Power, Perception and Foreign Policymaking

Zhiqun Zhu

China’s rise is undoubtedly one of the most significant events in the 21st century. While China has proclaimed a policy of ‘peaceful rise’, international responses to China’s re-emergence as a great power have been ambivalent and mixed. In general, developing countries tend to view a more powerful China in a positive light; Western powers and several of China’s neighbors tend to see China’s development as both opportunities and challenges. Sometimes Western politicians will label China as a threat to the international system. In particular, they worry that the China model has become appealing to some developing countries and is undermining the liberal political and economic world order.

Since the US and European powers have developed and maintained the post-WWII international system, it is interesting and important to understand how decision-makers in these countries respond to China’s rise. Scott Brown notes that despite persistent concerns and even oppositions at home, both the United States and the European Union haven chosen to engage with China rather than block its development. This is probably the first academic book that compares US and EU responses to China’s rise in one single volume.

For Brown the central question is: to what extent have different interpretations of China’s rise influenced the foreign policies of the United States and the European Union towards China? Obviously how policy actors view China’s rise will directly affect the decision making. Yet there is no consensus either in the United States or the European Union about the exact meaning of China’s rise, what challenges or opportunities it presents, and what their national interests are vis-à-vis China. Brown groups various interpretations of China’s rise into three pairs: military threat and military non-threat, economic threat and economic opportunity, and normative threat and political opportunity (p. 5). However, he emphasizes that such interpretations cannot be simply forced into a ‘threat versus opportunity’ dichotomy (p. 195), which ignores the nuances in various interpretations. For example, it is perfectly pragmatic for some countries to treat China as an economic opportunity but a security threat. Obviously different interpretations will generate different, even opposite, responses and policy initiatives.

Indeed Brown’s empirical study of the US and EU policies toward China from 1989 to 2006 suggests that there is not a single, overarching China policy in these countries. Brown picks a few cases that fundamentally shaped policymakers in the United States and the European Union including the Tiananmen Square crackdown (1989), the Taiwan Strait crisis (1996), and WTO accession (1999). He suggests that the European Union as an international actor has discernible foreign policies that are distinct from the aggregate policies of its member states (p. 10). Informed by existing international relations theories such as the power transition theory and the foreign policy analysis framework, he studies how the US and EU responses can enrich our understanding of contemporary US–China relations and EU–China relations both empirically and theoretically.

The author points out that the power transition theory fails to capture the nuanced dynamics of the evolution of the notion ‘China’s rise’ and consequently how debates based on differing perceptions influences preferences. Despite the author’s assertion that the research has significance for international relations literature, he stops short of proposing a better or a different theoretical framework for this study.

Built upon the foreign policy analysis, he developed a two-step analytical approach that firstly questions how interpretations of China’s rise inform policymakers’ preferences and secondly identifies how preferences are mediated by the policymaking subsystem. He finds similar process in both the United States and the European Union as representative democracies. However, the book does not dig deeper to analyze why the United States and the European Union have similarities and differences in their responses to China’s rise. On the three key events – the Tiananmen Square crackdown, Taiwan Strait crisis and WTO accession – the author does compare the US and EU responses based on the events’ relevance to different countries. Some analysis involving other factors such as leadership styles, domestic interest groups, or the role of third parties may significantly strengthen the analytical rigor of the book. For example, President George H. W. Bush’s mixed reaction to the Tiananmen Square crackdown due to his own identity as a ‘China hand’ shows how individual leaders can make a difference in national policies.

China’s rise will continue to generate heated debates in the years ahead. Overall, this is a thoughtful and well-researched book that contributes to the lively China debates by shedding light on how two major political and economic forces today – the US and the EU – have responded to China’s rise. It is also a welcome addition to the very small amount of literature that deals with EU–China relations and US–China relations in a single volume.