Debating a Rising China’s Role in International Affairs

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 24

Beyond the Accoutrements, What Does China's Great Power Status Mean?

The newly-promoted Chinese leaders who ascended to power at the 18th Party Congress in November must address a number of important foreign policy issues, one of the most important of which is what role China should play on the global stage as its power and influence continue to grow. Part of the debate centers on the extent to which a stronger China should be prepared to accept a greater level of responsibility globally. Indeed, considerable discussion of this issue has taken place since then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick’s September 2005 “responsible stakeholder” speech, but Chinese analysts continue to debate how much responsibility China should accept. Even as Chinese officials continue to grapple with international calls to assume greater responsibilities, and domestic pressure to more assertively defend China’s interests abroad, they are attempting to cultivate a positive image of China as a “responsible great power” (fu zeren daguo) [1].

China’s “Developing Country Reality”

Beijing’s September 2011 white paper China’s Peaceful Development argues that China is “actively living up to international responsibility.” The document suggests that the level of responsibility China should be expected to shoulder globally remains limited by its focus on domestic challenges and its current stage of development:

“For China, the most populous developing country, to run itself well is the most important fulfillment of its international responsibility. As a responsible member of the international community, China abides by international law and the generally recognized principles governing international relations, and eagerly fulfills its international responsibility. China has actively participated in reforming international systems, formulating international rules and addressing global issues. It supports the development of other developing countries, and works to safeguard world peace and stability. As countries vary in national conditions and are in different stages of development, they should match responsibility with rights in accordance with their national strength. They should play a constructive role by fulfilling their due international responsibility in accordance with their own capability and on the basis of aligning their own interests with the common interests of mankind.”

Nonetheless, the document also suggests China’s willingness to bear international responsibility will increase along with its growing power. Specifically, it states “For its part, China will assume more international responsibility as its comprehensive strength increases” [2].

In line with the section on China’s international responsibilities in the development white paper, some Chinese observers contend the appropriate level of responsibility should be closely linked to China’s status as a country that still faces many daunting challenges. Because China is still a developing country in some important respects, they contend, domestic and international observers should not have unrealistic expectations. For example, according to a June 2010 China Daily article, “There is ample evidence to show that China is playing an active role in global matters…On the other hand, national strength and international status should determine the international responsibilities China should accept. Given China’s developing country reality and the current West-dominated world order, it is far-fetched, if not ill-timed, to demand that the country undertake duties that are beyond its prowess” (China Daily, June 17, 2010).

Similarly, Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Le Yuecheng argued in May that, although China is now the world’s second largest economy, it is not yet the second strongest nation. Le acknowledges that some observers criticize China as a “selective stakeholder,” one that “speaks of itself as an ‘elephant’ or as an ‘ant’ as needed.” They want to see China become a “comprehensive stakeholder” instead. Furthermore, notwithstanding all that China has achieved as a result of more than 30 years of reform and opening, the country still has numerous shortcomings. Consequently, Le argues—even though China has increasingly behaved as a “responsible member and international stakeholder” as reflected by its response to the international financial crisis, diplomatic role in regional security issues, and participation in anti-piracy operations in recent years—“China is both unwilling and unable to assume more international obligations and play the role of a major power” [3].

A Larger Role on the World Stage

Some Chinese scholars encourage a greater global role, and a few argue in favor of heavier responsibilities. For example, some recommend that Beijing provide more global “public goods.” Within this context, some Chinese scholars have focused on the global commons—to include the high seas, international air space, outer space and cyberspace—as an area of growing interests and greater responsibility for China. For example, according to Zhang Ming, a researcher with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, “along with China’s increasing national strength, its international standing has been in constant ascendance” Furthermore, as China’s international standing and influence have continuously expanded, its interests increasingly have become intertwined with the security of the “global commons.” Consequently, Zhang writes “As a responsible rising power, China needs to determine how best to position itself in the governance of the global commons.” To this end, Zhang recommends that China should not only participate in discussions about these issues, but also actively engage in maintaining the security of the global commons. Zhang highlights China’s counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden as an example of China taking action to address shared security problems. Such participation is required to “protect [China’s] expanding national interests, particularly overseas interests” [4].

China’s increasing interconnectedness with the world means promoting the security of the global commons is essential if China is to “promote development, maintain national security, and prosper culturally.” It is also necessary to cultivate China’s desired image as “a responsible great power on the international stage.” In addition to protecting its own security, economic and cultural interests and burnishing its international image, Zhang argues, “as a responsible great power, China should actively provide regional and global public goods and make its due contribution toward maintaining the peace and openness of the ‘global commons” [5].

Some other Chinese scholars have made similar recommendations. For example, Wang Yizhou, a professor and administrator in the School of International Studies at Beijing University, suggests China should provide more “public goods” and international aid (International Herald Leader, December 20, 2011). Another Beijing-based scholar, Li Yonghui, argues China should move beyond a narrow-minded view of the world and “shoulder historic responsibilities” [6]. In Li’s view, “China is rising to become a major power in the world, and therefore it should have a great power mentality and great power diplomacy.” In particular, Li writes, China should supply more “public goods” to peripheral countries in order to strengthen its regional diplomacy. Similarly, Wu Xinbo, Deputy Director of Fudan University’s Center for American Studies, argues it is in China’s interest to play a responsible role as a major power and provide more “public goods” to regional countries. Offering such countries economic and security benefits will reduce their reliance on the United States, Wu contends, thus contributing to the development of a “more equal” order in the Asia-Pacific region (Global Times, July 29, 2011).

Yet, even scholars and analysts who advocate shouldering greater international responsibility suggest China will face daunting challenges as it assumes a larger role in world affairs. For example, according to Zhang, China faces challenges stemming from the attitude of the United States and other Western countries. Even as they expect China to make a greater contribution toward safeguarding the global commons, they also are “concerned that their own preeminence will be challenged” and thus use their discourse about China, diplomatic pressure and their military power to guard against and constrain China. For example, Zhang asserts, they frame the discourse about the global commons in ways that portray China alternately as a “stakeholder and collaborator” and as a “potential challenger, competitor, trouble maker or even opponent,” while coordinating diplomatically and developing new concepts to counter perceived threats from China. . China should “be calm and composed, and respond appropriately,” Zhang writes [7].

Still another challenge for China is that its capabilities, though growing, remain limited in some areas, such as military capability. Chinese analysts assert that China’s military requires greater situational awareness and improvements in its capabilities for force projection as well as humanitarian aid and disaster relief missions. For example, according to Zhang, China needs to improve its space and communications infrastructure, build a more powerful air force and strengthen its naval capabilities [8].

The Responsibility Trap?

Still other Chinese observers are deeply wary of accepting greater international responsibility. Some even suggest Western calls for China to shoulder heavier responsibilities are a trap that Beijing must avoid. According to a March 2009 People’s Daily article by Li Hongmei, “Since it was initiated by the former U.S. Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, the theory of ‘China’s responsibility’ has been exaggerated and embroidered in recent years. Especially in times of economic slowdown, it has become a term much sought after by the Western world. It seems that they intentionally coined the term in a bid to make it well-tailored to their special needs later.” Moreover, according to Li:

“…the concept of ‘great powers’ responsibility’ is defined by the Western world completely on the conditions of satisfying its own needs and interests. Simply put, whether to be responsible for the world, from the Western perspectives, is literally evaluated by how much responsibility you have assumed for the West. Some Western countries are desperately pressing China to actively shoulder more responsibility as a great power, but it is manifested that they are eager to capitalize on China’s strength in order to shake off their own troubles” (People’s Daily, March 23, 2009).

Some Chinese commentators have been especially suspicious of Western demands for China to accept greater responsibility for global economic and environmental problems. According to another article: “Some Western countries have been throwing out various ‘China responsibility’ theories after the global financial crisis. These responsibilities form a system that seems to grant China a responsibility to save the world.” Furthermore, the article warns “These theories are fabricated on purpose by some western countries. They have been exaggerating China’s strengths and influences in a bid to let China shoulder more ‘world-level obligations and responsibilities’ and also make China increase its ‘contributions’ to tackle the global economic downturn. The objective is to slow down and check China’s development” (Xinhua, August 19, 2010). Similarly, Huo Jianguo, President of the International Economic and Trade Research Institute of the Ministry of Commerce, has charged that Western countries intend to distract attention from their own problems, force China to adjust its policies in accordance with their demands and “burden China with ‘responsibilities.’” The ultimate goal, Huo asserts, is to “serve the Western strategy of curbing China’s development” (Beijing Review, September 2, 2010). Other observers have echoed this theme. For example, an August 2010 op-ed asserted the underlying motivation of demands for China to shoulder greater responsibility “lies in some Western countries’ attempt to distract world attention from facts and burden Beijing with more responsibilities that it should not and could not shoulder. In other words, some Western countries are too eager to shirk their responsibilities and pass on their burden to China” (China Daily, August 18, 2010).


Chinese scholars and analysts, like their counterparts in the United States and many other countries, are still wrestling with some of the key issues surrounding China’s emergence as a great power, including what role China should play on the global stage. One complicating factor is that Beijing must balance calls for China to do more with the risk that actually doing more would intensify concerns about China’s growing power. Beijing could face accusations of “free riding” if it fails to take greater responsibility for international problems, but a more activist role could stoke fears that China intends to project power regionally—and perhaps even globally—in ways that could undermine the security or challenge the interests of the United States and its allies. Consequently, it should not be surprising that Chinese scholars continue to discuss and debate the contradictions and challenges inherent in China’s emergence as a great power, including the question of how much international responsibility China has an interest in accepting and the capacity to handle.


  1. For a discussion of the challenges involved in meeting the expectations of China’s citizens, see Lu Sumin, “Jing zhiku: zhan fu zeren daguo xingxiang, di lianghao huanjing [Beijing Think Tank: Display the Image of a Responsible Power and Foster a Good Environment],” Ching chi jih pao [Hong Kong Economic Times], July 16, 2012. The article quotes Qu Xing, an analyst at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-affiliated China Institute of International Studies, who explains that “a ‘great power mentality’ that has arisen among ordinary people along with China’s rise poses new challenges on the diplomatic front.” According to Xu, “many netizens criticize China’s diplomacy for being too ‘soft’ and think that China is confident in itself and should act tougher on the diplomatic front,” but their expectations fail to take into account the large gap that still separates China from the world’s most highly developed countries. Notwithstanding these comments, it should be noted that domestic pressure is likely only one of a number of reasons for Beijing to adopt a more assertive approach to the defense of Chinese interests.
  2. China’s Peaceful Development, Information Office of the State Council, People’s Republic of China, September 2011, <>.
  3. Le Yuecheng, “Guanyu Zhongguo yu shijie guanxi de shidian sikao [Ten Ideas About China’s Relations with the World],” Guoji wenti yanjiu, May 13, 2012, pp. 1-8. According to Le, China’s role in the world is mirrored in its performance at the Olympics. Chinese divers and ping-pong players are increasingly dominant, winning numerous gold medals, but China’s soccer team is far from being ready to produce results at a similar level: “It is not that the Chinese do not want such a gold medal. Chinese fans are dreaming of it. But the reality is that Chinese soccer is not at that level. It is thus not a question of choice, but one of ability.”
  4. Zhang Ming, “‘Quanqiu gongdi’ anquan zhili yu zhongguo de xuanze [Security Governance of the ‘Global Commons’ and China’s Choice],” Xiandai guoji guanxi [Contemporary International Relations], 2012, No. 5, pp. 22-28.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Li Yonghui, “Zhongguo da waijiao: dangdai wenti yu chuantong zhihui [China’s Great Power Diplomacy: Contemporary Problems and Traditional Wisdom],” Xiandai guoji guanxi [Contemporary International Relations], November 20, 2010, pp. 4-6.
  7. Zhang Ming, "’Quanqiu gongdi’ anquan zhili yu Xhongguo de xuanze"