The rise of China in the international system is best explained through the international relations paradigms of: Liberalism, Neoliberal Institutionalism and Constructivism. China’s evolution has been characterised by its economic expansion from the 1980s onwards, resulting in the production of a truly advancing dominant power on a global scale. Firstly, the theory of Liberalism allows us to explain China’s rise through the modernisation of Chinese foreign policy by Deng Xiaoping, allowing China to shed its historical worldviews on power balancing and territorial claims and, to adopt liberalised relations with the world, replacing its enduring Realist sentiments for concern over access to capital markets and technology. Secondly, China has focused on developing global and regional economic interdependence through a Neoliberal Institutionalist paradigm to further its growth, utilising numerous institutions including the World Trade Organisation and the ASEAN plus three (APT) forum, while reducing security concerns among adjacent states. Thirdly, China’s rise is also understood through a Constructivist lens and the identity the state has formed for itself, leading to incorporation with the world economy, directly benefiting the Chinese state. Finally, Realism, as a study of international relations, provides little understanding of China’s rise since 1980. While potentially elucidating some facet of China’s political rise, including: the transformation of the People’s Liberation Army and perceived international assertiveness over issues such as the civil war in Syria, China’s ultimate growth is not truly understood through Realism. It is however, through the three international relation theories of: Liberalism, Neoliberal Institutionalism and Constructivism, that we can construe and explain the rise of China within the international system.

China’s rise within the international system over the last decades has been characterised predominately through the state’s economic expansion. China’s recent integration into the world economy has been compared in significance with the fall of the Berlin Wall (Patten 2010) and China itself has been proclaimed by few as: an impending new pole on the global power map (Wang 2007). The Chinese economy has experienced significant progression since 1979. Throughout the two previous decades (1960-1979), the Congressional Research Service estimates economic growth to have achieved approximately 5.4% p.a. (Sedghi 2012). Following 1979, the Chinese economy has grown at 10.5% p.a., an increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from $303.4 billion dollars (US) in 1980 to $8,939.3 billion dollars (US) in 2013 (Knoema 2013). China’s rise has been the result of its entry into a globalised, liberalised world economy, combined with profitable U.S. policies for Chinese integration into the world market (Wang 2010). It is unquestionable the China’s rise has been the consequence of global integration.

Liberalism, a central theory of international relations, elucidates China’s rise within the international system. China’s pioneering economic reforms and shifting of foreign policy in 1979 marked a departure from the old policies, originally initiated by Mao Zedong, of calculated balance of power relationships (Zhao 2001; Patten 2010). Historically, China had focused its international relations around its strategic position vis-à-vis primarily, the United States and the Soviet Union. China’s relations with the United States and Japan were primarily concerned with counterbalancing any threat from the Soviet Union. Deng Xiaoping ushered in a different era, committed to altering China’s existing international relations paradigm and seeking to place China’s modernisation as the cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy (Zhao 2001). China transformed its view of the United States and Japan to that of “primary suppliers of capital markets and advanced technology” (Zhao 2001). This renewed worldview promoted an expedited increase in the level of trade and investment between these three states, “economic interdependence among the three countries has developed rapidly during the last quarter of the twentieth century and will move well into the twenty-first century” (Zhao 2001). During this period of reform, the United States handled their own reshaping of Sino-US relations from one of “missionary activities in the nineteenth century to the search for business opportunities in contemporary times” (Zhao 2001). As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger notes in his book “On China”, “China as the present-day economic superpower is the legacy of Deng Xiaoping” (Kissinger 2012). It was through China’s remodeling of not only their foreign policy, but also their perspectives on global neighbours, that permitted them to capitalise on the resources they possessed and to transform their state into a truly global actor.

China’s assimilation into the international institutions that promote economic interdependence and cooperation in the pursuit of common interests is explained through a Neoliberal Institutionalist paradigm, through which we can understand its rise. A cooperative and stable Asian region is of paramount importance to China and its growth. It is without doubt that China has fostered much of its economic prowess through international trade, becoming a top-trading partner of both the United States and Japan (Zhao 2001). These expanding international trade relations led to China pursuing membership with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the approval of United States, eventually granting China the status of “Permanent Normal Trade Relations”, this Zhao argues, had “enormous implications for China’s international trade” (Zhao 2001). From 2000 to 2013, the total value of Chinese exports increased by 662.1% (The World Bank). Following the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) was formed to include China, Japan and South Korea (Yaqing and Ling 2008). ASEAN was established to promote cooperation and ultimately discourage conflict to the greatest extent possible between Southeast Asian states. The East Asian states, including China, were incorporated through the ‘Plus Three’ to broaden ASEANs original scope. China’s role structure in relation to the APT was transformed into”one of cooperation and strategic partnership based on equality, good nigherbourliness and mutual trust” (Yaqing and Ling 2008). China has, argues Yaqing and Ling, “continually taken important steps to demonstrate it will restrain itself and share development and prosperity with the region” (Yaqing and Ling 2008). China has gone further that this in establishing a Free Trade Area (ACFTA) with ASEAN and, China agreed to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC). These steps clearly illustrate that China has placed restrictions on its own conduct as specified in the treaties and declarations it is a signatory to, bolstered its commitment to regional peace, stability and prosperity to ASEAN and “demonstrated its willingness to share its growth with the region” (Yaqing and Long 2008). China, in its commitment to maintaining the order of the Asia-Pacific, has engaged with other states to exert its influence in continuing the stability that prevails throughout much of the region. Just one example of its influence being wielded includes its involvement in the “four-party” talks concerning North and South Korea, allowing it to provide“positive contributions to peace and stability in the region” (Zhao 2001). China’s embrace of international institutions, through a Neoliberal Institutionalist paradigm, and their mechanisms, have allowed it to not only promote and benefit from economic interdependence throughout the global and Asian region but, assist in preserving security, allowing it to focus domestically on its ascent.

Constructivism and state identity has also served as a prominent paradigm for understanding the rise of China within the international system. Theoretically, Constructivism can be understood as the identity of a state shaping international behaviours, as apposed to any fixed material interest (Qingxin and Blyth 2013). China’s international identity, since 1949, has shifted across three major planes Qin (as cited in Qingxin and Blyth 2013). Revisionism was the dominant force prior to the 1970s, spurring China to reject the existing world order and attempt to alter it in their favour. Throughout the 1970s China moved to focus more on internal matters, separating themselves form the outside world. Finally, it was from the 1980s that China has embraced its own identity as a “status quo state”, supporting and integrating into the world order as it stands (Qingxin and Blyth 2013). Qin Yaqing dissects China’s remodeling, explaining that China then altered its attitudes towards the prevailing world order, identifying the existing order as facilitating the necessary conditions to advance Chinese economic development Qin (as cited in Qingxin and Blyth 2013). China continued to increase its interaction with other states, absorbing itself into the international community including its rules and norms. Meng Honghua goes on to argue that China has experienced a slow acknowledgement of the significance of possessing a favourable image within international institutions with respect to achieving their own “self-constructed national interests” Meng (as cited in Qingxin and Blyth 2013). Consequently, China has become “a major stakeholder in the international community” Qin (as cited in Qingxin and Blyth 2013) and China’s incorporation into the world economy has left it as a “direct beneficiary of the existing international order” (Qingxin and Blyth 2013) and “has contributed significantly to China’s rapid economic growth in recent years” (Qingxin and Blyth 2013). The theory of Constructivism provided China with the lens necessary to enable and encourage China to pursue a state identity favourable within the international community, allowing Chinese economic development to advance and the state to progress to the prominent position it presently commands.

China’s advancement within the international system cannot be illustrated through a Realist paradigm. China has achieved its prominent ascent through economic interdependence and international integration, dismissing the methods of attaining global distinction of a past era including: the focus on relative gains, power being primarily defined through military might and obsessing over the balance of power. Assessing China’s ascent on the world stage necessitates the contextualisation of China’s foreign policy objectives within a status quo state, not a revisionist one. (Favrel 2010). China’s recent perceived defiance on the international stage regarding global responses to issues such as the civil war in Syria and, the emergence of a modernised and expanded People’s Liberation Army (PLA), including the procurement of new weapons systems and the presence of sizeable training exercises, may lead some to consider Realism a pertinent theory of international relations with which to decipher China’s rise. Camilla Sørensen argues that in spite of China being an advancing power, it fails to conduct its foreign affairs in a revisionist manner, instead depending on Beijing and the particular environment facing the nation to determine its external policies (Sørensen 2013). It is however, China’s integration into the liberalised workings of the world’s economic system that has facilitated the state’s rise within it, and highlights the costs associated with altering such relations. Favrel argues that if China were to adopt a belligerent foreign policy it would suffer extensive consequences as a result of the global economic interdependence it has fostered. A generation of economic prosperity would be jeopardised through: potentially forfeited trade opportunities and foreign investment losses and, in a more widespread sense, the deprivation of engaging in an international order that facilitated its rise (Favrel 2010). Favrel continues by claiming that territory is no longer a fundamental determinant of national wealth, it is “human capital and technology” that is crucial to national success (Favrel 2010). While China has been the biggest participate in territorial disputes since World War Two, they have continued to reconcile most quarrels with bilateral agreements, usually by conceding sovereignty of contested land or relinquishing claims (Favrel 2010). Realism and power transition theory are deficient in comparing the advantages that could potentially be gained through conflict, with the costs any aggression would possibly induce (Favrel 2010). Realism and its variants possess little to no explanatory power between the actions of China and its real rise to prominence within the international system.

China’s rise can be delineated through three distinct yet connected international relation theories. By looking at China’s transformation in international relations we can see its adoption of a Liberalist paradigm, focusing on absolute gains and economic interdependence. China’s embrace of international organisations is understood through a Neoliberal Institutionalist theory, illustrating China’s understanding of global and regional cooperation in the pursuit of common interests and regional stability, fostering continued growth. A Constructivist lens allows us to understand how China and its indigenous identity have shaped its behaviour regarding its integration into the global economy, leading to the benefits associated with international incorporation. Finally, while Realism plays a part in offering some answers to China’s political rise, it fails to assert itself as a leading theory in explaining China’s ascent, showing its weakness in its lack of account for the dominant aspect directing China to great power status, its economy. It is through these three international relation theories: Liberalism, Neoliberal Institutionalism and Constructivism, that we are able to understand and comprehend the rise of China within the international system.


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