Book Review: Understanding China’s International Behaviour.

Ben Moles

On Friday night I attended the Lowy Institute’s ‘New Voices’ cocktail event at the Art Gallery NSW. Having been both a former New Voices attendee (2010) and Intern at the Lowy Institute (2012) it was great to meet both past and current affiliates of New Voices and Lowy and see that both, and International Policy in Australia more broadly, have such strong futures.









The Key note speaker at the event, the recently returned to Australia, China Correspondent for Fairfax John Garnaut (a former New Voices attendee too) delivered a blinding speech summarising his experiences in China, reflections of which can be found here. Of the many issues he discussed the one that particularly found resonance with me was the gargantuan task he faced understanding how foreign policy is made in China. John made reference to the ‘octopus’ that is China’s policy apparatus and how difficult it had been at times to make sense of it all. Experience would eventually enable John to overcome this hurdle; for those seeking a slightly more immediate solution to understanding China’s International behaviour I have another suggestion.

Despite being a few years old now, one of the best reference tools for deciphering China’s international behaviour I found while completing my Maters degree was Evan Medeiros’ 2009 book by that very name ‘China’s International Behaviour’- a book review of which follows and that I wrote as part of my Chinese Security and Foreign Policy module I took back in 2011. I would encourage anybody with an Interest in China and China’s International Relations to read this book, which can now be down loaded for free from RAND here.

China’s International Behaviour: Activism, Opportunism and Diversification. Evan. S. Medeiros. ISBN 978-0-8330-4709-0 Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, 2009, 224pp.

China’s International behaviour comprehensively and objectively provides a frame work for analysis enabling the reader, from inquisitive enquirer to academic scholar, to understand and scrutinise the content, nature and implementation of China’s international behaviour. Medeiros provides both a framework and  the essential analytical tools necessary for understanding the Chinese specific approach that underpins China’s international behaviour, enabling the reader to examine ‘the end’, a Chinese policy, and trace and understand its origins and its creation process.

Medeiros’ main arguments are: that China’s international behaviour is inextricably interconnected with its need to maintain domestic stability; that China can accept the US as a regional hegemonic power and will not seek to challenge the US for the next two decades, however, will oppose US hegemonic behaviour when it conflicts with China’s defined core national interests. The purpose of this book is to inform US policy makers, evident in its final policy suggestions, that they need be cognisant of these considerations when formulating US-China policy.

Medeiros begins by detailing 3 historic lenses (National Revitalisation, a Victim Mentality and Defensive Security Outlook) through which China views its external environment and that has a significant bearing on how Chinese Foreign Policy is formulated and enacted. These help form a narrative that goes some way to explaining China’s five core national interests (Economic Development, Reassurance, Countering Constraints, Diversifying Access to Resources and Reducing Taiwan’s International Space) and the three guiding principles or China’s strategy for securing these interests (All round Diplomacy, Peace and Development and Harmonious World).

Medeiros continues by examining the expanding diplomatic tool kit that China employs to facilitate securing its interests (Economic Diplomacy, China’s Alternative Development Model, Leadership Diplomacy, Multilateral Diplomacy, Strategic Partnerships and Military Diplomacy). He then analyses how these, utilised in conjunction with the key determinate drivers of Chinese International behaviour (domestic stability, the three lenses, China’s five core national interests and three guiding principles), actually manifest into China’s Foreign Policy through analysing and examining China’s relations with regions and other states and international institutions and organisations.

Medeiros concludes by examining the challenges to both China, from the unique way it approaches the formulating of its Foreign Policy, as the subtitle of the book suggests through Activism, Opportunism, and Diversification, and the challenges which await the international community, in particular the US, as China continues its transition and rise. Medeiros observes and spells out for US policy makers that China’s International behaviour is a reflection of cost-benefit calculations which seek to secure Chinese core national interests. Despite these interests being fixed Chinese International behaviour is not, it is fluid, and as China ‘finds its feet’ as a rising regional power it is within this space that the US can assert its greatest influence on the nature of China’s rise.

Throughout, Medeiros presents a logical, methodical and objectively balanced argument, an aspect that can sometimes be found lacking from some of his North American counterparts as they grapple with, or are indifferent to, some of the specific Chinese historical and cultural aspects that help distinguish Chinese international behaviour from that of other ‘Great Powers’. His arguments are persuasive and are backed using relative examples to substantiate his points. On the occasional instance where a more subjective opinion is forwarded alternative arguments are offered to balance the position.

Furthermore, as well as successfully providing and demonstrating a usable and workable framework for examining China’s international behaviour explaining what China is doing and why, Medeiros should be commended for drawing attention to the important signal and message being transmitted from Beijing regarding what China is not doing despite being in a position to do so and why, examples include not pushing a ‘new security concept’ and not seeking a more confrontational US policy. Medeiros’ ultimate success rests in the reader’s ability to take a given Chinese Foreign policy decision or position, that might otherwise to an outsider seem unpredictable or erratic, and determine and understand the myriad of interests that factored into how (the process) and why that decision or position was arrived at.

Medeiros adopts a macrocosmic view of the actual policy making process, choosing to give a generic overview with the mentioning of specific leaders and drawing attention to the transition from ‘single leadership’ to ‘collective leadership,’ whereas a chapter or section solely dedicated to the microcosmic aspects of the Chinese Communist Party’s decision making process would certainly add an extra layer to his analysis and be of value to the reader. Adding to this point could be the inclusion of important International Relations theories and perspectives, a plethora of which exist amongst the growing number of important stakeholders that the collective leadership are increasingly accountable to (a good recent example of such work can be found in: David Shambaugh, ‘Coping with a Conflicted China,’ The Washington Quarterly 34:1, 2011, pp.7-27).

However, these minor absences do not detract in anyway from Medeiros’ worth as essential reading for those looking to understand China’s international behaviour and the important message it sends to US–China policy makers should not be underestimated: Although from the Chinese perspective the US-China relationship may no longer be’ key of keys’ it is still key, and while it remains so the US retain an element of influence over China, and the’ rise of China,’ that it might not uphold to the same extent over the long term future.

Ben Moles holds a Masters in International Security Studies from the University of Sydney and has interned for the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, Sydney. He can be contacted at or or follow him on Twitter @bwmoles


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