Authors: Jenny Clegg
Publisher: Pluto Press
Reviewed by Emilian Kavalski, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Western Sydney (Australia)
In the wake of 1989, commentators began pondering how far Western ideas can and would spread. Two decades later, the debate seems to be how far Chinese ideas and attitudes can spread. Such a shift in observation has been significantly impacted by the emergence of China as an important not only Asian, but also global actor. China’s ability to extend its international roles and outreach is usually connected to the break-up of the Cold War order. The demise of bipolarity appeared to lift the structural constraints that put limits on the proliferation of international agency. In this respect, Beijing’s enhanced confidence and ability to fashion international relations seems to attest both to the transformations in and the transformative potential of Chinese foreign policy attitudes.
Jenny Clegg’s volume, thereby, offers a much needed and an extremely erudite conceptual analysis of China’s emerging international agency. The reality of Beijing’s enhanced confidence and capacities to influence international life have tended to divide opinions. On the one hand, some commentators perceive China’s rise as a sinister project for the sinicization of global politics—that is, a Chinese strategy for neocolonial domination. On the other hand, other observers have interpreted the very same prominence of China in world affairs as an indication of a healthy non-Western approach to the theory and practice of international affairs.
While acknowledging the validity of both positions, Clegg suggests that they are undone by the very “either-or” logic that underpins them. According to her, such a framing is indicative of a failure of the imagination, which prevents the engagement with the full complexity of China’s international agency. Clegg, therefore, is quite forthright about the scope of her investigation—she reads China’s global strategy as an attempt to construct an equitable multipolar world. In this respect, multipolarity becomes shorthand for the struggle to truly democratize international relations. Thus, Clegg’s account is both interesting and important because it offers a rare and insightful glimpse into the attempts of the political left to come to terms with the increasingly assertive global agency of China. Thus, unlike the former Soviet Union, which opposed the “hegemonism” of the USA on ideological ground, China’s challenge to the American-dominated order reveals that it is “grasping the key structural issue in the international situation”—that “US hegemonism” is the main impediment to world peace (p. 222). Clegg, thereby, argues, that
At its core, China’s [foreign policy] is a Leninist strategy whose cautious implementation is infused with the principles of protracted people’s war: not overstepping the material limitations, but within those limits “striving for victory;” being prepared to relinquish ground when necessary and not making the holding of any one position the main objective, focusing instead on weakening the opposing force; advancing in a roundabout way; using “tit for tat” and “engaging in no battle you are not sure of winning” in order to “subdue the hostile elements without fighting.” (p. 223)
This interpretation is revealing of the ideas zigzagging in the discussions among the political left. Yet, Clegg’s account while focused on the ideational aspects of China’s global strategy, is embedded in the contextual and historical patterns of Beijing’s external relations. It is this careful positioning of China’s international agency that would probably be of particular interest to those interested in East Asian integration. Especially, Clegg’s consideration of the “unipolar-multipolar dynamics” (p. 17), offers pertinent reflections on some of the region-building practices in East Asia. The analysis offers thoughtful and probing accounts of China’s role in the “six party talks on Korean denuclearization” (p. 110), in the “new economic regionalization” of Southeast Asia (p. 114), in the formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization—“key geopolitical” organization of Central Asia (p. 104).
Clegg, employs these examples as contexts for her discussion of “China’s multipolar strategy” (p. 97). According to her, Beijing’s promotion of multilateralism in East Asia is not merely a convenient rhetorical ploy. Instead, Clegg demonstrates that it is an established approach to foreign policy making with its own historical roots, legitimacy, and justification. In other words, multipolarity is an indelible part of China’s strategic culture which rests on particular conceptualizations of security, appropriateness, and cooperation.
Nevertheless, this provenance notwithstanding, Clegg acknowledges that China’s global outreach would have been impossible were it not for the country impressive “development trajectory” (p. 123). According to her, it is not only the mechanics of economic reform, but also (and mostly) their ability to deliver development that have assisted the construction of China as a model for other countries. Thus, China has become probably the only non-Western actor capable both of projecting a distinct vision of global order and of generating a desire for emulation through the power of attraction of its “rapid economic growth” (p. 141) and “balanced development” (p. 151).
Thus, Clegg argues that armed with a genuine predilection for multilateralism and an ability to engender development, China is currently engaged in the construction of a “new political order” (p. 176) and a “new international economic order” (p. 195). The mutually-reinforcing logics of these twin-dynamics lead Clegg to conclude that “China’s rise signals the emergence of a new kind of multipolar international order with a more democratic determination of world affairs” (p. 2). In other words, its global outreach reflects China’s attempt to construct itself as a responsible as well as a reliable international player that offers a viable alternative to existing models of global politics. At the same time, Beijing has generally resisted engaging in direct subversion of established institutions and regimes, and has more often than not complied with their standards and/or sought inclusion through membership of their organizational clubs.
Clegg’s analysis reasserts the nascent centrality of Asia in the current patterns of global life. It offers a valuable discussion of the Chinese perspectives on the theory and practice of international relations. At the same time, its examination is both informative and thoughtful. In this respect, it is expected that Clegg’s investigation would be invaluable for the purposes of teaching and theorizing the transformations of both international politics and their impact on the process and projects for East Asian integration. While Clegg’s study would be of interest both to students and scholars of Chinese foreign policy, she has also produced the kind of book that is bound to trigger debate and it invites (if not beckons) its readers to pursue further the propositions made on its pages.