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By: Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.

It seems that there are opportunities for China to reconsider its theory of peaceful rise on which its international foreign policy has been based since 2003. This is because there have been many important developments and changes over the past 18 years that may affect the foundations on which this theory was built.

Recently, I had the pleasure of participating in an international conference held in Istanbul by the Asia Middle East Forum in cooperation with a Chinese university, on China and the Palestine issue. I would like to share with the honorable reader some of the ideas that I presented in my paper.

Since China adopted the Four Modernizations in 1978, it has turned its back on the Cultural Revolution and has gradually moved towards a pragmatic policy that puts interest above ideology. It has also embraced policies of openness and economic development while maintaining the dominance of the Communist Party over political and public life. In 2003, the Chinese strategic thinker Zheng Bijian formulated the theory of “peaceful rise” which talks about China’s gradual transition to a major player in international relations, but without threatening the security and stability of the international system and through the use of soft power tools as a basis for this ascent. It is a theory consistent with the theory of peaceful development of former President Hu Jintao.

This theory tends not to indulge in regional conflicts, which explains its absence from the “International Quartet” related to the Palestine issue. It is keen to appear at the same distance from the conflicting parties, does not have a global political project, and is based on the policy of “say your word and go.” It only stresses the issue of “Taiwan,” which it considers a national issue.

Through this vision, China has sought to buy time in developing its economy, military and high technological capabilities. In other words, it focused on self-strengthening in various fields until it becomes in a position to highly and strongly impose itself internationally. But has the theory of “peaceful rise” exhausted its purposes, and has the time come for China to define its new positioning and aspire to new goals?!

In this article we focus on four main indicators, noting that each of them has many sub-indicators, but we will have to choose some of them due to the limited size of the article.

The first indicator is the economic indicator that has made huge leaps compared to all countries of the world. We notice that China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) jumped from $1.66 trillion in 2003 to $14.72 trillion in 2020, an increase of 887%, doubling its size nearly nine times. Also, after it was ranked sixth in the world, it advanced to second place after the US, and as for the countries that used to precede it (Britain, Germany, France and Japan), the Chinese GDP became greater than the total GDP of these countries combined ($14.18 trillion in 2020) by about $540 billion. China’s GDP is expected to catch up with that of the US by 2030.

Since 2013, China has become the first in world trade, with its volume of exports and imports reaching about $5 trillion in 2020 and with around $3.2 trillion foreign cash reserves. China is the first exporter to about 35 countries, and the first importer from about 25 countries. As of the end of 2020, it owns about $1.072 trillion of the US national debt. China has industries in almost all fields, and it has managed to improve product quality while maintaining very competitive prices. It has also entered into giant projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which includes about 70 countries, covers 65% of the world’s population and includes global trade routes, ports, railways and others.

The second indicator is the significant military rise. It is noted that the Chinese military spending was $33.14 billion annually in 2003 and was the fifth globally in terms of military spending, equivalent to about 7.6% of the US military spending. However, it jumped to $252.3 billion in 2020, an increase of 760%, which is an expenditure that exceeds the total expenditures of Russia $61.9 billion, Britain $59.2 billion, France $52.8 billion, and India $72.9 billion (totaling $246.5 billion) for the same year. Though it is still far from the US ($778 billion), it expresses a new qualitative global military positioning.

In addition to having about 350 nuclear bombs, China has managed in the past years to develop weapon technology, and it has become less in need of Western technology than before. One of the most prominent indicators of its tremendous progress in missiles exceeding sound speed, the most notable of which was the Dongfeng-41 (East Wind) missile, an intercontinental missile that can carry ten nuclear warheads and fly at a speed of up to 25 times the speed of sound (510 km/min), with a range of more than 12–15 thousand km, a serious strategic challenge for the US.

The third indicator is the scientific progress and broad technological development of China, globally noticed in many aspects. For example, the number of patents registered in China (for residents) in 2007 was about 32 thousand, compared to about 80 thousand in the US. In 2019, patents in China jumped tremendously to 361 thousand compared to 167 thousand in the US. To clarify the differences further, 20 thousand patents were registered in Russia in the same year compared to less than 12 thousand in each of Germany and France.

There is exceptional Chinese progress in the means of communications, especially the fifth generation (5G), which prompted the US to impose severe sanctions against Huawei, for example. China has recently launched a sixth generation (6G) satellite (where in 6G you can download 142 movies in one second).

The fourth indicator relates to the network of political relations and the broad economic and investment interests that China has managed to establish over the past years, thus now enjoying the strongest presence in Asia and Africa and many mutual interests with various countries. What reinforces this indicator is the absence of a hostile colonial past for China, which facilitates its acceptance by the countries and peoples of the world, in contrast to the imperialist colonial image of the US and Western countries.


The previous indicators do not mean that China has achieved all the goals of “peaceful rise” nor that it has become in a global position superior to the US; rather, it still has a long way to go. However, it is clear that there is a huge strategic change in China’s global position in 2021 compared to that in 2003, many of the “peaceful rise” objectives have been achieved, and some data on which this theory was based no longer exist. Moreover, the peaceful rise of China did not mitigate the US sense of the danger that this rising genie evokes, which made the US focus on competition and potential risks on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. The rise of China is now facing obstacles, pushing it to take actions in self-defense and activate its global political role. If we take into account a number of manifestations of the global US decline and the world’s movement towards a multi-polar system, then China will sooner or later revise its “peaceful rise” theory, present a developed vision commensurate with its new global position, and face the ensuing new challenges.

It is noted that there are still several vulnerable aspects in the Chinese system. For China is still under a communist system of one-party rule, having a hybrid form of capitalism while embracing pragmatism. Its crises include corruption spread and lack of transparency, and it fears the potential high costs of openness and political freedoms. Moreover, it has social problems due to decades of birth control, the young Chinese generation display tendencies to misbehavior and lower moral values compared to their ancestors, and the repercussions of globalization and consumerism on the Chinese society. This could make the transition to a new vision with a new global positioning a difficult process, whose implenetation may be delayed.

Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 15/11/2021

The opinions expressed in all the publications and studies are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of al-Zaytouna Centre.

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