Back in the eighteenth century, there was an intellectual fashion in the English-speaking world for all things French, and in the nineteenth century for all things German. In the twentieth century, even Soviet ideas were fashionable for a while—at least, in certain elite circles. You would never know it to look around the world today, but in the minds of English people and Americans, the English-speaking world is always in terminal decline, at the end of its rope, in danger of civilizational collapse.
Well, today the collapsists are at it again, and the challenger du jour is China. So it comes as no surprise that Chinese ideas are now coming into fashion. And like the French and German ideas of centuries past, some of them are quite good. One of them is the Confucian idea of “relationality.” For a technical definition of relationality in contemporary international relations (IR) theory, turn to Emilian Kavalski , the Li Dak Sum Chair Professor in China-Eurasia Relations and International Studies at the University of Nottingham’s China campus in Ningbo.
In his book The Guanxi of Relational International Theory , Kavalski defines relationalism as “a non-competitive sociability infused with mutuality, self-restraint, and the contingent opportunities inherent in the encounter with the other.” If you’ve ever thought that the United States was the big brother of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Kingdom the little brother, or if you’ve ever thought that the transatlantic alliance was like one big dysfunctional family, then relationality is the IR theory for you.
The idea of relationality exists in Western IR theory, but over here it is usually couched in the almost impenetrable theoretical language of “constructivism.” Wester constructivists (including Kavalski) would have us believe that countries and their national interests don’t really exist, and that the ongoing dialog between countries is what gives them form. In this view of the world, there is no such thing as the Mexican border; it only exists because we talk about it, give meaning to it, or put a wall on it.
In some literal sense, the constructivists have a point. But in a much more practical sense, borders are borders, and you can get arrested (or shot) for crossing the wrong one. That’s where the Chinese come in. Over there, relationality is understood much more pragmatically, drawing on the Confucian traditions of Chinese philosophy. Chinese scholars like Zhao Tingyang of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Qin Yaqing of the China Foreign Affairs University have developed a homegrown approach to IR theory that emphasizes how countries can get along in peace rather than how they compete and go to war.
The key to the Chinese approach, in Kavalski’s telling, is guanxi, the all-powerful Chinese concept that has been used to explain everything from business success to life itself . Kavalski points out that guanxi is, in fact, part of the Chinese term for “international relations” ( guoji guanxi ). In Chinese tradition, diplomacy is about the management of long-term relationships, not about the immediate competition over resources. From the perspective of China’s relationalists, neighbors like Japan and Korea have always been there and always will be there, so it makes more sense to cultivate friendships for the long term than to seek short-term advantages.
At least, that’s the theory. In practice, China has in recent years seemed intent on alienating as many of its eastern neighbors as possible, though it turns a more “relational” face to the south and west. Kavalski is careful to distinguish between theory and practice and is no China stooge. But in his focus on China—and on the historical European example of the Congress of Vienna—he misses an opportunity to apply relational Chinese IR theory to the one country that most clearly puts it into practice: the United States.
Despite Henry Kissinger’s famous dictum that “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests,” the United States has shown more long-term commitment to building solid international relationships than just about any country on Earth. The fact that Donald Trump is routinely vilified by the American foreign policy establishment for putting American interests ahead of allies’ desires is proof enough of this. Yet Trump has merely sought to make allies bear more of their costs.
Viewed in those terms, China really only has strong guanxi with two long-term allies, North Korea and Pakistan, and neither of those countries is a very stable (or very desirable) friend to have.
But Kavalski’s The Guanxi of Relational International Theory is a book of theory, not a book of politics, and as a book of theory, it is an extraordinarily useful guide to Chinese thinking on international relations. At just over one hundred pages, it is concise, readable, and packed with references to the most important works in English on Chinese international relations scholarship. Anyone who wants to understand the rhetoric behind China’s Belt & Road Initiative should read this book. China may not play relationality very well, but it talks a good game, and when it comes to understanding the theory behind China’s noble words, Kavalski’s is the best guide available.