China's Statecraft May Challenge Conventional International Relations' Approach

September 21, 2022

Conventional wisdom holds that China's rise is disrupting the global balance of power in unpredictable ways. However, China has often deferred to the consensus of smaller neighboring countries on regional security rather than running roughshod over them. Why and when does China exercise restraint— and how does this aspect of Chinese statecraft challenge the assumptions of international relations theory?

In his recently published book, Power and Restraint in China's Rise (Columbia University Press, 2022), Chin-Hao Huang argues that China's aspirations for legitimacy and acceptance provide a crucial rationale for refraining from coercive measures. Featuring the new book, a webinar sponsored by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and co-sponsored by Columbia Global Centers | Beijing invited Huang to offer new insights into the causes and consequences of change in current Chinese foreign policy.

The book analyzes Chinese foreign policy conduct in the South China Sea, showing how complying with regional norms and accepting constraints improves external perceptions of China and advances other states' recognition of China as a legitimate power. Nick R. Smith, the moderator of the webinar, asked about Huang's methodology of studying China's statecraft. Huang stressed that he drew lots of empirical analyses of China's foreign policies toward the Association of Southeast Asian Nations(ASEAN). In their discussion, Huang explained why and how member states of the ASEAN took a collective approach to defuse tension in maritime disputes, incentivizing China to support regional security initiatives that it had previously resisted. 

Huang also elaborated new theoretical perspectives on why great powers eschew coercion in favor of restraint when they seek legitimacy. His framework explains why a dominant state with rising ambitions takes the views and interests of small states into account, as well as how collective action can induce change in a major power's behavior. Offering new insight into the causes and consequences of change in current Chinese foreign policy, Huang's works have significant implications for the future of engagement with China.

"Compared to U.S. military involvement, ASEAN has more capability of enmeshing China further into regional preferences for dialogue and diplomacy", Huang predicted, "but it will depend on the ASEAN's unity".