Wellesley Political Science Professor Explores China’s Future Ambitions as a World Power

A US ship docked near Hong Kong.
Photo provided by U.S. Navy
October 15, 2018

For months, diplomatic tensions between the United States and China have escalated over trade and allegations of Chinese interference in the upcoming midterm elections.

Recently, relations were rattled further when a U.S. Navy cruiser sailed near the Spratly Islands in waters claimed by the Chinese government in the disputed South China Sea. Chinese authorities ordered a warship to force the vessel out of the area.

Following the encounter, Stacie E. Goddard, Wellesley professor of political science, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, in which she called the standoff “a dangerous game of chicken.”

In the piece, Goddard addressed a question that political scientists have raised in recent years: Will China remain as a firm partner in the world order, with its membership in international institutions like the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the U.N. Security Council, or seek to overturn these institutions as a revisionist power to challenge the U.S.-dominated global system?

An expert on international security, particularly the study of the causes and conduct of war, Goddard said China’s membership in these institutions does not mean that the country will curb its ambitions. In fact, the institutions could serve as an asset.

Referring to conflicts that involved Napoleonic France, Imperial Japan, 19th-century Russia, and Nazi Germany, Goddard wrote, “First, joining institutions actually gives countries resources to challenge the status quo. Nations that join security institutions may increase their ability to mobilize allies, for instance. Countries that join economic institutions secure leverage over their trading partners. Nations that are members of political institutions like the United Nations can gain legitimacy for their demands.”

Citing the fact that revisionism is often associated with violence and costly military conflict, she wrote that “revolutionary challengers to existing orders can adopt a number of strategies and can even use the channels of existing institutions to pursue their aims.”

Also, she wrote, a country with limited ambitions might forgo wide-ranging changes to pursue “minor reforms—increased voting shares in institutions, for example.”

In the current global landscape, Goddard sees evidence of China pursuing its expansionist goals as the United States continues to “retrench from the global order.” Also, China is making further inroads in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

“All of this suggests that China could pursue far-ranging changes to the international status quo in the not-so-distant future,” she wrote. “Ironically, this could be because, and not in spite, of China’s membership in international institutions.”

Photo: The Agence France-Presse news agency reported on Sunday, October 7, that the USS Decatur (pictured above, while docked in Hong Kong in 2006) “conducted a freedom of navigation operation,” when it sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Gaven and Johnson reefs in the Spratly Islands, a group of islands in the South China Sea.