Written by Yong Deng.

Much has been made about the latest turn in Chinese foreign policy. What we are seeing is not an unexpected arrival of “assertive China”– not if that label means an unrelenting defense of core national interests. Chinese leaders have never wavered in pursuit of their nation’s economic growth, territorial integrity, and the communist party-state security. Rather, the change is about the fundamental terms of China’s engagement with the international status quo. Thus Chinese foreign policy has entered a new phase of activism to revise the key normative and institutional framework governing the post-cold war world order. The real question is: Will Chinese revisionism turn violent as mainstream great power theories would predict?

The story of China’s re-emergence as a great power is long, consequential, and global. In times of heightened anxiety over China’s rise, it’s easy to overreact to the first signs of the country’s departures from past norms. Equally dangerous, globalization can blunt our sensitivity to the real transformation under way. Fortunately the notion of “responsible power” offers us a gauge of the momentous paradigm shift in world politics. Originated from the U.S. policy call towards a post-Tiananmen China stigmatized and disoriented in world politics, the idea immediately made inroads in Chinese foreign policy discourse and practice. While vague and contested, for much of the post-cold war era the idea of “international responsibility” gave China a sense of direction for its domestic and international transitions. It vaguely embodied the best practices as well as international norms and institutions that had informed and inspired Chinese leaders. The self-identification as a responsible power reined in nationalist impulses and Realpolitik calculations contributing to its successful peaceful rise. Equally important, it calmed the fear of an impending “China threat” and set the terms of Western engagement with China.

In the past decade or so we have witnessed a steady decline of self-identification in China. Now. Chinese analysts and officials spare no effort in exposing the double-standards in Western practices. They reject calls for China to live up to international responsibilities as a “trap” to overburden and harm China. They are demanding and bargaining hard for respect and representation of China’s interests and power on a host of issues from global economic unbalance to nuclear proliferation. The waning of the “responsible power” idea in China effectively marks an end of its pro-status quo ascent in the international hierarchy.

Ultimately responsibility is about “the rules of the game” that define the trajectory of China’s peaceful rise. Without it, the Chinese leadership is struggling to find a new compass. Recent Chinese diplomacy has given us a glimpse into the emerging Chinese revisionism. Domestically, the new turn has galvanized a quest for a distinctive Chinese political model in the name of rejection of Western-style democracy. Internationally, China is best characterized as a post-responsible power. Since taking over the Chinese leadership in 2012, President Xi Jinping has purposely charted a new diplomatic course designed to pro-actively shape China’s international environment.

At a time when China has taken centre stage in world politics, it has hardly shown a commensurate enthusiasm for global governance. Unsurprisingly Beijing rejected President Obama’s calling China a “free rider” earlier this year. But the Chinese leadership protests the unfairness of the international status quo and demands implicitly or explicitly “reform” to it before it acts. They tend to see international responsibility as really American responsibility, and often equate call for greater contributions with self-serving Western scheming. On reforming international economic institutions, Beijing has taken unprecedented initiatives having led the creation in 2014 of the BRICS Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Development Bank head-quartered respectively in Shanghai and Beijing. These initiatives are hardly the kind of revisionism that led to the hegemonic wars of the past. But they enhance China’s influence and put pressures on such established institutions as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

Ironically at the time when China has become a global power, its diplomatic focus has seen a return to Asia. In October 2013, President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang personally chaired the first and only multi-agency meeting on China’s regional diplomacy with all Communist Party Standing Committee members present. Around the time the new Xi-Li leadership rolled out the “Silk Road” strategy, which entails building a Euro-Asian “silk road economic belt” to the west and a “Maritime Silk Road” to Southeast and South Asia. As a post-responsible power, China’s diplomacy is globally oriented, but regionally focused. It also prominently features interest-binding to turn the international environment in its favour.

China’s transition to the post-responsible phase has destabilized the modus vivendi with the United States, unsettled the East Asian order, and further chipped away at the global structure. China’s military posturing and territorial disputes raise the spectre of war associated with the power reconfigurations of the past. But the emerging Chinese revisionism also shows significant differences from the grievances that drove past rising powers to militarized conflict. While China may be more assertive, its international choices are still in flux. Ultimately China will remain a globalized power. Its attempt to cultivate anew its “interest” and “destiny” community through the Silk Road projects entails further embrace, rather than abandoning, the international marketplace. In that sense, China and the world are the real “destiny community” (Mingyun Gonggongti). China may say no to Western calls for it to be a “responsible power,” but it has done more–not less—on certain international duties through the United Nations. The real question is: Can China evolve into a pillar of global governance with a refurbished international responsibility framework based on reconfigured power, contributions, and representation?

Yong Deng is Professor of Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy and author of China’s Struggle for Status (Cambridge University Press, 2008). Image credit: CC by Lindsay Turner/Flickr.