Speaker: Liselotte Odgaard, Wilson Center fellow

Debates on China's national security strategy after the Cold War have often emphasized two positions. The "stakeholder" position conceives of China's ascent as conducive to enhanced international cooperation, and is consistent with a perceived Chinese preference for the non-use of force to protect common international objectives. The "challenger" position argues that China's ascent will lead to enhanced international rivalry, and views the alliance-based international system promoted by the United States as adverse to China's interests. On May 20, Wilson Center fellow Liselotte Odgaard outlined a third approach in a presentation organized by the Asia Program, in conjunction with the Kissinger Institute for China and the United States.

During the presentation, Odgaard contended that contemporary accounts have overlooked important characteristics of China's place in the international system. China is not the great power in material terms that some already claim, and despite its recent military modernization, its strategic options are limited by the absence of a Sino-centric alliance system. However, while China may be a secondary power in material terms, it has skillfully managed its position in the international system so that it has attained political standing above its weight. Odgaard believes that China's goal is to maintain its political status and shape the international system according to its own preferences, while directing resources to domestic social-economic development.

Indeed, China may be using stakeholder strategies to challenge U.S. pre-eminence in the international system by introducing the seeds of an alternative international order by means of persuasion rather than enforcement. Odgaard believes that Beijing has adopted a strategy of "co-existence." That is, it is expanding its political engagement in bilateral and multilateral security institutions across all the world's regions, while at the same time attempting to define the rules of international politics and determine the foreign policy choices that are open to other international actors. In this way, China becomes a "maker" rather than a "taker" of international order, as it attempts to shape the international system to its own liking.

However, there are significant weaknesses in China's strategy of co-existence. First, China seems to rely heavily on Moscow for support. Russia is not a loyal Chinese ally. Nor does Russia seem to be willing to subordinate short-term national interests for the sake of remolding international society. Russia has shown that it is more likely to define its national interests narrowly and less likely to place its faith in international institutions to solve its problems. China's association with Russia therefore weakens the former's claim to occupy the moral high ground in demonstrating respect for international law.

Second, unlike the United States, where standards regarding human rights and fair treatment are clearly enunciated and, while not always observed to the letter, do inform foreign policy, China does not have a clear model of state-society relations that allows others to measure its ability to manage political authority. Not surprisingly, when elements of what appears to be a Sino-centric political model—for example, China's assertion that state sovereignty take priority over human rights issues, and its insistence on its authority to intervene anywhere in the South China Sea—appear in Chinese policies, they cast doubt on China's attractiveness to others as a global player able to set the institutional rules that govern international society.

Drafted by Bryce Wakefield, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program, Ph: (202) 691-4020