China’s perception of US international politics

(Artistic conception: Jean-Dominique Lavoix-Carli)

Relations between the two superpowers, the United States and China, dominate the international world. Here we watch the way China perceives American foreign relations.

How the United States perceives China and how the former see it as a threat, what this will imply in terms of future American actions and the impacts on the world and for individual actors are the subjects of numerous articles and analyzes. Patrick Wintour interestingly presents such analyzes in his article “Is China Stepping Up Its Ambition to supplant the United States as a leading superpower?” (The Guardian, September 22, 2021).

However, at the dawn of the third decade of the 21st century, we are faced with not one but two extremely powerful players on the world stage. So, we cannot stop at American perceptions of China. We must also look backwards, China’s perceptions of the United States

This is the subject of this article, which focuses on how China views US foreign relations and international politics. We thus seek to understand the Chinese perception of the American world order. In the first part, we explain why perceptions are important in international politics and how understanding each actor’s perception is essential to create a valid international position and plan of action. We then give examples of how China conceptualizes international politics. Finally, using the fact that visions and perceptions are historically constructed, we argue that China is using its own understanding of the international world to decipher US international actions and decipher the US view of international politics. It is then within this framework of understanding that China will understand and assess American international relations and devise its own actions and reactions.

Perceptions in International Politics: Why Does It Matter?

A key approach in the analysis of strategy and international relations

At least since Jervis published his founding book Perception and misperception in international politics by 1976, perceptions were widely used in international politics and foreign relations and recognized as very important. Likewise, by taking biases into account and seeking to mitigate them, perceptions are a key component of intelligence analysis and strategic foresight and warning (see our Bias Mitigation course as well as our course on analytical modeling). The practice of red teaming and red team analysis is nothing more than taking the point of view of the enemy, and, by extension, other actors. Therefore, the red team basically means being able to perceive the world as other people.

We can also say that taking into account the perceptions of others is much older and is a fundamental part of strategy, politics and international affairs. For example, how the other thinks and perceives the world is part of Sun Tzu’s advice in The art of War:

“If you know the enemy and you know yourself, you don’t have to fear the outcome of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory you get, you will also suffer a defeat. If you don’t know the enemy or yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Sun Tzu, The art of War, III. (Stratagem attack), 18.

Use perceptions

Therefore, perceptions, knowing and understanding who perceives what, is absolutely vital for students and analysts of international politics at large.

The logic of perceptions in foreign relations and international politics is as follows. Part of taking action in the world and achieving your vision and goals is to anticipate what others will do. To do this, you need to understand how these others see the world, in addition to knowing their goals. Others behave in the same way in deciding their actions. Once you have done this fundamental analysis, then you consider all of the other elements of power, including abilities and the perception of them.

Then, from the resulting interactions, a new situation evolves, which is also understood according to perceptions. Revision of perceptual models is indeed very rare (see for example Anderson, Craig A., Mark R. Lepper and Lee Ross, “Perseverance of Social Theories: The Role of Explanation in the Persistence of Discredited Information”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1980, vol. 39, No. 6, 1037-1049; Online courses on Bias Mitigation, Analytical Modeling Online Course).

Suddenly, and as Sun Tzu emphasizes, if you understand how the actors perceive the world, then you go one step further to be able to understand them well, anticipate their actions and thus achieve your own objectives and vision.

Without this perception, you are more likely to make mistakes and fall short of your goals.

Therefore, given the growing weight of China in the 21st century world, as well as the tension and competition between the United States and China, it is crucial for all actors to take into account the perceptions Chinese.

Typical Chinese perception of the international order

The tribute system

Since the masterful work of Jeans . Fairbank, “A Preliminary Framework” and the corresponding edited effort Chinese world order: traditional Chinese foreign relations (ed. Jeans . Fairbank, 1968), the so-called “tribute system” plays a central role in our understanding of how China has organized and still organizes its foreign relations, based on this traditional Chinese world order. Researchers will agree with, tend to disagree with, and modify the framework offered by Fairbank (see Bibliography for selected examples). Nevertheless, this framework remains central.

Portraits of periodic offerings (official Chinese documentary paintings on tributaries) – Tang Dynasty: The Gathering of Kings (王 會 圖), by Yan Liben (閻立本, 601-673 CE) – Click here for Wikimedia Media Viewer or here for Zoom Media Viewer

According to Fairbank (ibid. P. 108), the Chinese world order is a Sino-centric hierarchical framework, historically constructed, expressed and informed by a set of practices and ideas that define the relations between China and the rest of the world. .

At the heart of the system is China, Zhong Guo (中國 / 中国, the central state, the Middle Kingdom).

The countries are then classified according to concentric circles.

The first circle is made up of:

“… The Sinic area, made up of the closest and culturally similar tributaries, Korea and Vietnam, parts of which were once ruled within the Chinese Empire, as well as the Liu-ch’iu (Ryukyu) Islands and, in brief periods, Japan. “

Fairbank, “A Preliminary Framework,” p.108

Then comes the second circle:

“… The Inner Asian Zone, made up of tributary tribes and states of the nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples of Inner Asia, who were not ethnically and culturally non-Chinese but were also outside or on the fringes of the area. Chinese cultural… ”

Fairbank, “A Preliminary Framework,” p.108

Third, we have the last circle:

“The outer zone, made up of” outer barbarians “(wai-yi) [外夷 also external barbarians] generally, at a greater distance on land and sea, possibly including Japan and other states in Southeast and Southeast Asia and Europe which were supposed to send tribute during trade.

Fairbank, “A Preliminary Framework,” p.108

Portraits of periodic offerings (official Chinese documentary paintings on tributaries) – Qing Dynasty: Huangqīng Zhígòngtú by Xiesui (謝 遂), 18th century – Click here for Wikimedia Media Viewer or here for Zoom Media Viewer – for detailed pages see here.

The Central Asian states under the Qing, for example, also belonged to this circle (Hsiao-Ting Lin, “The tributary system in the historical imagination of China…”, 2009).

Communist theories of the world order

Surrounding cities by rural areas

“Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong, and Lin Biao waving copies of the Little Red Book at Tiananmen Palace in Beijing,” October 1, 1967 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

During the Cultural Revolution, in September 1965, General Lin Biao published his famous article “Long live the victory of the People’s War!”, Which defined the Chinese theory of the encirclement of“ cities ”by“ rural areas ”.

Lin Biao theorized that the revolutions that would increasingly occur in rural areas across the planet would eventually completely encircle the cities that symbolized rich countries. The People’s Republic of China was of course part of the expansion and encirclement of rural areas.

Mao’s three worlds

The rest of this article is for our members. Make sure you’re getting real analysis and not opinion, or worse, fake news. Become a member and access this article. Log in if you are a member.


Cohen, Raymond, “Perception of Threat in the International Crisis”, Quarterly political science 93, no. 1 (1978);

Cranmer-Byng, JL, “The Chinese Perception of World Order”, International journal, Winter, 1968/1969, Vol. 24, n ° 1 (Winter 1968/1969), pp. 166-171.

Fairbank, John Κ., “A Preliminary Framework”, in Chinese world order: traditional Chinese foreign relations, ed. Jeans . Fairbank, Harvard University Press 2013 (1968).

Hsiao-Ting Lin, “The Tributary System in the Historical Imagination of China: China and Hunza, ca. 1760-1960 “, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, Vol. 19, n ° 4 (October 2009), pp. 489-507 (19 pages).

Jervis, Robert, Perception and misperception in international politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976, 2nd edition 2017)

Jiang Yonglin, “Thinking Again of“ Ming China ”: Ethnocultural Space in a Diverse Empire – with Particular Reference to“ Miao Territory ”, Chinese History Journal, 2 (2018), 27-78.

Schwak, Juliette, “Towards Post Western IRT: A Confucian lecture of Northeast Asian international society”, AFSP Aix 2015 Congress.

Zhang Feng, “Rethinking the ‘Homage System’: Expanding the Conceptual Horizon of Historical East Asian Politics”, Chinese Journal of International Politics, Flight. 2, 2009, 545-574

Zijia He, “Disparities between American and Chinese Perceptions of Chinese Foreign Policy,” CMC Theses, 2018.

Wang Yuan-kang, “Explaining the Tribute System: Power, Confucianism, and War in Medieval East Asia”, Journal of East Asian Studies 13 (2013), 207-232

About Thomas Brown

Check Also

Trade, security on agenda of Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia – Saudi minister

Strengthening trade ties and regional security will be priorities during an upcoming visit by Chinese …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.