In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Chinese International Relations Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Key Journals and Reference Resources
  • Asian Alternatives
  • “Chinese Characteristics”

International Relations Chinese International Relations Theory
Linsay Cunningham-Cross, Peter Marcus Kristensen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0046


The discipline of international relations (IR) is commonly described as an “American social science” dominated by US theories and policy concerns. Against this backdrop, Chinese IR scholars have been debating whether and how to develop a distinctly Chinese theory or approach to international relations. What started in the 1980s as a debate on how to develop “IR with Chinese characteristics,” inspired by Deng Xiaoping’s call for “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” has evolved into a debate on how to develop a “Chinese school” of IR theory. This debate has involved many of China’s most prominent scholars of international relations and has attracted much international attention. In its current incarnation, Chinese IR theorizing draws on a variety of theoretical resources; there is, however, a particular focus on traditional or ancient Chinese philosophy. China is one of the countries where the attempt to produce a distinctly national theory has been most outspoken. While there is still not one widely recognized Chinese school of international relations, recent years have seen an increasing interest in Chinese IR theory, and the body of knowledge is increasing at a fast pace. This article maps out the literature on the Chinese IR discipline and its theorizing efforts. It contains six main sections: The first outlines the context for debates on the place of Chinese theory in a so-called “Western” discipline by presenting first general overviews of IR as a discipline and then more specifically debates on “Asian Alternatives.” The second provides an overview of the discipline of international relations in China, its historical development, problems and shortcomings, and the status of theory within it. The third maps out the debate over “IR with Chinese characteristics,” and the fourth provides a wider-ranging review of the current “Chinese school” debate. The fifth section reviews the many and varied ways in which Chinese scholars (and even policymakers) have attempted to theorize international relations from ancient Chinese thought, history, and cultural traditions. The final section presents additional journals and reference resources.

General Overviews

It is important to explore the wider context of recent theorizing efforts by Chinese scholars. The section below therefore identifies a selection of works that engage with the origins and practice of international relations theory and research. In what is regarded as the seminal article on the question of geographical inequality and Western bias in the discipline of international relations, Hoffmann 1977 famously described IR as an “American social science.” Hoffman argued that the field of IR had become dominated by US theories and policy concerns, and since then many scholars have contributed to this ongoing debate, in general upholding the claim that IR is, if no longer “American,” still predominantly a “Western” discipline. Sparked perhaps by this literature, there has been growing attention amongst IR scholars to non-American and non-Western thinking on international relations in recent decades. Wæver 1998 adopts a sociology of science perspective to demonstrate the ways in which international relations research has developed differently in different national contexts. In Tickner and Wæver 2009, this analysis is extended with a comparative study of international relations research across the world. Here, and elsewhere, China is emphasized as a potential source of non-Western IR theory, and therefore any debates about Chinese international relations theory should be read in the context of these debates. Acharya 2011 offers an interesting perspective on the interplay between Western and non-Western approaches to IR that impacts upon the possibilities for introducing Chinese IR as an alternative to dominant Western approaches. The postcolonial critiques of Hobson 2012, Jones 2006, and Shilliam 2011 are included because they go beyond these claims to argue that the entire history of international relations theorizing is intimately tied to the practice and legacy of Western colonialism, and that therefore simply shifting one’s focus to the non-West ignores the in-built Western bias of international relations discourse. They offer alternative perspectives on how to address the issue of Western bias in IR.

  • Acharya, Amitav. “Dialogue and Discovery: In Search of International Relations Theories beyond the West.” Millennium 39.3 (2011): 619–637.

    DOI: 10.1177/0305829811406574

    Part of a special issue on dialogue in international relations, especially between Western and non-Western IR. The article argues that the close nexus between power and knowledge is particularly evident in China, where the idea of a Chinese school of international relations is envisioned as a theoretical basis for China’s peaceful rise. The search for a local school of IR is more dominant in China than in other rising powers, such as India.

  • Hobson, John. M. The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760–2010. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139096829

    In-depth study of Western international theory from 1760 to present day, which explores the enduring legacy of Eurocentrism in thinking and theories about international relations. A thorough critique of international theory, which, according to Hobson, provides only a provincial analysis of international phenomena that masquerades as universal truth about the world.

  • Hoffmann, Stanley. “An American Social Science: International Relations.” Daedalus 106.3 (1977): 41–60.

    Seminal article arguing that IR was born and raised in America as the United States rose to world power, and that it therefore serves American foreign policy interests. Apart from the political circumstances and institutional opportunities in a rising America, IR was born as an “American Social Science” because of intellectual predispositions of the behavioral revolution and its belief that exact, value-free, and empirical social science could solve practical problems.

  • Jones, Branwen Gruffydd, ed. Decolonizing International Relations. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.

    Edited volume that explores the Eurocentric origins of disciplinary international relations from a range of postcolonial perspectives. Many of the chapters implore the reader to look critically at (not just beyond) Western conceptions of world politics in order to gain a better understanding of international phenomena.

  • Shilliam, Robbie, ed. International Relations and Non-Western Thought. London and New York: Routledge, 2011.

    Edited volume, largely from a postcolonial perspective. Shilliam’s main concern is with the persistence of racist assumptions in international relations discourse long after the height of formal colonialism. Contribution from Arif Dirlik (see Dirlik 2011, cited under “Chinese Characteristics”), which looks at Chinese IR, is of particular interest here.

  • Tickner, Arlene, and Ole Wæver, eds. International Relations Scholarship around the World. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2009.

    A comprehensive worldwide survey of the international relations discipline, building on an integrated postcolonial and sociology of science framework. The concluding chapter argues that, comparatively speaking, the drive for a national theory of IR has been strongest in China, and to some extent in Russia and Japan.

  • Wæver, Ole. “The Sociology of a Not So International Discipline: American and European Developments in International Relations.” International Organization 52.4 (1998): 687–727.

    DOI: 10.1162/002081898550725

    Wæver’s article provides a thorough overview of the social forces shaping the discipline of international relations. Drawing primarily on analysis of leading journals in the field, Wæver examines the factors that have led to and continue to reproduce American dominance in IR, concluding that “IR is quite different in different places” (p. 723).

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