The Rise of China and Normative Constraints

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The Rise of China and Normative Constraints

Max Lin, 1635489

This piece will focus on the English School and the American ‘pivot towards Asia’ in light of Obama’s recent trips to the region. The piece will begin with an exposition of the theory and evaluate it against other major theories, followed by a explanation on the policy. Finally, the theory will be applied and discussed.

Obama says Asia-Pacific is his top priority. Courtesy of ABC News.

The English School

The English School shares similarities to both realism and idealism. Having said this, within the English School there are also major disagreements. The strands of English School theorists can be divided into three waves, starting with the Classic English theorists such as Martin Wight and Charles Manning. The second wave includes James Mayall, and recently the English School has undergone a renaissance with contemporaries such as Barry Buzan. As a crude summary, the classical theorists see less potential for international progress and places high priority on ‘plurality’ and order, while the latter theorists are somewhat more optimistic on the normative possibilities of change and new norms in an international society.

Nonetheless, there are five uniting features for all English School theories. Firstly, that the [stable] organisation of states in the international sphere is one which necessarily emerges from a mere ‘international system’ to an ‘international society’ governed by ‘norms, rules and institutions’. English School theorists place primacy on these normative rules [at least in competition with other factors such as the balance of powers in realism and liberal institutions in liberalism]. Thirdly, the English School believes order is the norm, which is where the English School most drastically diverges from classical realism. However, the English School does not share the Kantian notion of the potential or inevitability of radical change (some possibilities exist where critical theory overlaps). The final arm of the English School is that it examines ‘facts’ in the context of history, and behaviour in the context of meaning and motive. In summary, they are ‘anti-rationalist’, sharing this with constructivism.

Courtesy of Global Security
Courtesy of Global Security

To what extent is The Pivot consistent with the English School?

The key issues in the region include nuclear proliferation of North Korea, trade navigation in the South China Sea and reassuring American allies with the rise of China. Other concerns purported by the United States administration include engaging with regional institutions, expanding trade and advancing democracy and human rights.

Courtesy of BBC
Courtesy of BBC

At face value, the pivot towards Asia seems unreservedly realist. With China’s growing economic and military influence, the United States is merely shifting its resources to ensure there is a balance of power [for the US] in the region. On the other hand, the Transpacific Partnership Agreement, and multilateral security treaties and assurances appear to align with liberal notions.

It is my contention, that the purpose and value of international theories is to best model and predict international behaviour. Therefore, there is some tension with the normative element of the English School. The attractiveness of the English School, however, is that it is not mutually exclusive with the realist and liberal notions above. The English School delivers by first acknowledging that the balance of power is one norm in the international society, but also applies other structures or ‘rules’,  such as diplomacy, international law and the mutual recognition of sovereignty.

Despite claims by countries and observers such as ex-Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd praising the policy in light of China having a ‘hard-line, realist view of international relations’, China is not as a pariah outside the international society. China subscribes to the same institutions of trade (joining the World Trade Organisation) and diplomacy (having a permanent seat on the Security Council) and therefore has a corresponding interest in preserving these rule-based norms. For example, China’s own Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership can be seen as utilising these diplomatic and institutional norms to benefit her and simultaneously preserve order. China’s support for North Korea is waning due to international norms of her alleged support of human rights abuses (third wave interpretation, more radical). Moreover, it would be to the detriment of China if it flouted its obligations as an international ‘citizen’, as it would be not be able to appeal to the same rules say if the United States decided to punish China’s undervaluation of her currency especially when the undervaluation is considered legal under the World Trade Organisation.

Courtesy of ASEAN
Courtesy of ASEAN

One last observation to make is that with increased cooperation in the region, and further recognition of these norms, order would be preserved. Ironically, with China’s growing clout in a stable environment, it could play a greater role in counter-terrrorism operations and international peacekeeping. This is an unsustainable burden currently shouldered by the US which has been in part the US rationale behind the Pivot. When order is preserved by pluralism, new norms can emerge for solidarism. This is when progress develops and where order intersects with justice.

Courtesy of the US-China Institute
Courtesy of the US-China Institute


The advantage of the English School is that it is seen as the via media between realism and idealism, and incorporates anti-rationalist approaches of constructivism. The short-falls include the difficulty to test the theory as these norms are not fixed. Ultimately, I want to flag two more issues worthy of contemplation. Firstly, how norms can be tiered in an international society; for example, when the US and its allies export a set of norms such as liberal democracy versus China’s state capitalism, both can subscribe to a higher ‘norm’, and (2) how the English School provides a convincing account of how these norms can create divisions, resist establishments, assimilate each other, and/or co-exist.

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