Transnational Crime: Why Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has not and will not put an end to the War on Drugs


Maria Ascencio is a first year International Relations student at King’s College London, and the Latin America Editor at International Relations Today.

Mexico appears to be on the brink of change as new leftist president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) announced the end of the country’s 13 year long War on Drugs on January 30th 2019. The reality of the situation, however, is that AMLO has not and will not put an end to the war on drugs. As a matter of fact, there is not a single administration in Mexico that will ever be capable of putting an end to this issue. The reason stems from the fact that Mexico’s war on drugs is only but a result of a much more dangerous and complex security threat that has become imbedded within the country’s state institutions; transnational crime.

Mexico’s Problem with Drugs under the context of Transnational Crime

To understand Mexico’s current problem with drug-related criminal activity, it is imperative to understand the nature of transnational crime. In 2000, the United Nations in its Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, came to define the concept as “any criminal activity that is conducted in more than one state, planned in one state but perpetuated in another, or committed in one state where there are spill-over effects.”[1] The majority of cases of transnational crime make reference to organized criminal activities, that is, where there are factual indications that an organized and profit-driven criminal structure is involved. These structures oftentimes become entrenched within a country’s institutions, using corruption to extend their influence into the upper reaches of the state and thus shield themselves from law enforcement. While not all organized crime is transnational, there have always been growing incentives for criminal enterprises to operate across national borders due to differences in the supply and demand of illegal goods and services amongst countries. It is because of this that any effective strategy must be comprised of strong and robust national initiatives, accompanied by  increased cooperation efforts amongst all states who are affected.

In Mexico, this definition is followed to the letter. Over time, drug consumption and control policies in the United States have played a large role in the scope and longevity of Mexico’s drug trade. As early as 1920, harsh laws and regulations during the era of Prohibition saw a tremendous spike in demand for alcohol and other narcotics, which lead to the creation of black markets south to the border. These illicit markets provided vast amounts of money to those willing to participate, and continued to incentivize individuals to increase production.[2] Throughout the following decades demand both in Mexico and the US continued to rise, which allowed illicit drug markets to reach epic proportions. Today, there are approximately 6-8 drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) that enjoy dominant influence throughout Mexico, all of which are engaged in a battle for supremacy over the illicit trade market.

mexico map

Why is this a problem? Violence and weak institutions

As outlined, transnational criminal organizations have the ability to become entrenched within a state and its institutions. In Mexico’s DTO’s have earned so much power and influence that it has become easier for politicians and members of the state to collude and negotiate with them, rather than dealing with them, resulting in an culture of impunity and corruption.[3] Equally, observers have noted that the excessive use of violence of some of Mexico’s DTO’s in their battle for supremacy, might be considered exceptional by the typical standards of organized crime.[4] Beheadings, car bombs, extortions, forced disappearances, homicides, rape, mass executions, violent robberies, these are only a few of the many casualties that are seen in Mexico’s headlines every day.

Has there been any past approaches to deal with the issue? Why have they failed?

Previous approaches to deal with Mexico’s DTO’s have failed for a number of reasons. Firstly, because bilateral efforts have been extremely limited. The United States has focused more on strengthening the security of its southern border and re-drafting its immigration policies, rather than on addressing the root issue and reduce the demand of narcotics. Co-operation with Mexico has been limited to the provision of financial assistance and the training of military and police personnel, but nothing has been done to engage in capacity-building processes designed to strengthen Mexico’s rule of law. [5] Secondly, Mexico’s government responses have wrongly focused on targeting individuals, when efforts should have been focusing on targeting the drug market itself. Yet again, not much more can be expected given the imbedded corruption, incompetence and weakness of the state.

The New Administration: Why AMLO’s “new” strategy is doomed to fail

Mexico’s new president has surprised everybody by declaring the end of the long War on Drugs and announcing what he has called a new and revolutionary plan to tackle DTO’s, which includes the following promises:

  • A strategy to tackle corruption amongst institutions
  • Social programs that will keep young people out of the reach of organized crime
  • Taking troops off the street
  • Amnesty for drug kingpins and other delinquents

To all of this, there are a number of missing pieces and limitations that, unfortunately, set AMLO’s strategy to failure. The undiscriminated and savage character of Mexico’s DTO’s has demonstrated that taking troops off the street as a preliminary measure only facilitates the use of violence, as depicted by the increase in kidnappings and homicides in AMLO’s first months in office.[6] In the end, lawmakers from AMLO’s party, MORENA, have opted to keep soldiers on the frontlines, along with the creation of a national guard that combines military and civilian police under a single military command.[7] This certainly does not seem too far off from what President Felipe Calderon (2006-2012) did at the beginning of his term, when he ordered the deployment of troops to carry out the capturing of high-value criminals, a controversial strategy that promoted more instability and violence.

Giving amnesty to drug kingpins and delinquents is, firstly, an unpopular policy amongst the many Mexicans whose lives have been affected by cartel violence. While amnesty does not imply “forgiving and forgetting” but “reconciliation and dialogue”, it is hard to imagine how AMLO might advocate for this giving the deep grievances that exist in society.[8] Additionally, giving amnesty is just another policy that focuses on individuals rather than on the market itself.  The only difference is that, unlike Calderon and Peña Nieto, AMLO’s successors, the new president is looking to reconcile rather than isolate drug kingpins from society. The drug market and the rewards that come from it, however, will continue to exist, and different groups will continue to compete, most likely using violent means, over that market.

Social programs for the youth and a strategy to tackle corruption amongst institutions are vital for a long-term strategy to fight drug trafficking and corruption, but six years is simply not enough time for AMLO to make any significant changes.

Lastly, it must be re-emphasized that this is not a security threat that is confined to Mexico’s borders. Not a single of these proposals can prove to be effective if there is nothing done to the drug trade market. There need to be efforts to regulate and decrease demand for narcotics across the northern border. For any of AMLO’s proposals to work, he would have to push President Trump to come up with a comprehensive drug strategy. However, it seems that he is much more concerned with the building of his long-promised wall and the deportation of illegal migrants.

Unfortunately for AMLO, but ultimately for all Mexicans, it seems that the new strategy will not give fruits, and that Mexico is set for yet another period of violence, instability and uncertainty.

Crimen transnacional: Andrés Manuel López Obrador no ha puesto y no pondrá fin a la guerra contra el narcotráfico

Por: Maria Ascencio, estudiante de primer año de relaciones internacionales en King’s College London, y editora de la región latinoamericana en International Relations Today

Tal parece que México podría estar al borde de un cambio radical después de que el nuevo presidente de izquierda, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), anunciase el fin de la guerra contra el narcotráfico el pasado 30 de enero del 2019. Sin embargo, la realidad de la situación es que ni AMLO, ni ninguna futura administración en México podrá poner fin a este problema. La razón se debe a que la guerra en México contra el narcotráfico no es más que el resultado de una amenaza mucho más compleja y peligrosa que ya esta incrustada en las instituciones del país; el crimen transnacional.

La guerra contra el narcotráfico en México en el contexto del crimen transnacional

Para entender el problema de México con el narcotráfico, es imperativo entender la naturaleza del crimen transnacional. En el año 2000, se definió el concepto por la Convención contra la Delincuencia Organizada de las Naciones Unidas como “cualquier actividad delictiva que se lleve a cabo en más de un estado, sea planificada en un estado pero perpetuada en otro, o sea cometida en un estado donde se presenten efectos adversos”. [1] La mayoría de los casos de delincuencia transnacional hacen referencia a actividades delictivas organizadas, es decir, cuando hay indicios fácticos estructurales y con fines de lucro. Estas estructuras a menudo se atrincheran dentro de las instituciones del país, utilizando la corrupción para extender su influencia a los confines del estado y, por lo tanto, protegerse de la ley. Si bien no todo el crimen organizado es transnacional, siempre ha habido incentivos crecientes para que las empresas criminales operen a través de las fronteras nacionales debido a las diferencias en la oferta y demanda de bienes y servicios ilegales entre otros países. Por ende, es preciso que para que una estrategia sea efectiva, debe de haber iniciativas nacionales sólidas y robustas, acompañadas por un mayor esfuerzo y cooperación entre todos los estados afectados.

En México, esta definición se sigue al pie de la letra. A lo largo del tiempo, las políticas de consumo y control de drogas en los Estados Unidos han desempeñado un papel importante en el alcance y la longevidad del comercio de drogas en México. Ya en 1920, las duras leyes y regulaciones durante la era de la Prohibición vieron un enorme aumento en la demanda de alcohol y otros narcóticos, que llevaron a la creación de mercados ilícitos al sur de la frontera. Estos mercados ofrecían grandes cantidades de dinero a los que estaban dispuestos a participar, y continuaron incentivando a los individuos para aumentar la producción.[2] A lo largo de las décadas siguientes, la demanda tanto en México como en Estados Unidos siguió aumentando, lo que permitió que los mercados de drogas ilícitas alcanzaran proporciones épicas. En la actualidad, hay aproximadamente entre 6 y 8 organizaciones de narcotraficantes (DTO, por sus siglas en inglés) que disfrutan de una influencia dominante en todo México, todas las cuales están comprometidas en una batalla por la supremacía en el mercado  

¿Cuál es el problema?

Como ya se ha mencionado, las organizaciones criminales tienen la capacidad de atrincherarse dentro de las instituciones nacionales. Las organizaciones de narcotraficantes en México han ganado tanto poder e influencia que se ha vuelto mucho más fácil para políticos y miembros del estado el conspirar y negociar con estas, lo que ha resultado en una cultura de impunidad y corrupción.[3] Asimismo, se observa que el uso de la violencia implementada por la mayoría de estas organizaciones es exagerada para los estándares típicos del crimen organizado.[4] Decapitaciones, extorsiones, desapariciones forzadas, homicidios, violaciones, ejecuciones en masa, robos violentos, todo esto son solo algunas de las muchas tragedias que se ven en los titulares de México todos los días.

¿Por qué han fallado los enfoques anteriores?

En primer lugar, porque todos los esfuerzos bilaterales han sido extremadamente limitados. Los Estados Unidos se han centrado más en fortalecer la seguridad de su frontera sur y en redactar sus políticas de inmigración, en lugar de abordar la raíz del problema y reducir la demanda de narcóticos. La cooperación con México se ha limitado a la provisión de asistencia financiera y a la capacitación del personal militar y policial, pero no se ha hecho nada por construir las capacidades del gobierno mexicano para ejercer el estado de derecho.[5] En segundo lugar, las respuestas del gobierno de México se han centrado, de manera errónea, en perseguir a aquellos narcotraficantes que son considerados de alto riesgo, cuando todos los esfuerzos deben de centrarse en  mercado de las drogas.

El por qué la “nueva” estrategia de AMLO está condenada al fracaso

El nuevo presidente de México ha sorprendido a todos después de haber declarado el fin de la guerra contra el narcotráfico y al haber anunciado un plan, supuestamente nuevo y revolucionario que incluye las siguientes propuestas:

  • Medidas para acabar con la corrupción en las instituciones del estado
  • Programas sociales que prometen mantener a los jóvenes fuera del alcance de la delincuencia organizada
  • Retirar a tropas y policías de las calles
  • Amnistía para capos y otros delincuentes

Desafortunadamente, todas estas propuestas presentan una serie de debilidades que condenan la estrategia al fracaso. En primer lugar, el retirar a tropas y oficiales de policía de las calles no parece prometedor. El carácter indiscriminado y salvaje de las organizaciones narcotraficantes en México ha demostrado que sacar a las tropas y policías de la calle como una medida preliminar solo facilita el uso de la violencia, como lo demuestra el aumento en los secuestros y homicidios en los primeros meses en el cargo de AMLO. [6] Al final, los legisladores del partido MORENA, optaron por mantener a los soldados en el frente, junto con la creación de una guardia nacional que combina la policía civil y militar bajo un solo mando militar. [7] Sin embargo, esto no parece estar muy lejos de lo que hizo el presidente Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) al comienzo de su mandato, cuando ordenó el despliegue de tropas para llevar a cabo la captura de criminales de alto valor, una estrategia controvertida que promovió más inestabilidad y violencia en el país.

Dar amnistía a los narcotraficantes y delincuentes es, en primer lugar, una política impopular entre los muchos mexicanos cuyas vidas se han visto afectadas por el narcotráfico y la violencia. Si bien la amnistía no implica “perdonar y olvidar”, sino “reconciliación y diálogo”, es difícil imaginar cómo AMLO podrá abogar por estos principios, dados los profundos agravios que existen en la sociedad. [8] Además, otorgar amnistía es solo otra política que se enfoca en los individuos más que en el propio mercado. La única diferencia es que, en lugar de encarcelar a los responsables, el nuevo presidente trata de reintegrarlos en la sociedad. Sin embargo, el mercado de las drogas y las recompensas que provienen de él continuarán existiendo, y las organizaciones narcotraficantes continuarán compitiendo, probablemente utilizando medios violentos, por ese mercado.

Los programas sociales para jóvenes y cualquier plan para combatir la corrupción que existe en las instituciones mexicanas, son elementos vitales para cualquier estrategia que quiera combatir el narcotráfico a largo plazo, pero AMLO simplemente no tiene tiempo suficiente para realizar cambios significativos.

Por último, se debe volver a enfatizar que esto no es una amenaza que se limita a las fronteras de México. Ninguna de estas propuestas puede resultar efectiva si no se hace nada contra el mercado del tráfico de drogas. Es necesario que haya esfuerzos para regular y disminuir la demanda de narcóticos al norte de la frontera. Si AMLO quisiera que cualquiera de sus propuestas rindiera algún fruto, tendría que presionar al presidente Trump para que proponga una estrategia anti-drogas en su país. Sin embargo, parece que está mucho más preocupado con la construcción de su tan aclamado muro, y con la deportación de inmigrantes ilegales.

Desafortunadamente para AMLO, pero aún más para todos los mexicanos, se prevé que los siguientes seis años no serán tan diferentes como los pasados, y que la inseguridad, corrupción e inestabilidad continuarán reinando en el país.

Reference List

[1]  Trinkunas, Harold. “Transnational Crime.” In Contemporary Security Studies, by Alan Collins, 394-409. 5th ed. N.p.: Oxford University Press, 2019.

[2] Teague, Aileen. 2016 “The Drug Trade in Mexico.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Las modified March 11, 2019.

[3] Beittel, June S. Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations. July 3, 2018.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lee, Brianna, Danielle Renwick, and Rocio Cara Labrador. “Mexico’s Drug War.” Council on Foreign Relations. Last modified January 24, 2019.

[6]Ramírez, Iván. “En primeros meses de AMLO, suben secuestros y homicidios; baja feminicidio” [AMLO’s first months in office see an increase in kidnappings and homicides; feminicide rates drop]. Milenio. Last modified March 7, 2019. https

[7] Agren, David. “Mexican President-Elect’s New Plan to Fight Crime Looks like the Old Plan.” The Guardian. Last modified November 21, 2018.

[8] Agren, David. “Fury as Mexico Presidential Candidate Pitches Amnesty for Drug Cartel Kingpins.” The Guardian. Last modified December 4, 2017.


Muedano, Marcos. “Dominan 80 células del narco en México; operan seis cárteles” [80 drug trafficking cells dominating drug trade in Mexico; six cartels operating]. Excelsior. Last modified November 26, 2018.

Agren, David. “President AMLO Takes Power with Vow to Transform Mexico – but Can He Deliver?” Last modified December 1, 2018. mexico-andres-manuel-lopez-obrador-president.

Brandoli, Javier. “La Guerra del Narco contamina México” [The War on Drugs Contaminates Mexico]. El Mundo. Last modified December 31, 2017.

Deslandes, Ann. “Mexico’s War on Drugs Failed.” Foreign Policy. Last modified November 30, 2018.

Photo Credits:

Image 1: Se acabó la guerra contra el narco: AMLO” [The War on Drugs is Over: AMLO]. Last modified January 30, 2019.

Image 2: Beittel, June S. Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations. July 3, 2018.

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Russia’s pivot to Africa: Moscow’s growing web of influence across the continent

Clémentine Constans is a First-year BA International Relations student at KCL and IR Today’s Russia Editor. Her latest article examines Moscow’s growing web of influence across the Africa the geopolitical implications this holds for the continent.

(Photo: Vladimir Putin shaking hands with Faustin Archange Touadera, president of the Central African Republic, during a meeting in St Petersburg in May 2018)

For several years now, countries and companies have been heavily investing in Africa. With a population of nearly one and a half billion, enormous natural resource potential and a surge in economic development, the continent holds immense opportunities – both economic and political. If in the past the continent has often become of crucial interest to powerful nations (European colonial powers in the 19th century and the United States and the USSR during the Cold War), the rules of this new scramble for Africa have radically changed. Newly powerful nations are now entering the game, replacing the rather unchallenged position the West has occupied since the end of the Cold War. Economically, Africa’s three biggest trade partners are the US, France and now China; the latest being in addition Sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest arms seller.[1] Rising economic powers such as Turkey and Brazil are also deepening their ties with African governments, opening more and more embassies in the continent. Arguably the most significant – albeit somewhat unnoticed trend however is Russia’s stake increasing stake in the new scramble for Africa – since 2014 the country has signed nineteen arms deals with African countries whilst simultaneously signing lucrative deals on natural resource extraction.[2]

Though less involved than China, which has impressive financial resources when it comes to investing or giving out loans, Russia is increasingly becoming a key actor in the region. If China’s policy towards Africa can be said to be mainly economic, Russia’s is more political, leading some African leaders to state that “China is the money and Russia the muscle” in the continent.[3] With Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, China mainly seeks natural resources and new horizons for its market. Russia, to the contrary, seeks to extend its political influence and create new alliances.

Russian corporations have concluded lucrative economic deals in numerous countries, cleverly extending Moscow’s influence without involving too much the government: if the deals are fructuous, then Moscow can benefit from them. If not, it has nothing to lose. The Rusal aluminium company has for instance concluded a deal with Guinean mines to export their bauxite; while Alrosa, a state diamond mining company, signed a similar contract with Angola in 2017.[4]

However, Russian interests are not just limited to natural resources. The country’s stake in Africa’s myriad conflicts is increasing. Russian companies’ arms sale to Africa have drastically risen in recent years – in 2016-2017 alone countries as diverse as Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Sudan and South Sudan asked or received shipment from Russia.[5] But the Moscow’s influence goes beyond mere deals, impinging on strategic matters as well. In the Central African Republic, Valery Zakharov, a former Russian intelligence official, has become national security advisor to the president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra.[6] This ever-growing influence goes in line with the country’s rapprochement with autocratic regimes worldwide such as Venezuela, Syria or Saudi Arabia. Putin’s strategy seems clear: the more influence and ties he can create, the better, especially when it comes to allying with countries that follow a non-Western, non-democratic model.

In 2014, after Europe and the US imposed sanctions on Russia following the annexation of Crimea, Putin had to see beyond Russia’s immediate sphere of influence to seek new alliances. Africa in particular provided a win-win deal: countries with authoritarian regimes such as Zimbabwe or the Democratic Republic of Congo, who were barred from Western support or approbation, found in Russia a powerful ally.[7] In particular, just like China, Russia can close its eyes on human rights abuses or corruption. From those new alliances, Russia has already gained a lot – as has Africa. A good example of the budding relationship between Moscow and African capitals is in the United Nations, in which Russia increasingly supports its African partners and vice versa. Recently, they have for instance abstained from voting the UNSC’s resolution on sending peacekeeping forces to the civil war stricken Central African Republic.[8]

Beyond the need for new alliances, Russia’s involvement in Africa and across the globe is a further way of meddling with western interests and exploiting its weaknesses. Using again the example of the CAR, Russia allegedly sent mercenaries to support the incumbent regime, through a private military company with ties to the Russian state known as Wagner.[9] Though nothing is proven (despite the mysterious deaths of three Russian journalists investigating on the issue[10]), this alleged behaviour particularly bothers France, the former colonial power in place in the region, which is trying to uphold a fragile peace in the region alongside UN peacekeepers. More generally, Russia’s support and encouragement of so-called “illiberal” behaviours destabilises and calls into question prevailing Western values, ideals and norms on the international stage.

Undertaking this design in Africa has become even easier for Putin in the last few years. Obama’s shift in focus to other zones of tension, especially East Asia, reduced the number of American troops and thus US influence in Africa. In 2016, President Trump’s election left a window open for Moscow to exploit. Until recently, the president did not express much interest in the African continent – he has never set foot on the continent and it was only in November 2018 that the administration finally released its strategy for Africa, in which Bolton challenged African countries to seek US’ support instead of that of Russia or China.[11]

Though yet to be relativized at the moment, Russia’s return to Africa might increasingly represent a challenge for western commercial and strategic interests in the continent. If former colonial powers and the US have so far maintained key partnerships with African countries, Beijing and Moscow’s growing involvement challenges these traditional relationships and power dynamics. In this new scramble however, African countries are the ones who have the most to gain in the long run. Heavy investment, diversification of diplomatic links and the creation of new markets all go hand-in-hand towards sustaining further economic development and already expanding global influence – both for Moscow and its African partners.

[1] The Economist, “The new scramble for Africa”, page 9

[2] Ibid



[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] The monocle, the foreign desk, podcast “Russia in Africa”



[10] Ibid


The Power of the Voter: An Analysis of India’s Voter Identity

Elections for the 17th Lok Sabha (Lower house of the Indian Parliament) are in full swing, and it’s important to know and analyze where the opinion polls are headed and what the voting patterns will be. Through this article, second-year International Relations student Aahan Uphayaya, President elect of KCL War Studies Society sheds light on the most important aspect of any elections: the voters. This will be done by exploring the Indian voters’ identity and their expectations from their electoral representatives.

Image result for indian election

Image Source:

Yogendra Yadav, a Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, remarked at the India Today Conclave that “…in the 2019 elections, something much deeper is at stake.”[1] As religious chants calling for a ‘more religious’ state become louder, so does the demand that India move away from its secular identity. The media’s jingoistic response has fuelled ‘hyper-nationalism’ and has turned the focus of debate away from pressing policy issues to petty news room shouting matches. To comprehend this media circus is not easy but if you do, Mr. Yadav comments that it is indeed “India’s identity which is at stake” will most certainly ring true.[2]

In every household across India, intense discussions regarding politics will be underway. The big media houses are also not far behind, fueling the debate as they try to monetise on this lucrative business. Though in their attempt to paint this picture of the elections, they seem to reach very distinct conclusions. It’s either the less equipped opposition to oppose the seemingly invulnerable Prime Minister Modi, or two equally powerful parties fighting for power in the world’s largest elections. The two parties – the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) are fundamentally polarized in ideological terms. The BJP, led by PM Modi, sits on the right of the political spectrum whereas the Congress is a centre-left party. However, in all their analyses, policies and promises of betterment, the media houses and parties overlook an important factor: the Indian voter.

Who is the Indian Voter?

Is the Indian voter the anti-incumbent giant killer, or the docile, gullible, and easily swayed populist? Prannay Roy, in his new book, comments about three phases of Indian voters, (i) post-colonial to 1970s – the aspiring hopeful voter; (ii)1970s-2000s – the angry voter, and (iii) the wise contemporary voter.[3] In his description of the voter, he uses every word but foolish – and he is right in doing so. In the present scenario, in which information is forced on an audience and choosing sides becomes necessary, the Indian voters will hopefully let their perceptive sides prevail. The Indian electorate is highly intelligent as it notices not only the major changes or debacles but also the most minute of details and does not hesitate to hold its representatives accountable.

The infamous demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh (northern India) in 1992 greatly exacerbated communal violence and redefined societal fault-lines, creating tension between India’s ethnic, religious and linguistic communities. In response, Kalyan Singh, the Chief Minister of the BJP-led state government, was forced out of power due to his alleged involvement and failures in public administration surrounding the event. The following year, when the state assembly elections were reconducted, Mr Singh was reelected but instead, was forced to sit in the opposition benches.[4]  This anti-ruling party pattern is not only true for regional or state politics in India, but also holds true at the federal level as well. In the 1970s, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was ousted when she misjudged her popularity after ruling the country through a state of emergency and quashing any political dissent. When the elections were held in 1977, she was ousted by rebellious factions within her own party.[5] These facts only highlight how insightful – and unforgiving the Indian voter can be.

Regional Voters

India is a federally ruled consortium of states, stuck together by bonhomie and a close-knit social fabric. Many historians argue that meta-physically, India’s identity has not been eroded in spite of various invasions or European colonisation and still remains intact.[6] However, what remains grossly underestimated is the role of state and regional alliances in giving them equal representation. This fact was clearly visible when Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the charismatic BJP statesman, failed to secure his majority in Parliament. His term only lasted 13 days.[7] This highlights how the Indian public demands more power in the hands of the people, ensuring that elective representatives are held liable for their responsibilities towards the nation. This happens through the biggest democratic exercise in the world carried out by the Election Commission of India, which can be lauded for its voter awareness programs and promising accessibility to voters even from the most remote parts of the country.[8]

Contemporary Voters

The trend of anti-incumbency has been widely observed in Indian elections, with the notable exception of the decade between 2004-2014, in which the Congress-led alliance held the majority in the Parliament for two terms. Nevertheless, Congress’ corruption-ridden policies, and its ‘policy paralysis’ rhetoric, arguing that all policies were doomed to fail, initiated its gradual loss of power. These failures, combined with Narendra Modi’s personal charisma, paved the way for the BJP to ascertain a majority in the lower house of Parliament.[9] In an era of social media, societal roles throughout the world have changed, making society more aware of what is happening around them, locally as well as globally. The current government led by Prime Minister Modi has come under fire on various issues, ranging from the infamous devaluing of the currency in 2016[10], to suppression of free and fair media and the constant bickering with the country’s bureaucracy and judiciary.[11]  Though there has been improvement in the free market economy and foreign direct investments in recent years, it is safe to say that the current government is not without its shortcomings and promises have yet to be fulfilled.


The article has taken cues from contemporary Indian history and tried to highlight the importance of the voter in the upcoming general election. Admittedly, the author is not a political commentator, but would like to part with the reader on this note – the Indian voter rarely remembers but seldom forgets.

  1. “Ayodhya and After.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 40, no. 3, 2005, pp. 186–186. JSTOR,
  2. Ghosh, Jayati, C. P. Chandrasekhar, and Prabhat Patnaik.Demonetisation decoded: A critique of India’s currency experiment. Routledge India, 2017
  3. Manor, James. “Where Congress Survived: Five States in the Indian General Election of 1977.” Asian Survey, vol. 18, no. 8, 1978, pp. 785–803. JSTOR,
  4. Kerslake, “Beyond Empire: Meta-empire and Postcoloniality.” In Science Fiction and Empire, 168-87. Liverpool University Press, 2010.
  5. Roy, Prannay, and Doarb R. Soopariwala. The Verdict: Decoding India’s Elections. Penguin India, 2019.
  12. Roy, Prannay, and Doarb R.
  13. Soopariwala. The Verdict: Decoding India’s Elections. Penguin India, 2019
  14. “Ayodhya and After.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 40, no. 3, 2005, pp. 186–186. JSTOR,
  15. Manor, James. “Where Congress Survived: Five States in the Indian General Election of 1977.” Asian Survey, vol. 18, no. 8, 1978, pp. 785–803. JSTOR,
  16. “Beyond Empire: Meta-Empire and Postcoloniality.” Science Fiction and Empire, by PATRICIA KERSLAKE, 1st ed., vol. 35, Liverpool University Press, 2010, pp. 168–187. JSTOR,
  20. Ghosh, Jayati, C. P. Chandrasekhar, and Prabhat Patnaik. Demonetisation decoded: A critique of India’s currency experiment. Routledge India, 2017.

China’s rise: how changes in China’s own self-identity pushed East Asia to regard China as a threat


Understanding how China has changed the way it sees itself is crucial to understanding why East Asian nations increasingly believe in the China threat theory [CHINA DAILY]

Sheng-Wei (Kevin) Chuang, a second year IR student, writes about the changes in Chinese self-identity and foreign policy, giving credibility to the China threat theory and how these changes have pushed East Asian nations’ foreign policies towards a policy of balancing against China’s rise.  

China’s rise is a threat to East Asian peace and stability

Beginning in the 1980s with trade liberalization, China’s growing international engagement prompted two contrasting views on China’s rise: one based on the China threat theory, and another on China’s “peaceful rise.” Though China’s “good neighbor” policy in the 1990s supported its rhetoric of a “peaceful rise” and encouraged engagement-based policies from its neighbors, a sudden shift in Chinese foreign policy in the mid-2000s and 2010s lent credibility to the China threat theory. This shift in Chinese foreign policy posture precipitated changes in East Asian nations’ foreign policy. Therefore, this article argues that given China’s ascendance, marked by growing assertiveness in foreign and military policy, has influenced a mentality and practical shift towards “soft-balancing” in foreign policy decisions in East Asia; however, the article suggests that a degree of hedging exists due to China’s economic power.

For the readers’ benefit, these following definitions will be used throughout the article. Engagement refers to the “broadening of contacts in areas of mutual interest.” (Resnick 2001: 553) The article refers to balancing as the neorealist notion of enhancing one’s capabilities (internal balancing) and strengthening alliances or foreign relations (external balancing) to ensure security by preventing the rising power from altering the status quo. (Waltz 1979, 118) The key term of this article is “soft balancing,” which refers to policy actions centered around non-military forms of balancing intending on delaying or undermining the rising power’s expansion. (Pape 2005, 7-45) Another term is the balance of threat theory, which suggests that states’ foreign policy decisions rest upon perceived threats from other states. (Walt 1987) This underpins the “China threat theory,” which proposes that China’s rise – particularly the “advance of Chinese people and capital” (Takahara 2012, 48) – presents a threat to the international order. Two interpretations of this theory exist: the US and the West generally interpret this theory as a justification for its soft-balancing policies; conversely, Chinese officials view it as a Western fabrication to justify Western policies of containment towards China. (Zheng 2005) 

Reasons for Change?

Following its liberalization in the 1990s, China adopted the “good neighbour policy,” characterized by the concept of “Yulinweishan, Yilinweiban” (taking in neighbors as friends and partners) and growing multilateralism in its foreign policy by partaking in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and other international institutions. (Takahara 2012, 61) Consequently, East Asian nations’ foreign policies followed engagement-based foreign policies, which focused on economic ties with China’s markets – seen as key to East Asian nations’ economic prosperity. (Medeiros et. al 2008; Huang and Chu 2015) However, engagement policies were also based on the belief that China’s eventual rise may be destabilizing. East Asian governments tacitly “hoped that, in the process of engaging, growing interdependence might reduce the likelihood of outright confrontation.” (Chung 2009/2010, 660) This involved policies seeking to embed “China in a web of multilateral structure,” (Frost et. al 2008, 5) hoping that institutionalized notions of accepted conduct would influence China’s foreign policy towards maintaining its good neighbor policy. (Chung 2009/2010, 660-667) Despite China’s official policy of “peaceful rise” to combat the China threat theory, (Zheng 2005; Kitano 2011, 44) frequent Chinese expressions of “core interests” and “allusions to the [concepts of] ‘great power’ and ‘great power diplomacy’” (Kitano 2011, 44-45) marked a shift in Chinese foreign policy in the 2000s. This shift towards aggression culminated in 2010, when Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi stating that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” (Washington Post and Pomfret 2010) From 2010 onwards, China’s foreign policy arguably rejected the “good neighbor” policy and shifted its core interests from economic development to “sovereignty, security, and development.” (Kitano 2011, 46; Dai 2010)

Though economic engagement persists, economic engagement is no longer preferred, evident by East Asia’s foreign policy reorientations. East Asian political elites’ belief that economic engagement with China failed to steer China away from confrontational actions explains why East Asian nations’ foreign policy shifted towards soft-balancing. (Medeiros et. al 2008) Conversely, Chinese foreign policy-makers see similar ineffectiveness with using economic engagement to advance its new “core interests,” as they see “little evidence that the growing economic links [with] US allies have translated into direct political influence that China could leverage to shape their policy choices,” thus leading to Chinese assertiveness. (Medeiros et. al 2008, xvii)

Given the mutually perceived ineffectiveness of economic engagement, this article argues that changes to China’s self-identity and its methods for pursuing new foreign policy goals directly contributed to changes in East Asian nations’ foreign policies. China’s foreign policy direction and rhetoric have fueled fears and suspicions within its neighbors’ political elites, specifically its nationalism-based rhetoric promoting its “core interests.” For instance, the Chinese government’s delayed action during the violent 2010 and 2012 anti-Japanese protests were interpreted by Japan as a means to utilize anti-Japanese sentiment and nationalism to rally public support for its foreign policy handling of territorial disputes. (Takahara 2012) When examining specific political language: such as Xi’s statement on the “Chinese Dream” for “national rejuvenation” and the “great revival of the Chinese nation” in the 19th Communist Party Congress, (Xi 2017) it can be seen how awareness of its great-power status enables a mentality shift during its rise from the previous doctrine of “watch dispassionately, act calmly, hide [one’s] talents, bide [one’s] time…” (Kitano 2011, 37; Nakai 2009) to an inclination towards a revisionist “China-centric order,” based on Chinese values and leadership rather than the liberal order. (Kitano 2011, 47) Given nationalism’s role in fomenting the historic conflicts in East Asia, new surges in Chinese nationalism generate additional fear and distrust within East Asia.

chinese dream

The “Chinese Dream” for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation represents a fundamental shift in the way that China views its self-identity and contributes to explaining why China has taken a more assertive foreign policy.  [PEOPLE’S DAILY]

Since the 2000s, Chinese foreign policy goal reorientation towards expansionism followed its increased nationalistic rhetoric. This change is summarized by Jacobson and Knox, who argue that “there is widespread agreement [within China] that… China must aggressively draw up rules,” as “advanced industrialized nations [seek] to delay the rise of China.” (2011, 100-103) Reorientation towards expansionism and rewriting of international rules is demonstrated through China’s 1992 Law of the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, which declared its willingness to use military force to back up its decision to list all disputed areas in the East and South China Sea as Chinese territory, (National People’s Congress 1992) and subsequent refusal to accept the 2013 Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the South China Sea, stating that it has “no binding force.” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2016) Similarly, part of the “China-centric model” involves China’s creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to challenge the liberal order, (Amako 2011, 11) evidenced by the SCO’s 2005 Declaration, stating that “the people of each country have the right to choose their own road of development.”  (People’s Daily 2005) Within East Asia, China’s challenge to regional order is demonstrated through its use of economic power via debt forgiveness and promised investments to exploit the “ASEAN way” of consensus-based decision making to pursue its goals. (Zhao and Qi 2016, 490) This was demonstrated through the absence of a communiqué at the 2012 ASEAN Summit, a first in history, due to Cambodia, a recipient of immense Chinese foreign aid, refusing to include Philippines’ and Vietnam’s protests against Chinese actions in the South China Sea. (Zhao and Qi 2016, 490-491)


Under Xi’s leadership, China has increased the frequency of its military parades. A column of Chinese DF-26 anti-ship missiles, nicknamed “carrier killers,” designed to deter US naval activity in East Asia as part of China’s active anti-access/area denial strategy crosses Tiananmen Square. [NATIONAL INTEREST]

More worryingly to East Asian policymakers are China’s overt challenges, specifically China’s growing military expenditure to bolster its claims. Eighteen consecutive years of 10% increases in military expenditure, acquisition of power-projecting weaponry, and frequent power-projection drills have reinforced East Asian policymakers’ perception of China’s growing willingness to utilize force. (Rose 2010, 159; Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan 2006, 44) Furthermore, lack of transparency around Chinese military expenditure prompts “heightened perceptions of the risks posed by China” by neighboring states. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan 2006, 44; Taniguichi 2005, 23) Therefore, China’s actions seem to reinforce the China threat theory, as its foreign policy actions increase its neighbors’ threat perception of China, hereby motivating China’s East Asian neighbors’ shifting foreign policy.

Overall Trends: Towards Hedging and Soft-Balancing 

Changes in East Asian nations’ foreign policies are demonstrated by changes in decision-making mentality and concrete policy changes. In terms of mentality shifts, East Asian states started to believe that, “the US and China are jockeying for power and influence” within East Asia, (Medeiros et. al 2008, xv) leading to a sense of entrapment between the US and a rising, increasingly aggressive China. (Hughes 2009, 845) The underlying reason for this feeling of entrapment is a growing belief among most East Asian political elites that China seeks to assert “its political influence and leadership role” in East Asia by using FTAs to incentivize bandwagoning behavior from its neighbors. (Ahn 2004, p. 29) In general, East Asian nations have become warier of and more sensitive to Chinese preferences, specifically around sovereignty issues. (Chung 2009/2010, 670; Medeiros et. al 2008, xvi) Implicit in their sensitivity however, is their belief in the China threat theory, specifically China’s willingness to use military and economic coercion to assert its regional influence and accomplish its objectives.

Regarding practical policy changes, East Asian countries have started integrating defense strategy into its foreign policy of soft-balancing, evident through increasing military spending and fostering closer ties with the US (as a security guarantor) and neighboring countries. Soft-balancing as a foreign policy strategy in East Asia is accomplished through using internal balancing components – increased military expenditure and changing defense strategy priorities – to reinforce external balancing components. For instance, since the 1990s, both Northeast and Southeast Asian nations systemically modernized their militaries. The implicit goal of military modernization to achieve “minimum credible defense posture” to increase Chinese costs in a potential conflict demonstrates East Asian nations’ intent to delay China’s rise, a critical component in soft-balancing. (Zhao and Qi 2016, 489; Kaplan 2012)

The external balancing components of soft-balancing are integrating defense strategy into foreign policy resulting in cultivating closer diplomatic, political and military ties with other states. Apart from military expenditure, this is perhaps the most prominent change in foreign policies of East Asian nations. The integration of defense strategy into foreign policy can be seen by many East Asian nations’ eagerness to partake in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and granting US warships access to key military ports to incentivize continued American presence in the region as a security guarantee against a rising China. (Zhao and Qi 2016, 494) In particular, East Asian nations’ eagerness to partake in the TPP and willingness to expand operational cooperation with American forces to dispel charges of “free-riding” demonstrates the foreign policy changes implemented after the integration of defense strategy into foreign policy decisions. (Zhao and Qi 2016, 494; Newsham 2015)

Case Study: Japanese Foreign Policy

This section will demonstrate the similarities between Japan’s foreign policy evolution and that of the East Asian region. Japan was the first country to integrate China into the regional institutions through “inclusive multilateralism” (Tanaka 2007, 37) and improving bilateral trade after the Tiananmen Incident. (Takahara 2012, 63) Japan also sought to use its Official Development Assistance (ODA) program to ensure Chinese internal stability to prevent Chinese political elites from feeling the “need” for assertiveness to placate internal unrest. (Hughes 2009, 839-840) During this period, Japanese ODA to China amounted to $32 billion and Japan also become China’s second largest trading partner. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan 2016; National Statistics Bureau of China 2015)

Changes in Japanese foreign policy reflect East Asian nations’ growing belief in the China threat theory. Japan explicitly expressed its concern over the threat posed by China’s rise and the disingenuousness of China’s alleged “peaceful rise.” Since 1995, Japan’s National Defense Program Guidelines have repeatedly named Chinese military and foreign policies during its rise as a “growing concern” to Japanese security. (Zhao and Qi 2016, 486) Specifically, the 2010 Senkaku boat collision incident and subsequent regularized Chinese deployment of warships to the Senkakus led to Japan’s 2011 Defense White Paper stating that China’s aggressive maritime activities and “overbearing” foreign policy towards its neighbors “arouse anxiety about [China’s] future direction…” (Zhao and Qi 2016, 486; Japan Ministry of Defense 2011; Koga 2016) Japan’s belief in the China threat theory was reiterated in its 2013 Defense White Paper, stating that Chinese actions were “incompatible with international law.” (Japan Ministry of Defense 2013)

Beyond rhetoric, Japan’s foreign policy changes matches the aforementioned changes towards soft-balancing in East Asian foreign policy. In terms of internal components of soft-balancing, Japan’s military spending increased 63% since 2000 and reallocated equipment from Hokkaido (north) to Honshu (south) to enhance its immediate defensive capabilities against potential Chinese aggression. (Zhao and Qi 2016; Medeiros et. al 2008, 52) This is mirrored by other states, such as Vietnam, who tripled its military spending and modernized its submarine fleet in an attempt to delay China’s territorial expansion. (Zhao and Qi 2016, 488-490) In terms of external components of soft-balancing, Japan expanded its military ties with the US through implementing the 2015 US-Japan Defense Guidelines, affirming that Japan would operate offensively alongside American forces under the 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty despite its pacifist Constitution, which resulted in the US committing to defend the Senkaku Islands in a potential invasion. (Zhao and Qi 2016; Newsham 2015) The integration of defense strategy (ensuring American security guarantee) into Japanese foreign policy represents a response to Chinese aggression through soft-balancing. (Medeiros et. al 2008) Additionally, Japan increased its military cooperation with neighboring countries, culminating in a potential Status of Forces Agreement with the Philippines, which would grant the Japanese navy military access to Filipino ports. (Zhao and Qi 2016, 496) Other states also practice increasing military cooperation in their foreign policies; for example, Vietnam granted the US, a historic enemy, military access to its ports, which demonstrates the unease felt by China’s rise even among traditional Chinese allies. (Zhao and Qi 2016, 488-490) Japanese foreign policy also emphasized shared values of democracy, multilateralism and transparency in its multilateral diplomatic push for including Australia and India into the East Asia Summit in 2005, interpreted as an attempt to dilute and counter Chinese influence in regional institutions like the ARF. (Hughes 2009, 847) Though nuanced differences with other nations exist, Japan’s case, alongside Vietnam and Philippines, demonstrates practical impacts of China’s rise on East Asian nations’ foreign policies.

Nuances and Caveats

The economic dimension of China’s rise moderates the soft-balancing foreign policy of its neighbors. Despite perceiving China’s rise as threatening, many East Asian nations’ foreign policies pursue hedging (pursuing multiple strategies, particularly maximization of returns) by exercising economic pragmatism and maintaining close economic ties with China. Japan and Taiwan, China’s traditional rivals, both continue economic hedging with China in its foreign policies, hereby demonstrating the moderating influence of China’s economic power. Similarly, China’s promise of foreign aid and debt forgiveness exerts strong influences on states considering soft-balancing. This is demonstrated through Cambodia’s foreign policy of selective hedging, whereby Cambodia pursues bandwagoning by vetoing ASEAN proposals on matters relating to China’s “core interests” in exchange for Chinese investments. (Zhao and Qi 2016, 490) Similarly, South Korean security concessions to China after China placed economic sanctions on South Korea over the deployment of American Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile systems in South Korea demonstrates the economic dimension moderating any ‘excessive’ soft-balancing foreign policies. (Panda 2017) Therefore, China’s economic power remains a strong moderating force on soft-balancing, enough that it arguably pushes East Asian nations’ foreign policies towards a policy of hedging.

To conclude, this article sought to demonstrate how China’s rise and changes in its foreign policy – demonstrated by growing assertiveness and its willingness to use force to support its revisionist foreign policy goals – have been interpreted as a threat to East Asian peace and stability, hereby incentivizing East Asian nations to adopt “balancing-based” foreign policies. These changes include internal balancing based on increasing military strength and external balancing based on pursuing closer military and diplomatic ties with other nations. This article examined Japanese foreign policy, amongst other nations’, to contextualize its argument that China’s rise has motivated new foreign polices of soft-balancing. These changing foreign policy decisions, specifically around external balancing, serve as non-military, soft-balancing policies designed to delay China’s rise. Ultimately, regardless of what Chinese leaders may claim, the Chinese leadership’s belief in China’s status as a great power, and subsequent changes in how China formulates and pursues its foreign policy, forces its neighbors to balance against its rise. Unless China fundamentally alters its approach, its rise will – rightfully so – be seen as a threat to peace and stability in East Asia.


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Interest vs. Identity: Why Do States Become Nuclear Powers?

-A case study on Pakistan


Photo by Sameer Akhtari on Unsplash

S. Rania Mohiuddin is a 2nd Year International Relations BA student at King’s College London. She writes about why different countries nuclearize themselves by specifically focusing on the case study of Pakistan. 

The International Committee of the Red Cross calls nuclear weapons ‘the most terrifying weapon ever invented’ and seeks their complete elimination.[1] The negative effects of nuclear weapons go beyond the loss of lives, and extend into societal, ecological, and environmental problems, and even food shortages.[2] Taking these, and the fact that nuclear weapons have not been used against another state since 1945, into consideration, it can be difficult to understand why states choose to become nuclear powers.

What cannot be overlooked, however, is that nuclear weapons are the most powerful and destructive weapons a modern state can possess.[3] Furthermore, their advantages are not limited to their capacity as weapons. As Sagan argues, “Nuclear weapons, like other weapons, are more than tools of […] security; they are political objects of considerable importance in domestic debates and internal bureaucratic struggles and can also serve as international normative symbols”.[4]

This article will will compare the identity and interest based causes Pakistan’s identity and interest based motivators for nuclear proliferation. The information provided will be analyzed from two differing perspectives- realist theory (interest), and constructivism (identity).

Setting the Scene: Pakistan 1972

1971 can be stated as one of the most influential years in the development of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Prior to the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, India and Pakistan had engaged in two conventional wars, in 1948 and 1965, respectively. What set 1971 apart, was that the previous wars had not ended with a victory either side could claim. Pakistan remained ‘undefeated’. [5] In stark contrast, the war of 1971 resulted in a comprehensive defeat for Pakistan, further solidified with the loss of Bangladesh in East Pakistan.[6]

This defeat hastened the fall of military General Yahya Khan from power, who was replaced by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.[7] Bhutto had been an advocate for nuclear power as early as 1965, and had deep set opinions on protecting Pakistan’s territorial integrity. It was under Bhutto’s directive that the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) was instructed to build a nuclear device within three years, and began uranium enrichment in 1972. [8] By 1987, in an interview to Time, Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq declared “Pakistan has the capability of building the Bomb. You can write today that Pakistan can build a bomb whenever it wishes. Once you have acquired the technology, which Pakistan has, you can do whatever you like”.[9]


In the meantime, two of Pakistan’s geographic neighbours, India and China, had already launched nuclear weapons programs. China started its nuclear weapons program in 1954, and successfully conducted its first test in 1964- eight years before Pakistan started the process of uranium enrichment.[10] Pakistan’s other- perhaps more threatening- neighbour, India, had established the Indian Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) in1948 (compared to PAEC- 1956), and had started allocating serious time into nuclear power in 1954. Smiling Buddha, India’s first peaceful nuclear explosion, took place in 1974- three years after Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 War, and 24 years before Pakistan’s first nuclear test, Chagai-I. [11] It is worth noting that both of Pakistan’s nuclear neighbours have a ‘no-first strike’ policy, indicating that they will only use nuclear weapons in an instance that requires a retaliation, not an initial attack. This differs from Pakistan’s ‘first-strike’ policy- wherein in a preferred scenario, Pakistan would be the first to launch a nuclear attack. [12]

A realist analysis of the question:

Interest can be viewed as a key factor in policy making. Morgenthau defines national interest as ‘pursuit of power, which is to be used to secure material aims, protect social and physical quality of life, and promote specific ideological or normative goals’.[13] This definition can be interpreted to mean that national interest reflects ideals that will ensure the security, and thus, survival of the state. When asked why states acquire nuclear weapons, classical realist theory’s focus on power relations and security- and their reflections in national interest, and thus policy, offer valid explanations. As Morgenthau puts it, ‘The national interest of a peace-loving nation can only be defined in terms of national security’.[14]

Possession of nuclear weapons can be perceived as a matter of international prestige.  A state seeking to establish itself may wish to develop nuclear weapons ‘to gain membership to the most exclusive international club of nuclear states’. [15] This can be used to explain why Pakistan sought nuclear power- to avoid being overshadowed in the regional politics between India and China, both of whom had nuclear power.  Another deduction that can be made on this basis could be that considering APJ Abdul Kalam, head of India’s defence research department, stated ‘India has got the size and weight to do it’ regarding India’s 1998 tests, after the Pakistani defeat in 1971, Pakistan could be said to be seeking security through prestige.

The second of these causes lies in the concept of deterrence– ‘strategy under which one power uses the threat of reprisal effectively to preclude an attack from an adversary power’.[16] In order to explain Pakistan’s growing nuclear weapons programme, Sadia Tasleem and Toby Dalton argue, ‘For Pakistani officials and scholars, increasing and diversifying Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is not seen as a policy choice, but rather a compulsion to maintain an effective deterrent vis-à-vis India’- it’s nuclear power wielding long term adversary, and neighbour.[17] Through deterrence, the possibility of a nuclear attack between the two states is reduced, bringing stability to regional, and global politics.[18]

The final realist cause for Pakistan to have developed nuclear weapons can be found in the realist security dilemma: ‘what one does to enhance one’s own security causes reactions that, in the end can make one less secure’.[19] Essentially, a state’s attempt to defend itself can be interpreted as offensive to its neighbours. This results in both states stockpiling weapons in order to ensure their own security. Sagan explains how the security dilemma can also be applied in Pakistan’s case as “After the Indian [test explosions], the nascent Pakistani weapons program had to move forward according to the realist view: facing a recently hostile neighbour with both nuclear weapons and conventional military superiority, it was inevitable that the government in Islamabad would seek to produce a nuclear weapon as quickly as possible.”[20]

Overall, it can be seen that the three causes: prestige, deterrence, and the security dilemma, all have their foundations in a state’s desire to protect itself from outside powers.

A constructivist analysis of the question:

States need ways in which they distinguish themselves from other states, and they do so through national identity.[21] This national identity is constructed on the basis of shared commonalities such as language, religion, ethnicity, culture, and historical experience.[22] Constructivist theorists would argue that in essence, national identity is not a ‘given’, but rather, is formulated over time.

To understand the origins of Pakistan’s national identity, it is essential to study the origins of the state of Pakistan. Pakistan was created on August 14th, 1947, though the partitioning of colonial India on the basis of religious majorities in geographic regions. [23] The biggest involuntary migration of populations across international borders took place between India and Pakistan, as Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, all fled for their security to the newly created states.[24] Ahmed explains that ‘the movement for Pakistan was essentially negative in its orientation: it had come into being in opposition to a perceived fear that in a united India the Hindu majority would be a permanent political majority thus reducing Muslims to the position of second-class citizens.’.[25] The friction between India and Pakistan never fully subsided, with both states going to war in 1948, 1965, and again in 1970.

It is safe to say that Pakistan’s national identity has been constructed through history, religion, and politics, to be positioned against India. Hymans argues that ‘an oppositional nationalist identity combines a great antagonism toward an external enemy of the nation and an exaltation of the actual or potential strength of the nation. This type of identity produces a mix of fear and pride—an explosive psychological cocktail.’[26] This oppositional nationalist perception of India that Pakistan has can serve as an explanation for why Pakistan would want to become a nuclear state- especially after Pakistan’s defeat in 1971. In support of the view that nuclearization was the Pakistani national identity’s response to India’s position as a nuclear state, Narang points out that the Pakistani nuclear program was constructed specifically with India in mind.[27]

“If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves—even go hungry—but we will get one of our own.”[28] – Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, 1965

As can be seen in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s speech in 1965, India’s nuclear capacity played a crucial role in driving Pakistan’s nuclear program. Constructivist theorists would claim that it was Pakistani national identity that helped shape policies of politicians like Bhutto. Hymans puts it as ‘the key independent variable […] about decisions to go nuclear is the leader’s national identity conception’.[29]

Securitization theories, which question social and power relationships, their origins, and their conceptual shifts, are in line with constructivist claims that factors driving policy making are constructed.[30] This differs starkly from the realist perspective that national interests are predetermined (security). Securitization focuses on the construction of objects of security, and the transformation of security dilemmas. The perception of what constitutes a security concern also effects the state strategy, including nuclearization. Keeping this in mind, it is possible to argue that the developments in Pakistan’s perception of regional politics from a perspective that is tinted by national identity was integral in Pakistan acquisition of nuclear weapons. It was national identity that gave issues to be securitized a platform to do so, national identity that facilitated securitization, and national identity that was used to strengthen debates on securitization.[31]

Thus, a constructivist approach which emphasises the malleable nature of identity, and the influence it has in policy making, provides a variety of reasons for Pakistan’s nuclearization. Pakistan’s national identity, and the way it was constructed through historical events and cultural and religious divisions, was a key motivator both for the politicians that initiated Pakistan’s nuclear program, and the policy actions that were taken.

Why is Realism not enough?

While realism’s approach to the causes of nuclearization remain valid and applicable, alone, it is not sufficient to cover the specificity and intricacy of the Pakistani nuclear program.

Earlier in this essay, it was pointed out that on a chronological basis, Pakistan was quite behind its two nuclear neighbours in acquiring nuclear weapons. One could then argue that if the motive behind Pakistan’s nuclearization was in the realist security dilemma, and the notion that it felt threatened by the possibility of being encircled by nuclear powers, it would have been expected that Pakistan start stockpiling weapons as soon as possible. The threat had been there for several years- what it took to mobilize Pakistan in terms of nuclear power, was the humiliation they faced as a result of the 1971 war, and the renewed emphasis on Pakistani national identity being fundamentally opposed to India. This in itself is evidence that the realist security dilemma is not enough to understand Pakistan’s motives for nuclearization.

Aside from the debate over whether or not acquisition of nuclear power is counterproductive to building prestige, given that possession of nuclear weapons could be perceived as an act of hostility, and lack of faith in peace, and the international liberal order, there is another reason why prestige is not an all-encompassing reason for Pakistani nuclearization.[32] Pakistan had been following a policy of nuclear ambiguity-‘[it] had neither renounced nor acquired nuclear weapons for overt weaponization- which it abandoned in May 1998, through a series of nuclear testing that took place between May 28-30, 1998.[33] It is worth noting that if Pakistan had become a nuclear power for a matter of prestige, as realists claim, there would be no point of keeping the program ambiguous. On the contrary, it would be expected for a country to announce its nuclear capabilities as soon as possible. With Pakistan, this was not the case, as Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stated, “”No matter we are recognized as a nuclear weapons power or not, we are a nuclear power.”[34]

Thus, it can be seen that realist assumptions alone are not adequate to explain why Pakistan would want to become a nuclear state. The argument surrounding the security dilemma loses its validity, as the time difference between the launching of India and China’s nuclear programs varies starkly with that of Pakistan. This allows for an understanding that constructivist claims built around the concept of identity play a more consequential role in Pakistan becoming a nuclear state.

What does this mean for Pakistan as a Nuclear State?

Samina Ahmed argues that ‘Pakistan’s relations with India, will continue to play a major role in determining Islamabad’s nuclear course’, emphasizing that Pakistan’s national identity will continue to be a driving force for nuclear policy.[35] Tasleem and Dalton further support these claims through saying that Pakistan and its perhaps ‘fastest growing [nuclear program] in the world’ are results of Pakistan’s efforts to position itself in an advantageous position compared to India.[36]

A recent manifestation of the nuclear conflict between Pakistan, and its long-time enemy, India, took place in February 2019, in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack that occurred on February 14, 2019 in Kashmir- a region over which both India and Pakistan have territorial claims over. [37] In response to the escalating tensions, Pakistan initiated preparations for war with India, through readying its military, and hospitals.[38] Though tensions have deescalated since, especially after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ‘peace gesture’[39], the case demonstrated to the international community how nuclear policy, driven by national identity, can have a significant impact on regional security and stability. [40]


Realist explanations for nuclearization that prioritize national security- which realists claim, is the ultimate national interest- were explored. The three reasons that were provided: deterrence, the security dilemma, and the prestige that comes with having joined the ‘nuclear states’, were introduced, with supporting context dependent reasons as to why Pakistan might have chosen to nuclearize. Following this, identity based reasons for nuclearization that originate from Constructivist theory were studied. It was shown that Pakistan has a distinct national identity that was shaped in the 1945 creation of the state, historical events that took place, and societal divisions within the Indian and Pakistani population. It was this specific national identity, which influenced processes like securitization, and influential individuals like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, thus paving the way for Pakistani nuclearization. After having evaluated both sides of the argument, it was explained why the ‘realist reasons’ were not found to be sufficient in Pakistan’s case specifically. Overall, this essay has compared identity and interest’s roles in determining Pakistan’s nuclearization, and reached the conclusion that identity had a heavier sway.


Sannia Abdullah “Nuclear Ethics? Why Pakistan Has Not Used Nuclear Weapons…Yet,” The Washington Quarterly, 41:4, (2018)  157-173, DOI: 10.1080/0163660X.2018.1558681

Agatha S.Y. Wong-Frazer, The Political Utility of Nuclear Weapons. Expectations and Experience (Lanham: University Press of America, 1980), p. 336.

Ahmed, Ishtiaq. “PAKISTAN’S NATIONAL IDENTITY.” International Review of Modern Sociology 34, no. 1 (2008): 47-59.

Ahmed, Samina. “Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons Program: Turning Points and Nuclear Choices.” International Security 23, no. 4 (1999): 178-204.

Akhtar,Rabia  “Making of the Seventh NWS: Historiography of the Beginning of the Nuclear Disorder in South Asia” The International History Review, 40:5, (2018) 1115-1133, DOI: 10.1080/07075332.2017.1404482

Alexansdrov, Maxym. “The Concept of State Identity in International Relations: A Theoretical Analys.” 2003. Accessed March 12, 2019.

BRANDS, H. W. “The Idea of the National Interest.” Diplomatic History 23, no. 2 (1999): 239-61.

Cimbala, Stephen J. “Nuclear Proliferation in the Twenty-First Century: Realism, Rationality, or Uncertainty?” Strategic Studies Quarterly 11, no. 1 (2017): 129-46.

Diskaya, Ali. “Towards a critical securitization theory” e-ir, Aberyswyth University, 2012

Hymans, Jacques E. C. “Leaders’ National Identity Conceptions and Nuclear Choices.” Chapter. In The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation: Identity, Emotions and Foreign Policy, 16–46. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511491412.003.

Jutila,Matti “Securitization, history, and identity: some conceptual clarifications and examples from politics of Finnish war history”, Nationalities Papers, 43:6, (2015)  927-943, DOI: 10.1080/00905992.2015.1065402

Lamy, Steven L., John Scott Masker, John Baylis, Steve Smith, and Patricia Owens. Introduction to Global Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. p.119-143

Lockie, Alex. “Pakistan Readies Military, Hospitals for War with Its Nuclear Rival India after Pulwama Terror Attack.” Business Insider. February 22, 2019. Accessed March 20, 2019.

Masih, Niha. “Meet the Pilot Who May Have Averted an India-Pakistan War.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 1 Mar. 2019,

Morgenthau, Hans J. “The Primacy of the National Interest.” The American Scholar 18, no. 2 (1949): 207-12.

Narang, Vipin. “Pakistan.” In Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict, 55-93. Princeton University Press, 2014.

O’Neill, Barry “Nuclear Weapons and National Prestige,” Cowles Foundation Discussion Papers 1560, Cowles Foundation for Research in Economics, Yale University. 2006.

Posen, Barry R. “The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict.” Mhamci.yolasite, 12 Mar. 2019,

Reiss, Mitchell. Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities. New York: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Sagan, Scott D. “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb.” International Security 21, no. 3 (1996): 54-86. doi:10.2307/2539273.

Smith, David A. 2016. Theories of Nuclear Proliferation: Why Do States Seek Nuclear Weapons? Inquiries Journal 8 (08),

Tasleem, Sadia & Toby Dalton “Nuclear Emulation: Pakistan’s Nuclear Trajectory” The Washington Quarterly, 41:4, (2018) 135-155, DOI: 10.1080/0163660X.2018.1558662

Zagare, Frank “Classical deterrence theory: A critical assessment”, International Interactions, 21:4, 365-387, 1996 DOI: 10.1080/03050629608434873

[1] International Committee of the Red Cross, 2018

[2] Ibid 2018

[3] Smith 2006

[4] Sagan 1996-97, 55

[5] Narang 2014, 56

[6] Narang 2014, 56

[7] Narang 2014, 57

[8] Nuclear Threat Initiative – Pakistan 2016

[9] Reiss 1995, 215

[10] Nuclear Threat Initiative- China 2015

[11] Atomic Heritage Foundation 2018

[12] Nuclear Threat Initiative – Pakistan 2016

[13] Lamy et al. 2019, 121

[14]Morgenthau in Dalby 1995, 175

[15] Hymans 2006, 43

[16] Encyclopaedia Brittanica

[17] Tasleem and Dalton 2018, 135

[18] Zagare 1996, 366

[19] Posen 2006, 28

[20] Sagan 1996-97, 59

[21] Ahmed 2008, 47

[22] Ibid, 58

[23] Ahmed 2008, 46

[24] Ibid, 46

[25] Ibid, 47

[26] Hymans 2002, 139

[27] Narang 2014, 57

[28] Bhutto in Narang 2014, 56

[29] Hymans 2002, 140

[30] Diskaya 2013

[31] Jutila 2015, 927

[32] Brand 1999, 253

[33] Ahmed 1999, 178

[34] Sharif in Ahmed 1999, 178

[35] Ahmed 1999, 179

[36] Tasleem and Dalton 2018, 136

[37] Lockie 2019

[38] Ibid 2019

[39] Pakistan returned Indian Air Force Pilot Abhinandan Varthaman, whom was captured by the Pakistani military during an aerial ‘dogfight’ between India and Pakistan, to India on March 1, 2019.

[40] Masih 2019

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Egypt’s New Capital City: What Does it Entail?


Photo by Christine Schmiederer from Pexels

by Ghada Al-Thani, the Middle East and North Africa Editor for IR Today and an International Relations student at King’s College London. She writes about the financial and social implications of Egypt’s possible new capital city, yet to be named. 

Cairo has served as the heart and capital of Egypt for over a thousand years. However, 40km to the east, construction on a new city which will serve as the new seat of the Egyptian government has begun. Announced in March of 2015, the Egyptian government promises a bigger, better and newer capital. This yet to be named City is provisionally known as the new administrative capital. As the brainchild of President El Sisi, it is projected to be completed by 2022, with the first permanent inhabitants expected by mid 2019. At its completion, it is expected to hold 6 million people in an area of 700 km².[1] To put this into perspective, it is the size of Singapore or double that of Cairo. Additionally, most institutions are expected to relocate, including the presidency, cabinet, parliament, ministries and foreign embassies are encouraged to follow. In regards to its urban structure, the plans include large green spaces, a brand new parliament building, a business district to hold Africa’s largest skyscraper, a new central bank, an airport larger than London’s Heathrow, a theme park larger than Disneyland, and finally a presidential palace eight times larger than the White House.[2]

Clearly, the project does not lack ambition, reflected in its current $45 Billion price tag, the calculations of which remain unknown. The project supervisor – the administrative capital for urban development – has stated it will settle the budget on a case-by-case basis as each part undergoes construction. Historically however, projects of this nature and magnitude are known to grow out of budget. Although assigned to administrative capital for urban development, 51% of the project is owned by the military with funding from China and Saudi Arabia indicating the construction of Egypt’s new capital is not merely commercial or urban in nature.

Geo-economic and Geo-political Motives

Currently, 90% of the Egyptian population live on only 4% of the country, with 96% remaining uninhabitable. Cairo itself as of 2017 houses 97 million people, with population predicted to grow to 151 million people by 2050. Cairo is currently ranked as one of the world’s fastest growing cities with an annual growth of about half a million people, predicted to reach a population of 40 million people by 2050.[3] It is easy to see how cities will become increasingly crowded and congested, compounding the pre-existing issues of traffic and air pollution. The depreciating infrastructure and quality of life, coupled with the worrying demographic predictions seemingly warrant El Sisi’s ambitious project. With this predicted surge in population, housing is expected to be insufficient causing real estate prices to rocket, contributing to social tensions.

Economic motives for El Sisi’s project revolve around employment. The new capital will include malls, educational facilities, housing units and medical centers; all boosting the construction center contributing to GDP. Upwards of a million jobs are expected to be created. The city’s new location sits between the recently invested in Suez Canal and Cairo, allowing a stretch of human resources to flow between the two. The investments include expansion plans and the creation of a new industrial zone, illustrating the country’s desire to expand opportunities in insurance, banking and shipping.[4]


google maps – Egypt

With regional contenders such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey seeking to increase their influence in the Red Sea, Egypt may be trying to push back and reclaim their position in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia’s proposed ‘Neom City’ may act as a rival to Egypt’s new capital, competing for foreign investors.[5] However, this may equally present an opportunity for cooperation between the two regional powers. If efforts were coordinated, a mutually beneficial endeavor may present itself.


Critics have proclaimed the new city as a ‘White Elephant’, warning that the ambitious $45 billion endeavor may be a waste. The approval and subsequent construction of the city was fast-tracked with little public debate. Some have voiced their concerns stating funds may have been better allocated to refurbish and expand Cairo itself. Egyptians themselves have questioned the efficacy of this project when lower and middle-class citizens are continuously hit with more taxes and inflation, while the state was awarded with a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.[6]

Currently, Egypt have at least twenty-two unfinished cities in the desert, some dating back almost thirty years. These satellite towns hold around one-million people with most houses remaining uninhabited.[7] The most prominent example being ‘New Cairo’. Initially meant to house around one-million people, a decade later it only holds 200,000. It failed to attract residents due to the lack of infrastructure, employment opportunities and the high-cost of resettlements which lower and middle-class Egyptians simply cannot afford. Worryingly, housing prices in the new capital remain beyond the reach of these very same Egyptians due to the developing real estate bubble. To fix this requires the Egyptian government to manage the underlying issue of the real estate bubble, something that has yet to take place. Without this, the new city is unlikely to be populated. High-class Egyptians that can afford to make the move risk turning it into a symbol for the social and economic divide in Egypt, fueling social tensions.

It is apparent that Egypt is in need of a new capital. Debates on whether this entails refurbishing Cairo or creating this new city is no longer relevant. El Sisi elimination of food, water and energy subsidies to improve the country’s finances fixed Egypt’s balance sheet, but generated resentment. If this project fails to live up to expectations, Egypt’s government may feel the backlash.









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Has the US-Sino Trade War Made the American Economy Great Again? – Promises Made and Promises Broken

china trump.png

Aleksandr George is a first year International Relations student at King’s College London and is also the North America editor at International Relations Today. This article discusses the contentions around the US-Sino trade war under POTUS Donald Trump. 

Why the hard feelings toward China?

Before Trump even stepped foot into the Oval Office, it was clear how he felt about the United States’ biggest trading partner. On the campaign trail, he repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with US-Sino trade relations, claiming on several occasions that China was ‘stealing’ American jobs [1]. Once in office, Trump mostly surrounded himself with cabinet members and advisors who would affirm his view of the world. Among them, former Democrat and top economic advisor Peter Navarro stands out for his heterodox beliefs about economic policy. Despite joining Trump during his campaign in 2016, Navarro often found himself silenced by free-trade advocates on Trump’s economic advisory team; however, early 2018 marked a power-shift for Navarro when chief economic advisor Gary Cohn and staff secretary Rob Porter—an avid supporter of free-trade—left the administration [2]. This allowed Navarro to affirm Trump’s long-standing mistrust of China and encourage his desires to be tougher on China.

With Navarro now being the busiest bee buzzing in Trump’s ear, it’s necessary to outline his views on trade with China. Not only does Navarro side with Trump’s claims that China engages unfairly with the United States in trade, but he also tends to take views commonly held by other economists to the extreme [3]. Navarro encouraged Trump to threaten leaving NAFTA, impose tariffs on Mexico and Canada to force renegotiation on trade deals, and slap tariffs on Chinese imports wherever possible [4]. Navarro harbours deep-seated—and largely unfounded—beliefs about Chinese trade policies and so-called aggression and deception, ardently advocating for permanent tariffs and trade barriers [5]. Absent outspoken free-trade proponents in the White House, Navarro has free reign to greatly influence the trade policies of the United States without let or hindrance. He is the most influential of Trump’s economic advisors, yet economists on both the left and right find many of his beliefs about trade to be archaic, fallacious, and flat-out incorrect [6].

Getting tough on China

Tump’s heavy reliance on Navarro’s ‘expertise’ led the United States into a trade war with China last year. This came after a US investigation into Chinese intellectual property practices in 2017 [7]. In September of last year, Washington enacted tariffs on Chinese imports totalling in the billions of dollars, followed by a proportionate Beijing response [8]. In December, months of retaliatory action back and forth gave way to a suspension of the creation of new trade tariffs set to expire after 90 days [9]. US tariffs have mainly been focused on industrial products, including electrical equipment, industrial furnaces, rail parts, navigational equipment, machinery for making plastic products, etc [10]. Chinese tariffs, on the other hand, have been employed specifically to negatively impact Trump’s political base, including agricultural products and natural gas [11].


Getting tough on Americans—and the global economy

On balance, the Trump administration’s hostile engagement with China that led to the current trade war has had a negative impact on both Americans and the global economy as a whole.

After merely one month following its inception, the trade war demonstrated its capacity for economic devastation. The United States’ GDP dropped 1.78 points in October of last year—the worst hit to American GDP since 1985 [12]. Furthermore, higher tariffs mean less overall trade between the United States and China, which led to shipping companies being forced to fire employees to compensate for lost revenue [13]. In 2017, the United States exported 33 million tonnes of soybeans to China—or more than a third of all soybeans imported by China—meaning that Trump’s trade war negatively affected American farmers as well [14]. Trump claimed that his protectionist policies—specifically those regarding Chinese steel—would help industry. But that’s not what happened. The tariffs on steel hurt the domestic steel industry more than they helped it. In fact, stock for steel-producers actually fell 22 percent as a result of Trump’s tariffs [15]. For consumers, the impact has been less than expected; however, if a deal is not reached soon—meaning that tariffs on Chinese imports may more than double—American consumers will feel the impacts of Trump’s frivolous trade war with China [16].

Though I’d imagine that Trump is far more concerned with the domestic, the global economy hasn’t benefitted from the US-Sino trade war either. Roberto Azevedo, head of the World Trade Organisation, explained to the BBC that the world is facing a free-trade crisis worse than it has witnessed since 1947, citing the escalating trade war between the US and China as a major contributing factor [17].


Where do we go from here?

Given the gravity of the situation and further considering that the end of the 90-day freeze on creating new tariffs ended on March 1st, one must wonder where all of this is heading. At the Governor’s Ball last month, Trump claimed that progress had been made in negotiations between Washington and Beijing [18]. Trump agreed to halt increases on further tariffs of Chinese products; however, this raises concerns in Congress from both the left and the right about what kind of deal he is willing to agree to [19]. Political pundits have concerns for whether or not China will honour the agreement that is eventually reached and worry that Trump’s concerns with his image will lead to him accepting a shoddy deal for the sake of being able to say he negotiated a deal at all [20]. But even if tariffs don’t increase greatly in the near future, it is unlikely that presently existing tariffs on China are going anywhere, anytime soon [21]. Because of this, even if a trade deal were reached tomorrow, the slowing of the global economy caused by these high tariffs and non-cooperation between the US and China wouldn’t be reversed [22].  And none of that even touches on the fact that Trump very well could derail the progress that’s already been made in searching for a peaceful resolution to the US-Sino trade war [23]. With the volatility of the Trump administration, what comes next will surely surprise us all.
























Picture of Donald Trump and Xi Jinping

Picture of Peter Navarro

Picture of Donald Trump Tweet


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Changing cultural dynamics in China: from the Chinese empire to the PRC


Understanding Chinese strategic culture is vital to explain the CCP’s firm stance on Taiwan. REUTERS

Zilin Tu, a second year IR student, writes about the contrasting strategic culture demonstrated by the PRC and the Chinese traditional empire respectively and how that affects China’s foreign policy. 

China’s unprecedented leap from a pariah state to an economic and military powerhouse in the post-Cold War international system has generated contentious debate on whether its rise to prominence should be perceived as a global threat or opportunity. Consequentially, a new wave of exceptional scrutiny on its foreign policies and security strategy has revitalized discourse on Chinese strategic culture. Amid distinctive interpretations, numerous scholars have concurred that there is an undeniable linkage between its historical strategic culture and contemporary stratagem (Zhang 2002, 73). This article explores similarities and differences between the strategic culture adopted in the People’s Republic of China and its ancient counterpart prior to the First Opium War in 1839. On the grounds of both Chinese and Western key thinkers, upon comparing and contrasting features from both periods, it highlights the role of a pivotal systemic change in the contextual background which spawns a shift in Chinese strategic culture. It argues that notwithstanding a mutual dualistic disposition of both Confucian moralism and defensive realism, the distinction lies in that cultural moralism is more prominent with traditional pre-opium war strategic culture, while the current one mirrors defensive realism more.

Among pervasive definitions with different focuses on military, political, social and ideological aspects, Scobell identifies the central paradigm and defines strategic culture as “fundamental and enduring assumptions about the role of war in human affairs and the efficacy of applying force held by political and military elites in a country” (2004, 2), which will be predominately engaged with in this discourse.

The strategic culture developed during the traditional Chinese empire is permeated with idiosyncratic characteristics, demonstrated through a predisposition of “cultural moralism” that embodies defensive nature. The term “cultural moralism” is first introduced by Zhang (2002, 74), which he conceives as a major Confucian influence on non-violent means to external threats. Confucius’s philosophical concepts have penetrated the whole Chinese social and political system since 551 BC, as a guidepost governing the rules of daily conduct and military doctrines. Irrespective of changing dynasties throughout those millenniums, Confucian thought has spanned most of the historical spectrum, with few exceptions such as Qinshi emperor who was an anti-Confucian legalist, thus granting paramount influence over Chinese strategic culture. As illustrated through three core values, ‘he’ (harmony), ‘ren’ (benevolence) and ‘li’ (rituals and moral standards), Confucianism states that only just emperors would be legitimate and promote a harmonious society that encompasses moral principles (Fung, 1954).

Based on these fundamental parameters, a moral world order with China at its centre is visualised. Sino-centrism, however, does not postulate aggressive intentions on the rest of the world; on the contrary, it contends peaceful governance as a universal paradigm for any nation, which gives rise to China’s leadership in the international system. Therefore, diplomatic means and negotiations are most advocated and regarded as the primary management method when encountering foreign aggression. Nevertheless, the legitimate use of force has never been denied, Confucianism suggests that violent means should only be used as the last resort when defending the integrity of the country and sustaining state survival. In contrast, excessive use of force against enemies would undermine the imperial order constructed under ‘wang dao’ (legitimate hegemony), as opposed to ‘ba dao’ (illegitimate hegemony). As a result, the primarily defensive nature of strategic culture has been rooted in three elements: “non-violence, defensiveness, and righteous war” (Feng, 2007, 19-26).

The most representative and influential Chinese military work Art of War written by Sunzi, which emerged during the warring states period, manifests Confucian pacifist beliefs and consolidates the defensiveness in Chinese military and strategic thinking. As indicated by Paquette (1991, 37-51), Art of War in essence differs from Clausewitz’s exemplary pragmatic military strategies. Even though Chinese military texts admit that war is natural, they nevertheless consider wars evil and only to be resorted for survivals, when any other preferred non-violent approaches are unsuccessful. Such conditionality, due to an ethical and moral consideration for the legitimacy of the ruling government, puts restraints on violence and war. Therefore, numerous tactics in Sunzi’s work highlight the significance of victories via peaceful means, such as the notion of “buzhan ersheng” (win without fight or use of force). Pinpointed by Waldron (1991, 25-36), “turbulent competitiveness, which westerners accept, was foreign to these early Chinese”, thus revealing an extraordinary value that Chinese put on harmony and righteousness.

However, not all scholars interpret Chinese military texts’ implication of “using force under unavoidable circumstances” as a proof of moralist and pacifist thinking influenced by Confucianism. Johnston termed it as merely a “linguistic construct” (1995, 27-68) that transfers the responsibility of bellicose behaviours onto the adversaries. By further examining the Ming dynasty and disclaiming the existence of real practices of pacifist cultural moralism articulated through Chinese military texts, he argues that Chinese traditional strategic culture has resembled parabellum or hard realpolitik. Nevertheless, his argumentation is problematic due to a misinterpretation of translated Chinese military works (Feng, 2007, 30). Furthermore, his selection of Ming dynasty to demonstrate the warlike and offensive nature of Chinese strategic culture omits the long entirety of Chinese traditional history which comprises other relatively more stable dynasties, thus should be deemed unrepresentative.

Ming dynasty’s long-lasting war to unify China, as a consequence of the weak Yuan dynasty and Mongolian invasion, was inevitable and justified as it was necessary to ensure the future harmony of the state. Moreover, aside from military and cultural texts which asserted Confucian moralism as the backbone of Chinese traditional strategic culture, its defensive character was also apparent in the chronic building of the great wall for the purpose of national security, guarding against nomadic invasions from the north. The scale of enlargement was especially huge during Qin, Han and Ming dynasties. Hereby, despite the presence of war, defensive elements could still be found within Ming; thus not contradicting the prevailing traditional Chinese strategic culture of pacifism and cultural moralism with defensive characteristics.

Before moving on to an exploration of the People’s Republic of China’s strategic culture, it is crucial to highlight the changes in contextual backgrounds that generated a shift of importance between Confucian moralism and defensive realism. The relatively minor role played by defensive realism in the Chinese empire until 1839 was the result of a strategically advantageous position within the international system. Contextually, China had always enjoyed material primacy and strategic security within East Asia until the first Opium War marked the official end of such supremacy and persistent stability. Despite frequent power alternations as seen from dynasty changes within the country, China had generally maintained peaceful hierarchical relations between the heartland and its periphery in the tributary system that it sustained (Zhang, 2002, 75-77). Such precedence was decided by numerous factors.

Geopolitically, China, as a continental power influenced by Confucianism, had no interests in expanding control beyond its immediate peripheral states. Moreover, due to the limitations of technology and maritime transportation, there were few real threats menacing China’s coastline, creating a benign and secure environment for the state. In addition, economically, owing to an advanced agricultural industry, China was able to construct a self-sufficient economic sphere without reliance on commerce with external countries. As asserted by Huang (2001, 183), such autarkic characteristic of the Chinese empire gave rise to “a national cultural psychology of preference on permanent settlement to migration, as well as persistent search for and maintenance of social stability”. As a result, the Sino-centric world order was upheld through political obedience from vassal states and a universally accepted Confucian value of non-coercive measures to assure regional peace and stability.


Stone statue of Confucius in Yantai, China | XixinXing/Getty Image

In sheer contrast, the current international system in which the PRC resides in since 1949 no longer guarantees such superiority that the traditional Chinese empire had been endowed with, thus requiring a prioritized emphasis on defensive realism. As the unprecedented technological advancement and ambition for trade concretized in colonial aggression brought Western powers to Chinese land, since the first Opium War waged by Britain against the Qing Empire, China began to undergo a transitional period characterized by colonization, bloody anti-fascist wars against Japan, revolutions and civil wars – known as the century of humiliation. The PRC was born at this critical point, driving the new China onto a trajectory determined to protect its territorial integrity and sovereignty, while placing state survival and unification with Taiwan at the top of its strategic security and foreign policy agenda (Chen, 1994, 92-124). This was especially apparent during Mao’s rule, where the world saw an antagonistic political divergence between the East and the West.

In addition to Chinese worrisome domestic issues on Tibet, Xinjiang and economic stagnation, as the US’s containment policies in east Asia – especially its continuing support for the Nationalist party in Taiwan and growing influence in Korea – posed a real strategic threat to China, it could not risk an international situation which could potentially endanger its national security; thus, Mao led China enter the Korean War in 1950. Some scholars argue that Chinese voluntary participation in the Korean War and later Vietnam war denotes the view postulated by Johnston (1996, 217) that Mao was an offensive realist. However, as suggested by Feng (2007, 32), strategic culture has a dual conceptualization with one focusing on the “political/philosophical part” and the other on the “operational/instrumental part”. Employing this perception, Mao’s decisions for war should only be seen as offensive on an operational level, but “active defensive” in nature (Zhang, 1999, 178). When confronting crises with high level of external threat, parabellum strategies adopted in war were the only resolution for future peace. With hindsight, the success in both wars proved to have prepared China with a relatively stable international environment and strategic situation for it to develop internal strength and national power.

According to Kenneth Waltz (1979), defensive realists, in contrast to offensive realists, aim to maximize security rather than power. The PRC’s contribution in wars under Mao can be justified as its objectives were closely associated with state survival instead of additional territorial gains or power projection. Such defensive realism was also evidenced in Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy, which indicates a shift in the national focal point from politics to economy. Politically, upon the official establishment of diplomatic relations, China entered a new phase with the US since 1979, with frequent high-level meetings and improved ambassadorial dialogue. Rapid economic development burgeoning along China’s coastline, following the economic reforms introduced in 1978 termed as “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, was perceived positively by the West as Deng embracing values of capitalism. As a result, scholars and leaders saw this period of China under Deng as pacifist.

However, despite prevailing Confucian moralism, Deng stood in line with Mao on the issue of Taiwan, and illustrated the same conditionality for using force. Three Taiwan strait crises, as seen in 1955, 1958 and 1995-1996, witnessed a quick escalation of tensions between the PRC and the US, with military mobilisation within China and a potential for violent military engagements. The mutual stance taken by Mao and Deng during these crises demonstrated the boundary regarding when and where to use force. Wars for the purpose of Chinese unification, the protection of sovereignty and territorial integrity, whether in the traditional Chinese empire or contemporary PRC, have always been granted with legitimate and righteous justification. Therefore, China’s strategic culture during the Cold War was defensive in nature, notwithstanding leaders’ beliefs and perceptions of domestic circumstances and external threats (Feng, 2007, 80).

China’s economic and political aggrandizement in the post-Cold War international system dominated by the US, especially under president Xi, has elicited suspicion from the West; engendering more ambiguities and uncertainties in the world order. The China threat theory, represents this spiralling security concern that China’s power pursuit underlines threatening implications to American national interests and Asia-Pacific security (Broomfield, 2012, 265-284). Due to this egoistic American interpretation of China’s emergence as a great power as well as increasing attempts by western media to alienate China as expansionist with an aggressive attitude and intensions to disrupt the existing international order, China’s manifestation of strategic culture is twofold. On one hand, in order to continue to enhance its strategic security and interests in the South China Sea due to its geopolitical and geo-economic importance, defensive realism is a must in consideration of China’s strategic position; on the other hand, to rise peacefully via snowballing of soft power accumulation, while reducing hostile speculation from the West, China is required to present itself more with a Confucian style of strategic culture, depicting itself as a pacifist with a clear signpost of non-hegemonic aggression.


Whether China’s rise will be peaceful, Chinese strategic culture might give us a hint. | News 163

This dual composition of strategic culture – an interplay between realpolitik and Confucian moralism, is highlighted by Andrew Scobell’s “Chinese cult of defence”. However, his comprehension of Chinese strategic culture resembling realpolitik is flawed as he asserts that Chinese elites justify any use of force as defensive in nature, which is not the case (2003, 1-15). As articulated earlier in the literature, restraints on use of force by the PRC have been substantiated through non-interference in foreign affairs and no employment of military means unless for the purpose of safeguarding maritime territories and realizing a tenacious millennium mission for the unification of China. Having witnessed colonial invasions from the sea to the land, especially as Japan which was previously seen as a nondescript country had defeated a long-established empire, China had learned the lesson of fortifying a defensive sphere in its backyard in order to ensure maritime strategic security. The PRC, on the ruins of century-old humiliating memories, with fears of separatism and division, opened a new chapter for Chinese history. With constant US military presence and interference in its strategic compass; indubitably, the Chinese government would undertake the route of defensive realism to forestall any potential strategic threats.

The so-called realpolitik and offensive elements contended by Scobell might be traced to People’s Liberation Army’s military writings, but strategic culture should never be analysed solely through symbolic orientation indicated in military texts as they usually are fused with hawkish operational and tactical analysis, which inevitably reflect features of parabellum. Nevertheless, due to an emblematic relationship between the military elites and political elites in China, the PLA, proclaimed by Johnston as a “culture-bearing unit”, wielding decisive influence over national foreign policy and contingency management, can be seen as the “gatekeepers of Chinese strategic culture”. In light of a detailed analysis of PLA’s writings, Ghiselli states that the PLA has critically revisited the strategic culture informed by Sunzi and other ancient military strategists to adapt it more to the current international situation (Ghiselli, 2018, 172).

Despite the utterly distinctive contextual backgrounds in which strategic culture has developed between the ancient Chinese empire and the PRC, there are some associated linkages between them that sustain the resemblance of both versions. As raised by Zhang, Chinese narratives draw an analogy between the future strategic environment and the Warring States period (770-476 BC). In retrospect of the strategies gained during the warring states era to prevent destruction “at the hands of a predatory hegemon”, the underlying premise suggests a framework for China to thrive in the existing international system, in which the US hegemon has endeavoured to undermine China to constrain its growing influence within the Asia-pacific region and beyond (Zhang, 2002, 80-81). As a result, given the current volatile unipolar international order, this dynamic and potential power transition between the US and China induces a tendency for China to re-incorporate more elements of pacifist Confucian moralism into its strategic culture.

Nevertheless, the strategic motives behind the resurgence of Confucianism differs fundamentally from its traditional counterpart. A representation of the PRC as a peace-loving, Confucian great power serves three functions. First, to declare itself as an anti-hegemonic seeking country that does not engage in expansionist behaviours. As officially stated by Xi Jinping at the opening of the 19th National Congress of the CCP, “no matter what stage of development it reaches”, China will not seek hegemony and will pursue a defensive policy (2017, ChinaDaily). Secondly, to ensure a strategic outlook that would not cause Western wariness and thus eventually lead to an escalation of tensions. In the context of globalisation, increasing economic interdependence between great powers predetermines that China’s future relies on a cooperative international environment to smoothly develop its material capabilities and defence systems. Lastly, to reassert China’s legitimate international standing by projecting its soft power via cultural exchanges, as seen from the establishment of Confucius institutes across the globe (Paradise, 2009, 647). Thus, in spite of the nadir that Confucian moralism suffered within the PRC’s strategic culture during the cultural revolution, as a by-product of “Anti-Lin Biao, Anti-Confucius” campaign started by Mao, Confucian moralism has gradually regained its strategic importance in Chinese foreign policy and grand strategy (Zhang, 2002, 87). Overall, regardless of different foreign policies pursued by key leaders either before or after the Cold War, the contextual situations in the contemporary international system have required the PRC to embody a dualistic characterization in its strategic culture: with a re-emerging emphasis on cultural moralism while following the approach of defensive realism steadily.

To conclude, having examined the strategic culture adopted by the Chinese empire until 1839 and by the People’s Republic of China, a tangible similarity can be identified: both are characterized by a dualistic composition of defensive realism and cultural moralism. The difference is located in an alternation of preceding preference between the two core elements, which are reshuffled by systemic changes over the transitional period from the fall of Qing to the birth of the PRC. Therefore, different purposes served by the employment of defensive doctrines and Confucian influence underscore another distinction between the strategic cultures of the two periods. Except for such nuances, the general outlook of Chinese strategic culture has remained the same. This constant existence of dualistic disposition in Chinese strategic culture, manifested throughout numerous structural changes under different international systems, implicates a consistency in strategic policies and cultural dogmas endorsed by China that extends from the ancient eras, to the current age, and possibly to the foreseeable future.


Broomfield, E. (2003). Perceptions of Danger: The China threat theory. Journal of Contemporary China, 12(35), pp.265-284.

Chen, J. (1997). China’s road to the Korean War. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

China Daily. (2017). China never seeks hegemony, expansion: Xi – China. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Dec. 2018].

Feng, H. (2007). Chinese strategic culture and foreign policy decision-making. London: Routledge.

Fung, Y and Bode, D. (1954). A History of Chinese Philosopy. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 15(1), p.126.

Ghiselli, A. (2018). Revising China’s Strategic Culture: Contemporary Cherry-Picking of Ancient Strategic Thought. The China Quarterly, 233, pp.166-185.

Huang, P. (2001). On Traditional Chinese Security Strategy. China Military Science, 14(2), p.138

Johnston, A. (1996). Cultural Realism and Strategy in Maoist China. The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics. New York: Columbia university Press.

Johnston, A. (1998). Cultural realism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

O’Dowd, E. and Waldron, A. (1991). Sun Tzu for strategists. Comparative Strategy, 10(1), pp.25-36.

Paradise, J. (2009). China and International Harmony: The Role of Confucius Institutes in Bolstering Beijing’s Soft Power. Asian Survey, 49(4), pp.647-669.

Scobell, A. (2003). China’s use of military force. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Scobell, A. (2004). China and Strategic Culture. Oregon, USA: University Press of the Pacific.

Sondhaus, L. (2010). Strategic culture and ways of war. London: Routledge.

Waltz, K. (1979). Theory of international politics. Long Grove (IL).: Waveland Press.

Zhang, T. (2002). Chinese Strategic Culture: Traditional and Present Features. Comparative Strategy, 21(2), pp.73-90.

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The Belt and Road Initiative: Is it changing Sino-Indian Relations?

Waving flag of India and China

Shantanu Roy-Chaudhury is in the final year of an MPhil in Modern South Asian Studies at the University of Oxford. 

The Belt and Road Initiative

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was announced by Chinese Premier Xi Jinping in 2013 as a new connectivity network spanning Asia, Europe and Africa with the primary goal of enhancing regional integration on an enormous scale. The project includes six main corridors, both over land and sea, and currently includes over 70 countries. This seeks to increase trade and stimulate economic growth across the region. The BRI is also expected to involve over $1 trillion in investments, largely in infrastructure development projects for ports, roads, railways and airports, as well as power plants and telecommunications networks. All countries, however, are not convinced of the solely developmental aspect of this initiative and see it as a push for Chinese dominance in global affairs by building a China-centered trading network.

India is one such country having voiced its concerns numerous times along with skipping the BRI Summit in Beijing in May 2017[i]. From India’s perspective, the BRI presents a twofold concern. First and most importantly, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which is being constructed through Pakistan-Administered Kashmir (PaK) has the potential to seriously impact the geopolitics of the region. Secondly, China seems to be pushing the idea of a ‘Maritime Silk Route’ which invariably involves the construction of numerous ports across the Indian Ocean in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Often dubbed as the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy by analysts, such a move to encircle India on China’s part could potentially undermine India’s security. These two aspects of the BRI and how they effect the geopolitics of the region and in turn effect Sino-Indian relations will be further elucidated below.

China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

The flagship project of the BRI, the CPEC is a $62 billion project to modernise Pakistan’s infrastructure through a network of modern transportation links, energy projects and special economic zones. India, however, has raised the issue of this project being in violation of its territorial integrity and sovereignty at the 39th session of the UNHRC[ii]. The CPEC passes through disputed territory which is claimed as a part of the undivided Jammu and Kashmir state of India.

It is also important to note that if not for the PaK, Pakistan and China do not share a common border, thereby nullifying the project.  Furthermore, the path of the project runs parallel to the Line of Control between India and Pakistan and thus, could pose an increasing military threat to the Indian border. This also means that the People’s Liberation Army may increase its presence in PaK and could boost Pakistan’s military confidence vis a vis India. On an economic front, due to the enormous flow of Chinese investments into Pakistan, the former will now be a permanent fixture in Pakistan to ensure a stable Pakistan that can pay back its loans. In turn, this means that the “all weather friendship” between the two countries will get further entrenched.

String of Pearls

The Indian Ocean is a region of growing strategic interests. Containing vital sea lanes that carry more than 80% of the world’s seaborne trade in oil through the choke points on either end, and its increasingly complex, constantly evolving strategic developments make it difficult to stress the significance of this region enough. Keeping this in mind, the Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI) is the sea route of the BRI to ensure and protects its interests along the sea lanes of communication due to the heavy reliance of China on trade that passes through the ocean. This aspect therefore includes the developments of ports in countries across the Indian Ocean Region and includes ports in Chittagong, Bangladesh, Kyaoukpyu and Sittwe in Myanmar, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Gwadar in Pakistan.

These developments have caused uneasiness in New Delhi as they have the potential to threaten Indian national security if converted to naval bases. It is referred to as a ‘string of pearls’ by analysts who also see it as a geo-strategic manoeuvre to encircle India and prevent her expansion into the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, with Hambantota being leased to the Chinese for 99 years, a growing China-Pakistan military partnership, and an overall growing Chinese presence in the South Asia, the government in New Delhi has tangible concerns.

Implications for Sino-Indian Relations

As mentioned above, the CPEC and the String of Pearls are two points of contention between India and China. Combined with the unresolved border issue which led to a war between the two countries in 1962 and is still a thorn in their relationship, these recent developments have caused tensions to escalate. Although India and China have a flourishing bilateral trade, India must be cautious in how it approaches a growing Chinese footprint in the region. Having a major Chinese presence in Pakistan and Sri Lanka is worrying for India and although it seems unlikely that India will join the BRI in the foreseeable future, the country needs to ensure it does not end up being encircled by China. China must also keep New Delhi’s concerns in mind as it could end up pushing the latter towards a coalition, further hindering Chinese interests. Most importantly, the situation of a security dilemma should be avoided which would only lead to further destabilization of the region.


[i] Roy Chaudhury, D. 2017. Here’s why India skipped China’s OBOR summit [online]. Available from: [Accessed 13 February 2019]

[ii] Mohan, G. 2018. China-Pakistan economic corridor violates India’s territorial integrity: India to UN [online]. Available from: [Accessed 13 February 2019]

Chinese Foreign Policy – On Climate Change and Fortuitous Gains


By Alexander Johannes, 2nd year Maths with Economics student at University College London who has completed a course in Chinese Foreign Policy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong this summer.

During an address at the United Nations (UN) headquarters on March 29th 2018, Secretary-General Antònio Guterres stated what it generally regarded as a universal truth, “Climate change is still moving much faster than we are…[it is] the greatest threat facing humankind”. This article will analyse the global effort to address climate change by contextualising the contemporary efforts and institutions created to deal with this threat, followed by the recent developments, challenges and opportunities that exist with regard to climate change and the rise of China.[1]

Global warming, environmental degradation and unsustainable development/practices, referred to broadly as climate change, have become a focal point of international discourse and policy, with significant implications for individual states and the power dynamics that pervade global initiatives.[2] Given its population size, urbanisation and the industrial nature of its economy, China is one of the key states that will ultimately determine the success of measures taken to combat climate change.[3]  The sudden and unexpected departure of the United States (US) from The Paris Agreement has not only shifted a larger spotlight on the Chinese role, but also presents a unique opportunity for China to take an uncontested leading role in the matter.[4] However, this largely contradicts the pressing need for China to continue industrialisation and development, specifically in the poorest inland provinces, which continue to lag behind the Eastern coastal regions.[5]

China’s involvement and responses have evolved and developed as climate change has gained prominence as a global issue. Indeed, Chinese leadership throughout the mid-to-late 1990s placed more emphasis than its predecessors had on the issue.[6] This followed the global convergence to the idea of sustainable development, which would ultimately be articulated in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – of which goal 13 deals directly with climate change. However, the rapid economic growth experienced by China in the early part of the 21st century was often in direct conflict with the stated intentions of the Chinese government. Domestic and international pressure culminated in 2007 and 2008, forcing the government to implement more proactive and concrete measures.[7]  Thus, the rise of China during this period was not significantly impeded by enforceable international legislation that constrained growth, placing China in the unique position of being considered a developing nation for the purposes of international agreements, with the added advantage of having undergone some form of robust economic transformation.[8]  By the same token, China now occupies what could loosely be described as a bridge between the developed and developing world, giving it greater political leverage.[9]  Therefore, as the global tide towards sustainability continued to swell towards the latter part of the 2000s, China was well placed both politically and economically as the issue of climate change came to the fore.

Thus, the aforementioned factors combined with Xi Jinping’s greater emphasis on activism in foreign affairs created a dynamic political landscape for the issue of climate change to unfold.[10] In particular, the willingness to engage with the international community on the issue, specifically the US under the Obama administration, lead to the much-lauded Paris Agreement of 2015. The agreement sets out an extensive, collective response to combat climate in a tangible way, something its predecessors, such as the Kyoto protocol of 1997, were unable to achieve.[11]

However, the unprecedented reorganisation of the American political establishment and the election of Donald Trump provided new practical challenges but political opportunities for the Chinese government. As the largest economy and contributor to global emissions left in the agreement subsequent to the US’ withdrawal, eyes firmly shifted to the Beijing. In response, Xi Jinping took a conservative stance by framing China as a “torchbearer” (yinlingzhe) rather than an outright leader.[12]

Therefore, it remains to analyse the empirical evidence regarding Chinese attempts to fight climate change. The World Bank estimates that renewable electricity output as a percentage of total electricity output has increased from approximately 15% in 2003 to 24% in 2015. Although by no means generalisable, this does provide a brief illustration of some of the tangible strides being made by the Chinese government to implement sustainable development strategies. Furthermore, China’s National Climate Change Programme China (CNCCP) has reinforced this commitment.[13]  Thus, beyond the rhetoric that characterises national successes, there are concrete steps being taken that necessarily position China as a potential leader in addressing climate change.

Finally, there are a number of key considerations that fall beyond the scope of practical leadership, and address what the Chinese government also stands to gain by assuming this leadership role. The contrast between what could be perceived as a progressive and cooperative Chinese state opposing a rigid, self-serving American establishment effectively invalidates any narrative of benign Western Liberalism and malignant Chinese Authoritarianism. In addition, the gains to be made diplomatically between China and the EU as they collaborate as the major partners in the Paris Agreement could have positive network effects. In the same way, the US has essentially abandoned the relevant moral leadership position, which will also impact its diplomatic ties.[14]  The role will also allow China to aid developing nations through the South-to-south cooperation fund[15], deepening their relationship and mutual understanding, thereby cementing China’s position as responsible power embedded in the philosophy of Tianxia  and in line with Xi Jinping’s more assertive narrative of China.[16]

However, China’s approach to foreign affairs reflects a circumscribe willingness, and in some cases outright reluctance, to bear the costs of regional and international leadership.[17] Taking those considerations into account,the Chinese government has already taken a leading role in alliances such as the G77 and BRICS, and by implication, this represents the ideal opportunity to expand this role.[18]

As much as Climate change is a complex issue, so too are the options and considerations of the Chinese government. Xi Jinping’s more progressive approach to international diplomacy places China in a strong position to deal with regional and international partners, but the added complexities of internal development and stability balanced against the opportunity to lead one of the most ambitious and vital global efforts opens the door to a multiplicity of competing interests. However, the American absence and unique factors that prevail mesh into a delicate but enticing combination of timing and positioning in a tumultuous global political arena.



[1] Refers to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), including all special administrative regions.

[2] Lanteigne, M. 2016. Chinese Foreign Policy: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Routledge.

[3] Sutter, R. 2016. Chinese Foreign Relations: Power and Policy Since the Cold War, 4th Ed. Rowman & Littlefield.

[4] Zhang, C. 2017. Why China Should Take the Lead on Climate Change [online]. Available from [Accessed 14 July 2018]

[5] The Economist. 2016. Rich province, poor province: The government is struggling to spread wealth more evenly [online]. Available from: [Accessed 11 July 2018]

[6] Lanteigne, M. 2016. Chinese Foreign Policy: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Routledge.

[7] Sutter, R. 2016. Chinese Foreign Relations: Power and Policy Since the Cold War, 4th Ed. Rowman & Littlefield.

[8] Lanteigne, M. 2016. Chinese Foreign Policy: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Routledge.

[9] Sutter, R. 2016. Chinese Foreign Relations: Power and Policy Since the Cold War, 4th Ed. Rowman & Littlefield.

[10] Lanteigne, M. 2016. Chinese Foreign Policy: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Routledge.

[11] Worland, J. 2017. How China Could Shape the Future of Energy [online]. Available from: [Accessed 12 July 2018]

[12] Zhang, C. 2017. Why China Should Take the Lead on Climate Change [online]. Available from [Accessed 14 July 2018]

[13]Lanteigne, M. 2016. Chinese Foreign Policy: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Routledge.

[14] Lewis, J. 2007. China’s Strategic Priorities in International Climate Change Negotiations [online]. Available from: [Accessed 12 July 2018]

[15] United Nations. 2018. China’s National Climate Change Programme [online]. Available from: [Accessed 12 July 2018]

[16]Lanteigne, M. 2016. Chinese Foreign Policy: An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Routledge.

[17] Sutter, R. 2016. Chinese Foreign Relations: Power and Policy Since the Cold War, 4th Ed. Rowman & Littlefield.

[18] Zhang, C. 2017. Why China Should Take the Lead on Climate Change [online]. Available from [Accessed 14 July 2018]

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