The Sources of Chinese Conduct

BEIJING – Six decades ago, the American diplomat George Kennan wrote an article, “The Sources of SovietConduct,” that galvanized American and world opinion, which soon hardened into the rigid postures of the Cold War. Today, given China’s decisive influence on the global economy, and its increasing ability to project military power, understanding the sources of Chinese conduct has become a central issue in international relations. Indeed, better understanding of China’s foreign policy motivations may help prevent relations between China and the United States from hardening into rigid and antagonistic postures.

Since 2008, discussions among Chinese scholars and strategists on the nature of their country’s foreign policy have focused on two issues: its ideological foundations, and China’s international appeal and standing – its “soft power.”

Mainstream thinking, known as the Chinese School, insists, with the government, on “Marxism with Chinese characteristics” as the bedrock principle of China’s foreign policy. But a minority school argues that China should rely instead on the country’s traditional political thought, emphasizing the universal value of traditional Chinese philosophy. While People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, consistently attacks that position, the Party itself has been rehabilitating Confucius, the central figure in Chinese traditional thought, going so far as to erect a statue of him in Tiananmen Square.

The Chinese School insists on adhering to Deng Xiaoping’s doctrine of maintaining a low profile in international diplomacy, while the traditionalist group advocates taking on greater international responsibility. The mainstream school defines China as a developing country, pointing to China’s per capita GDP, which ranks only 104th in the world. The traditionalists argue that China should assume responsibility for world affairs consistent with its status as the world’s second-largest economy, behind only the US.