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China and the USA: cooperation or conflict?
China and the USA: cooperation or conflict?

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2.1 China: managing ‘peaceful rise’?

China’s recent rise was kick-started by a shift in its development strategy in 1978 when China’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, initiated a process of reform of the state-planned socialist economy. This saw the gradual but far-reaching move from a relatively closed economy, in which state control was extensive, to a more open and market-based economy, which allowed the development of private property and foreign trade and investment. Although intended to strengthen the socialist economic system, in practice liberalisation of the economy often ran ahead of official policy. Formal political recognition of private property, the admission of business owners to the Communist Party and rapid and extensive integration into the international economy led many observers to regard China’s economic model as capitalist, despite continued Communist Party control of the political system. Although China experienced many years with high growth between 1960 and 1978 – estimated to average 5.3 per cent per year – rates fluctuated wildly. Growth began to accelerate in the 1980s and from the early 1990s a period of consistently high growth began, averaging over 10 per cent per year between 1992 and 2012. Signs of slightly slower growth towards the end of this period led some to question when, or if, China would overtake the United States.

  • Q: What has been China’s foreign policy response?

China’s phenomenal economic growth prompted extensive debates among Chinese policymakers, academics and think tanks about China’s overall foreign policy strategy. The period after the onset of economic reforms was dominated by the Chinese leadership’s need to achieve ‘comprehensive national strength’, with the legitimacy of Communist Party rule fundamentally dependent on China’s successful development (Foot, 2006, p. 84). Until the mid-1990s this resulted in a foreign policy aimed at the avoidance of external conflicts, encapsulated in former leader Deng Xiaoping’s instruction to:

Observe developments soberly, maintain our position, meet challenges calmly, hide our capacities and bide our time, remain free of ambition, never claim leadership.

(Deng Xiaoping, cited in Foot, 2006, p. 84)

For observers such as Martin Jacques, this was merely the continuation of the centuries-long Chinese practice of focusing on maintaining internal rule rather than pursuing external expansion (Jacques, 2012).