Intellectual history Interview

Recentering the World: An Interview with Ryan Martinez Mitchell (Part 2)

By Addis Goldman

By Addis Goldman

Ryan Mitchell’s Recentering the World: China and the Transformation of International Law (Cambridge 2022) provides an account of China’s coercive inclusion in the framework of Western international law and subsequent efforts to exert agency within it. Following Part I, in Part II of their conversation, Addis Goldman and Ryan Mitchell discuss Chinese attitudes toward regionalism during the Cold War, the rise of Chinese state power after the Cultural Revolution during the reform era, and contemporary discourse regarding Chinese “revisionism” in the context of the ‘return’ of great power competition in the present. They also discuss the evolution of Chinese sovereignty discourse and the role of civilizational rhetoric in Chinese foreign policymaking. If China was an object of colonial interference and juridical coercion in the mid-nineteenth century, by the first quarter of the twenty-first, it had arguably become the key subject of international legal and multipolar world order.


Addis Goldman: At the start of the Cold War, we see China beginning to pursue forms of alternative regional ordering predicated on postcolonial notions of self-determination, but also a China enticed by the prospect of recovering a position of geopolitical dominance, or simply attaining great power status. You reflect on the repeated efforts of Zhou Enlai (1898-1976) and Mao Zedong to “join with regional neighbors—even some with staunchly anti-Communist governments—to enshrine the non-intervention principles [set forth in the UN Charter] as the basis for regional cooperation”. In particular, you focus on China’s attempt to “promote Third World legal organization” at the Bandung Conference of 1955 (267). What should we understand about “the promising Bandung moment” (269) and China’s promotion of regionalism in the early days of the Cold War? Can we learn something about present-day Chinese foreign policy from understanding these episodes?

Ryan Mitchell: The notion of Third World organization is an important theme in the book, though it is sometimes in the background. A major problem with regard to China’s role in international legal history, and in the international order more generally, has been whether to emphasize advocacy of the absolute equality of sovereign states or whether to be more oriented towards pursuing great power status. Both motivations are fairly continuously on display across the decades, from the Hague Conferences to San Francisco and Bandung, and beyond. While Beijing has indeed embraced many aspects of Third World agendas, it is important to observe the tensions that sometimes arise between these and its other identity as a member of the P5 on the UN Security Council, and as an economic superpower. Today, China is one of the primary defenders of the existing global trade architecture, for example. It is also a zealous guardian of the UNSC’s authority, leading to major cognitive dissonance when the Council is politically paralyzed, as it is vis-à-vis the Russia-Ukraine War. Meanwhile, on matters such as the South China Sea Philippines v. China arbitration, we can see in Beijing’s stance a fairly typical example of a P5 state deciding it can evade an inconvenient legal tribunal via a jurisdictional argument. But I think the clearest example of the limits of Beijing’s engagements with notions of anticolonial self-determination is on display in terms of its positions with respect to so-called “Fourth World” issues, i.e., those involving indigenous groups without independent political status. Whether in China itself or for its trade and diplomacy partners, indigeneity is regarded as a marginal issue, and violent legacies of settlement and spatial reorganization as internal administrative matters.

Meeting at the Bandung Conference of 1955. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

AG: We see this tension play out throughout the book. I want to turn to the consequences of the Cultural Revolution for affecting this gradual transformation, or China’s move away from the international legal, economic, and geopolitical periphery, as it were, and towards the center of the global order. In Mao’s China, the field of international relations was construed as a bourgeois discipline that failed to comprehend the significance of Communist internationalism, and likewise, the Communist Party sidelined bourgeois professions like legal scholarship. You write about the “rebirth of international law” (261) in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) after the Revolution and how China’s “belated entry” (272) into the United Nations in October 1971 via General Assembly Resolution 2758 set the stage for the return of Chinese lawyers to the international scene and, of course, the rise of Chinese state power during the reform era.

RM: The Cultural Revolution was an immensely important ideological event, primarily due to the lasting effects of the backlash it engendered. After its conclusion, there was an epochal shift towards the pursuit of stability and economic growth that, in turn, set the stage for the Western rapprochement that has only recently begun to partially unravel. The Chinese legal profession, meanwhile, was essentially shut down during the Cultural Revolution, and in terms of international law this meant a serious lack of engagement with new developments. What characterizes Chinese positions in the Deng era and beyond is an immense attachment to the status quo of international law and a profound skepticism towards departures from the UN Charter or its institutions. This is part of a more general conservative habitus directly linked with revulsion against the chaos of the Cultural Revolution (and the preceding century) and a turn towards the state as the anchor of stability. The Hobbesian-Hegelian valorization of the state in China embodies these local factors, but it is also important to note how well this worldview fits with the actual black-letter law of our statist international order. In international law disputes between Beijing and the West, the latter often finds itself espousing aspirational values and norms that are at best only implicit in positive legal texts, or that are in a nebulous state between lex ferenda and lex lata.

AG: The rise of Chinese state power during the reform era, then, seemed to coincide with China’s increasing embrace of the statist (sovereigntist) basis of international order. Since the 1800s, Chinese conceptions of sovereignty have evolved in relation to the distribution of power in the international system. In many ways, your book challenges received wisdom about the “genealogy of sovereignty in China.” You illustrate how the notions of guoti (“state form” or “state dignity”) and zizhu zhi quan (“authority of self-rule”) mediated the Chinese reception of Western ideas of sovereignty throughout the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth, how concepts like guojia zhuquan (“state sovereignty”) evolved with the development of positivist international law and global governance regimes. In the late-1980s, Wang Huning began a “programmatic re-valorization of sovereignty” (276). What does the evolution of China’s relationship to sovereignty discourse tell us about the transformation of world order and China’s place in that order?

RM: The concept of guoti is one that I wanted to foreground, for two reasons. First, it does indeed pop up very regularly as the notion by which Qing officials evaluated foreign relations and international legal norms. I find it somewhat remarkable that so much ink has been spilled about the traditional term Tianxia (i.e., “all under Heaven”), which was hardly an idea that Qing rulers or their subordinates took literally as a description of their effective political rule. Instead of how to preserve a non-existent universal dominion, the question they tended to pose was how to structure relations with foreign powers in a way that would not compromise the “forms” of the Chinese state and its imperial system. Second, guoti did indeed gradually give way to guojia zhuquan, but even today we see in Chinese sovereignty discourse elements that retain the marks of the guoti concept, such as those surrounding very broad interpretations of “non-interference” to preclude external monitoring and criticism, e.g., by global human rights organs. Frequent invocations of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people,” and resulting reprisals against states, companies, and individuals, could also be seen as a legacy of guoti. Meanwhile, the term’s imperial origins are also reflected in the content of Chinese sovereignty claims today, which assert the legitimacy of the PRC as the successor to the Qing Dynasty and all its “internal” territories and populations. Whereas guoti originated as an idiosyncratic concept applicable only to China, zhuquan took on the character of a formalistic legal status–as mentioned, this fate for the term was first sealed by its adoption in Meiji Japan. And yet zhuquan itself has incorporated both some elements of the former term and of its own early context of referring to “the authority of the ruler,” i.e., a relational kind of power.

That relational side of things becomes important in many contexts today, such as assertions of sovereignty over data or trade flows. In Western liberal contexts, these are not obviously matters over which the sovereign state should rule, while it is more evident in Chinese that the zhu (ruler or lord) may have a say. And yet the flexibility of the guoti idea tends to resurface, above all in the economic sphere, as we see trade liberalization pursued vigorously so long as it doesn’t cast into doubt the “forms” of Beijing’s rule or claims to legitimacy. In brief, I would say a more legalistic zhuquan still tends to frame territorial matters, while guoti‘s flexible legacy influences ongoing global integration in other areas, if also at times conflictual and even erratic efforts to manage that integration process.

AG: One might argue we have seen the instrumental revival of ‘natural law’ principles in Chinese sovereignty discourse, then. You’ve written extensively about contemporary developments in Chinese legal thought, in particular, the reception of Carl Schmitt in the Sinophone world, and on recent writings by Chinese legal theorists that have leveraged Schmitt’s wartime writings on Großraum (‘great space’) (and the U.S. Monroe Doctrine) in order to transcend the ideology of the sovereign nation-state. Recent years have arguably seen the revival of so-called non-Westphalian conceptions of sovereignty and political order—organicist, civilizational, proto-imperial, extralegal—in official CCP rhetoric and mainland intellectual circles. With the knowledge that ‘spatial appropriation’ is an important part of the book, is the presence of this discourse, as Mette Thunø has put it, evidence of an effort to “reconfigure the spatiality of the state by breaking with the Westphalian principle of congruence between territory, sovereignty, population, and political authority”? Or are we merely seeing China pursue forms of political order commensurate with its power?

RM: These elements of resurgent civilizational concepts are real trends, though they are in some ways parallel or respond to the recent turn to civilizational and ideological solidarity in Western discourse. With respect to departures from strict statism in China’s international relations, it is often intelligentsia outside the Party pushing in this direction, whether these are liberal internationalists such as scholars who write about and advocate recent developments in public international law, or conservatives entertaining ideas about regional order. However, the issue of spatial appropriation and administration per se is rather different, given its concrete physicality. Two phenomena are mainly responsible for pushing Beijing into the role of a kind of regional hegemon, to some extent against the will of its cautious political elite. One is of course the immense gravity well of economic and security connections formed by being the world’s premier trading power and second-largest population. For Beijing to exercise a hegemonic imbalance of power in the realm of fishing, for example, it doesn’t need to develop an intricate strategy but instead merely to allow market forces and economies of scale to operate without intrusive regulation. The same natural proclivity towards exertions of cross-border influence is true, mutatis mutandis, in many other areas from cyber security to industrial policy, development aid, and, as we have certainly become aware, public health policy. The second phenomenon that is chiefly responsible for pushing China toward something like a Großraum is the example of the United States, which Beijing has found itself emulating on matters from the use of economic sanctions to extraterritorial legal jurisdiction to institution-building. Initiatives such as the Boao Forum for Asia (aka “the Asian Davos”) show the combination of these influences, with Chinese state messaging trying to derive geopolitical capital from existing economic incentives for regional integration. Early in his tenure, Xi Jinping proclaimed at Boao that “it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia,” and the Monroe-esque implications of that agenda continue to be debated.

President Xi Jingping meets with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Bejing on March 19, 2017. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

AG: This brings us to a familiar ‘paradox’ for international relations theorists interested in diagnosing the ‘rise’ of China. For many realists, China is a paradigmatic revisionist state; at a minimum, it seeks to establish a Sinocentric regional order in East Asia, with the ultimate aim of resurrecting the imperial tributary system (tianxia) via the Belt and Road Initiative. Empirically, some of this may be true, especially for regional trade, investment, and security dynamics and arrangements. Yet as you point out, “Beijing’s approach to global legal order has tended towards refining and entrenching extant structures of political economy and global governance,” as it enjoys a position of centrality in the global order “deeply reliant on a status quo of neoliberal globalization and relative stability” (291, 292, emphasis added). What should we make of the status quo elements of Chinese foreign policy—and much speculation about China’s revisionist intentions and Cold War 2.0—in light of the conceptual history you recover?

RM: In general, I agree with those who argue that the notion of “revisionism” in international relations can paint with too broad and coarse a brush. One of the most thorough ways to revise a system might well be for a peripheral actor to gain status as a core actor, or for a core actor to engage in brinkmanship over fears of marginalization. But these sorts of moves should probably be seen as shifting relational dynamics within a given order, rather than external agendas for change. Civilizational terminology like Tianxia does not necessarily convey any more political content than, e.g., American rhetoric around the notion of being a “shining city on a hill.” Rather more significant in practice are substantive ideas like the “community of fate” trope that Chinese policymakers have adopted most directly from the Eurozone to portray China as an engine of global growth and stability–as well as loans, with all of the status benefits associated with being a major creditor. Of course, China as a geoeconomic entity is shaped by its size, location, recent history, and political system to nearly guarantee friction with the USA. However, unlike during the cold war dynamic of the mid-20th century, China and the United States now compete for similar forms of power and influence, including in deciding legal norms and institutional arrangements for the global community.

This book might help us to contextualize that struggle for influence less as a battle between revision and status quo than as the conflict characterizing a single status quo as viewed from two different angles. At the global level, I’m ultimately more struck by the apparent obstacles to major revisions of current rule sets, whether coming from China, the US, or elsewhere, than by their alleged fragility. However, both intra- and inter-regionally, we do see some trends of deformalization in ways of exerting influence, countering foreign “wrongs,” and pursuing security aims. Outside the realm of positive legal doctrines per se, many of Beijing’s initiatives suggest pursuing something fairly close to America’s nonpareil status. A robust and stable international legal system today seems to be a necessary, but far from sufficient, element in Beijing’s preferred vision for world order.

Addis Goldman holds master’s degrees from the Committee on International Relations at the University of Chicago and the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Colorado College. His research interests include developments in Chinese strategic and intellectual culture, the history of economic thought, and the intellectual history of U.S. foreign policy.

Edited by Andrew P. Gibson

Featured Image: Long Live the All-round Victory of the Proletarian Cultural Revolution (Draft 1), 1968. WikiCommons