete. At this moment, China’s coercive diplomacy in the South China Sea is getting a lot of attention. But such coercive measures are evident in the past also (such behaviour is observed in any states involved in territorial disputes). In the 1970s to 1990s China used its naval power “ to violently push other claimants off ” the ” territorial features (Parcels 1974, Johnson South reef 1988) and established a new presence on “Mischief reef in 1990s”.

China enhanced it’s military and naval presence in the South China sea in 2009 and 2010, as a response to more assertive “proactive diplomacy by other claimants to establish legal boundaries of their claims”. Similarly, in 2012 when Japan nationalized Senkaku islands (disputed territory between China and Japan), China responded with the coast guard to “symbolically challenge Japan’s control“. Moreover, when Japan extended its ADIZ to monitor control over Senkaku, China responded with its own ADIZ move. Regionally, China has taken unilateral action to resolve the existing disputes, even though it neglected the judgement given by the international arbitration tribunal in 2016 challenging the UN Convention on the Law of Sea to resolve disputes. In short, since the past three decades China is actively present in the South China Sea, thus claims that China is “more assertive” in the region, at this moment, is simply exaggerated. Moreover, China in the above two cases responded to the actions of other claimants to establish control over disputed territory. Thus revisionist tendencies are seen only when China is provoked.

Shanghai Port/Image: SCMP

Politico-economic order

The parameters to test whether China is revising the politico-economic order include – first cooperation with the hegemon (US), second China’s approach to various international institutions.

Cooperation with the hegemon measures cooperative actions over a range of issues and voting congruence in the UN. Cooperative actions and congruence in multiple issues between the US and China are measured with the help of the dataset provided by the Integrated Crisis Early Warning System (ICEWS – (Fig 1 below)). Contrary to the current narrative where China is projected as more assertive, Chinese statements and actions towards the US are “overwhelmingly cooperative“. The second measure is the degree of voting congruence between the US and China. This is measured through UNGA ideal point data (Fig 2 below) which captures China’s position vis-a-vis the US. The absolute distance between the US and China’s ideal points varied across time, but as compared to the 1990s, the gap in 2015 has narrowed.

Both the graphs and interpretations are reproduced directly from the article " China in a world of orders" written by Alastair Iain Johnston.

China’s approach to international institutions includes first, China’s participation rate in international institutions and second whether China challenges or breaks the rules and norms of such institutions. Between the 1960s and 1990s, Chinese membership to international organizations jumped from zero to 80 percent of compared states. Some international organizations like IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO are supported by both the US and China, while other institutions are more or less opposed by both including ICJ, ICC.

Most importantly, the common method to check a state’s compliance with international organizations is to compare that state’s approach to the US. But the US has consistently opposed the rules and norms of international order. For instance, China’s rejection to comply with the decision of the International arbitration tribunal in 2016 concerning the South China Sea dispute is regarded as violative of an international norm, then why not the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its adventure in Afghanistan. As regards, institutions such as UNSC, China remains a staunch defender of it. China has contributed to the peacemaking mission at the behest of the UN. China is currently involved in major arms control institutions. But both China and the US remained outside of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and opposed the Treaty of Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. In short, as Steve Chan concluded, participation in IGO’s reflects national satisfaction with the world order, though the evidence regarding the breaking of rules and norms remains contested (should be analyzed relative to other states’ response to international institutions).


To sum up, the above pieces of evidence suggest that the “revisionist” narrative is much more exaggerated and overstated. In some domains, China’s assertiveness, to some degree, has increased, but in other domains, it remained satisfied with other liberal orders. In other words, the overall picture remains pretty complex and “revisionist characterization” is simply a conjecture.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Rahul Jaybhay

Rahul Jaybhay is studying M.A. at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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