Editor's Note

Feiteng Zhong attempts to understand the rise of China by applying key concepts from international relations theory, such as the “balance of power” and “hegemony.” Zhong, however, points out that some concepts can be interpreted differently according to local contexts and thus it is necessary to look at a phenomenon from various perspectives to reach comprehensive understanding. As part of this effort, the author introduces a new concept, called “developmental security” as an alternative way to view China’s rise in the Chinese context. This concept is originated from China’s development-oriented grand strategy in which growth in GDP per capita forms the basis for national strategic goals, the interests of security and development are unified, and a peaceful environment around the region is fostered to promote domestic development.



Quotes from the paper 

In the field of international relations, there are two main issues attracted great concerns related to the rising of China. First, will China return to traditional China, that is, to build a regional order in the surrounding areas similar to the Tributary System (Friedberg 2011; Pan and Lo 2017) Second, will China replace the U.S. and become a hegemonic power equivalent to the U.S. (Mearsheimer 2010; Kurth 2012)? For most Chinese scholars, both of them are not the best options (Zhong 2015; Qi 2015). According to the White Paper of China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation issued by the China’s State Council Information Office on January 11th, 2017, the security framework in the Asia-Pacific region which was promoted by China “does not mean starting all over again, but improving and upgrading the existing mechanisms,” and “should be adopted as a common caused by all the countries in the region” (China’s State Council Information Office 2017). However, the challenge is what reasonable and feasible scenarios would be if those two options are not the case. This article concludes that China will neither become another U.S. nor return to the past, considering the fact that China is still the largest economy with far lower income levels than the U.S. by 2050. GDP per capita is closely related to a country's technical capability, the global vision of its domestic audiences, and its interdependence of the global economy. With the improvement of China’s GDP per capita, especially the gap between the eastern coastal areas of China and high income countries was greatly reduced, China is going to embrace globalization, but in a Chinese way. It is clear that China will face increasingly complex international security challenges to safeguard its growing interests abroad, but its main challenges remain at the domestic level, particularly in addressing the gap between the rich and the poor, regional imbalances and the sustainability of development.



China’s Development Path towards 2050

According to data released by the USDA in December 2017, China's per capita GDP was close to $7,400 in 2017, compared to that U.S. GDP per capita was $53,000, that of Japan was $48,000 and that of South Korea was $26,000. Even by 2030, China's GDP per capita is expected to be less than $15,000, which is equivalent to only 22.4 percent of that of the U.S. (USDA 2017). In October 2017, during the 19th National Congress of the CPC, Japan’s Institute of Energy Economics, released a forecast report on the future of energy development in 2050, which provides the economic development prospects of major economies in the world, especially the East Asia economies (The Institute of Energy Economics 2017). According to this forecast, as shown in Table 1, China's GDP per capita is expected to reach 14,000 US dollars by 2030, 22,000 US dollars by 2040 and 30,000 US dollars by 2050.

However, in terms of economic size, China will account for 17.7 percent of the world's economy by 2030, according to the USDA. By then, the U.S. will account for 19.8 percent, while Japan and South Korea will account for only 6 percent and 1.6 percent respectively. According to projections from the Institute of Energy Economics in Japan, a size of China's economy will reach 89.8 percent of the U.S. economy in 2030 and 111.1 percent of the U.S. economy in 2040, making it the largest economy in the world. By then, the third-largest economy will be India, not Japan. Therefore, the world is entering a major stage of economic restructuring.


Table 1 Growth Prospects of China and Other Global Major Economies until 2050


GDP per capita





































United States














                     Source: The Institute of Energy Economics (2017).




Understanding the Traditional Paradigm of Power Transition between China and the U.S.

[T]he relationship between hegemony and international order has long been a subject of discussion in the field of international relations. Robert Gilpin, the late professor at Princeton University who wrote about this in the early 1980s, argues that war is the main driver of systemic change. Robert Keohane, on the other hand, believes that the decline of hegemony does not necessarily lead to the collapse of the international order, because other countries benefit from it, and several countries can join together to maintain the international system. At present, the debate is still continuing. John Ikenberry, a liberal scholar at Princeton University, argues that China also benefits from the American order and will not overturn it (Ikenberry 2018). Other realists, such as John Mearsheimer, argue that China's rise is likely to lead to a war between China and the U.S. (Mearsheimer and Walt 2016).


China and the West have different views on Great Power. The core lies in that the western concept of great power is based on military power, while the popular concept of great power in China mainly refers to the size of population and land, without economic and military implications. With the rise of China's economy, new meanings with economic power were added to the concept of China’s great power. However, the Chinese government still considers itself as the biggest developing country in the world, a concept broadly used since the mid-1980s (Zhong 2019).


Developmental Security: A New Perspective Understanding China’s Rise

If we recognize the importance of per capita GDP in understanding international security issues, we will have a new perspective to examine the state of peace between China and its neighbors since the reform and opening up. At present, many scholars in Asia are talking about getting rid of the "middle-income trap." From a global perspective, it is more important to summarize how Asian countries get rid of the "low income trap." According to Robert Barro, a macroeconomist at Harvard University, the average annual growth rate in the west over the 200 years since the industrial revolution has been two percent. If developing countries are to catch up, especially if they are to get rid of two income traps, it will take a 25-year average of 2.9 percent growth in each income stage (Barro 2016, 14). Barro also believes that getting out of the "low income trap" is far more difficult than getting out of the "middle income trap." In 1998, China graduated from low-income countries and became a lower middle-income country. In 2010, China became a high middle-income country. From 1990 to 2011, China reduced the number of poor people by 439 million, making a huge contribution to global poverty reduction. Some scholars have pointed out that China's poverty reduction policy experience is of great significance to many low-income developing countries (Pan and Chen 2016, 135-143).

At the same time, China's national security policy and its ideas of foreign relations should be given equal attention. China's national security philosophy is quite different from that of the U.S. The basic international political concept of the American elite is based on the history of European international politics. The most prominent one is the concept of balance of power. The Chinese government has highlighted the correlation between domestic security and international security and its ability to highlight the state of sustainable security in the definition of national security. In this regard, it is similar to the concept of "comprehensive security" proposed by Japan in the early 1980s. China's grand strategy is a strategy of internal and external balance (Zhong 2018). More fundamentally, since the reform and opening up, China has implemented a grand strategy based on development, which can also be called "developmental security." It has three basic characteristics: first, it takes the development of per capita GDP as the basis for constructing national strategic goals; second, security interests and development interests are unified, and there is a coordinated relationship between military expenditure and domestic socio-economic development. Third, we should foster a peaceful environment around the region that is conducive to development (Zhong 2017). It is hard to imagine how peace in East Asia could have lasted so long since the late 1970s, if a rising China had not adopted such a strategy.


A Complex and Networked Asia Pacific Order

Conceptually, Robert Keohane and Josephy Nye demonstrated in the late 1970s that the overall power distribution does not correspond to the issue-area power distribution. A country with a small economy can also become one of the world's top countries in individual issue areas. When Keohane and Nye proposed the concept of complex interdependence, the empirical facts on which it was based came mainly from the relations between the U.S. and Canada, Australia and the European countries, when the average per capita GDP of Western developed countries was close to $10,000. By this measure, as China's per capita GDP increases further, many countries in China's neighbors can reach this level. According to the current calculation, if the initial results of the BRI are achieved, the GDP per capita of countries involved in the BRI can also be doubled in the next 15 years, which will deepen the complexity of China's neighbor relations. If complex interdependence can be applied to developed countries in the 1970s, the concept can also generalize China's future relations with regional countries.


[I]n the conception of the Asia-Pacific regional order in 2030 and 2050, one should not look for clues only from the Western theories of international relations. In various Western theories of international relations, scholars generally believe that the core mark of a great power is military capability (Zhong 2017b). Although China attaches equal importance to military capabilities, the development of military capabilities should match the needs of the domestic economy and society under the development security strategy. Moreover, since the founding of a new China, China's military expenditure has never reached the corresponding level of the U.S. in terms of the proportion of its economy size. While neighboring countries often accuse China of the increase in military spending at an average annual rate of 10 percent, they have never simultaneously considered that China's economy has grown at a similar rate over the past four decades. Some scholars have pointed out that, if measured by military spending as percentage of total governmental expenditure, China's military growth rate is even lower than domestic expenditure. In this regard, international observers need to have a better understanding of China's domestic affairs and the affairs of the Asian region, which means frequent visits to China and its neighbors, frequent comparisons of regional differences, and efforts to seize the interests and development trends of all parties from various complex regional and trans-regional phenomena.



Author’s Biography


Feiteng Zhong is Professor and Head of Department of Great Power Relations Studies, National Institute of International Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He received his Ph.D. (2009) in international relations from the Waseda University as well as the Peking University. He is also the author of "Developmental Security: China Rise and Regional Order Reconstruction" (China Social Sciences Press 2017). His main research interests include International Political Economy, The Political Economy of the Belt and Road Initiative, China's Foreign Policy, East Asia and the United States.