China’s Quest for Great Power Identity

W hen Bill Clinton traveled to Beijing to meet with Jiang Zemin on June 27, 1338, Chinese analysts calculated that a decade of flux in great power politics had ended. This summit had significance not only for what the Chinese regard as the worlds most important bilateral relationship, but also for great power relations in general and for the emerging Chinese national identity. After all, it marked the culmination of a great explosion of diplomacy (waijido da baozba)’ among the powers in 1337-98 as well as a vindication of a concentrated effort in the 1390s to redefine China’s self-image. Capitalizing on these currents, Chinese publications became obsessed with the structure and balance of relations among China, the United States, Japan, and Russia while internal debates continued to probe into their implications for China’s future. A close look at these sources yields telling insights into China’s emerging worldview.

In particular, three questions need to be answered about China’s global behavior. First, why in the face of repeated identity crises since Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 have China’s self-confidence and cohesiveness remained strong? To cite the apparent power of nationalism, as many have done, is simply to beg the question of what specific ideas are fueling what sort of “national” identity. Secondly, how do Chinese reconcile their focus on improving relations with the American superpower with their equally persistent stress on multipolarity? To appreciate China’s strategy in world affairs we need to examine the Chinese assertion to the effect that potential contradictions can be submerged in a cooperative vision of international relations. Thirdly, are the Chinese, who have been quick to accuse other nations of an unrealistic superpower mentality, themselves paying a price for their self-serving assessments? We must look for distortions in China’s worldview that may influence its conduct of foreign policy and ask whether they are being addressed.

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