As China’s power steadily rises, mutual role expectations between China and the United States become increasingly unstable. To ensure a mutually agreeable role for China, Chinese grand strategy has the double mission of presenting China as an accepted and respected matching power and of assuring the incumbent hegemonic power that China is a role-player. We apply the notion of national role style to analyse China’s grand strategy. We argue that China adopts the sociological role conception and examines the grand strategy of the rising power accordingly. Through examining China’s policy towards US arms sales to Taiwan, we show how a role-playing China has tried to execute a grand strategy to coach the incumbent hegemonic power into acknowledging China’s rise to the status of a matching power. We argue that the importance of maintaining a stable relationship with the United States has trumped China’s core national interest of unification, pertaining to US arms sales to Taiwan. In practice, China treats arms sales as a bilateral issue, and would rather appeal to sociological role expectations through a bilateral convention than through any general value. The United States, on the other hand, despite its willingness to cope with China in an exclusively bilateral format, has always tried to push China to accept universal rules at the expense of the alleged national differences between the two countries, thereby defeating the sociological role expectation.

The study of grand strategy usually focusses on the strategic goal of a major power. This goal should consider the capacity and ideology of the nation and guide its foreign policy. Few studies, however, examine the sources of the goal. The sources of the goal that stem from the nation’s particular historical and ideological conditions are different from those derived from interactions with other nations. The source of grand strategy, therefore, is a subject independent of the assessment of capacity and actual policy, and attends particularly to how sensitive national leaders are towards other nations in determining their strategic goals. Accordingly, an explanation of grand strategy cannot be adequate without an analysis of how national leaders conceive the appropriate role of a nation in the world, in its neighbourhood, and in its domestic politics. In the following discussion, grand strategy refers to a set of strategies that are informed by the decided self-role assumed by that state. This article introduces the notion of national role style as the source of strategic goal to examine the grand strategy of China as a rising power, and compared with that of its American counterpart.

International relations (IRs) require super-powers to adopt grand strategies, and they are important topics for the study of IRs. The grand strategy of China has become a crucial issue for IR researchers worldwide since the rise of the People’s Republic of China at the end of the Cold War era.1 However, according to Goldstein, the grand strategy of China is difficult to identify. The goal and logic of the Chinese grand strategy can be comprehended only when a broader time frame is applied.2 Swaine and Tellis believe that this is because it combines the characteristics of both strong and weak states,3 thus assuming it will become clearer. The alleged vagueness of the Chinese grand strategy can provide two contrasting implications of China rising for global governance. First, China has not developed a consistent conception of its particular role in the world to cope with the national interests of a power on the rise. Alternatively, as we will argue, China may possess a grand strategy whose style is precisely to evade any consistent self-role conception.

A grand strategy that enforces a self-centric and often universally applied order and its role expectations of nations upon others cannot be categorised as mutual role-playing, given that the primary reference for such strategic thinkers is that of their own ideals rather than those of other targeted nations. This is not the foreign policy style of China. Chinese role-playing is deeply embedded in ritual, face culture, and group orientation.4 The style of role conception and the resultant Chinese grand strategy consciously make the role of China and the role of the interacting party mutually constituted. In fact, China’s self-role that emerged in the 21st century was one steeped in the dictum of a ‘responsible major power’ and the joint ‘life community’ that promotes a ‘harmonious world’ via mutual respect for each other’s ‘core national interest’.

Given that strategy conceptualisation requires a nation to be unequivocal in its perceived role in the world, a self-centric reference is necessary to prescribe norms consistently and unilaterally and assign responsibilities to other nations. Can a consciously mutual role-playing state possess a grand strategy? Using role theory, which breaks down the style of role into identity-based and relationship-based formulations, we will compare and discuss American and Chinese grand strategy styles. China’s approach of negotiating constantly with specific parties to accept the country’s relational role divides its grand strategy among various simultaneous sets of bilateral role relationships. The usual disinterest of the bilateral style in any multilateral order or general rules of IRs could even undermine the formation of stable national interest conceptions. We will use China’s wavering on the issue of US arms sales to Taiwan to illustrate how volatile Chinese core national interests are in practice. We believe that undecidability of Chinese foreign policy between relationship and national interests better explains the obscuring of Chinese grand strategy than does the fact that China is caught in the transition to a greater power.

By examining China’s policy towards US arms sales to Taiwan, we will show how a role-playing China has tried to execute a grand strategy of relational security to coach the incumbent hegemonic power to acknowledge China’s rise to the status of a matching power. As China’s power steadily rises, the mutual role expectation between China and the United States becomes growingly unstable. To ensure a mutually agreeable role for China, Chinese foreign policy has the double mission of presenting China as an accepted and respected matching power and of assuring the incumbent hegemonic power that China is a role-player, rather than a revisionist or a troublemaker. China’s grand strategy pertaining to the China–US relationship, therefore, is not to promote any alternative rule of IRs, but to convince the United States of China’s trustworthy partnership. China then makes selective compromises on its core national interests. Accordingly, China shows the determination to protect its rising power status on the arms sales issue, as a core national interest, through certain acts of retaliation, and yet the willingness to compromise by renouncing its retaliation. The repeated cycles of seeming inconsistency reflect precisely the grand strategy style of China as one of role-playing rather than rule-making.

Identity-based Role versus Relationship-based Role

In common with all human beings who must attend to both the need for self-care and social belonging, all nations have to resort to self-help supported by independence, power, and prosperity, qua national interests, and to reciprocity embedded in convention, trust, and understanding. A nation moves a step forward once it develops a long-term strategy to pursue national interests, or acquires recognition from more countries in the world. To enforce the long-term strategy, a nation shall convey to the rest of the world a functional message about its self-concept to attract the cooperation of other countries. The core of the message is the country’s self-role conception and the concomitant role expectation of others. Hence, national role conception is the mechanism of establishing a nation’s place in the world as it asserts its particular interests and its social value in relation to those of other nations or states.

By conveying and imposing one’s role on the rest of the world, a nation automatically generates pressure of expectation on other states. Altercasting is enacting one’s role conception to either assert one’s national interests or to stress one’s social value, with the expectation that other nations will understand and positively interact.5 Apparently, a major power tends to engage in stronger altercasting than a weaker power. Similarly, a major power is relatively more prepared to undertake grand strategy designs because of its high capacity to act unilaterally. Therefore, one plausible proposition is that a grand strategy design usually involves a substantial degree of altercasting. Creating a grand strategy is intrinsically a kind of social behaviour.

Based on the tradition of symbolic interactionism, we begin with the distinction between the two sources of social behaviour, namely between I and Me, role-making and role-taking, interaction within individuals, and interaction between individuals, and so on.6 Accordingly, role sources in role theory can be either psychological or sociological. This division of role sources is particularly useful in comparing American and Chinese grand strategy styles, because the US’ grand strategy historically conceptualises national roles based on an isolationist tradition, whereas China’s grand strategy derives roles from the reciprocal convention of the tribute system. Nevertheless, the US’ grand strategy can accommodate sociological sources. For example, the United States has been suggested to have instituted a tributary system that commits the hegemonic power to benevolence and civilisational diffusion.7 In contrast, China’s grand strategy can contain psychological sources. This observation was apparent during the Cultural Revolution, when China endorsed national liberation elsewhere ‘to win adherents to the Chinese programme for radical change in the international system’ that China had desired.8

The psychological sources of role refer to the cognitive construction of role, whereas sociological sources primarily comprise interactions. Psychological role conceptions emerge from the indigenous environment of the actor and his or her self-identity that provides universally applicable self-references. A psychological role conception, therefore, is to a large extent context-free, and can aid the actor in evaluating others. This includes whether or not other actors are capable, cooperative, or equal, and how to deal with other actors consistently. Such a self-identity-based role exists in the perceived differences between a self-conception and an other-conception. It is therefore sensitive to the relative power necessary to defend self-difference.

Sociological role conceptions adapt to the context and remain negotiable to acquire the recognition of the other. The rationality behind allowing the other side, presumably the weak side, to determine the outcome of an interaction rests upon the longer term concerns, as regards the nation’s reputation as role-player. Such reputation is essential to conveying sincerity towards the ideal world favoured by that nation. Tied to the specific conditions of interaction, the nation subscribing to the sociological role conception must always adapt flexibly to such conditions. Whereas conversion in accordance with the role expectation of others is the goal of psychological role conception, adaptation is the goal of sociological conception. The former seeks to transform the rest of the world from a potentially threatening one to an accepting one, whereas the latter seeks to convince the rest of the world that the nation is not a threat to anyone else.

Sociological role conceptions that avoid rigidity in mutable conditions can be consciously compromising and contingent at one time but punitive and confrontational at another. The credibility of the role-player, without which no grand strategy can be deemed convincing, is of paramount importance. Compromise out of a strong position is a deliberate performance of benevolence, whereas confrontation out of a weak position destroys the reputation of the other side as a credible role-player. For psychological role conceptions, however, compromise is only sensible out of a weak position.

These sociological conceptions comprise relationship-based roles borne out of interactions.9 This context-oriented formulation of role is more likely bilateral than multilateral, because a general rule, a universal principle, or a strong common interest is almost indispensable in a multilateral order.10 Thus, multilateralism is a challenge to countries that are used to the sociological conceptualisation of roles. By contrast, bilateralism embedded in relationship tolerates deviance from universal rules, encourages patience, and appeals to idiosyncratic symbols. Under the bilateral condition, judgment of relative strength is not the dominant factor when designing the strategy.

Relational bilateralism and realist bilateralism have entirely different natures despite sharing the same motive of controlling uncertainty. Realist bilateralism of the strong side to take advantage of the immediate asymmetry of power is expressly exploitative. By contrast, relational bilateralism enables the weak power to act confrontationally because the threat to the reputation of the strong side as a role-player is much greater than the immediate harm posed by the threat. A strong power that subscribes to relational bilateralism does not aim for the immediate subjugation of the other side. Rather, relational bilateralism encourages the strong power to show benevolence in the short run to achieve stability in the long run and, accordingly, transcend potentially dangerous alliances of the weak side with a third party. Implicit in relational bilateralism is the multilateralism proposition, which predicts that a sociological role conception would refrain from asserting any rule of IRs in a multilateral frame. Instead, such role conception would explain how and why a general rule should always be qualified in a specific condition. This characteristic explains the Chinese trait of boycotting or abstaining from support of a general rule of global governance—be it about carbon intensity, humanitarian intervention, development aid, or public health.

Hence, China would have to test the other side whenever there are signs that relational reciprocity is under threat. To ascertain whether such a threat is being formed, China consistently looks at how national differences are respected when dealing with the United States or with international organisations. When facing a weaker power along the borders, China resorts to testing and warning. In reality, China’s relational role-playing often fails fully to convey its message, thus defeating the purpose of sociological role-playing. Miscommunication of this sort could even lead to war, as was the case during the Sino-Indian border clashes in 1962 and the Sino-Soviet clashes in 1969.11

An identity-based role requires the assessment of the relative power of the actor with respect to the rest of the world to design a sensible grand strategy through which to convert the world to the right order, or to protect moral principles under threat. A relationship-based role also depends on judgment, but a judgment that pertains to the specific conditions of the interacting parties rather than to the entire world. Relational judgment should be sensitive to the characteristics of the other party, because the characteristics of the latter indicate how the former can best entice or coerce it into a reciprocal pattern of interaction. Recent reflections on altercasting in foreign policy analysis can use the division between the identity-based and the relationship-based roles.12 Altercasting of the identity-based role would impose the same norms on all alters, as ‘others’, to comply with them, in contrast with specific and different duties that the relationship-based role would demand from specific alters, as members of ‘a greater self’, to restrain self-interests.

Practically, as a result of human evolution, some nations rely more on psychological conception, while others rely on sociological conception. However, no nation can rely on only one type of role conception without the supplemental contribution of the other. Although it would certainly be an exaggeration to contrast the two societies or their foreign policymaking strictly according to the dichotomy of psychological and sociological roles, we nonetheless detect the contrast between the United States and China in the formulation of their grand strategy. We argue that the American grand strategy is more used to promoting a specific set of norms or rules. The presentation of different norms is a threat or a potential threat that should be ultimately converted. Liberalism in the United States is at the core of these norms. However, the Chinese grand strategy does not promote a substantive norm but is preoccupied instead with achieving a positive image of China. Thus, the ultimate goal of the American grand strategy would hold even without a consenting or dissenting second player. This means that the designation of America as a solely liberal nation gives rise to Americanness. Thus, the grand strategy of the United States tends to measure friends and foes largely through the same scales as those borne out of its own practices, which include anti-proliferation, competitive elections, and market openness. To a great degree, the grand strategy of the United States involves altercasting via intervention, so converting different ‘others’ into the specific type of regime that is friendly and beneficial to Americanness.

By contrast, we will argue that Chineseness depends on social recognition. Thus, the Chinese grand strategy is ideologically apathetic to outsiders or others. This does not mean that Americanness pays no attention to relationship or social recognition.13 Rather, US foreign policy concerns about relationship are assessed and manoeuvred to suit the purpose of certain general principles embedded either in liberalism or hegemonic stability. It does not mean, either, that Chineseness contains no universal inspiration. However, from a sociological role conception, China’s universal inspiration is in a more abstract nostalgia for the status of Middle Kingdom than in a concrete world order.14 For example, the approach of Chinese strategists in handling border disputes with India, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam, Myanmar, and North Korea without subscribing to any particular standard is notable. Even the seemingly universal conformist roles expected of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and/or Tibet present dissimilar unification models.

The difference in role sources further divides the purpose of the grand strategy with regard to altercasting associated with role conceptions. The power to impose sanctions according to psychological role conception is essential to American strategists, whereas the power to symbolise togetherness according to sociological role conception is the key to understanding the Chinese grand strategic behaviour. Our stress on relational orientation in Chinese grand strategy does not contradict most other studies of Chinese grand strategy which believes that a more assertive China will emerge,15 or is already emerging, as its national capacity continues to grow. Rather, our prediction is that such an assertive China will continue to seek bilateral relationships, each in its peculiar way to recognise the return of the superior Middle Kingdom but bypass any serious quest for general rules of IRs. To the extent that China is ready to jettison specific national interests for the sake of relational security in the specific contexts, the relational style of Chinese grand strategy is independent of the rise of its power.

Finally, given that a grand strategy relies on self- and other-role conceptions that incur altercasting, a major power’s grand strategy could appear arbitrary regardless of whether the source of role conceptions is psychological or sociological. Altercasting based on sociological role conceptions does not necessarily guarantee smoother reception as compared with psychological role conceptions, because intended mutuality under the sociological circumstance could be biased and, therefore, unwelcome. Compromise that is motivated by relational concerns may not be easily understandable or even appreciable. Aborted compromise backfires because it enhances the sense of being betrayed. This tendency suggests that a relational role conception of China does not easily attract other nations to fulfil China’s role expectation of them.

The American Grand Strategy

The American grand strategy stems from an identity-based role conception, although practically the instrumental use of relationship is likewise common. An identity-based role involves a ‘self-concept’ and an ‘other-concept’.16 Washington adopted a style of grand strategy conception based on the judgment of the relative power of the United States. When power is considered limited, isolationism or retrenchment must be thoroughly considered. Isolationism, containment, and engagement all rest upon the cause of liberalism for justification, depending on whether the United States has the power to spread liberalism to the rest of the world.17 Since the end of the Cold War, crafting a liberal world has consistently been the principle of the US’ grand strategy, which conceives of the liberal world order as the foundation of security in the long run. Only the rise of China in the 21st century has brought back retrenchment as a viable option.18 Yet, even under retrenchment, the justification remains that retrenchment is a relatively pragmatic means to safeguard liberalism. In this framework, the United States expects an ally to assimilate or support liberalisation and an enemy to resist or even sabotage liberalisation, domestically and internationally. This style of altercasting developed from the idea that the conversion of the rest of the world into liberal capitalism fulfils the national interests of the United States.

Liberalism does not automatically lead to a specific grand strategy. However, liberalism has been an internally determined value and, therefore, fits well with the identity-based role source. The following discussion shows how an identity-based role conception establishes its logic of grand strategy. This effect, however, does not preclude the United States from sociological thinking. For example, relational stability was clearly used as a means to manage bloc politics during the Cold War, such that the United States perceived illiberal regimes of the Western Bloc as lesser evils or threats to liberalism than communism.

We use Apeldoorn and Graaff’s application of W. A. Williams’ simplified argument to illustrate.19 Williams contended that American grand strategy followed a specific worldview called ‘the imperialism of the open door’. Imperialism is the description of style and open door regards substance. America’s efforts to extend the American system and capital into the domains of other nations were consistently aggressive. The phrase ‘open door’ was derived from the policy that the United States applied to China in 1899,20 and that remained coercive and incursive throughout the 20th century. This policy consists of five elements, including economic expansionism, promotion of free markets and the liberal world order, promotion of democracy, ‘externalisation of evil’, and US exceptionalism. The last component pertains particularly to the national role style because it concerns the ‘divine mission’ that Washington believes it is on which sets the United States apart from other major powers.

The Open-Door worldview presupposed the existence of a natural liberal land, such as the United States and other similar nations that oppose closed-door nations. Invariably, America aimed to civilise such nations.21 This role conception of a civiliser state conforms to the evolving self-image of the United States from that of an isolationist before World War I to a world police force after World War II and finally to a globaliser after the Cold War. The transformation of its national role is based on its own judgment of having a high capacity and a high degree of civilisation. These combined dimensions allowed the United States to reduce the rest of the world into contrasting national roles according to their convertibility and their capacity relative to the United States.22 The determination to spread the value system and build a world order that befits such a value system is a consistent and powerful driver of US foreign policy. There has been much variance across different Presidents, but the style embedded in the identity-based role conception remains throughout.

The NSC-68 documented the beginning of the Cold War and aggressively aimed at checking and preventing the perceived Soviet Union’s plan for world domination.23 The United States thus assumed the role of world police. Washington regarded the Kremlin as the external evil/enemy (i.e. communism vs. anti-communism).24 Washington’s competition with the Kremlin was described as a ‘clash of two world systems, each out to build a world order of its own’.25 In the late 1960s, President Nixon decided that the losses the United States was suffering during the Vietnam War necessitated pulling the American army out from the mire of this conflict. Rapprochement with communist China then became the key element of the Nixon administration’s grand strategy.26 Unilaterally, the United States adopted a different route map to contrive and enforce a realignment strategy to substitute that of peaceful transformation for arms race, but the grand strategy was based upon the same liberal identity.

The end of the Cold War brought another round of power reassessment and prompted Washington to redesign its grand strategy. In light of the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Washington redefined its role to that of globaliser. The Clinton administration pursued this role more aggressively than its predecessors by establishing a liberal capitalist world order and spreading US-led globalisation.27 The self-centric nature of this American globaliser role resulted in its habitual use of sanctions, the dichotomisation of the world into liberal states and others, and a lack of patience. The Clinton administration adopted the National Security Strategy (NSS), which was supported by strong military might and the implementation of liberal interventionism. Intervention through coercive means was the tool Washington adopted to punish states that reject the American world order. Such states were also defined as ‘externalisations of evil’, and the United States assumed the responsibility of transforming these rogue states through enforced changes in regime.28 The NSS is a multilateral frame to enhance the legitimacy of intervention, intended to create a safer international environment that can protect and pursue American national interests.29 Such a multilateral frame does not change the reliance on the US’ own liberal identity in deciding the ideal world order.

The 9/11 attacks broke the design of the NSS but not the dichotomising style, which underlined the Manichean role conception wherein other states are either with or against the United States.30 This event impelled President George W. Bush to reinforce altercasting and highlight the American identity by contrasting the role of the United States with that of the evil Fundamentalist terrorists. The war on terror was the main theme of the grand strategy of the Bush administration, and coercion over consent was the major means to attain the goal of such a grand strategy.31 Barack Obama followed the same style of determining the role of the United States, which is based exclusively on its own judgment. He developed a grand strategy based on moderate internationalism through focussing on cooperation and engagement. Nevertheless, no attempt was made to negotiate with allies or non-allies regarding their roles. The counterattack that the expansion of US power caused compelled Washington to reconsider its ways of implementing this grand strategy.32 Obama even rehashed the ancient arguments for a just war, the criterion of which is not subject to negotiation. Thus, his Rebalancing Policy towards Asia emerged to form the pillar of the new round of grand strategy, along with an attempt to form a circle of universal values,33 so strengthening the self-role of the United States in the construction of a liberal order in East Asia.34

The conceptualisation of the American grand strategy is consistent with Christian doctrine, which emphasises certain standards of truth and universal morality and focusses on the binary values of good and evil. Based on the judgment of its relative power, Washington designed its grand strategy and manipulated with initiative and assertion. When designing the grand strategy, America has a precise definition of exactly who its enemies or rivals are. This identity-based role conception ensures that the American grand strategy always focusses on picking an enemy from outside the ring of democratic states and of the market system.

The Chinese Grand Strategy

Based on the literature on Chinese social relationships and roles,35 we suggest that the conceptualisation of the Chinese grand strategy emerges from a relationship-based role conception. Relationality is an ontological component of IRs and, therefore, a systemic necessity, according to advocates of the Chinese school of IRs.36 We adopt a minimal approach in the following discussion by treating relationality as an ideal role that Chinese leaders have consciously applied in their strategic calculus. A relationship-based role primarily involves bilateral relationships, which involve negotiations between China and a specific partner. This role constrains China’s performance in the multilateral setting, because the rules that enforce multilateral rules risk violating the spirit of reciprocity and mutuality, which are essential to relational security. Under the multilateral setting, China often raises arguments on how and why a certain rule is not appropriate under specific national or regional conditions. China, therefore, adapts to each context, thus reiterating the principle wherein differences in national conditions never lead to problems in its existing relationships with other nations. Particular bilateral relationships should evolve into a distinct pattern over time. Moreover, bilateral relationships on different sites require different arrangements. As a result, the Chinese grand strategy has no consistent values or universal order other than stabilising the relationship with each specific other. This implies that China does not expect another nation to promote any universal form of morality. Confrontation usually arises from Chinese foreign policy under the premise of being betrayed rather than of violation of a just order or universal value.

No comprehensive values complement Chinese rhetoric on a harmonious world. Chinese scholars acquainted with the grand strategy logic are perplexed at China’s reluctance to develop a grand strategy that, such scholars believe, involves an effort to modify the environment rather than just adapting to it.37 In practice, however, China has rarely adopted a self-identity with respect to the rest of the world, unless its goal is to achieve a lofty image in a multilateral setting. The American grand strategy would compel China to examine other states that abide by a certain fixed principle, which would be tantamount to ruining the reciprocity between China and those of opposing values. Singh pointed out this focus in Chinese foreign policy on bilateral relationship,38 a style that has made the Chinese grand strategy appear inconsistent and obscure.39

Avery Goldstein holds that China understands grand strategy. He, however, suggested that the trends and themes of China’s grand strategies could only be understood through long-term observation of Chinese leaders’ policy-making. In particular, how policy-makers make decisions about foreign policy and how these decisions reflect China’s logic as regards distribution of military, political, and economic resources should be considered.40 Goldstein further maintained that China does not follow the pattern of such revisionist rising powers as Nazi Germany or pre-war militarist Japan. He found that, after the Cold War, China’s grand strategy design shifted towards building national power and ‘cultivating international partners’.41 Goldstein’s observation revealed the responsive and defensive nature of China’s grand strategy style. David Lampton indirectly echoed Goldstein by cautioning against any expedient analysis based purely on China’s capacity, which ignores the intentions of Chinese foreign policy.42

Critical Chinese scholars often consider China’s grand strategy as problematic, if not awkward. The current debate about China’s grand strategy stems from the frustration and difficulties China has encountered in its development. China’s involvement in territorial disputes with its neighbouring countries has exacerbated the debate. Some Chinese scholars have criticised Beijing’s absence of efficient approach and resolute attitude in confronting other states. China could consequently become a super power that has no substantial influence or voice in important global issues. Lin, for example, argued that the absence of efficient, effective methods to resolve sovereignty disputes over certain islets has been a chronic problem for China. Moreover, China has never developed a productive mode of governance over the ocean due to long-term negligence of the Chinese government. Furthermore, Lin opined that China could only assume an actual grand strategy by strengthening marine power and by constructing a sound method of governing the oceans.43

Several Chinese scholars have called for a more assertive grand strategy. They maintain that China’s relatively weak and inefficient reaction to crises in both the South China Sea and over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands was due having no grand strategy.44 Most scholars believe that China should learn from the Western great powers and develop a defensive-oriented grand strategy to strengthen its marine force. They emphasise that strengthening China’s marine force is not aimed at domination over the ocean; it is rather at establishing a grand strategy through a focus on the fleet. This emphasis intends to protect China’s national interests by defending the sovereign rights over disputable seas and by exploiting the marine resources that can significantly support China’s further economic development.45

This criticism from Chinese scholars essentially focusses on the fact that the rise of China does not, as they had initially hoped, conceptually change the defensive tone of Chinese foreign policy. Recent literature on status recognition describes the range of bilateral relationships with the United States that are open to China. Based on the literature, China has three options, namely, improving performance on US-guided values, competing with the United States, and raising substitute values for liberalism.46 China has virtually attempted all three options, by joining the WTO, confronting the United States in East Asia, and stressing national differences. However, the national difference to which China consistently and adamantly adheres is, at best, a peculiar value that provides no substantive rule of international society other than an attitude base towards defiant nations. This attitude has been referred to as the value of a harmonious world, which is embedded in the Middle Kingdom complex.

In fact, the notion of the Middle Kingdom has emerged along with the rise of China. Despite the rhetorical denial that China is pursuing Middle Kingdom status, both government propaganda and policy statements consistently suggest the re-emergence of such an identity.47 Furthermore, the defensive nature of Chinese foreign policy may also change. President Xi Jinping raised the ideal of the China Dream and declared, ‘We are closer than in any other period of history to the goal of the great revival of the Chinese nation.’48 The idea of China being at the centre of the world is apparent in his statement that, ‘Not only should we understand China’s history and culture, but also open our eyes to observe the world. We want to understand different nations’ history and culture, remove unwanted elements in them, and take the top off their cream.’49 The President then announced, ‘Those who know us are within the seas, and the brink of heaven feels like a next-door neighbourhood.’50 This statement also led the President to express hope that, ‘We turn the opportunities of the world into China’s opportunities and China’s opportunities to those of the world.’ The Central Party School explained:

The distinctive substance and characteristics of the China Dream is known to the world …  In the evolution of history, the breadth and depth of the Chinese traditional culture are formed. The Chinese traditional culture praises perpetual self-strengthening and deep virtue to accommodate varieties. It simultaneously advocates everyone owning all under-heaven in order for all under-heaven to reach great harmony …  The practice and achievement of the China Dream will lead different civilisations in the world to appreciate their own beauty as well as the beauty of others, actively contributing to Great Harmony, where all civilisations come together to appreciate all differing beauties.51

Although the implicit Middle Kingdom and the explicit Harmonious World speak of Xi’s national identity as well as of China’s relational role in the world, the policy implications are consistently relational and devoid of universal rules; hence, the continuation of the defensive stance. First of all, no development of institutional values or policy programme has been initiated for the rest of the world to follow. On the contrary, there exists a self-consciousness not to attempt any universal guidance. When expounding the foreign policy implications of the China Dream, Foreign Minister Wang Yi reminded us that, ‘China has never been as close to the centre of the world stage as it is today’ and that China’s relationships with surrounding nations rely on, ‘tens of thousands of differing connections in humanity and a spontaneous feeling of affinity’,52 of which he specifically mentioned Confucianism in East Asia and Buddhism in South Asia. Wang Yi mindfully referred to the special privileges that China has willingly arranged for ASEAN countries. National Minister and former Foreign Minister and Chinese Ambassador to the US Yang Jiechi further explained the China Dream by specifically referring to equal and mutually respectful bilateralism as the vehicle through which to undertake conflict resolution,53 be it a territorial dispute (with a weaker party) or a discussion on human rights (with the stronger United States).

Once in a multilateral context, relational role-playing requires China to stress exclusively the contribution of the so-called ‘China Dream’, as former Foreign Minister Wu Jianmin maintained. According to Wu, only by sharing China’s economic development with the world would the rest of the world willingly cooperate with China.54 The aim of alternative relational role-playing under the multilateral frame would be to protect national differences while considering global rules. Relational role-playing values national differences; hence, China must not commit to any policy that intends to convert a locally held national interest conception into a global value. Presumably, such relational role-playing justifies China’s defensive attitude towards the intervention of global rules in Chinese affairs.

One example is China’s boycott of the major power consensus at the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change 2009 on the distribution of responsibility to control and reduce carbon emissions. At that time, the Chinese delegates were generally absent during the plenary sessions, but were intensively involved in bilateral talks. China particularly stressed that the leeway which developed countries accorded developing countries allowed the latter voluntarily to decide the level of cut, but at the same time emphasised the historical damage that these developed countries had done.55 Another example is that of China’s consistent reservations about UN interventions, on the basis of humanitarianism, in failing states, on occasions when the consent of the local regime had not first been acquired.

The defensive characteristics of Chinese grand strategy could be traced to the imperial China era. For example, a historical approach assumes that the classic Chinese grand strategy prefers a ‘low violence’ style. Although China conquered other nations through force,56 the ancient Chinese grand strategy of developing and maintaining military power might be restrained from excessive use of force.57 The construction of an amicable international environment beneficial to China’s progress has always been the main theme of Beijing’s grand strategy discourse.58 Hence, modern China follows a grand strategy culture which is responsive and defence-oriented, but not always peaceful. This responsive characteristic is supported by the emergent refocussing of Chinese foreign policy on the protection of core national interests.59 However, aforementioned critics have argued that these adjustments are insufficient.60

A defensive grand strategy focussed on core national interests is a step ahead of the relationship-based role, which implies that relationship becomes merely a functional concern. The popularity of the discussion on core national interests in the current century enhances the instrumentality of the harmonious world ideal. The appeal to core national interests could reflect a new style of role conception, namely, one that is identity-based. China is intrinsically a distinctive national entity in this interest, with a quality that is not shareable with others. By contrast, relationship-based identity, as Qin has argued, involves an ontological statement.61 According to this ontological sensibility, China’s self-fulfilment is complete only when comprehensive reciprocal mutuality is achieved with all different others. Emphasising core national interests, therefore, estranges China from mutuality. However, we will show later that core national interests are pretentious, and that the purpose of listing core national interests remains part of the grand strategy embedded in relational thinking.

Core National Interests that are not Core

We have been arguing that the establishment and implementation of grand strategy, rather than the contents of core national interests, are factors that influence peace and conflict in IRs. However, the notion of core national interests seems to have occupied China’s diplomatic discourse in the 21st century. On the premise that core national interests should transcend any bilateral context, the question to ask, therefore, is whether or not China is switching to an identity-based role style. In the following, we will explain why, for China, the notion of core national interests is still a means to govern bilateral relationship.

China’s determination to grasp the ‘period of strategic opportunities’ (zhanlue jiyu qi) has been the official party line since the 16th Party Congress in 2002.62 These opportunities, provided by the decline of the United States, also include globalisation, the return of Hong Kong, and the smooth power transition to the fourth-generation leadership. The new rhetoric wishes China to grow peacefully into a great, or the greatest, power in the world.63 This pursuit of strength and wealth featured a decade later in the China Dream that Xi Jinping announced in 2012, in terms of ‘national wealth and strength’.64 Given that the dream is not an idea of global order, China still has no prepared plan through which to convert the world into any ideal type. Rather, the country is compelled to cope with each nation, given the imperative to create an environment that will be greatly affected by China’s rise. In hoping to form ‘life communities’ with each of its neighbours, China could either lure other nations into its grand development via China’s contribution to them or persuade them not to hinder such development.65

Thus, bilateral diplomacy is the proper focus for China in its attempt to become allies with a world divided by national interests, due to the exemption of bilateralism from linear historiography or duties of global governance. China’s official white papers on peace and development do not adopt the term ‘all countries’ when referring to the world at large. Instead, they always refer to ‘each country’ when explaining them in China’s foreign policy,66 because each country is different in various ways. This emphasis pertains specifically to China’s undeclared preference for bilateralism. While the notion of strategic opportunities in China is similar to the American grand strategy thinking, China’s purpose is to demonstrate a self-restraining role in exchange for other countries’ acceptance of its progress. No country is required to adapt to China’s rise. The Chinese terminology for its national role is specifically ‘a responsible major power’.67 The official Chinese interpretation of being responsible is ‘handling our own affairs well’. Other countries are expected to imbibe this perspective as regards to handling their own affairs well.68

Two strategic options are available to other nations. They could change their values or institutions to improve their suitability in compliance with China’s national role conceptions. This kind of altercasting is called ‘change perspective’. They could, on the other hand, be flexible in determining their specific values or institutions when coping with China’s rise, as long as a presumably reciprocal and stable relationship with China obtains confidence on both sides. This option is called the ‘leeway perspective’. The former reflects an interventionary self-identity that requests others to comply,69 whereas the latter originates in a restrained self-identity that highlights how China adapts to the conditions of the interacting party.70 The leeway perspective adopts a kind of soft altercasting in comparison with the change perspective. In the leeway perspective, China continues to have high expectations of the other side’s transcendence of differences in values, institutions, ethnicity, ideology, alliances, and other national traits, so allowing China to feel secure in and certain of stable reciprocity. In allowing leeway to accommodate their otherwise estranging differences, peculiarity usually exists in the bilateral arrangements required for the establishment of confidence between two sides. However, China is prepared to resort to confrontation if such differences threaten to compromise their role-playing. Whereas the change perspective typically targets political, ideological, and institutional reforms, the leeway perspective finds satisfaction in ritual and cultural exchanges as well as in symbolic concessions or sanctions.

Adopting the ‘change perspective’ involves the power to enforce adaptations and their direction they should take. Even a hegemonic power that guards the status quo may request a change in the other’s values or institutions, to reinforce its reign or contain potential challenges. China is on the alert for any such interventionary hegemony to prevent the spontaneity of other nations from appealing to their particular identity-based roles or promoting their differences.

Hence, China needs to test the other side whenever there are signs that relational reciprocity is under threat. To ascertain whether such a threat is imminent, China consistently observes how national differences are respected when dealing with the United States or international organisations. When facing a weaker power along its borders, China resorts to testing and warning. In reality, China’s relational role-playing often fails to convey fully its message, thus defeating the purpose of sociological role-playing. Miscommunication of this sort could even lead to war, as was the case during the Sino-Indian border clashes in 1962 and the Sino-Soviet clashes in 1969.71

China’s bilateralism is rife with distrust towards its neighbours by virtue of its altercasting policy. Escalation develops in several sequences, according to critical watchers.72

  1. Beijing unilaterally compromises on a certain point involving national interests (sometimes core interests) to demonstrate its willingness to create a harmonious bilateral relationship. This move implicitly imposes a duty on the other party not to push further on the issue.

  2. In response to the short-term compromise, the other party neither refuses nor accepts (and possibly does not even comprehend) its responsibility to reciprocate.

  3. Beijing unilaterally perceives that the two sides have achieved a harmonious greater self, adapts accordingly, and occasionally seeks reconfirmation from the other side.

  4. The other party’s external and internal politics compel it to publicly express its non-compliance with China’s unilateral role expectations.

  5. Beijing loses face, reacts strongly and negatively, and presents its self-perceived restraint as justification for imposing sanctions, which are often symbolic at first.

  6. The other party views Beijing’s symbolic sanctions as a confirmation of its malicious intentions, thus fulfilling the prophecy that the latter would ultimately be betrayed.

In any event, the relational role concept should not stress the contents of China’s differing core national interest. Given that all nations are different to some extent in their ideologies, China’s long-held pledge of peaceful coexistence evolves primarily upon how nations deal with differences rather than how different they are from one another. Chinese grand strategy proceeds from the choice between the use and non-use of coercion rather than from the value that coercion enforces. For example, official white papers include territorial security, sovereignty, economic development, political stability, and socialist values as core national interests. They are not unusual, even though other nations may dislike socialism. However, China and the United States are faulted for being civilising nations that inadvertently look down upon other nations and seek to rectify them in accordance with their own identity-based roles. The civilising intents and actions, a matter of style, seriously affect IRs much more than whether or not they represent socialism or liberalism.

China’s style of self-role conception on how to interact with others is intrinsic to China’s expectation of others to adopt either the change or the leeway approach. This makes considering the level of power, which is the judgment of a country’s relative power that affects how the two options function in the target country, less relevant. Given that the self-role of China is relational, silence or neutrality between local factions could be observed towards remote conflicts, regardless of their apparent risks to humanity. Non-intervention can be expected even though China may possess power leverage. This observation is apparent in Beijing’s response to various noticeable instances in Africa and the Middle East. However, symbolic infringements on reciprocal respect may ironically cause its disproportionate retaliation. This phenomenon reflects China’s approach to the maritime dispute in the South China Sea, where China intermittently demands a change in policy by the Philippines or Vietnam, but not in their values or institutions. China’s retaliation is often resolute but symbolic, in order for the bilateral talk to resume and the sovereignty issue to be deferred.73 In fact, unilateral withdrawal has been a noticeable trait in the Chinese style of conflict and conflict resolution.74

On the other hand, China’s relational sensibility allows its weaker opponent to resort to resistance. North Korea and Taiwan used to act tenaciously in anticipation of a making up from China.75 Thus, whether or not China achieves a reciprocal relationship over time depends on Chinese leaders’ judgment on the country’s manipulation of the other side. In the same vein, China could resort to resistance to its stronger opponent but never really demand a change in the latter’s values or institutions. That is to say, evaluation of power difference or value difference is not the cause of Chinese leaders’ adoption of confrontation and counter-confrontation. It is only upon their deciding to confront that policy-makers design the means to do so, according to the disparity of power between China and its opponent.

The leeway approach does not consider any serious threat from a target rising in power, but still practices opposite values. The threat could be greater proportionally than another nation, even if both comply with the same value system and deny reciprocal responsibility. Vietnam and China, for example, have had disputes over many an issue from 2000 years ago through to today, regardless of their power asymmetry or similar political economic conditions.76 The adoption by the other party of the leeway approach that disregards differences in values and ideologies implies China’s adherence to relational role-playing. China hopes that other nations do not interpret China’s assertion of core interests as a threat to their values. Such disregard for the formation of global values could discomfit identity-based thinkers, who convert the wrong into the right in the name of global value. These identity-based thinkers likewise ambiguously perceive in China a hidden realist’s intent to establish alliances with wrongdoers. However, Chinese foreign policy is consistent in its negligence of ideological differences, showing lukewarm interest in strategic alliances to protect socialist values.77 On the contrary, Chinese national leaders are constantly out to secure each discrete bilateral relationship, especially in Africa and Southeast Asia, where no other nations visit as frequently and systematically. For example, it has become traditional since 1991 for Chinese Foreign Ministers to visit Africa every new year. Another example is that of all Chinese Foreign Ministers having been to Sri Lanka.

Despite listing core interests in familiar realist terms and with an implicitly nationalist tone, official white papers have a strong non-identity-based context that implies China’s unfailing preference for the leeway perspective.78 China has rarely taken sides in global politics beyond the superficial denouncement of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, including during the Mao era. The 9th Party Congress of April 1969 actually praised China for its non-alliance, while simultaneously confronting both superpowers. Mao’s characterisation of the world on the eve of the establishment of the PRC, as divided by the two camps and the intermediate zone, was most characteristic of the Chinese grand strategy style. China’s active participation in the non-alignment movement of the 1950s, which later extended through to the three-world policy of the 1970s and to its equidistant diplomacy in the 1980s, demonstrates a conscious preference for contextualised, though inconsistent, reciprocal relationship.

Unconventional China has no route map to rectify world order as a typical rising power would usually have in its grand strategy. Deng Xiaoping’s witty ‘cover light and nurture in the dark’ (tao guang yang hui) [also translated as ‘keeping a low profile’] advice in the 1990s [at the end of the 1980s] reflects the similar wisdom that China should not mire itself in troubled areas. Deng’s legacy has repeatedly inspired contemporary leaders. The climax was Hu Jintao’s establishment of the ‘harmonious world’ as China’s ideal world that combines Confucianism and Socialism in one slogan. In this concept of the world, values, institutions, and ideologies are secondary to reciprocal relationships among nations. On the eve of the handover to the fifth-generation leaders in 2012, China denounced the rise of new interventionism in the world.79 Intervention is anathema to this adherent of the leeway approach. China unfailingly holds that such incidents are vehicles for other major powers’ abuse of their advantage. In the same vein, Xi Jinping, upon succeeding Hu’s leadership, raised the idea of ‘life community’ to cope with neighbouring relationships.80

The image of compliance is important to the protection of China’s self-perceived differences of values and institutions. The foremost challenge to China’s relational-based role-playing is the image of the so-called China threat and the country’s competing with the United States for hegemonic leadership. China’s grand strategy does not include converting the United States into acceptance of Communist party rule. The Chinese grand strategy focusses on demonstrating China and United States as not confronting each other—a modest goal for any grand strategy. Indeed, the whole idea of listing core national interests is to help the United States maintain a reciprocal relationship with China. Nevertheless, these interests are negotiable, to the extent that the image of reciprocal role-playing can be secured as it is perceived by the world. To forge a reciprocal relationship with the United States, China’s core national interests are composed in Chinese terms, i.e. ‘the new type of major power relationship’.81 A bilateral relationship with the United States has thus become one of the major themes of the current Chinese grand strategy.

There are many examples of China’s concessions on core national interests. They suggest that the purpose of expanding the list of core national interests is to make subsequent concessions dramatic enough to compel others to stabilise reciprocal relationships for at least a period, hence the Chinese style of altercasting. However, even in cases where China is on the powerful side and unilaterally imposes concessions, relational security still relies on the weaker side to reciprocate. China has accordingly tolerated ambiguities along its disputed borders, or even granted land to smaller neighbours, such as North Korea, Myanmar, and others. Official white papers speak triumphantly of discretely resolving territorial disputes with 12 neighbouring countries, which China alleges is a clear indicator of a harmonious world where no one’s core interests are under threat. Therefore, ironically, promoting the image of the harmonious world could, paradoxically, override the core interests of territorial integrity. Probably, no other case is more peculiar or apparent than the issue of US arms sales to Taiwan. The identity-based role that undergirds the core national interest discourse is no more than a vehicle for achieving the wish for a relationship-based role wherein China would never be treated as a threat.

Case of US Arms Sales to Taiwan

The improvement, preservation, and restoration of bilateral relationships comprise the official theme of the Chinese grand strategy. This theme is a product of the enactment of China’s role as partner. To prove this partnership, China would shelve its core national interests in certain circumstances to confirm China’s concern about a bilateral relationship. For example, China–US relations show that the term ‘core national interests’ has been fraught with controversies and ironies. China would peculiarly highlight its core national interests to inform Washington of its bottom line and so save the bilateral relationship from damage. China could acquiesce on core national interests and put aside contradictions between words and deeds to compromise and show sincerity. These measures could maintain or improve this bilateral relationship.

We argue that the importance of maintaining a stable relationship with the United States has trumped China’s core national interest of unification, pertaining to the US’ arms sales to Taiwan. Arms sales not only threaten China’s security, but more importantly, infringe upon its claimed sovereignty. Note that sovereignty has been the sole principle China has invoked to defend national differences everywhere in the world. In fact, the Taiwan issue is unambiguously on the list of China’s core national interests. With the rise of China, status recognition is becoming a salient issue. Arms sales infringing upon its sovereignty compounds China’s poor bilateral relationship with the United States. This is the main reason why China’s cyclical loosening up on the issue of arms sales is a case that merits further attention.

In practice, China treats arms sales as a bilateral issue. China could simply have raised the universal rule that arms sales to citizens of other countries should, by any reckoning, be a violation of sovereign rights. However, it has never taken such action. Instead, China has painstakingly and repeatedly pressured each US president on the same issue, while also compromising its position each time. In other words, China would rather appeal to sociological role expectation through a bilateral convention than through any general value. The United States, meanwhile, despite its willingness to cope with China in an exclusively bilateral format, has always tried to push China to accept universal rules at the expense of the alleged national differences between the two countries, thereby confounding the sociological role expectation. Although Xi has successfully imposed the sociological notion of a ‘new model of major power relationship’ on the United States, the United States undermines the model by treating it as the mechanism through which to condition a newcomer into becoming a responsible follower of existing rules of IRs, which are led principally by the United States.

The US arms sales to Taiwan, which China claims as part of its territory, and which is one of China’s most crucial national interests, is a major irony indeed in China–US relations. The US partially consents to China’s position. Nevertheless, continuation of US arms sales to Taiwan poses a grand strategic threat to China in at least two aspects—the sales are premised upon the theme of China threat that defies the image of peaceful rise; and they are indicative of China’s inability to protect a piece of claimed territory. Taiwan used to be a US partner in the latter’s containment of China. In this context, US arm sales to Taiwan have been an issue since the beginning of the Sino-US normalisation in 1979. To normalise this bilateral relationship, China insisted on the one-China principle. Note that normalisation did not take place in the heyday of the Sino-Soviet rift, but on the eve of reform, which called for rectification of the relationship with the capitalist world. However, China tolerated the continuation of arms sales upon the termination in 1980 of the mutual defence treaty between the United States and Taiwan. The country moreover immediately ended the symbolic bombardment of the offshore islands that had been a problem throughout the previous two decades. China undertook such a decision to honour its pledge of peaceful unification, the policy that has prevailed since normalisation. The continued sales might imply China’s seemingly compromising attitude towards the issue. Later, in 1982, the country engaged in a joint communiqué, in which the United States promised to gradually reduce its arms sales to Taiwan. The United States, however, was not ready to implement the communiqué, considering that the Taiwan Relations Act calls on the United States to supply to Taiwan with arms sufficient to meet its security needs, which have intensified over time.

The grand strategy of becoming an acknowledged and respected power corresponding to the United States makes the bilateral relationship with the United States a particularly significant concern. However, China’s progress in the 21st century has faced the unwanted image of the so-called China threat, which China’s claim on Taiwan ironically reinforces. China’s first major attempt was to formulate a bilateral relationship as one of the measures for a ‘strategic partnership’, whereas the emerging conceptualisation is to develop a ‘new model of major power relationship’. During Xi Jinping’s first visit to the United States as president, he encountered and was introduced to different issues concerning global governance. Such issues were presented by his counterpart President Obama. The United States had prepared answers to all the global issues, such as anti-proliferation, human rights, and Internet security, among others. On Xi’s list, however, were the long-standing issue of arms sales to Taiwan and the problems concerning Tibet and Xinjiang requiring mutual attention. No bilateral discussion is available in the discursive repertoire of the United States. The understanding in the United States on the arms sales has been either self-centric, which means that it abides by the domestic Taiwan Relations Act, or multilateral, which means that it is balanced between China and Taiwan. Neither answers to China’s grand strategic concerns for a trustworthy bilateral relationship. The perception in the United States is that China deliberately uses the issue for symbolic and harassment purposes.82 This perception explains why the United States offers no more than lip service to the arms sale issue, merely to let China off hook.

Did the United States underestimate the arms sales issue? China’s protest halted scheduled military exchanges. This show of disapproval was the minimal execution of China’s grand strategy to restore a lasting bilateral relationship. However, this type of impediment rarely lasts for more than a few months. The first postponement was in October 2008, in response to the arms sales to Taiwan scheduled on the eve of the first visit of the highest official of Taiwan Affairs from China to Taiwan. However, military exchanges were resumed in February 2009. The message regarding this resumption first appeared in December 2008. The second suspension was in response to another arms sale to Taiwan in January 2010, but the message of resumption had been reported in the media in September [of that year]. The actual exchange heightened during the visit of the Secretary of Defence to China in January 2011. However, the third suspension took the form of a relatively low key cancellation of a few scheduled exchanges in September 2011, as the sales arrived at the onset of the transition in China’s leadership. At present, no one in the United States has seemed to take Chinese protests over the arms sales seriously. Neither China nor the United States can afford continuing exacerbation.

However, in line with the grand strategic goal of winning the US’ acceptance of China’s peaceful rise, the angle China has taken is unambiguously bilateral and relational. Thus, evaluating it from an identity-based grand strategic perspective is impossible. No reference exists concerning the universalistic value of peace in China’s criticism of arms sales. Global governance, justice, or even the notion of balance does not exist in this perception of the world. Instead, the available references discuss the damage done by the United States when it aborted its alleged role obligations to the PRC. In 2008, the Chinese military was quoted as accusing the United States of causing ‘four serious harms’ (sige yanzhong) which predominantly refers to bilateral role expectations:

… seriously violate the solemn promise on the Taiwan issue; seriously betray the consensus reached between the national leaders of the two sides on China-U.S. relations; seriously contradict the expressed support of the US for the peaceful development of the cross-Straits relations; seriously disturb the military relationship between China and the United States.83

The stress in China’s grand strategy being on relational security, these criticisms were referred specifically to the US’ violation of role obligation. In 2010, the concrete version of sige yanzhong, typically from the bilateral rather than multilateral perspective, was likewise given by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which stated:

… seriously harm China’s core national interests; seriously harm China-US relations; seriously violate the three communiqués between China and the United States; seriously endanger China’s national security.84

The timing of Chinese resumption was equally revealing because it followed the grand strategic goal of restoring relational security. In fact, it sought the earliest possibility to signal China’s sincerity towards an improved relationship. The message regarding resumption was delivered after Obama was elected in 2008, although the actual resumption happened after Obama’s inauguration, which signalled hope of a fresh relationship that could transcend the problematic record of the previous administration. In September 2009, the resumption coincided with the initiation of negotiations that later paved the way for Hu Jintao’s state visit to the United States. In January 2010, Secretary of Defence Gate’s call to China was immediately before Hu’s actual visit. These timings reflected China’s exact compliance with the bilateral frame. China consistently expressed its disappointment and accused the United States of harming the country. The notion of hurting should distinguish and purportedly highlight China’s wish to restore the correct relationship at the point of resumption.The coming to power of the Obama Administration was one obvious occasion, Hu Jintao’s state visit another.

Notably, Hu’s symbolic state visit proceeded at the expense of China’s core national interests, but Hu’s visit in itself could never be an item on the list of core national interests. This means that the grand strategy of restoring the relationship transcended the protection of core national interests. The theoretical implication is that those core national interests of China are neither universal nor core. Rather, the cyclical suspension mainly intends to retain the seriousness of the relationship that is harmed, but the temporary compromise, together with its timing, is intended as a show of China’s sacrifice and wish for restoration. Both arms sales and Hu’s visit are relational issues and the latter was considered more salient than the former in 2011. This is the leeway approach that China wishes the United States to take and to reciprocate so that no side needs face interference from the other in its particular values or institutions. The core national interests, if based on China’s own identity, should rely more on the practice of changed perspective by the United States, but are never taken consistently, as reflected in the practices concerning the arms sales issue.


The differences between the types of role conception, namely, identity- versus relationship-based, have led the United States and China to diverse logic in designing grand strategies. The identity-based role perspective corresponds to the US worldview; one important version used as an example in this article is that of the ‘Open Door’. This role has a profound influence on Washington’s management of foreign relations that seek to extend the American value system. Changing the international environment towards the US model has always been the main goal of the US grand strategy. Such strategy represents the change approach, which is contrary to that of leeway. The leeway approach is usually adopted by actors who hold a relationship-based role perception.

Therefore, as regards the issue of the arms sales from the United States to Taiwan, the preservation of Taipei’s vital position involves altercasting, wherein Taiwan is a liberalism base to be protected against China, which acts a threat to liberalism. On the one hand, maintaining such difference between China and Taiwan is of greater importance to the United States than is improving the bilateral relationship with China. On the other hand, a similar Open Door theme was adopted in the design of US grand strategy to manage relations with other great powers. Moreover, the US policy towards small states follows a similar line. Such altercasting synchronises the situation to benefit Washington’s national interests and encourages the other side to accept and adopt the US value system.

Rather than denying China’s seemingly lack of a grand strategy, we argue that the Chinese grand strategy uses a different style of altercasting, one that expects the other side to stick to a bilateral role to reciprocate respect for national differences on China’s terms. The analysis of role style can explain why a rising power deliberately avoids focussing on employing an interventionary grand strategy. To rectify the world according to one’s own identity is incompatible with concerns about relational security that seek to stabilise IRs. The self-role expectation of being a responsible state rejects a scheme of grand strategy that would require China to challenge other rising powers, failing states, or transnational fundamentalists in accordance with any general rule. All general rules are believed to be self-centric products of the hegemonic power. For China, a self-role expectation in the ideal state would be reflected in China neither causing problems nor increasing the burden of other states. Positioning on behalf of a principle that emerges as one’s identity goes against relational security.

Accordingly, China has a grand strategy. China’s goal is to restore its greatness, and the resulting grand strategy is to preserve national differences in IRs in the short run, and keep the identity-based grand strategy of the United States from intervening in the values and institutions of China and other countries. This requires the sacrifice at times of these core national interests. Chinese scholars who are experts in IRs theory are anxious at China’s not seeming to have an identity-based style of role conception. However, the schemes that typically interest them are more responsive than assertive. Even those who assert a stronger position on the maritime disputes with smaller neighbours have no plans to change their internal arrangement. Therefore, the relational-based role conception will continue to prevail in shaping the thinking of the Chinese grand strategy for an extended period, regardless of China rising. In the long run, this would mean that only China could be the greatest nation, but the Chinese grand strategy should ensure that all other nations benefit from China’s greatness, each in their own different ways.

1 Jisi Wang, ‘China’s Search for a Grand Strategy: A Rising Great Power Finds Its Way’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 90, No. 2 (2005), pp. 68–79.
2 Avery Goldstein, Rising to the Challenge: China’s Grand Strategy and International Security (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 19.
3 This leads to the formation of what Michael Swaine and Tellis call ‘calculative grand strategy’. See Michael D. Swaine and Ashley Tellis, Interpreting Chinese Grand Strategy (Santa Monica: Rand, 2000).
4 Paul Evans, ‘Historians and Chinese World Order: Fairbank, Wang and the Matter of “Indeterminate Relevance”’ in Yongnian Zheng, ed., China and International Relations: The Chinese View and the Contribution of Wang Gungwu (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 42–57; John Wills, ‘How Many Asymmetries?: Continuities, Transformations, and Puzzles in the Study of Chinese Foreign Relations’, The Journal of American-East Asian Relations, Vol. 16, No. 1 (2009), pp. 23–39; Weiming Tu, ed., The Living Tree: The Changing Meaning of Being Chinese Today (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994).
5 Eugene A. Weinstein and Paul Deutschberger, ‘Some Dimensions of Altercasting’, Sociometry, Vol. 26, No. 4 (1963), pp. 454–66.
6 George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1934); Joel M. Charon, Symbolic Interactionism: An Introduction, An Interpretation, An Integration (Boston: Pearson, 2004).
7 Yuen Foong Khong, ‘The American Tributary System’, Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 6, No. 1 (2013), pp. 27–28.
8 Peter Van Ness, Revolution and Chinese Foreign Policy: Peking’s Support for Wars of National Liberation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970), p. 189.
9 This indicates the autonomy of an individual in adapting to context and adjusting behaviour accordingly. See Lewis Coser, ‘Role-Set Theory and Individual Autonomy’, in Judith R. Blau, Rose Laub Coser, Norman Goodman, eds., Social Roles and Social Institutions: Essays in Honor of Rose Laub Coser (New Brunswick: Transactions, 1995).
10 John Gerard Ruggie, Multilateralism Matters: The Theory and Praxis of An Institutional Form (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 11.
11 Tien-sze Fang, Asymmetrical Threat: Perceptions in India-China Relations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Richard Wich, Sino-Soviet Crisis Politics: A Study of Political Change and Communication (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980).
12 For classic discussions on altercasting, see Weinstein and Deutschberger, ‘Some Dimensions of Altercasting’, pp. 454–66; Erving Goffman, The Presentations of Self in Everyday Life (Garden City: Double Day, 1959). For application in foreign policy analysis, see Sebastian Harnisch, ‘Conceptualizing in the Minefield: Role Theory and Foreign Policy Learning’, Foreign Policy Analysis, Vol. 8, No. 1 (2012), pp. 47–71.
13 See, for example, Cameron Thie, The United States, Israel, and the Search for International Order: Socializing States (New York: Routledge, 2013); Anne-Marie Slaughter, ‘America’s Edge: Power in the Networked Century’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 88, No. 1 (2009), pp. 94–113; David A. Lake, ‘Relational Authority and Legitimacy in International Relations’, American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 53, No. 3 (2009), pp. 331–53.
14 This is about the image of China as exceptional and superior, and yet such pursuit of recognition of difference could lead to uncertainties among realist defenders of the hegemonic order. See, for example, Hugh White, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power (Melbourne: Black Inc, 2012); June Dreyer, ‘Encroaching on the Middle Kingdom?’, in Christopher Marsh and June Teufel Dreyer, eds., U.S.-China Relations in the Twenty-First Century: Policies, Prospects, and Possibilities (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2004), pp. 85–104; Henry Kissinger, On China (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011), p. 10.
15 In addition to Goldstein, the same view is held in Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order (New York: Penguin, 2012); Swaine and Tellis, Interpreting Chinese Grand Strategy.
16 Cameron Thies, ‘Role Theory and Foreign Policy’, in Robert A. Denemark, ed., The International Studies Encyclopedia, Vol. X (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), pp. 6335–56.
17 Stephen G. Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William C. Wohlforth, ‘Don’t Come Home, America: The Case against Retrenchment’, International Security, Vol. 37, No. 3 (2012/13), pp. 7–51; Joseph Nye, ‘East Asian Security: The Case for Deep Engagement’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 74, No. 4 (1995), pp. 90–102.
18 Paul K. MacDonald and Joseph M. Parent, ‘Graceful Decline? The Surprising Success of Great Power Retrenchment’, International Security, Vol. 35, No. 4 (2011), pp. 7–44; Barry R. Posen, ‘The Case for Restraint’, American Interest, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2007), pp. 7–17; Harvey M. Sapolsky, ‘Come Home, America: The Strategy of Restraint in the Face of Temptation’, International Security, Vol. 21, No. 4 (1997), pp. 5–48.
19 For a more sophisticated trajectories, see Thies, The United States, Israel, and the Search for International Order; David Campbell, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992).
20 Apeldoorn van Bastiaan and Naná de Graaff, ‘Corporate Elite Networks and US Post-Cold War Grand Strategies from Clinton to Obama’, European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 18, No. 2 (2012), p. 7.
21 Peter Van Ness, The Civilizer State (Denver: University of Denver Mimeograph, 1985).
22 For a detailed analysis, see Martha L. Cottam, Foreign Policy Decision Making: The Influence of Cognition (Boulder: Westview, 1986).
23 Marc Trachtenberg, ‘Making Grand Strategy: The Early Cold War Experience in Retrospect’, SAIS Review, Vol. 19, No. 1 (1999), pp. 33–40.
24 Dan Caldwell, ‘The Legitimation of the Nixon-Kissinger Grand Design and Grand Strategy’, Diplomatic History, Vol. 33, No. 4 (2009), pp. 633–52.
25 Quoted by Trachtenberg, ‘Making Grand Strategy’, pp. 33–40.
26 Caldwell, ‘The Legitimation of the Nixon-Kissinger Grand Design and Grand Strategy’, pp. 633–52.
27 Bastiaan and Graaff, ‘Corporate Elite Networks and US Post-Cold War Grand Strategies from Clinton to Obama’, pp. 1–27.
28 Ibid., pp. 9–10.
29 G. John Ikenberry, ‘America’s Liberal Grand Strategy: Democracy and National Security in the Post-war Era’, in Michael Cox, G. John Ikenberry, and Takashi Inoguchi, eds., American Democracy Promotion: Impulses, Strategies, and Impacts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 103–26.
30 George Bush Jr., ‘Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People’, September 20, 2001,
31 Bastiaan and Graaff, ‘Corporate Elite Networks and US Post-Cold War Grand Strategies from Clinton to Obama’, pp. 1–27.
32 G. John Ikenberry, ‘The Right Grand Strategy’, The American Interest, January/February 2010,
33 Alliance of democracy, for example, shall include India from the south, through Taiwan, to Japan at the northeast, and Mongolia perhaps.
34 Mark E. Manyin, Stephen Daggett, Ben Dolven, Susan V. Lawrence, Michael Martin, Ronald O’Rourke, and Bruce Vaughn, ‘Pivot to the Pacific? The Obama Administration’s “Rebalancing” toward Asia’, Congressional Research Service, March 28, 2012,
35 Thomas Gold, Douglas Guthrie, and David Wank, Social Connections in China: Institutions, Culture and the Changing Nature of Guanxi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Kwang Kuo Hwang, Foundations of Chinese Psychology: Confucian Social Relations (New York: Springer, 2011).
36 Yaqing Qin, ‘Guanxi benwen yu guocheng jiangou: jiang Zhongguo linian zhiru guoji guanxi lilun’, (‘Relationality and Processual Construction: Bringing Chinese Ideas into International Relations Theory’), Zhongguo shehui kexue (Social Sciences in China), No. 3 (2009), pp. 69–86.
37 Yufan Hao, ‘Yong dazhanlue dapo Zhongguo waijiao beidong’ (‘Breaking China’s Passive Diplomacy by Building Grand Strategy’), Huanqiu shibao (Global Times), September 17, 2010,; Lijian Xin, ‘Zhongguo waijiao quefa dazhanglue’ (‘The Lack of Grand Strategy in Chinese Foreign Policy’), April 2, 2013,, accessed 5 January 2014.
38 Swaran Singh interviewed by Tang Lu, ‘Zhongguo waijiao dazhanglue: jianchi duobian xuanze bu ba jidan quan fangjin yige lanzi’ (‘The Chinese Grand Strategy: Insisting Multiple Choices and Not Putting All Eggs in One Basket’), December 28, 2013,, accessed 18 February 2014.
39 China thus has a ‘strategy of transition’, which means such grand strategy is something still in process. Goldstein, Rising to the Challenge, pp. 19–20, 30; also see Shiping Tang and Yunling Zhang, ‘China’s Regional Strategy’, in David Shambaugh, ed., Power Shift: China and Asia’s New Dynamics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), pp. 54–74.
40 Goldstein, Rising to the Challenge, p. 30.
41 Ibid., p. 38.
42 David M. Lampton, ‘A Growing China in a Shrinking World: Bejing and Global Order’, in Ezra Vogel, ed., Living with China (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), pp. 120–40. Also see Swaine and Tellis, Interpreting Chinese Grand Strategy; Kenneth Liberthal, ‘How Domestic Forces Shape the PRC’s Grand Strategy and International Impact’, in Ashley Tellis and Michael Wills, eds., Domestic Political Change and Grand Strategy, Strategic Asia, 20072008 (Washington, DC: The National Bureau of Asian Research, 2007), pp. 29–31.
43 Hongyu Lin, ‘Zhongguo haiyang zhanlue kunjing: chengyin yu duice’ (‘The Difficult Conditions of Chinese Maritime Strategy: Cause and Policy’), Xiandai guoji guanxi (Contemporary International Relations), No. 8 (2012), pp. 14–16.
44 Yan Xuetong, in a lecture he gave at National Chengchi University (Taipei) in March 2013.
45 Ruichen Cao, ‘Xifang da guo jueqi shijiao xia zhongguo hai quan yu haiyang da zhanlue tanxi’ (‘Analysis of China’s Sea Power and the Oceanic Grand Strategy in the Western Perspectives of the Rise of Major Power’), Dalian haishi daxue xuebao (Journal of Dalian Maritime Affairs), No. 5 (2011), pp. 92–95; Limin Lin, ‘Pojie bian hai kunju shi zhongguo da zhanlue qi dai jiejue de shiji mingti’ (‘Breaking up the Predicament at the Maritime Borderline is the Urgent Issue of the Century to Be Resolved’), Xiandai guoji guanxi (Contemporary International Relations), No. 8 (2012), pp. 41–42.
46 Deborah Welch Larson and Alexei Shevchenko, ‘Status Seekers: Chinese and Russian Responses to U.S. Primacy’, International Security, Vol. 34, No. 4 (2011), pp. 70–76.
47 Sukjoon Yoon, ‘Xi Jinping’s “Monroe Doctrine”: Rebuilding the Middle Kingdom Order?’, RSIS Commentaries, May 29, 2014,
48 Xi Jinping, ‘Rang mingyun gongtong ti yishi zai zhoubian guojia luodishenggen’ (‘Let the Life Community Consciousness Rooted in the Neighbouring Countries’), October 25, 2013, Also see Xi Jinping, ‘Jieshou lamei san guo meiti lianhe shumian caifang’ (‘A United Written Interview with Three Latin American Media’), June 1, 2013, Renmin Ribao (People's Daily), p. 1; Xi Jinping, A Speech given at the 80th Anniversary of the Central Party School and the Opening Ceremony of the Spring Semester, March 1, 2013,
49 Xi Jinping, ‘Let the Life Community Consciousness Rooted in the Neighbouring Countries’.
50 Ibid.
51 Central Party School Research Centre for Socialist Theory with Chinese Characteristics, ‘Shenke bawo zhongguo meng de fengfu neihan he tezheng’ (‘Deeply Grasp the Rich Contents and Characteristics of the China Dream’), June 26, 2014,
52 Wang Yi, ‘Jiandingbuyi zou heping fazhan daolu’ (‘Walk the Road of Peace and Development with Determination’), Renmin ribao (People’s Daily), November 22, 2013, p. 16.
53 Yang Jiechi, ‘Zhongguo meng yu meiguo meng xiangrongxiangtong xiangde yizhang’ (‘Compatibility and Mutual Benefits between the China Dream and the America Dream’), July 11, 2013,
54 Wu Jianmin, ‘Zhongguo meng bushi zhongguo yao lingdao shijie’ (‘The China Dream Is Not about Chinese Leading the World’), June 19, 2013,
55 John Watts, ‘Copenhagen Summit: China’s Quiet Satisfaction at Tough Tactics and Goalless Draw’, The Guardian, December 2, 2009.
56 For a detailed account of China’s realist calculus, see Alastair Iain Johnston, Cultural Realism: Cultural Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).
57 Zhu Zhongbo, ‘Zhongguo gudai qiangsheng shiqi de da zhanlue’ (‘The Grand Strategy of China during the Ancient Great Power Period’), Guoji zhengzhi kexue (Quarterly Journal of International Politics), No. 4 (2011), p. 5.
58 Goldstein, Rising to the Challenge, pp. 20–26, 177–80; Wang, ‘China’s Search for a Grand Strategy’, pp. 68–79.
59 Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell, China’s Search for Security (New York: Columbia University, 2012); Wang, ‘China’s Search for a Grand Strategy’, pp. 68–79.
60 Lian Ma, ‘Thinking of China’s Grand Strategy: Chinese Perspectives’, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, Vol. 13, No. 1 (2013), pp. 155–68.
61 Qin, ‘Relationality and Processual Construction’, pp. 5–20.
62 Zicheng Ye, Inside China’s Grand Strategy: The Perspective from the People’s Republic (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2011), p. 69.
63 Guangya Wang, ‘A Peaceful Role Player in World Affairs’, Beijing Review, No. 20 (2006), pp. 16–17.
64 ‘Xi Jinping zong shuji shenqing chanshu Zhongguo meng’ (‘General Secretary Xi Jinping Elaborated “Chinese Dream” Affectionately’), November 30, 2012,
65 To connect China dream to the dream of each country in the world is the message conveyed by Chinese official channels. For example, see Wang Yiwei, ‘Jiangqingchu Zhonguo meng de guoji neihan’ (‘Clarifying the International Implications of the China Dream’), Renmin ribao (People’s Daily), January 14, 2014,
66 ‘Zhongguo de heping fazhan baipishu’ (‘White Paper of China’s Peaceful Development’), September 6, 2011,
67 Rosemary Foot, ‘Chinese Power and the Idea of a Responsible States’, The China Journal, Vol. 45 (2011), pp. 1–19; Liping Xia, ‘China’s Efforts as a Responsible Power’, in David W. Lovell, ed., Asian-Pacific Security: Policy Challenges (Canberra: Asia Pacific Press, 2003), pp. 70–77.
68 Chih-yu Shih and Chiung-chiu Huang, ‘Preaching Self-Responsibility: the Chinese Style of Global Governance’, Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 22, No. 80 (2013), pp. 351–65.
69 For example, the perception that the rise of China will force the United States out of Asia is a typical practice of altercasting. See Aaron Freiberg, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012).
70 One representative view is that of Tingyang Zhao, ‘A Political World Philosophy in terms of All-Under-Heaven (Tian-xia)’, Diogenes, Vol. 56, No. 1 (2009), pp. 5–18.
71 Tien-sze Fang, Asymmetrical Threat; Wich, Sino-Soviet Crisis Politics.
72 Chih-yu Shih and Jiwu Yin, ‘Between Core National Interest and a Harmonious World: Reconciling Self-Role Conceptions in Chinese Foreign Policy’, Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 6, No. 1 (2013), pp. 59–84.
73 Michael D. Swaine and Taylor M. Fravel, ‘China’s Assertive Behaviour—Part Two: The Maritime Periphery’, China Leadership Monitor, No. 35 (2011), pp. 1–29,, accessed 16 October 2014.
74 Steve Chan, ‘Chinese Conflict Calculus and Behaviour: Assessment from a Perspective of Conflict Management’, World Politics, Vol. 30, No. 3 (1978), pp. 391–41.
75 For case studies embedded in historical sensibilities, see Jae Ho Chung and Myung-hae Choi, ‘Uncertain Allies or Uncomfortable Neighbours: Making Sense of China-North Korean Relations, 1949–2010’, Pacific Review, Vol. 26, No. 3 (2013), pp. 243–64; Richard C. Bush, Unchartered Strait: The Future of China-Taiwan Relations (New York: The Brookings Institute Press, 2013).
76 Brantly Womack, China and Vietnam: The Politics of Asymmetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
77 Representatives of such value alliance include Freedom Alliance, WARSAW Pact, the NATO, and so on.
78 See N. A., ‘Lin Biao on the Sino-Soviet Boundary Question: An Excerpt from Lin Biao’s Political Report to the Ninth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, April 1, 1969’, Studies in Comparative Communism, Vol. 2, No. 3–4 (1969), pp. 187–89.
79 ‘Report of Hu Jintao to the 18th CPC National Congress’, November 16, 2012,
80 Xi, ‘Let the Life Community Consciousness Rooted in the Neighbouring Countries’.
81 Xi, ‘A United Written Interview with Three Latin American Media’.
82 Doulas H. Paal, ‘China: Reaction to Taiwan Arms Sales’, January 31, 2010,
83 Cited in Eryan Ni, ‘Mei dui tai junshou duhua Zhong Mei junshi jiaoliu’ (‘U.S Arms Sales to Taiwan Poison Sino-U.S. Military Exchanges’), Wenweipo, October 9, 2008,
84 N. A., ‘Waijiaobu fayanren Ma Chaoxu jiu Meiguo zhengfu xunbu dui tai jun shou jihua chanming zhongfang yanzheng lichang’ (‘MOFA Spokesman Ma Chaoxu Expounds the Serious Positions of China towards the U.S. Government’s Announcement of Planned Arms Sales to Taiwan’), September 22, 2011,