Chow Bing on Tiang Boon, 'China's Global Identity: Considering the Responsibilities of Great Power'

Author: 
Hoo Tiang Boon
Reviewer: 
Ngeow Chow Bing

Hoo Tiang Boon. China's Global Identity: Considering the Responsibilities of Great Power. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2018. xxxi + 196 pp. $32.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62616-614-1; $98.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-62616-613-4.

Reviewed by Ngeow Chow Bing (University of Malaya) Published on H-Diplo (July, 2019) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53903

Jeffrey Bader, senior director for East Asian Affairs at the US National Security Council from 2009 to 2011 and often considered one of the top “China-hands” of the early Barack Obama administration, in his memoir noted the “emergence of a somewhat different China” between 2008 and 2010 “from the one the United States had been dealing with for several decades.” “One could detect a changed quality in the writing of Chinese security analysts and Chinese official statements, and in some respects in Chinese behavior,” Bader observed.[1] Many China watchers agreed. After the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, a qualitatively new China seemed to have emerged: a China that is more confident, decisive, assertive, some say revisionist; a China that sees itself as a Great Power. Under the present Chinese president Xi Jinping, who ascended to leadership in late 2012, there has been an even stronger and heightened sense of China as a rising Great Power, exemplified by the nationalistic “China Dream” narrative and the ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative” diplomatic strategy. In January 2017, a new conception of China as a global leader even emerged, as Xi in the World Economic Forum in Davos eloquently presented China as a defender of free trade and an open global order, at a time when the United States was widely seen as abdicating its global leadership role under the isolationist “Make America Great” agenda of President Donald Trump.  

What are the sources and stimulants of this Great Power identity? What is its major external reference point? Why has it taken the shape of its present form? How has it evolved? How does it guide and affect China’s foreign policy? By consulting large tracts of writings by Chinese scholars and analysts, together with a careful examination of official Chinese statements and actual foreign policy behavior, this illuminating book by Hoo Tiang Boon seeks to clarify and answer these questions.

Hoo’s book makes four major contributions. First, Hoo couples the conception of Great Power with the idea of Great Responsibilities (cleverly borrowing from the American comic book Spiderman): essentially this was not just a Great Power identity but a Responsible Great Power (RGP) identity, as narrated through the Chinese lens. The book documents the rich discourses of Chinese scholars and officials on the idea of responsibilities, which became more pronounced after 2005, when the then US deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick urged the Chinese to take on the role of “responsible stakeholder.” The Chinese were first bemused to be urged by Zoellick to be more responsible but essentially mostly welcomed his statement as they saw it as recognition by the US of China’s Great Power status. For a long period after the beginning of the reform of the opening up era, Chinese leaders had deliberately kept a low-profile foreign policy. But such a posture became more and more untenable as the share of China’s GDP in the global economy kept increasing, and China needed to create a more positive image to counter the “China threat” discourses as well. However, Chinese and US understanding of “responsibilities” are markedly different. China has taken up responsibilities consummate with its status, capabilities, and strengths by signing the Paris climate accord, contributing to the largest peacekeeping force among the permanent members of the UN Security Council, addressing developmental weaknesses in developing countries through infrastructure investment, working with the international community to handle the North Korean and Iranian nuclear issues, and so forth. Even controversial behaviors, such as the building up of island features in the disputed South China Sea, have been portrayed by China as fulfilling a responsibility to provide public goods to the littoral states (serving as stations for disaster relief). But it is easy to surmise that these Chinese achievements in delivering responsibilities are seen under a different light in the US, especially under the current Trump administration. They are either viewed as insignificant (peacekeeping), inadequate (North Korea), or selfish and predatory actions disguised as responsibilities (infrastructure investment in developing countries). 

Second, Hoo’s study provides a comprehensive historical perspective. He carefully traces the evolution of the identity all the way to the era of imperial China but focuses his study on the post-Mao period. Nevertheless, sufficient historical context before the post-Mao period is provided, and it is shown that even during the era when China was victimized by external aggressors, there was a sense among leaders, such as Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-shek, that China would one day resume its Great Power status and deliver its responsibilities, especially as leader to its fellow developing countries. This line of thinking was inherited by Mao Zedong but with the twist of ideological support of revolutionary internationalism. The advent of the pragmatic leadership under Deng Xiaoping ushered in an initial period of modesty. While cognizant of its own immense potential, China in the 1980s was keenly aware of the huge gap between itself and the developed world, and it truly did not identify itself as a Great Power. But the end of the Cold War, together with the isolation imposed on China because of the violence in Tiananmen, made China rethink its status in the international system. It was within this context that the more recent rendition of the RGP identity was incipiently formed. Western sanctions reinforced the determination of China to pursue its own independent course of development. The end of the Cold War, although momentarily bringing to the world a unipolar system, eventually resulted in a multipolar system in which China would occupy a “pole.” Concomitantly discourses of “comprehensive national power” began to emerge in Chinese academia to attempt to objectively assess Chinese power in comparison with others. All these trends suggested that China, after the ambiguities in the 1980s, was once again ready to see itself as an emerging Great Power, albeit one that still had to strive to close its development gap with the developed world. Hoo also sharply notes how each of the major external shocks in the post-Cold War era reinforced this identity. The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis propelled China to undertake the responsible role in halting further financial deterioration in the Asian economies. The September 11 terrorist attack was a golden opportunity for China to present itself as a responsible partner in tackling the global terrorist challenges. The 2008 Global Financial Crisis, of which China was widely seen as the only major economy that got through it with decisive action, strongly cemented this RGP identity. 

The third contribution of this book is to highlight the ongoing role of the US in shaping and influencing the development of China’s RGP identity. The idea that China could be “socialized” and “encouraged” to adopt behaviors that are more consistent with both its own power status and with prevailing international norms has always been one of the major justifications of the engagement policy since the time of Richard Nixon. The importance of this idea varied across and within different administrations, but the three successive US administrations before Trump (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama), in their respective China policies, all actively attempted to shape and encourage the RGP identity of China. For Clinton, agreeing to form a “partnership” with China during his summit with then Chinese president Jiang Zemin, exercising positive rhetoric (such as commenting on China’s actions in the Asian Financial Crisis and the Indian nuclear testing in 1998), and bringing China into the World Trade Organization were all aimed to shape China’s RGP identity—to make China feel welcome as a rising Great Power but one with consummate responsibilities. The initial hostility of the Bush administration quickly gave way to strong US-China cooperation after the war on terror began; in fact, the Bush years in retrospect could be said to have been the best years in US-China relations in recent memory, and it was from the Bush administration that the call for China to be a “responsible stakeholder” emerged. The Obama administration agreed to the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, clearly a sign according China the proper status as a Great Power equal to the US, and continued to apply rhetorical pressure on the Chinese leadership through such bilateral or other multilateral mechanisms, which stressed that Chinese power must be matched by growing responsibilities. The Chinese leadership responded to these calls by American presidents and officials over the years; in this sense the evolution of its RGP identity was deeply influenced by its interactions with the US. Nevertheless, only in selective areas did Chinese foreign policy behavior match the “responsibilities” expectations from the US. China clearly had its own considerations in reacting to these calls of being an RGP.

This leads to the fourth major contribution of this book: the analysis of Chinese discussions and debates on the concepts related to the RGP identity. Hoo identifies three general positions in the debate: the internationalist, the developmental, and the skeptical. Broadly speaking, the internationalist position agrees that China should undertake more responsibilities as its power grows. There are both instrumental and moral reasons. For instrumental reasons, greater Chinese responsibilities imply greater opportunities for China to shape the rules and be accorded a larger share of rights. Morally, Chinese philosophical and ethical traditions also encourage China to have a moral obligation to the international community once China has become rich and powerful. The developmental perspective takes a more guarded view of the RGP identity, essentially still emphasizing the developing country status of China. China can only assume responsibilities in accordance with its own development status, and the first priority should still be the domestic welfare of its own people. Finally, the skeptics hold a cynical view of the RGP. Accordingly, taking up global responsibilities will drain Chinese limited resources and slow Chinese growth, and it could be a manipulative ploy by the United States to check the rise of China. Among these three schools, the internationalist is ostensibly the one that is most congruent with the expectations of the US, and it is the school that essentially has become increasingly more reflective of official Chinese policies. And according to Hoo, this is the school that is on ascendance under Xi. Yet the result is disappointing to US officials, especially under the Trump administration. An internationalist is not the same as an integrationist. The kind of responsibilities China should take should be self-determined rather than selected and imposed on China by the US. China is seeing itself as an RGP today, which is exactly what the engagement strategy of the past US administrations had tried to shape, but the kind of RGP China conceives of itself is still profoundly different from US expectations.

The Trump administration has ruptured the continuous China policy of the US government of the past several decades. Not a few officials in his administration believe that it was a treacherous mistake for the US to shape China into an RGP. China has indeed become a Great Power but not a Responsible Great Power, rather a Great Power ungrateful and deeply distrustful of the US, and it is time for the US to adopt a more confrontational strategy toward China. In the conclusion of this book, Hoo seems to disagree. In his assessment, while the evolution of Chinese RGP identity did not exactly match every expectation of the US, it did match more than just a few, ranging from managing the North Korean nuclear issue, counterterrorism, and nonproliferation, to dealing with climate change and global public health. In fact, Hoo argues that “from a policy standpoint, the implication is that the long-standing American strategy of engaging China is not as misguided as what some critics assert. More than that, the evidence suggests Washington should continue and indeed do more to encourage China’s pursuit of the RGP identity” (pp. 174-75). Alas, this suggestion would not be welcome in Washington at this moment.

Note

[1]. Jeffrey Bader, Obama and China’s Rise: An Insider Account of America’s Asia Strategy (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2012), 79-80.

Ngeow Chow-Bing is director of the Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya.

Citation: Ngeow Chow Bing. Review of Tiang Boon, Hoo, China's Global Identity: Considering the Responsibilities of Great Power. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. July, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53903

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.