Schools of thought in China’s foreign policymaking – How should the US respond?

China is a conflicted rising power with an increasingly pluralized foreign policymaking process, characterized by multiple viewpoints across different actors and institutions. What then are the implications for US foreign policy toward China? This question was addressed by a panel of China experts at a symposium on “Worldview of Rising Powers: Domestic Foreign Policy Debates,” held on April 25th at George Washington University.

David Shambaugh, Professor of Political Science at GWU, outlined seven schools of thought in China’s foreign policy discourse and recommended corresponding U.S. policy responses:

  • Nativists are populists and nationalists who distrust the outside world and fiercely criticize the West. The US should be aware of them, but not overstate their influence. They can be ignored.
  • Realists place a premium on building up a strong state that can navigate its own way in the world and resist outside pressures. In short, they want to strengthen China and challenge the United States. For the US, strategic hedging would be the response to this semi-revisionist tendency in China.
  • Major Powers proponents are those who advocate a focus on relations with the world’s major powers and blocs. In other words, they are interested in working with the US, which complements an engagement approach in US foreign policy.
  • Asia First proponents, as the name implies, have a regional focus. They seek to compete with the US and undermine American influence in Asia. In response, the US should maintain its presence, alliances, diplomatic partnerships and soft power in Asia.
  • The Global South school believes that China’s main international identity and responsibility lies with the developing world. For the US, this means competition with China with regard to relations with middle powers. It also calls for increased US aid and activism in the developing world.
  • Selective Multilateralists cooperate multilaterally for tactical reasons only, and not for any philosophical support for a western liberal agenda. The US could push them toward greater multilateral cooperation by shining a spotlight on China’s shortcomings in global governance on a range of issues, from funding of international organizations to climate change.
  • Globalists believe that China must shoulder the responsibility for addressing a range of global governance issues commensurate with its size, power, and influence. The US should welcome them, but by now the globalists are a discredited minority.

Shambaugh’s presentation was followed by commentary by David M. Lampton, Professor of China Studies at Johns Hopkins University. The panel was chaired by Evan Medeiros, Director for Asian Affairs on the U.S. National Security Council. For a detailed exposition of these seven schools of thought, see “Coping with a Conflicted China” in The Washington Quarterly (Winter 2011), by David Shambaugh.

To watch the complete video recording of this session, click here. Videos are also available for the panels on Japan, India, Russia and Iran, the other major powers that are examined by the Rising Powers Initiative.

This day-long symposium was organized by the Rising Powers Initiative with generous support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York (click here to see the full agenda). The event was hosted by the Sigur Center for Asian Studies and took place at the Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C.

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About risingpowers
Sigur Center for Asian Studies Elliott School of International Affairs The George Washington University

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