(Art design: Jean-Dominique Lavoix-Carli)

The relationships between the two superpowers, the U.S. and China, dominate the international world. Here, we look at the way China perceives American foreign relations.

How the U.S. perceives China and how much the former sees the latter as a threat, what this will entail in terms of future American actions and the impacts on the world and for individual actors are the topics of many articles and analyses. Patrick Wintour interestingly presents such analyses in his article “Is China stepping up its ambition to supplant US as top superpower?” (The Guardian, 22 September 2021).

However, as the third decade of the 21st century dawns, we are facing not one but two extremely powerful actors on the world stage. Thus, we cannot stop at U.S.’ perceptions of China. We must also look at the reverse, China’s perceptions of the U.S.

This is the purpose of this article, which focuses upon the way China perceives American foreign relations and international politics. We thus seek to understand the Chinese perception of the American world order. In a first part, we explain why perceptions matter in international politics and how understanding the perception of each actor is key for creating a valid international position and course of action. We then give instances of the way China conceptualises international politics. Finally, using the fact that visions and perceptions are historically constructed, we argue that China uses its own understanding of the international world to decrypt American international actions and decipher the U.S. vision of international politics. It is then within this framework for 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 strategy and international relations’ analysis

At least since Jervis published his seminal book Perception and Misperception in International Politics in 1976, perceptions have been commonly used in international politics and foreign relations and recognised as very important indeed. Likewise, through taking into account biases and seeking to mitigate them, perceptions are a key part of intelligence and strategic foresight and warning analysis (see our course Mitigating Biases as well as our course on Analytical Modeling). The practice of red teaming and red team analysis is nothing else that taking the point of view of the enemy, and, by extension, of other actors. As a result, red teaming means fundamentally being able to perceive the world as others do.

We can also argue that considering the perceptions of others is much older, and a fundamental part of strategy, politics and international affairs. For example, how the other thinks thus perceives the world is part of Sun Tzu ‘s advice in The Art of War:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Sun Tzu, The Art of War, III. (Attack by Stratagem), 18.

Using perceptions

Hence perceptions, knowing and understanding who is perceiving what, is absolutely vital for students and analysts of international politics writ large.

The logic of perceptions in foreign relations and international politics runs as follows. To act in the world and achieve your vision and objectives, you need notably to anticipate what others will do. To do so, you must understand how these others perceive the world, besides knowing their objectives. The others behave similarly to decide about their actions. Once you have done this fundamental analysis, then you consider all other elements of power, including capabilities, and perception thereof.

Then, out of the resulting interactions a new situation evolves, which is also understood according to perceptions. The revision of perceptual models is very rare indeed (e.g. see 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 Course on Mitigating biases, Online Course on Analytical Modeling).

As a result, and as highlighted by Sun Tzu, if you understand how actors perceive the world, then you are one step closer to be able to properly understand them, to anticipate their actions and thus to achieve your own objectives and then vision.

Without this perception, you are most likely to make mistakes and to fail to achieve your objectives.

Hence, considering China’s increasing weight in the 21st century world, as well as the tension and competition between the U.S. and China, it is crucial, for all actors, to consider Chinese perceptions.

China’s typical perception of the international order

The Tribute System

Since the masterful work by John Κ. Fairbank, “A Preliminary Framework” and the corresponding edited effort The Chinese World Order: Traditional China’s Foreign Relations (ed. John Κ. Fairbank, 1968), the so called “Tribute System” plays a center role in our understanding of the way China organised and still organises its foreign relations, as grounded in this traditional Chinese World Order. Scholars will agree with, tend to disagree with, and amend the framework offered by Fairbank (see bibliography for selected examples). Nonetheless this framework remains central.

Portraits of Periodical Offering (Chinese official tributary documentary paintings) – Tang Dynasty: The Gathering of Kings (王會圖), by Yan Liben (閻立本, 601-673 CE) – Click here to access on 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, we find China, Zhong Guo (中國/中国, the Central State, the Middle Kingdom).

Countries are then ordered according to concentric circles.

The first circle is composed of :

“… the Sinic Zone, consisting of the most nearby and culturally similar tributaries, Korea and Vietnam, parts of which had anciently been ruled within the Chinese empire and also the Liu-ch’iu (Ryukyu) Islands and, at brief times, Japan.”

Fairbank, “A Preliminary Framework”, p.108

Then comes the second circle:

“… The inner Asian Zone, consisting of tributary tribes and states of the nomadic or seminomadic peoples of Inner Asia, who were not ethnically and culturally non Chinese but were also outside or on the fringe of the Chinese culture area…”

Fairbank, “A Preliminary Framework”, p.108

Third we have the last circle:

“The Outer Zone, consisting of ‘outer barbarians’ (wai-yi) [外夷 also external barbarians] generally, at a further distance over land and sea, including eventually Japan and other states of Southeast and South Asia and Europe that were supposed to send tribute when trading.”

Fairbank, “A Preliminary Framework”, p.108
Portraits of Periodical Offering (Chinese official tributary documentary paintings) – Qing Dynasty: Huángqīng Zhígòngtú by Xiesui (謝遂), 18th century – Click here to access on Wikimedia Media Viewer or here for Zoom Media Viewer – for detailed pages see here.

Central Asian States under the Qing, for example, also belonged to this circle (Hsiao-Ting Lin, “The Tributary System in China’s Historical Imagination…”, 2009).

Communist theories of world order

The encirclement of cities by rural areas

“Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong, and Lin Biao waving copies of The Little Red Book at the Tiananmen Palace in Beijing”, 1st October 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 the “cities” by the “rural areas”.

Lin Biao theorised that the revolutions that would increasingly take place in the rural world throughout the planet would end up fully encircling the cities that symbolised rich countries. The Popular Republic of China was of course part of the spreading and encircling rural areas.

Mao’s Three Worlds

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Cohen, Raymond, “Threat Perception in International Crisis,” Political Science Quarterly 93, no. 1 (1978);

Cranmer-Byng, J. L., “The Chinese Perception of World Order”, International Journal, Winter, 1968/1969, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Winter, 1968/1969), pp. 166-171.

Fairbank, John Κ., “A Preliminary Framework”, in The Chinese World Order: Traditional China’s Foreign Relations, ed. John Κ. Fairbank, Harvard University Press 2013 (1968).

Hsiao-Ting Lin, “The Tributary System in China’s Historical Imagination: China and Hunza, ca. 1760-1960”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Oct., 2009), pp. 489-507 (19 pages).

Jervis, Robert, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976, 2d ed 2017)

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

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

Zhang Feng, “Rethinking the ‘Tribute System’: Broadening the Conceptual Horizon of Historical East Asian Politics”, Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 2, 2009, 545–574

Zijia He, “Disparities between American and Chinese Perceptions on Chinese Foreign Policy“, CMC SENIOR 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

Published by Dr Helene Lavoix (MSc PhD Lond)

Dr Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the President/CEO of The Red Team Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for international relations, national and international security issues. Her current focus is on the war in Ukraine, international order and the rise of China, the overstepping of planetary boundaries and international relations, the methodology of SF&W, radicalisation as well as new tech and security.

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  1. This is a very interesting article on how China sees and perceives the world. You mentioned very interestingly that Chinese foreign and international perceptions is Cino – centric. I often call Iranian foreign policy as Persian-centric. Perhaps ancient civilization is the root of the false perception.
    Thank you very much Dr. Helene Lavroi. Great discourse.

    1. Thank you so much Fereydoun, as always for your positive comments. I am so glad that someone as knowledgable as you, and having such high level real world practice of international relations appreciate my research and work.
      Actually, building upon your comment we may wonder if most civilizations – to the least great civilisations – have a self-centric approach to foreign relations. And that may not be false, but related to the need to pursue self-interest and ensure the security of those who are ruled. What matters then is to also be able to understand that others think similarly, and then to make the effort to see and understand other’s perceptions. Considering others’ perceptions may help meet half-way if possible, or in any case anticipating better what will happen.
      Thanks again Fereydoun!

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