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Treading the Middle Path: How Middle Powers Fit into China’s Vision of International Relations

Unequal treaties

Under President Xi, a leitmotif in Chinese political discourse is the claim that the existing framework of global governance was set up in the service of American hegemonic interests – and therefore disadvantages a rising China. Since 2013, Chinese elites have stridently denounced the world order underpinned by western liberal values, as if the World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreements were akin to the ‘unequal treaties’ forced upon China during the 19th Century. In order to correct this imbalance between China’s de facto power and its ‘discourse power’ in world affairs, the systems must be reformed.

China’s accession to the WTO in 2001 was the pivotal moment in its international fortunes, more significant than its formal recognition by the United States as the sole legitimate China in 1978. At the time, many Chinese analysts feared that the introduction of WTO rules to its market posed an unacceptable threat to its sovereignty and stability. ‘The wolf is coming’, they cried. Nearly two decades and an accumulated trade deficit of several trillion dollars later, it appears from the US side that this caution ought to have been exercised on a more mutual basis (Blustein, 2019).

Critics of the handling of China by the WTO point to the lack of provisions for state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in its founding documents, leaving plaintiffs at WTO tribunals with few tools to contest undue market interference by the Chinese government (Mavroidis, 2021). More broadly, there seems to be no shortage of regulatory imbalances that actually favour China, including with shipping rights (Gunter, 2021). This is an issue familiar to any student of the treaty ports created by the Treaties of Nanjing and Tianjin in the 19th Century (Treaty Of Nanjing (Nanking), 1842). Nonetheless, Chinese government spokespersons continue to take aim at the normative dominance of western liberal values and the marginalization of Chinese security concerns in the international system (Rolland, 2020).

Reforming the systems

At a 2016 Politburo study session, President Xi stated that the running of international institutions ‘depends on the international balance of power and reforms hinge on changes in the balance.’ This is not a particularly idealistic view of international relations, but one which may explain Chinese efforts to increase its influence through infrastructure projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) (Rolland, 2020).

Chinese scholars of international relations have offered various theories to develop an indigenous school more suited to the values of the ‘China century’ than the dominant western models. A common reference point among these different theories is the idea of tianxia, usually portrayed as a system held together by loose partnerships rather than close alliances, and balanced by ethical principles rather than crude power dynamics. However, the flexing of Chinese economic and military muscles in recent international stand-offs make the concept appear as little more than a cypher for Chinese hegemony (Rolland, 2020).

Even so, if China is to change the international balance of power, it cannot rely just on a strategy of outright antagonism with the developed world while winning over the global south with obligations-free investment projects. A key piece in the puzzle is the cultivation of relations with so-called ‘middle powers’, powerful states that may shift their alignments with great powers on different issues. There exists a certain ambivalence in how China perceives these states, which can easily morph from ally to threat. According to Bruce Gilley, a researcher on China’s relationships with middle powers, they ‘are strategically and normatively attractive as partners of China’s ‘‘peaceful rise’’ and yet a threat to the hierarchical pre-eminence that China seeks in the new international order' (Gilley, 2014).

There are several ways to define middle powers, but if one takes the behavioural approach, they are characterised by their use of multilateral institutions to constrain hegemonic powers and a tendency towards non-alignment. In this sense, Chinese analysts view middle powers like Australia and Canada as aberrant due to their close alignment with the US (Gilley, 2014). This may partly explain why their relationship with these two countries has been confrontational, whether with the arrest of Canadian citizens in response to the detention of the Huawei CFO by Canadian authorities, or the levying of heavy tariffs on Australian exports in 2020 after Australia pushed for inquiries into the origins of COVID-19.

Case Study: UK-China Relations

When it comes to other middle powers, China has been more able to countenance partial dis-alignment. The case of Britain, which until recently was amid a self-proclaimed ‘golden age’ of relations with China, fits into this paradigm. During this period, Britain sought to deepen cooperation with China through increased openness to investment in infrastructure and its commitment to free trade. By skirting Washington’s misgivings over their ‘constant accommodation’ with China and becoming the first G7 country to sign up to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), they fulfilled the middle power role of pursuing an independent foreign policy through engaging in multilateral initiatives (Ford, 2020).

Even as relations have soured, the analysis emerging from Chinese think tanks is cautiously optimistic. The UK’s Integrated Review of National Defence, published in March 2021 and often perceived as the swan song of Britain’s brief flirtation with China, was interpreted by a researcher at the Chinese Institute of International Studies (CIIS) as suggesting ‘that the British government still wishes to maintain a pragmatic approach in its diplomatic relations with China.’ This may be down to the historical perception of Britain as a devotee of ‘pragmatic’ or ‘two-faced’ diplomacy. In line with the importance of historical tradition in Chinese international relations theory, researchers often quote foreign secretary Lord Palmerston’s statement in 1848 – “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow" (Geddes, 2021).

As such, actions such as seeking to remove Huawei technology from the UK information network are perceived as a pragmatic adjustment of Britain’s foreign policy position in light of their increased dependence on the US following Brexit (Zhao, 2021). As long as Britain can balance itself as a middle power among competing international interests, China may be prepared to accept a ‘twin track’ approach whereby Britain confronts China over certain human rights and security issues, all the while maintaining close economic ties. The implication is that the relationship with Britain is too important to jettison over what are seen as surface-level disagreements (Geddes, 2021).

It remains difficult to ascertain how deep the China skepticism of the British government goes, or to draw firm conclusions from Chinese think tanks on the direction of China’s leadership. Nonetheless the conclusions that can be drawn suggest that, despite the valorisation of uncompromising ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy in recent years, Chinese aspirations are less hegemonic than many fear or believe. Indeed, as examination of China’s relations with ASEAN countries also shows, it is possible for criticism to exist alongside cooperation, with (an important point for China) mutual respect for each country’s traditions. Of course, this depends on where the red lines of each side lie in disputes such as those over human rights violations, yet the leeway on the Chinese side is likely greater than generally thought.



Blustein, P. (2019). Schism: China, America and the Fracturing of the Global Trading System. CGI Press.

Ford, J. a. (2020). UK-China relations: from ‘golden era’ to the deep freeze. Financial Times.

Geddes, T. d. (2021). UK-China relations as viewed by Chinese think tanks and academics: Cautious optimism remains. Retrieved from MERICS.

Gilley, B. a. (2014). Middle Powers and the Rise of China. Georgetown University Press.

Gunter, J. (2021). Levelling the Playing Field in Maritime Shipping. Retrieved from MERICS.

Mavroidis, P. C. (2021). China and the WTO: An Uneasy Relationship. Retrieved from Vox EU.

Rolland, N. (2020). China's Vision for a New World Order. National Bureau of Asian Research.

Treaty Of Nanjing (Nanking), 1842. (n.d.). Retrieved from USC US-China Institute.

Zhao, L. a. (2021). US 'biggest influence' in souring China-UK bilateral ties: observers. Global Times.

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