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International Security 27.4 (2003) 5-56

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Is China a Status Quo Power?

Alastair Iain Johnston


The People's Republic of China (PRC) is more integrated into, and more cooperative within, regional and global political and economic systems than ever in its history. Yet there is growing uneasiness in the United States and the Asia-Pacific region about the implications of China's increasing economic and military power. Characterizations of Chinese diplomacy in the policy and scholarly worlds are, if anything, less optimistic of late about China's adherence to regional and international norms. In the 1980s there was little discussion in the United States and elsewhere about whether China was or was not part of something called "the international community." Since the early 1990s, however, scholars and practitioners alike have argued increasingly that China has not demonstrated sufficiently that it will play by so-called international rules and that somehow it must be brought into this community. The subtext is a fairly sharp othering of China that includes a civilizing discourse (China is not yet a civilized state) or perhaps a sports discourse (China is a cheater).

Many of the most vigorous policy debates in the United States in recent years have been over whether it is even possible to socialize a dictatorial, nationalistic, and dissatisfied China within this putative international community. Engagers argue that China is becoming socialized, though mainly in thesphere of economic norms (e.g., free trade and domestic marketization). Skeptics either conclude that this is not the case, due to the nature of the regime (for some, China is still Red China; for more sophisticated skeptics, China is flirting with fascism), or that it could not possibly happen because China as a rising power, by definition, is dissatisfied with the U.S.-dominated global order (a power-transition realpolitik argument). A logical conclusion is that both groups view the problem of China's rising power as the primary [End Page 5] source of instability in Sino-U.S. relations and by extension in the Asia-Pacific region.

This article explores the degree to which China's leaders are pursuing status quo or revisionist foreign policies. It examines the evidence for and against the most common characterization of China—that it is a dissatisfied, revisionist state, expressed in everything from a desire to resolve the Taiwan issue in its favor to excluding U.S. military power from the Asia-Pacific region to replacing U.S. unipolarity with a multipolar distribution of power. 1 This characterization generally draws on or hews to various realist insights into why rising powers are almost invariably interested in challenging extant institutions, norms, and power distributions. That is, the argument falls generally within a power-transition version of realism where a static set of interests—the desire to establish a great power's sphere of influence—interact with changing Chinese relative capabilities to give China more opportunities to challenge U.S. power. I suggest that this line of argument is insufficiently attentive to the analytic ambiguities in the terms "status quo" and "revisionism" as used in international relations theory and practice. Moreover, this hypothesis fails to examine both the status quo elements in Chinese diplomacy over the last couple ofdecades and the problematic status of the empirical evidence used to makeclaims about PRC revisionism. In short, it is not clear that describing China as a revisionist or non-status quo state is accurate at this moment in history.

What Is a Revisionist State in the Twenty-First Century?

In the last decade or so in the United States, many scholars, pundits, and policymakers have characterized China as a state operating outside of, or only partly inside, the so-called international community on a range of international norms. As Secretary of Defense William Perry noted in a speech in Seattle in 1995, engagement was a strategy for getting China to act like a "responsible world power." 2 In March 1997, in outlining national security policy for President Bill Clinton's second term, National Security Adviser Samuel Berger [End Page 6] referred to Sino-U.S...


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