China’s notion of sovereignty – 独立自主

Source (Google maps)

Sovereignty is a key concept within international relations. It is commonly used in the real world – it is enshrined within the workings of international institutions and has been a contested concept within the Brexit discourse and Chinese foreign policy.

Sovereignty is also very common in International Relations discipline. It is a key assumption in realism and neo-liberal institutionalism. Moreover, the idea of sovereignty is a key component of IR constructivist scholarship when discussing the emergence of the norm of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Sovereignty is, moreover, a primary institution in English School literature.

With its prevalence in International Relations discipline, it should not be surprising that it remains a contested concept and there does not seem to be a settled definition on what “sovereignty” really is.

The modern concept of sovereignty is first developed by Bodin, who stated that sovereignty is the absolute power over a territory which only obligations and conditions are dictated by God and nature.

Sovereignty as a norm – Principle of sovereignty as a grundnorm of international society, and widely taken up by the constructivist literature in International Relations as a crucial norm which guides the actions of actors in the international stage

Complementary definitions of internal/external sovereignty – Internal sovereignty as supreme authority within a territory’s inhabitants, while external sovereignty as independence from unwanted intervention by an outside authority.

Pooled sovereignty – The sharing of decision-making power amongst members, most notably seen in the European Institution.

Conditional sovereignty – The notion of conditionality has become more prominent since the 1980s and 1990s, which placed the traditional concepts of sovereignty up against human right norms in international societies. Sovereignty is therefore a “responsibility” (Responsibility to Protect) and should not be regarded as absolute.

Despite the discussions of sovereignty being very common in IR discipline and the real world, it still remains a western-centric concept. Indeed, the idea of a system of sovereign states established in 1648 in the Treaty of Westphalia remains one of the founding myths of International Relations discipline.

This piece therefore attempts to provide a different approach towards sovereignty, as expressed in Chinese official documents. The piece that will I will be focusing on is 坚持和运用好毛泽东思想活的灵魂, a speech that President Xi made in 2013.

In this speech, President Xi talks about the importance of sovereignty (独立自主). Importance of sovereignty in the Chinese context is threefold.

Firstly, sovereignty is crucial for China due to its internal conditions and lessons from history.

独立自主是我们党从中国实际出发,依靠党和人民力量进行革命,建设, 改革的必然结论。不论过去,现在和将来,我们都要把国家和民族发展放在自己力量的基点上,坚持民族自尊心和自信心,坚定不移走自己的路。在中国这样一个人口众多和经济文化落后的东方大国进行革命和建设的国情与使命,决定了我们只能走自己的路。

Therefore, sovereignty is not only that external forces should not interfere with China’s internal affairs, but that sovereignty is also linked to China developing its own developmental path. The speech suggests that due to China’s internal conditions – a large population and a national economy that is relatively backwards, China needs to unerringly continue on with their own development path and not be attracted or swayed by external pressures.

Secondly, sovereignty is essential for China because it prevents China from relying on external forces, as it will have detrimental effects for China.


Here President Xi expresses the idea that if a country relies on external forces to grow, the outcome for the country will either be failure or becoming subordinate to other countries.

Finally, sovereignty is crucial to protecting China’s model of socialism with Chinese characteristics.


Sovereignty is, as perceived by China, a necessary pre-condition for the enactment of China’s model of socialism with Chinese characteristics. China’s insistence on the international community to respect China’s sovereignty seems therefore to be a justification for China’s model of Socialism with Chinese characteristics. If China’s sovereignty is breached in any way shape or form, it may delegitimise China’s model.

Sovereignty, and the notion of 独立自主, therefore has a particular context when placed in the Chinese context. In particular, sovereignty in the Chinese context is a necessary pre-condition for the CCP to adopt its model of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and pursue the Chinese Dream. Understanding how the CCP understands sovereignty can lead to a better understanding of how and why the China’s foreign ministry respond in relation to international community’s accusations on Xinjiang, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Who has a greater impact in formulating BRI – leadership or bureaucracies?

Source (World Intellectual Property)

This blog post argues that bureaucracies have a greater impact in foreign policy formulation when applied to the case study of China’s flagship Belt and Road initiative (hereafter known as BRI), with Xi’s increasing centralisation of foreign policy making power not directly applying to BRI formulation. Instead, Xi and the NRDC’s vague framing of the BRI gives space for bureaucracies to justify various kinds of policies that fit within the BRI framework. This is especially seen in the actions of provincial leaders, who play a pivotal role in the formulation of the BRI policies as they seek to compete for political prestige and resources. Therefore, the policies that we currently see under the BRI framework are formulated by various bureaucratic departments within China rather than formulated by Xi. This piece helps give a different perspective as to how you can interpret Chinese grand strategy and how foreign policy is made in China.

Bureaucratic politics theory

Bureaucratic politics is an increasingly prevalent theory within IR academia used to analyse a state’s foreign policy. First developed by Graham Allison, the theory argues that the government developing foreign policy is neither a rational actor nor a conglomerate of loosely allied organisations, but many individuals representing different governmental departments participating in a competitive game. Foreign policy is thus developed through the pulling and hauling and internal bargaining among the various actors within the government, each representing their own interests and hoping to dominate the issue on hand. How and what the department proposes depends on where you sit. Organisations and bureaucracies are in constant rivalry against each other, proposing policies which fit the current situation. They do so in order to gain resources and influence within government. The resulting foreign policy is therefore developed depending on the bureaucracies’ respective power, position within the government and the bargaining skills.

Bureaucracies are important as they generate outputs that structure the situations in which policy makers take decisions, including the information with which policy makers make their decisions and foreign policy alternatives presented for government to choose from. As such, “players” within the government choose in terms of no consistent set of strategic objectives but rather according to various conceptions of national security, organisation, domestic and personal interests. Bureaucracies thus play an active role in creating and formulating foreign policies.

It is crucial to note that the development of bureaucratic politics theory is mostly concerned with describing how foreign policy is developed within Western countries. When applied to the Chinese model, provincial party secretaries and governors form a part of the bureaucratic model. 7 out of the 25 members within the Politburo (China’s principal policy-making mechanism) are provincial party secretaries. They are a crucial part of the leadership hierarchy – the provincial governor of Chongqing ranks No. 14 in the Central Committee and is a member of Politburo. Provinces are crucial in Chinese foreign policy in terms of “carpetbagging” existing directives – provinces introduce new ideas and policies under existing frameworks. Provincial leaders develop policies which allow them to deliver on rapid economic growth – in turn giving them political credit. Moreover, provincial leaders are an important section in Chinese politics as they are seen to be pivotal stepping stones to top national offices in China. Therefore, when applying bureaucratic politics model to China, one should also consider the role provincial leaders play.

Leadership and executive dominance

Leadership can be seen to have a great impact on foreign policy formulation. Leaders can shape the international environment through creative signalling, persuasion and building coalitions. Thus, foreign policy is developed by a small group of actors with the national leader at top of the structure. This theory is divergent from the bureaucratic politics theory as stated above, with leaders being the focal point of the formulation of foreign policy instead of bureaucracies. A leader can also be seen to have impact on foreign policy formulation if one is able to state a strong strategic vision in order to mobilise the system and to shape foreign policy accordingly.

Hermann develops a theoretical framework in which leaders are influential in foreign policy. Leaders are individuals who 1) have an active interest and involvement with foreign issues; 2) foreign policies are critical to the well-being of the regime; 3) issue involves high-level diplomacy or protocol, and; 4) issue of special interest to the leader. Under such considerations, leaders will generally seek to ‘control the foreign policy agenda and shape what happens. In other words, leaders play an active role when formulating foreign policy and act as the ultimate authority when it comes to decisions regarding foreign policy.

Ultimately, the national leader wields centralised constitutional power and is able to dictate policymaking and decision-making processes.

The focus on leadership and executive dominance can be seen to be directly applicable to the analysis of Chinese foreign policy. Zhao characterises China’s form of leadership as “vertical authoritarianism” – where the paramount leader dominates and makes virtually every strategically important decision regarding foreign policy issues. Basic characteristics of this system is a vertical command channel where leaders make the ultimate decision and participation of political institutions and governmental bureaucracies are passive. Indeed, Xi Jinping is the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng, with his success in consolidating power within the Chinese political sphere. Xi’s reforms have allowed him to retain tight control over foreign policy. He has reduced the role of the State Council, Foreign Ministry and military in important decisions and has given himself greater freedom from political and bureaucratic opponents that can influence Chinese foreign policy. As such, Xi’s centralised leadership structure means that his influence on foreign policy formulation is unparalleled. To analyse Chinese foreign policy, one must understand Xi and his role within China.

Case study: China & Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)

BRI is China’s flagship foreign policy since 2013. It encompasses six “economic corridors” and three maritime economic passages. It involves more than 100 countries and includes infrastructure deals, trade policies and investment opportunities. The guidance for the BRI is jointly produced by the National Development and Reform Commission (NRDC), Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in 2015. In order to test the theories, one need to decipher who takes the active role in formulating the foreign policies that we see today. In the case of BRI, bureaucracies have a greater impact on foreign policy formulation. Xi’s centralisation of power does not have a significant impact on the BRI. Instead, the vagueness of the BRI guidelines as set out by Xi and the NRDC has allowed bureaucracies to push out policies under the “BRI” umbrella that pursue their own interests. Provinces, in particular, are active in such a role and have significant impact on the formulation of the BRI.

Leadership and BRI

BRI is conventionally seen as highly centralised and coordinated from the top of the Chinese political leadership. Xi’s centralisation of foreign policy making powers into his hands, coupled with his high visibility in BRI projects, has prompted scholars in arguing that Xi has significant and active impact on the formulation of BRI. Xi has a prominent role in launching the BRI – he launched the BRI personally in 2013 as his signature foreign policy idea, personally announced the Silk Road Economic Belt in September 2013 in Kazakhstan and the Maritime Silk Road in Indonesia in October 2013. Xi’s speeches defined the vision, ideas and principles in the BRI. President Xi alone was in charge of the external promotion of the BRI in 2015 and 2016; and major BRI contracts and projects were signed by President Xi or followed his foreign visits. Xi prominent role in providing the visions of the BRI and his diplomatic function thus provides strong evidence that he has significant impact in the formulation of the BRI.

The BRI is thus seen as a practical realisation of Xi’s strategic visions of the “China dream” and the “Community of shared destinies of mankind”. The “Chinese dream” is the argument that ‘by 2049 China should restore itself to a regional position of primacy. The “Community of shared destinies of mankind” is the scheme to represent humanity’s relentless pursuit of common interests and universal values…and create a future for humanity where state-to-state relations are sovereign and equal…, defined by common prosperity though win-win cooperation. Oil-for-infrastructure projects are parts of the BRI portfolio where China wishes to ensure energy security and maintain internal economic growth to ensure prosperity and fulfil the Chinese dream. Such policies boost China’s nationalist legitimation by emphasising China’s newfound power, wealth and global standing. Infrastructure projects provided to peripheral countries in Asia such as Pakistan and Myanmar can be seen as efforts for China to outsource their development experiences and bridge the significant infrastructure gap in Asia, Africa and Latin America. BRI can therefore be seen as a practical realisation of Xi’s two ideological frameworks of the “Chinese dream” and the “Community of shared destinies of mankind”.

Problems with leadership theory

However, the centralisation of foreign policy-making power in China is not clearly reflected in the process of the BRI. Centralisation of foreign policy decision-making has led to Xi’s increasing use of Leading Small Groups (LSGs) – coordinating bodies that address important policy areas. Xi’s role on these LSGs is crucial – chairing around a dozen LSGs himself and dubbed the chairman of everything. However, it is crucial to state that Xi is not the chairman of the BRI LSG. Instead, during 2013-2018, former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli was the chair of the LSG. He is now replaced by the Han Zheng, the second-in-charge of China’s government. This signals that this policy area is less important than others. The LSG for BRI is characterised as weak as it is headed by a vice-premier rather than by Xi himself. This is against the “leadership” theory as Xi’s absence as chair of the BRI LSG signals a lack of interest in the BRI project and denotes a model of remote rather than direct control from Xi despite his increasing centralisation of power.

Moreover, it is problematic to argue that the BRI represents XI’s strategic visions of “China Dream” and “Community of shared destinies of mankind”. This is because there are projects under the BRI umbrella that are implemented before Xi’s presidency. For example, Guangxi’s development of the Beibu Gulf Economic Zone was initiated in 2006. Yunnan’s “Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar” corridor has its origins in 1998. The diversity of policies under the BRI umbrella and the different times of initiation shows that the BRI is not merely a tool for Xi to realise his strategic visions. Instead, there are more factors in play when considering what gives the BRI its current form.

Vague language

Bureaucracies have a greater impact on the formulation of BRI as they are responsible for the actual content of the BRI. This is due to the vagueness of the BRI guidelines set out by Xi and the NRDC. Indeed, one of the main consequences of Xi’s centralisation of power is that it has left him needing to resort to vague language when formulating foreign policy guidelines, thus allowing Xi to be absolved from blame in case of policy missteps. This is clearly seen in the case of the BRI – where the lack of specificity makes it possible for actors to justify many different kinds of action. The BRI is described as an ongoing and creative open project – where it takes the form of an elastic framework which can absorb change and be easily adapted. There is a lack of official guidelines or a coherent framework in which one can define what BRI is or what constitutes a BRI project. The central guiding document for BRI is seven pages long and lists broad principles such as “go where the demand is” and “share responsibilities and progress together” instead of concrete guidance, leaving BRI open for definition. The guidelines put out by the NRDC is described as more of a sweeping vision than an organisational blueprint, with nobody seemingly in charge.

Its inherent vagueness thus allows ministries to use particular sections of the BRI and justify their policies. For the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, BRI involves creating policies to reassure Asian neighbours troubled by China’s increasing assertiveness. For the People’s Liberation Army, BRI rationalises higher military spending to protect overseas investments. For Ministry of Finance and People’s Bank of China, BRI can spur RMB internationalisation and circumvent institutions such as the Asian Development Bank and instead promote the influence of state-owned banks such as the Export-Import Bank / China Development Bank. Thus, dozens of agencies within China’s bureaucracies interpret the BRI according to their sectional interests rather than a centrally defined strategy. Different interest groups within China have been able to claim that their pet projects are part of the BRI. Bureaucratic politics thus fare better in terms of explaining the formulation of the BRI. Due to the vague framing of BRI guidelines and the absence of Xi as the leader of BRI, state ministries and local provincial municipalities thus have the space to jockey for resources and political influence.

Role of provinces

Provincial leaders, moreover, are able to use the vagueness of the BRI to implement policies that pursue their own interest. As stated above, China’s version of bureaucracies involves the importance of provincial leaders and their relative hierarchical order. They have significant influence in terms of BRI policy formulation as the BRI provides them with a tool to attain political favour and gain political resources. In China, 32 provinces are involved in BRI projects. Provincial governments have sought to harness BRI to existing plans and agenda, and / or to curry political favour by re-branding them with Xi’s slogan. Involvement with the BRI allows provinces to receive a generous budgetary support in developing the chosen projects. Some provinces have begun to form alliances with certain central ministries to bid for project approvals, while other provincial leaders communicate directly with the members of the Small Leading Group to gain their approvals.

Indeed, provincial differences in interests are crucial when it comes to explaining the different types of projects under the BRI umbrella. Provinces develop BRI polices in accordance to their own interests and needs rather than in accordance to a top-down nationalist goal. For example, Ningbo identified a need to upgrade its manufacturing industries and attract investment in technology. As such, Ningbo developed a BRI policy characterised by a strong state which expanded and upgraded its new Plum Mountain economic zone to attract foreign investors and implemented a Central-Eastern Europe Consortium to increase its global profile. Wenzhou, on the other hand, focused on private economy and developed a BRI policy by financing the Belt and Road Goods Annual Expo held in Italy for Chinese private entrepreneurs to showcase their goods in Europe. Chongqing’s interest is on its revival of its state-owned enterprise – Chongqing Foreign Trade Group – and therefore its BRI policy is focused on the global expansion of the SOE’s e-commerce department. Thus, Ningbo, Wenzhou and Chongqing are all active participants of the formulation of their own BRI policies that fit within the BRI framework proposed. They are different economic policies developed specifically in line with the economic interests within their own provinces.

The competition between provinces can be seen in two BRI policies with Malaysia. In 2013, Guangxi reached an agreement under the BRI framework with Malaysia’s Pahang state government to upgrade the Kuantan port. In 2015, Guangdong signed a rival agreement with Malaysia’s Malacca state, including a US$10bn port upgrade. This example reflects the internal bureaucratic competition between provinces in leveraging the vague BRI guidelines as set out by Xi and using the BRI framework to gain resources and political credit.

The vagueness of the BRI guidelines outlined by Xi and the NRDC means that leaders at the top only have a steering function, giving broad license for bureaucracies to formulate policy according to their own interests under the BRI umbrella. Using Chinese provinces as the key example, I have shown that bureaucracies have a greater impact on the formulation of BRI. BRI cannot be seen as a case where it is planned out and implemented by the top leaders in the Chinese government. Instead, it represents a case where the policies we see today are produced by bureaucracies who aim to pursue their own interests and compete for resources.


In conclusion, bureaucracies have a greater impact on foreign policy formulation in the case of BRI. Bureaucracies have a greater impact as Xi’s vague framing of BRI guidelines allow bureaucracies to pursue policies that reflect their own interests. This is especially seen in provincial leaders, where provinces tailor their economic policies to their own needs to achieve rapid economic gain and re-frame pre-existing policies in order to gain political prestige. This bureaucratic view on Chinese foreign policy making can also help provide a different perspective on conventional views on Chinese foreign policy which emphasises the dominant role of Xi Jinping. Instead, to obtain a more complete view of Chinese foreign policy, underlying domestic currents can be useful as part of the answer.

What does IR theory say about nuclear proliferation policies regarding Iran?

Image source (szczepan.lemanczyk)

Written by James Lo

This is the third part of a three part series on using nuclear proliferation theories to analyse current nuclear proliferation foreign policies. In part one, I provided a succinct summary of various theories. In part two, I argued that Etel Solingen’s nuclear proliferation theory, outlined in Nuclear Logics, applies best to North Korea and how a nuclear foreign policy may look if developed according to that theory. This final post applies Etel Solingen’s theory onto the case study of Iran. Ultimately, a country should look to shift Iran’s stance to an “outward-looking framework” through reviving the JCPOA and ensure the outward-looking President Rouhani retains support in Iran.

Which theory is the most convincing? (obtaining)

Solingen’s domestic theory provides the best explanation as to why states attain nuclear weapons in relation to Iran. Hyman’s individual leadership theory may be problematic because it places too much emphasis on an individual. In the case of Iran, the decision to proliferate cannot be fully understood without looking at the struggle between the traditional conservatives / principlists and the centrists / reformists. Solingen provides a great criticism of realism and the different trajectories that it provides. Comparing the cases of North Korea and Iran, despite both facing external threats in US and Israel respectively, they chose different proliferation policies. Since Kim Il-Sung, North Korea had a relatively continuous proliferation policy, while Iran had a stop-start nuclear proliferation programme, with the programme starting in 1974, halting in 1979 and restarting in 1984-1985. Realism is therefore problematic as the logic of self-help leads to wide ranging options.

Solingen’s domestic theory provides the best explanation in the case of Iran. Under the leadership of President Khamenei and (later) President Ahmadinejad, the nuclear programme was a powerful tool for the Iranian military-industrial complex to signify economic, political, military and technological self-reliance. Solingen’s domestic theory provides the best explanation as to why states attain nuclear weapons as both countries’ inward-looking leaders decided to proliferate in order to secure political survival through the empowering of the military-industrial complex and the maintaining of a closed country.

Solingen’s domestic theory also provides the most convincing explanation as to why states renounce nuclear weapons. International institutions do not provide a strong explanation due to their obligation for membership and weak enforcement mechanisms. Iran broke the NPT guidelines and began to proliferate while they were members of the NPT. Moreover, the sanctioning mechanisms within international institutions are faulty.

Solingen’s domestic theory therefore provides a great framework that can potentially be applied to Iran. The general trend in Middle East is that inward-looking countries seek to proliferate while outward-looking countries seek to abstain from nuclear weapons. The cases of Libya and Egypt suggest that outward-looking countries in the Middle East seem to renounce nuclear weapons. Iran fits the framework of inward-looking states – as such, Solingen’s outward looking model and the experiences of other countries in the regions can serve to signal a potential future path for Iran.

Future policy recommendations for Iran

Current President Rouhani is an outward-looking leader who won the 2013 presidential election on his promise to solve the nuclear issue and bring economic prosperity to Iran. This led to the signing of the JCPOA in 2015, where Iran agreed to a nuclear monitoring framework in exchange for lifting of sanctions in banking and financial sectors. US President Trump, however, withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018 and reinstated sanctions in May 2019. Reinstating sanctions has given more influence to the inward-looking factions. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Council (IRGC) plays an increasing role in Iranian politics, disqualifying 7,000 out of 14,000 qualified candidates, including 90 current legislators in President Khomeni’s coalition, potentially leading to a homogenous political system dominated by hard-liners. Moreover, IRGC funding in the 2019 budget (1st proposal since US’ “maximum pressure” campaign in May 2019) increased by more than 60%. As such, the inward-looking factions within the Iranian political system have regained significant influence since Trump’s decision to reinstate sanctions.

Policy recommendations

The best way to deter Iran from proliferating is to shift Iran’s framework back to an outward-looking model. UK should therefore seek to revive the JCPOA as it strengthens the outward-looking factions within Iran. The lifting of sanctions in JCPOA was instrumental in increasing international engagement, with Iran’s 2017 exports to European countries doubling compared to 2016 & Iran signing a $4.8b agreement with French energy giant Total to invest in an off-shore natural gas field. This shows that the JCPOA was an effective tool in shifting Iran to an outward-looking framework. In the short term, UK should work with the EU to promote dialogue with Iran and ensure that they abide with the rules of the JCPOA. UK should work to strengthen the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), which was launched in January 2019 to enable European firms to trade with Iran without falling foul of US sanctions. This mechanism is crucial as it provides outward-looking factions within Iran, such as the centrists and reformists under President Rouhani, with continued opportunity for economic growth and withstand further encroachment from the IRGC and principlists. Moreover, UK should continue to liaise with major European powers such as France and Germany, as well as other members of the JCPOA such as China and Russia, to engage with both Iran and US in hopes to achieve a revival of the JCPOA.

This set of policy recommendations is in stark difference to the policies set out by Trump’s administration. Under President Trump, US withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018 and reinstated sanctions in May 2019. UK should pursue a different policy than the US policies as the US policies towards Iran only serves to strengthen the inward-looking factions (such as the IRGC), leading to the return to a military-industrial complex and pursuing of the nuclear programme as we see today. This US stance against Iran may be dependent on what the results of the US elections in November are. Joe Biden has acknowledged that the recent US maximum pressure policies may be problematic and a shift back to diplomacy and engaging with allies should be the way forward. It will be interesting to see at the end of the year what the nuclear proliferation policies are in the region.


This essay argues that Solingen’s domestic theory as the best explanation as to why states develop and renounce nuclear weapons. Using this theoretical basis, UK should seek to shift Iran from an inward-looking to an outward-looking framework. In terms of policy, UK should seek to revive the JCPOA and ensure the outward-looking President Rouhani retains support in Iran.

What does IR theory say about nuclear proliferation policies regarding North Korea?

Image Source (Stephen)

Written by James Lo

This is the second part of a three part series on using nuclear proliferation theories to analyse current nuclear proliferation foreign policies. In part one, I provided a succinct summary of various theories. In this post, I will argue that Etel Solingen’s nuclear proliferation theory, outlined in Nuclear Logics, applies best to North Korea and how a nuclear foreign policy may look if developed according to that theory. Ultimately, a country should look to shift North Korea’s stance to an “outward-looking framework” through engaging North Korea in dialogue to increase international engagement.

Which theories are the most applicable to North Korea?

Solingen’s domestic theory provides the best explanation as to why states attain nuclear weapons in relation to North Korea. Hyman’s individual leadership theory may be problematic because it places too much emphasis on an individual and may find it difficult to explain the various deviances in North Korea’s nuclear programmes within a particular leader – for example, Kim’s announcement to join the NPT in 1985. Moreover, Solingen provides a great criticism of realism and the different trajectories that it provides. Realism is problematic as the logic of self-help leads to wide ranging options. For example, the nuclear trajectories of North Korea and Iran were vastly different despite both under external threats from US and Israel.

Solingen’s nuclear proliferation theory is the best suited to explain North Korea nuclear proliferation. Under Kim Il-Sung, North Korea pursued a nuclear programme to increase the defence capabilities…and reliably safeguard its security on the bases of our own forces. Kim Jong-Il promoted the “songun” policy, which gave the military priority in societal affairs and increased military participation in difference spheres of economic activity. Solingen’s domestic theory provides the best explanation as to why states attain nuclear weapons as both countries’ inward-looking leaders decided to proliferate in order to secure political survival through the empowering of the military-industrial complex and the maintaining of a closed country.

Solingen’s theory also provides the most convincing explanation as to why states renounce nuclear weapons. There are significant problems when realism and international institution theories are applied to North Korea and Iran. North Korea opted to proliferate despite hegemonic protection from China and Soviet Union. International institutions also do not provide a strong explanation due to their obligation for membership and weak enforcement mechanisms. North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003 and became free of its NPT obligations. North Korea broke the NPT guidelines and began to proliferate while they were members of the NPT. Moreover, the sanctioning mechanisms within international institutions are faulty. North Korea was able to absorb the sanctions through the development of black markets and loose monitoring of surrounding countries including China.

Solingen’s domestic theory provides a great framework that can potentially be applied to North Korea and Iran. The general trend in Middle East and East Asia is that inward-looking countries seek to proliferate while outward-looking countries seek to abstain from nuclear weapons. In East Asia, countries such as Japan and South Korea provide evidence that outward-looking countries seem to renounce nuclear weapons. This is mirrored by the cases of Libya and Egypt in the Middle East. North Korea and Iran fit the framework of inward-looking states – as such, Solingen’s outward looking model and the experiences of other countries in the regions can serve to signal a potential future path for North Korea.

Formulating policy recommendations

North Korea

Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea resembles a great example of an inward-looking state. Kim Jong-Un has continued with the “Juche” (self-reliance) policy adopted by his predecessors and announced in 2013 the new strategic “Byungjin” policy – the parallel development of the military and economy. Kim’s preference to maintain a closed North Korean system can be seen in his plenary speeches, where words like “self-reliance”, “self-supporting” and “self-sufficiency” are commonly used to describe the North Korea’s military and economy. Moreover, Kim Jong Un relies on the military-industrial complex to promote economic growth, with the munitions industry crucial in promoting economic, agricultural and infrastructure development. Therefore, the current North Korean regime is an inward-looking regime as it is closed off from the international community and relies on the military-industrial complex to boost economic growth.

Policy recommendations

Policies should therefore be developed with the underlying aim to transform North Korea from an inward-looking country to an outward-looking country. For a country like the UK, they should act to promote dialogue between different stakeholders in this issue, including South Korea, US and China. Dialogue with North Korea should seek to nudge Kim and North Korea into a more cooperative mood and be increasingly open and more favourable to international engagement. UK can play an integral role in this direction, as UK’s embassy in North Korea provides avenues for communication with North Korea and for gathering of information. With Kim recently viewing the US-North Korean relationship as a ‘clear stand-off between self-reliance and sanctions’, UK can use their various diplomatic channels reduce tensions in the region and act as a link between different stakeholders, using South Korean President Moon’s dialogues with Kim which led to groundbreaking talks with Trump in 2019 as reference. UK should also work to facilitate cooperation and encourage North Korea’s economic development and remodeling (which was suggested in Kim’s 2020 speech). Kim’s recent visit to Vietnam has sparked speculation that Kim is willing to change its economy according to the Vietnam model. North Korean senior economic officials visited UK in 2001 as they hoped to ‘learn more about European economies and how they have approached economic restructuring’. With Kim’s stated desire to adopt economic reforms, UK can use diplomatic channels to offer guidance and support.

The above policy recommendations differ from the US approach as the Trump administration favours the use of sanctions and military threats against Kim. The UK should act to persuade the UNSC and the US, in particular, to lift sanctions against North Korea. Sanctions are problematic as they reinforce the “Juche” mentality and serve as rhetoric which allows the military-industrial complex to maintain its significant influence. As there is no lack of interest to invest in North Korean companies from Western companies, the removal of sanctions could increase foreign cooperation with North Korea and shift North Korea closer to an outward-looking framework.


This essay argues that Solingen’s domestic theory as the best explanation as to why states develop and renounce nuclear weapons. Using this theoretical basis, UK should seek to shift North Korea from an inward-looking to an outward-looking framework. In terms of policy, countries should engage North Korea through various diplomatic and economic channels to shift North Korea to being more open to international cooperation.

Nuclear Proliferation and IR theory

Image source (Dennis Jarvis)

Written by James Lo

This essay is part of a three-part series in analysing how IR theories inform how one should act in terms of nuclear proliferation. Part one introduces the theories that are currently prevalent in the realm of nuclear proliferation, and parts two and three will apply such theories into real life cases of North Korea and Iran. The theories will hopefully provide a different perspective into how international actors can base their nuclear proliferation theories.


This essay will define nuclear proliferation as a process in which the state attempts to achieve nuclear capabilities rather than merely the possession of the end product (nuclear weapon). This definition will allow me to classify both North Korea and Iran as nuclear proliferating countries. In the first part of the essay I will consider three theories that explain why states acquire nuclear weapons (namely realism, domestic theory and individual leadership) and three theories that explain why states renounce nuclear weapons (namely realism, domestic theory and international institutions).

Theories for why states acquire nuclear weapons

Realism’s self-help model

Structural realists believe, under the anarchic conditions of the international system, states whose security are under threat aim to maximise their relative power. Nuclear weapons are considered to be the ultimate material guarantor of security as they generate caution, promote rough equality and clarity of relative power. States view nuclear weapons as effective strategic deterrent weapons due to their immense destructive powers, ability to overcome defences and invulnerable to pre-emption. As states and their leaders engage in rational considerations of costs and benefits of war, the inherent material nature of the nuclear weapon eliminate the likelihood of miscalculation of the degree to which a war will be costly. Thus, once states attain a secure second-strike capability, they are secure because the outcomes of a potential war are clear. Structural realists argue that as the outcome of a nuclear exchange is apparent and can be anticipated, conflict with a nuclear power will not be pursued as it is not rational. In essence, nuclear proliferation decreases the likelihood of major war among the states that possess them. Therefore, states act to acquire nuclear weapons because they believe nuclear weapons are an effective deterrent against external threats.

Solingen’s domestic model

Solingen believes that nuclear proliferation decisions are mainly taken to ensure political survival and that domestic economic and political considerations affect leaders’ decisions to proliferate. Solingen begins with the premise that leaders need the support of a domestic coalition to stay in power and differentiates between inward-looking and outward-looking countries. Inward-looking leaders seek to proliferate as they associate themselves with military-industrial complex. They aim to maintain a closed political system through policies of extensive trade protection, import substitution and state entrepreneurship.

Solingen argues that inward-oriented coalitions are more likely to seek nuclear weapons due to two main reasons. Firstly, a nuclear programme constructs and maintains a military-industrial complex that takes up a large portion of the state budget and reduce the salience of the economic reform section of society. Secondly, the nuclear weapons are powerful devices that allow the leader to invoke an aura of invincibility and modernity to boost domestic appeal. Moreover, the make-up and the autonomous nature of the complex allows the state to absorb the sanctions other states may impose in the proliferation process. Therefore, Solingen argues inward-looking states will choose to proliferate in hopes to boost regime survival, as it enables them to strengthen their inward-looking coalitions and maintain a closed country.

Hymans’ individual leadership theory

Hymans’ theory rejects the state level analysis and looks to individual leaders in his attempt to explain nuclear proliferation efforts. He focuses on the identity conception of the leader and the ‘ongoing process of self-other comparison. He argues that only “oppositional nationalists” – leaders who see their nation as both naturally at odds and are naturally equals if not superior with an external enemy – will seek to proliferate. Fuelled with emotions of fear and pride, oppositional nationalist leaders will develop a desire for nuclear weapons and pursue a nuclear programme due to higher threat assessments…and higher relative potential power perceptions. Oppositional nationalist leaders will therefore aim to allay fear by acquiring symbols of power – nuclear weapons. In essence, the leader’s perception of identity is the key motivator in the pursuit of the nuclear weapon.

Theories for why states renounce nuclear weapons

Realism alliance theory

Realists seek to explain non-proliferation through the use of alliance theory. Alliances allow vulnerable states to renounce indigenous nuclear weapons in exchange for hegemonic protection. Realists argue that alliances with the hegemon are the reason why states renounce nuclear weapons as they can enjoy the deterrence benefits that nuclear weapons provide without the potential costs that the state may incur when developing the weapons. The likelihood of abandonment from the hegemon is low as it may weaken other commitments and negatively impact the relationship between the countries. Bleek and Lorber argue, through a quantitative model, that a security guarantee will reduce a state’s propensity to explore, pursue or acquire nuclear weapons. Alliances with and security guarantees from the hegemon can therefore entice states to renounce nuclear weapons.

Solingen’s domestic model

Contrary to the inward-looking coalitions stated above, outward-looking (internationalising) coalitions will renounce nuclear weapons as they stake their political survival on economic reform and export-led industrialisation. The outward-looking coalition encompasses groups that encourage openness to global markets, including export-intensive sectors and large banks. They therefore hope to create an open global economic and knowledge / technology system and maintain macroeconomic and political stability. Leaders will tend to adopt policies of expanding private economic activities and foreign investment, promoting regional cooperation and controlling military expenditure.

Outward looking countries therefore tend to non-proliferate. Pursuing a nuclear programme is very costly for the leader’s political outlook, as the threat of sanctions will limit investments and other economic exchanges. Nuclear proliferation programmes can impose competing conditions on countries’ attempts to grow their economy through economic sanctions and competing budgets between the military and economic complexes. Renouncing nuclear weapons will enhance international access, diminish regional tensions and help contain inward-oriented forces.

International institutions

Rational institutionalists argue that the membership of international institutions entice states to renounce nuclear weapons as international institutions increase interdependence, manage collective action problems and reduce uncertainty. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are crucial tools that provide transparency and hold signatories to their obligations through inspections, investigations, expert analysis and recommendations to the UN. The articles in the NPT outline the obligations that countries must take up, while the IAEA has carried out inspections in countries such as Iraq, Iran, North Korea and South Africa. The results are usually public and provide credible information for policy making – for example, the JCPOA was built on IAEA’s judgement that Iran had not pursued the development of a nuclear explosive device since 2009. Despite a lack of internal punishment mechanisms, IAEA referred cases of breach to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), who could vote on the policy going forward. For example, UNSC’s authorised sanctions on Iraq in 1991 and Iran in 2006.

So far, I have provided a quick summary as to the various IR theories on nuclear proliferation – why states obtain nuclear weapons and why states would renounce nuclear weapons. The next two parts of this series will use the theories above to evaluate current theories through real life cases, in terms of how they fit with theory and how it informs policy.

Is China socialised in western norms and practices through its engagement with international institutions?

Source: ILO

Written by James Lo

Since Deng’s decision to open up and engage with the international community in 1978, China has increased their interactions with international institutions. Over the past two decades, scholars such as Johnston and Schweller have argued that China can be socialised through their engagements with international institutions and be integrated into the existing liberal international order. However, this essay will argue that China is not socialised in western norms and practices through its engagement with international institutions. I will focus on two case studies – Labour rights and International Labour Organisation (ILO), and the norm of sovereignty & United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping in relation to the UN. I will argue that China is not socialised due to two main reasons. Firstly, China’s engagements with western norms and practices were motivated by a concern for regime stability rather than a desire to be considered as a member of the international liberal order. Secondly, the western norms and practices did not have a significant impact on China’s identity as they did not alter China’s fundamental identity and longstanding suspicion of western norms, practices and international institutions.


Socialisation is the process in which ‘social interactions lead novice states to endorse expected ways of thinking, feeling and acting’. In other words, it attempts to explain how states gain identity, norms and appropriate behaviour in the international sphere. Johnston provided a compelling two-stage analysis of the socialisation process in International Relations, which I will adopt throughout this essay. Stage one of socialisation, also referred to as “teaching”, consists of institutions trying to ‘transmit to new members the predominant norms of the structure’. Stage two looks deeper into why states adopt the norms and practices. Johnston proposed three main reasons – ‘mimicking, persuasion and social influence’. This essay will focus on social influence. Social influence includes several sub-processes that can be used to induce adoption of the norms and practices including ‘back-patting, shaming, social liking and status maximisation’. In particular, actors in the international sphere ‘value image and status as ends in and of themselves’. Fruitful socialisation will therefore manifest as an ‘identity makeover’ where the identity of the state would be reconfigured in the mould of the norms and rules of the community, allowing it to integrate into the international liberal community.

Therefore, if China is socialised, the reforms that China implemented should be distinctly different to what they have always adopted and instead be in line with Western norms and practices. The motivations underlining China’s reforms should be to allow China to integrate into the international liberal order. Furthermore, China can be said to be socialised when the western processes lead to a change in China’s identity and shift it closer to the liberal mould of Western countries. The general consensus among scholars is that socialisation is a two-way process. In this essay, I will focus on whether international institutions socialised China into western norms and practices and altered China’s identity (and not whether China is socialising international institutions).

Case studies: ILO and the UN

The ILO and the UN are the two examples chosen because they are case studies that demonstrated a drastic change in China’s stance after engagement with the respective international institutions. In the ILO, China became more amenable to workers’ rights. In the case of the UN, China changed their peacekeeping stance from ‘No voting, no deployment and no financial assistance’ to one of the largest contributors to the UN peacekeeping fund. Interactions with the UNSC also shifted China’s view on sovereignty.

China and the ILO

The initial stance that China took in the ILO was one of exclusion and deniability. China was suspicious of the standards that ILO espoused, claiming that the standards were too western…and were not realistic goals’. Indeed, by 1994, China had only ratified 17 out of 175 ILO conventions. However, since 1994, China’s stance in the ILO had changed from an emphasis on defence and non-interference to positive cooperation and increasing openness. The change can be seen in the differences in the speeches that China’s representatives gave. In 1989, China’s representative Guan Jinghe stated that ‘it is not possible to meet with the requirement of extensive application of ILO conventions and recommendations’. In 1994, the Chinese representative, contrastingly, emphasised China’s ‘positive cooperation’ attitude and offered more information on the 1993 Chinese labour legislations. Since 1994, new labour laws seemed to be more compliant with ILO standards, introducing concepts such as collective bargaining, compensations to workers and removal of business licenses. The 1995 labour laws stated that ‘trade unions should represent and safeguard the interests of labourers and take part in democratic or consult on equal footing with employment units’, indicating some legislative internalisation of ILO standards. Therefore, China shifted from a defensive stance in the ILO to a more amenable / cooperative one, adopting western practices by introducing ILO conventions into domestic labour laws

Johnston’s model of “social influence” can be seen to be at work here when attempting to explain China’s change in stance, which was motivated by China’s interest in obtaining power within the organisation. In 1990 and 1994, China’s efforts to increase their power at the top of the ILO failed because of China’s defensive attitude and lack of compliance of ILO conventions. This was an example of Johnston’s model where the state failed to accumulate status as it did not ‘act in ways consistent with what the group considers to be highly valued norms of behaviour’. China’s failure to adopt conventions such as freedom of association and organisation deterred other members from supporting China’s push for chairmanship in the ILO governing body. China was punished within the organisation for their lack of conformity with the values and practices that ILO espoused. In hopes for bolster China’s international image and maximise their status within the ILO, China changed their practices and interests in an effort to maximise their social status within their organisation. For example, China tried to bolster its image by ratifying conventions on administration and safety in construction a few months before the 2002 ILO governing body elections. Therefore, China was socialised into western practices of protection of labourers due to their want for more power within ILO.

China and the UN – UN peacekeeping / Responsibility to Protect (R2P and sovereignty

China’s interactions with the UN led to a change in China’s stance on UN peacekeeping and norm of sovereignty. In the late 20th century, China adopted a traditional view on sovereignty, focusing on the protection of its own sovereign borders and adopting a foreign policy of non-interference. This view of sovereignty influenced China’s policy on UN peacekeeping – ‘no voting, no deployment and no financial assistance’. However, since 1999, China has increasingly adopted the norm of R2P and endorsed UN peacekeeping. A senior PLA officer outlined the ideological shift in China, stating that they used to think UN peacekeeping was ‘meddling in other’s business, but not anymore’. Since then, China has become more active in UN peacekeeping efforts. China currently supplies the most UN peacekeeping troops out of the UN Security Council (UNSC) permanent members and ranks second in contributions to the UN peacekeeping budget at 15.21%.

Johnston’s “social influence” model outlined the motivation for the shift in China’s UN peacekeeping policy. Chinese officials increasingly reported back to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that UN peacekeeping was the ‘right thing to do’ for a country of China’s size and military influence. A senior PLA official recommended to the CCP to increase Chinese efforts after being constantly questioned by members of the UN why China contributed so little to UN peacekeeping. Johnston believed that the ‘mere self-categorisation as a member of a particular group generates strong incentives to conform to the group’s norms and practices’. As a ‘self-proclaimed great power’, China therefore shifted their UN peacekeeping policy to be in line with other great powers such as the US and UK. China also recognised that ‘getting approval from existing club (UN) members was unavoidable’. Therefore, participation in UN peacekeeping was part of China’s plan to upgrade to a “premium” club member. By acting in accordance to what the international society expects of a great power, China desires to be ‘viewed as a highly valued member of the in-group’. The “social influence” model socialised China by gearing China to be more accepting of the Western practices of peacekeeping and R2P through the idea of status maximisation.

Moreover, the “social influence” model can help explain why China took a more flexible view on their long-held principle of sovereignty and non-interference. China’s engagement with the UNSC and the pressure they faced within the UNSC prompted the change. In the Darfur crisis, China was pressured by Costa Rica, France and the UK in the UNSC to introduce an ICC referral and support intervention in Darfur. Hoping to hold onto their principle of consent, China actively lobbied Sudan for its consent. This was different from usual scenarios where China voted on peacekeeping operations based on the consent of the host nations because, in this scenario, China ‘went far beyond what they were predisposed to’ and acted proactively rather than reactively. Moreover, in the Libyan crisis, the ‘P3 and the various Middle East and African regional players all advocated for an International Criminal Court referral’ and China chose to abstain rather than veto due to ‘status concerns’. Both scenarios were clear examples of Johnston’s model where ‘the actor’s conformity with the position advocated by a group was the result of real or imagined group pressure’. In the Syrian crisis, it was ‘easier for China to hide behind a consensus than to vote individually’. In the Libyan crisis, China did not want to ‘dissent alone…after the Russian position shifted’. Therefore, the pressures that China faced within the international institutions can be seen to have socialised China into adopting a stance closer to the western norm of R2P rather than China’s traditional notion of sovereignty and non-interference.

Differing motivations – Overarching goal of economic growth to maintain regime stability

However, China’s adoptions of Western norms and practices might not be signs of socialisation. As stated before, for reforms to count as part of a “socialisation” effort, China’s reforms should be motivated by a desire to fit into the international liberal order. However, China’s actions take on a different light when we take into account China’s grand strategy and overarching goal. China’s fundamental goal in foreign policy is to maintain regime stability and the dominance of the CCP. The party state, dubbed the ‘impenetrable Great Wall’ by Yang, ‘fiercely rebuffs any foreign attempts it deems to undermine regime stability’. If we study the case studies, China’s actions in ILO and UN were motivated by concerns of regime stability rather than attempting to integrate into the international liberal order.

When studying China’s actions in ILO, it is crucial to note that Li was facing domestic workers unrest in the 1990s. There were more than a dozen dissident workers’ organisations in Beijing alone in 1991. These groups were causing a considerable amount of concern to Li and the possibility of this crisis spreading across China. As China continued to modernise, the number of dissents from workers continued to rise. Therefore, in order to maintain regime stability, China continued to deny workers to right to establish organisations of their own choosing as such organisations can challenge the authority of the CCP. Indeed, out of the eight ILO fundamental conventions, China refused to endorse the freedom of association for workers and the right to organise. This further strengthens the argument that China’s adoption of ILO conventions was merely for pragmatic reasons to secure their domestic stability, rather than attempting to fit into the international liberal order.

In UN peacekeeping, China recognised that peacekeeping missions are powerful tools in diplomacy. China used peacekeeping missions to ‘persuade countries to switch recognitions from Taiwan to China’, in order to deprive Taiwan of diplomatic allies and further pursue its One-China policy. For example, China vetoed a peacekeeping mission to Macedonia two weeks after Macedonia established ties with Taipei in 1999. Within months, Macedonia switched allegiances to Beijing. Peacekeeping missions can also be used to bolster relations with countries that are vital to China’s economic growth and impact regime stability. 10% of China’s pledge of funds in 2015 was earmarked for the African union. China sent troops, instead of observers, to Congo, Liberia, Sudan, Lebanon and Cambodia – countries of geopolitical significance and have abundant natural resources. Therefore, China’s change in stance regarding UN peacekeeping was to ensure economic growth and to pursue the One-China policy.

The flexible outlook of sovereignty can also be seen to be concerned with regime stability. Firstly, China’s flexible view on sovereignty can also be due to their desire to ‘preserve an external environment conducive to its own internal development’. This can be seen in China’s evolving Belt and Road initiative where China invested extensively in Africa and the Middle East. China recognised that instability can reduce the benefits of these investments including resource transfers, thus lowering economic growth and hampering regime stability. China’s more flexible conception of sovereignty allows China to secure their interests overseas. Moreover, the shift in China’s view of sovereignty does not apply to China itself. China supported the flexible notion of sovereignty ‘as long as the idea that a single sovereignty resides in Beijing is not fundamentally challenged’. In regard to its own sovereignty, China retained a traditional notion of sovereignty and stresses the need to ‘counter any attempt by external forces to meddle in China’s internal affairs’. Regime stability was therefore the underlying reason China decided to shift into a more flexible notion of external sovereignty – it allows China to pursue a more favourable external environment for national development. Therefore, China’s actions in the ILO and UN were motivated by concerns of regime stability rather than to shift its identity.

On a broader level, it is difficult to envisage a scenario where China is socialised by Western norms and practices. This is because ‘the success of international socialisation depends on stable structural conditions under which the states to be socialised value the benefits of international legitimacy more than the costs of adaptation’. As stated above, China’s fundamental goal is to ensure the survival of the CCP. Therefore, internalisation of western norms and practices and the completion of “socialisation” will be very unlikely as the “costs of adaption”, for China, will likely be the fall of the CCP. This is not to say that China will not adopt Western norms and practices. The aforementioned case studies showed that China was willing to engage with such processes. However, when new western ideas were brought in, they were translated in ways to cater for the Chinese culture and identity – ‘Chinese learning should remain the essence, but Western learning can be used for practical development’. For example, China has developed an alternative model for the human rights norm, which emphasised economic development over the individual civil and political rights. Ultimately, the adoption of these western norms and practices would be prefaced by one key principle – not to undermine CCP’s dominance in domestic and external affairs.

The recent trends of China’s actions also suggested that China, despite increasing engagement with the international community and western norms and practices, is not shifting its identity towards a politically liberal identity. As stated before, China can be seen to be socialised if China’s identity shifted closer to the western liberal mould. However, China has become distinctly less liberal. Internet censorship and surveillance has reached new height, with the implementation of the 2017 Cybersecurity laws using advances in technology to further reduce online freedom. China has also continued its persecution of predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, with Chinese diplomats and leadership deflecting any criticisms of China’s human right records. The inherent suspicion of western norms, practices and institutions in the Chinese identity remains, with China remaining cautious of international norms such as the R2P and the western-centric workings of international organisations. Xi has also created a personalistic centralisation of power through the removal of two-term limits on presidents. These actions show that engagement with international institutions have not changed China’s identity to a more liberal mould; instead, China has drifted further away from the international liberal order.


In conclusion, China is not socialised in western norms and practices through its engagement with international institutions. This is because China’s adoption of western norms and practices were motivated by concerns for regime stability rather than a desire to integrate itself in the international liberal order. Moreover, the western norms and practices have not led to an identity shift, with China’s fundamental identity remaining intact. Looking to the future, China is not likely to be socialised due to its fierce protection of identity and longstanding suspicion of western norms, practices and institutions.


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Can the UNFCCC and COP ever succeed?

Source: UNClimateChange

Written by James Lo

UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is one of the most visible treaties aimed at tackling climate change in the world. With 197 parties to the convention and 165 signatories, it ranks among one of the most signed international treaties. Under the framework, the Conference of the Parties (COP) meets every year to review the national communications and emission inventories submitted by Parties. The COP assesses the effects of measures taken by parties to the UNFCCC and the progress made in achieving the ultimate objective of the Convention – preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with Earth’s climate system, entailing reductions in greenhouse gasses. The UNFCCC and COP, however, have recently come under scrutiny with their most recent failure to reach a consensus in Madrid in COP 25.

The 1992 UNFCCC differentiated between Annex I, Annex II, Non-Annex I and Least Developed countries (LDCs).

Annex I countries include industrialised countries that were members of OECD in 1992, plus countries with economics in transition, including the Russian Federation, the Baltic States and several Central and Eastern European States.

Annex II relates to just the OECD countries and require them to provide financial resources to enable developing countries to undertake emissions reduction activities.

Non-Annex I countries are developing countries, with some particularly vulnerable to climate change, including the Bahamas and Cook Islands.

Least Developed countries (LDCs) are 49 countries given special consideration under the Convention on account of their limited capacity to respond to climate change and adapt to its adverse effects.

What are the main issues plaguing the UNFCCC & COPs?

Despite the UNFCCC stressing equality and fairness and the importance of countries to participate and tackle the problem of climate change together, the differentiation of Annex I and non-Annex I countries, as well as the underlying classifications of developed vs developing countries, nevertheless seeped into national identifications at conferences and COP negotiations. Michael Richards stressed the difficulty of shifting away from national interests and towards the solving of climate change. The obvious case study here is the G-77 coalition + China. G-77 adopts the position of a traditional north-south divide where climate change is seen as another aspect of world economic order requiring “redistributive justice”. They demand the “developed” countries to take the first step of reducing greenhouse gases emissions, as well as defend the right of its members to emit to develop. The developed and developing countries also have differing conceptions of principles and responsibilities stated in the UNFCCC – Annex I countries focusing on cost-effectiveness and global efforts, while non-Annex I countries focusing on costs of technology adaption and equity.

The result of opposite viewpoints on who should take the burden of tackling global climate change is that global treaties and the outcomes of COPs have often been fudged. There are two scenarios in which this manifested. Firstly, there is a difference between global treaties and treaties that only concern a certain category of countries. This can be seen in the differences between the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement. Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the 37 countries listed as Annex I countries were set a legally binding target to reduce their emissions by an average of 5% below 1990 levels, for a period between 2008-2012. On the other hand, the Paris Agreement was a global treaty with 188 parties. The commitments outlined in the Paris Agreement were vaguer with no mechanisms forcing a country to set a specific emissions target by a set date. Moreover, the introduction of “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) and a long-term temperature goal to keep the increase in global average temperature to below 2oC provided parties with a lot more leeway in their implementation of climate change policies. The difference between the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement is the that the treaties that apply only to a particular category of countries can be seen to be more “powerful” compared to global treaties in terms of actions against climate change. Global treaties, with the need to appease everyone, do not have concrete targets compared to the legally binding targets set in the Kyoto Protocol and thus have less impact on climate change. The Annex I countries which signed the Kyoto Protocol reduced emissions by over 10%, while experts estimated that the flexibility of NDCs, industrialised countries failing to meet their own pledges and the attaching of conditions to reductions of emissions mean that the goal of the Paris Agreement will unlikely to be achieved.

Secondly, the differences in opinions between developed and developing countries have also led to “failures” of conferences in terms of lack of discernible agreements after the conference. The most glaring “failures” came in the COP 15, held in Copenhagen in 2009 and the most recent COP 25, held in Madrid in 2019, with very similar disagreements underlying the two conferences. In discussing the negotiations in COP 15, the head of the G77 believed that the draft agreement overwhelmingly favoured the developed countries as developed countries rejected calls for greater efforts to reduce emissions. Officials from China, India, Brazil and South Africa spoke out angrily about being pressured to sign up to a deal dictated by rich countries including the US, as well as expressed their anger that developed countries did not agree to more serious cuts. This stance was also seen in COP 25, with India leading the “Like-Minded group of Developing Countries” (LMDCs) which argued that the failure of developed countries to fulfil their pledges in the Paris Agreement was the main reason the world is currently so far from meeting its aim of avoiding dangerous warming. The failure to reach an agreement on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement in COP 25 was driven in part by a feeling that ‘some were trying to impose neo-colonial rule’.

Is there an alternative option?

With the outcomes of COPs being less than ideal for negotiators, developed & developing countries and the world as a whole, perhaps it is time to change the approach towards tackling climate change. Instead of placing so much hope on global climate deals, we should place more of an emphasis on regional environmental agreements. Although regions do retain the divide between developed and developing countries, the visible effects of climate change can help bridge the divide as countries face the negative consequences of climate change due to inaction. This is not a new idea – within the UNFCCC countries have set up regional coalitions such as African States, Asian States, Eastern European States, Latin American and the Caribbean States, the Western European and Other States and Small Islands Developing States. The current UNFCCC framework convened regional climate weeks for countries to discuss and alter their NDCs. However, these regional frameworks should be extended; these regional groups can look beyond NDCs and place more of an emphasis on regional cooperation and commitments. Instead of relying on the annual COPs, regional groups should take the initiative and promote binding commitments towards climate change. However, this shift of emphasis does still rely heavily on Annex I countries. The obligations that non-Annex I countries take up requires financial and technological transfers from Annex I countries, as well as the Annex I countries themselves to take up binding commitments to reduce emissions and tackle climate change. The UNFCCC and COP would therefore shift their role into more of a focus on how they can help developing countries reach the targets that they have set, as opposed to attempting to reach a global consensus and watering down climate change policies.

As Albert Einstein stated, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. The global approach underlying COP has yielded unsatisfactory results and the divide between developed and developing countries persisted from COP 15 to the recent COP 25. A shift in the global mentality will be challenging and a bold new step in tackling climate change. However, in order to obtain crucial and tangible steps towards tackling climate change, a bold new step might just be what we need.

Language in International Relations

Written by James Lo

This is a post on how different languages used in International Relations can explain the same phenomenon but invoke different thoughts in the reader. Today I will compare terms in English and Chinese explaining the same scenario – when power is disproportionately concentrated in one country. In English, IR theorists use the term “unipolarity” to describe this power distribution. This term is most commonly used to describe US power post Cold War, with US dominating the international sphere both in terms of economic and military might. In Chinese, the term「單極霸權」is commonly used to describe the same scenario.

I have only come across the Chinese term recently. Most of my studies on International Relations have been in English and it is only currently in the third year where I can specialise in various countries and regions. I came across the term “單極霸權” when I discovered the book「大國關係與中國外交」. The English version (Great Power Relations and China’s Diplomacy) was cited in one of my readings and my dad managed to find a Chinese copy of the book. I opted for the Chinese version because I believe that I can more easily understand the points that the author makes in the original position than through a translation.

So why am I doing a comparison between the two terms? In my studies and classes, the word “unipolarity” is mainly used in a descriptive manner. It is used to describe the power distribution in the international sphere, and does not seem to impart any judgement on the power distribution. However, the Chinese term, when I first came across it, differs on this point. The phrase「單極霸權」for me has negative connotations. In particular, the phrase 「霸權」has connotations of tyranny and abuse of power. Although it does describe one entity holding a disproportionate amount of power, I interpret this phrase as more imposing and imparts a negative judgement on the entity. I found this interesting as they are both terms referring to the same phenomenon. This may act as a reflection on how Chinese scholars view the current power distributions within the international sphere.

I believe that the phrases we use are crucial as they affect how we interpret certain phenomena within the international sphere and the perceptions that we associate with different actors. When I come across the term “unipolarity” in a piece of literature, I interpret it in a neutral manner. However, the phrase「單極霸權」leads me to paint a negative picture of the country it is describing. This emphasises the importance to extend one’s studies beyond the reading list. It is important to study International Relations in English, as most scholars are based in US and UK. However, you may then gather a Western-centric view of the world. By diversifying what you read, you can gain nuanced viewpoints and enrich your understanding of International Relations.

China, Socialisation and the Legitimacy of Environmental Foreign Policy

Image Source

Written by James Lo

China’s environmental foreign policy can be split in two stages. From 1980s to early 2000s, socialisation occurred through the interactions between China and international regimes such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). However, post 2009, China’s environmental foreign policy was orientated around the idea of legitimacy within the international sphere. This case study is crucial as one of the crucial debates that is currently raging on is “How will the West accommodate China’s rise?”. The analysis on environmental foreign policy can serve as a case study for this question.

Theoretical approaches


Socialisation acts in two stages. Stage one is where an actor learns new norms espoused in international regimes and institutions. [1] The key here is the frequent interactions between the international regime and the actor. Through these interactions, the actor is persuaded through dialogue and negotiations and become more receptive to new norms. The actor then adopts these new norms within its own identity and, over time, integrates these norms within its foreign policy. Stage two explains why states will adopt the norms domestically. Actors will act on those norms due to several factors – ‘mimicking, persuasion and social influence’[2]. Mimicking refers to the actors’ wanting to be similar to the other countries within the international sphere. Persuasion refers to the ‘noncoercive communication of new norms…that make new courses of action seem entirely reasonable and appropriate’[3]. Social influence is the amalgamation of several sub-processes that can be used to induce the actor to adopt the norm including ‘back-patting, shaming, social liking and status maximisation’[4]. These processes act to influence states to be more open to accept the norms that international regimes espouse. Socialisation is said to be completed when the new norms become the “law of the land”.

Norms and Legitimacy

Norms are defined as standards of appropriate behaviour for actors with a given identity.[5] Accepted norms act to promote the concept of correct behaviour in a society as they prompt justification of states’ actions. States therefore reshape conceptions of their interest through the constant testing of these identities and norms against actual events. If states act in accordance with the norms, they are said to gain legitimacy. Legitimacy is important to states because the international sphere is a repeat game. If states act legitimately, it can positively influence their future interactions with others states as it removes possible clashes. If states act contrary to the norms, other states can use such instances to criticise the state and gain leverage in future negotiations.

Case Study

Part 1: Socialisation

China is socialised in environmental protection norms through interactions with international regimes, in particular with the UNFCCC. China representatives attended the first UN Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. The Environmental Protection Leadership Group was established, subsequently, in 1973. From 1990 onwards, China has been a participant of the UNFCCC. Through the interaction between China and international regimes, their interests slowly changed, and gradually increased in the 1990s.

The UNFCCC imparted new norms onto China in two main ways – interest-guiding and imparting of knowledge. UNFCCC’s financial mechanism – the Global Environment Facility (GEF) – was crucial in influencing China’s interests. China was the largest recipient for GEF funding.[6] Through targeting different bureaucracies within China including the Committee of Development and Planning and Ministry of Science and Technology, GEF bound the interests of the various departments within China together in terms of environmental policies and guided them towards UNFCCC’s goals. GEF’s investments therefore defined the interests of Chinese environmental policy through its various investments into Chinese projects.[7].

Knowledge was another way which UNFCCC socialised Chinese behaviour on environmental policy. China lagged behind Europe in terms of climate science in the 1990s and the UNFCCC served as an educational mechanism for China. Yu found that UNFCCC’s interactions with different bureaucratic departments within China, coupled with the complex nature of the climate problem and language, led to bureaucracies having to communicate with each other and coordinate their actions.[8] The increasing interactions with UNFCCC ‘changed the norms of Chinese officials’[9] from viewing climate affairs as affairs of the state in 1997 to allowing more collaboration with experts and professionals from 2000 onwards. The interactions with the UNFCCC therefore socialised China’s environmental policies as they bound China’s interests and guided it in a direction in tandem with UNFCCC’s norms of environmental protection.

Part 2: Legitimacy

The second part focuses on how the idea of legitimacy changed China’s environmental foreign policy since 2010. Having adopted the environmental protection norms that international regimes such as UNFCCC promote throughout the late 20th century, China has since changed their domestic agenda. A leading group in climate change was established in 2007, while domestic targets such as cutting emissions by 40-45% from 2005 levels by 2020 was introduced.[10] China also became a larger actor in terms of regional environmental policies in bilateral and multilateral terms in 2000s. China signed 16 bilateral agreements and memorandums with a large range of countries ranging from US and Russia to Pakistan and Tajikistan.[11] China was also been active in multilateral environmental cooperation in East Asia, signing agreements such as the Northeast Asian Subregional Programme of Environmental Cooperation in 1993 and attending meetings such as East Asia Summit Environment Ministers Meeting in 2007.[12]

The turning point of China’s environmental foreign policy is at the Copenhagen Convention in 2009. Despite China’s implementation of environmental protection norms domestically and regionally, they were still blamed for the catastrophic failure of the Copenhagen Convention. Western governments and media heavily criticised the role of Chinese negotiators and their refusal to endorse any targets. Ed Miliband, the UK Climate Change Secretary at the time, accused China of ‘hijacking’[13] the conference and blocking any potential agreements. Socialisation, therefore, by itself was insufficient to paint China as a legitimate actor in environmental protection norms within the international sphere.

China recognised that it had to adopt a more outward and active role within the international sphere to gain legitimacy. This led to a change in the position of China’s environmental foreign policy. China was more outspoken compared to pre-2009 and adopted a more active mannerism in the international sphere to show other countries that they have adopted the environmental protection norms domestically. It signed multiple pacts with US, as well as playing a key part in securing the Paris Agreement in 2015. However, this change in stance has not changed China’s internal environmental protection targets. For example, China committed to increase the ‘non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumptions to around 20% by 2030’[14] in 2014 in a public agreement with the US. This was aligned with China’s own internal target set in 2013 to increase the share to 15% by 2020. Therefore, China’s increasingly active stance post 2010 was just a public pronouncement of China’s pre-existing environmental protection norms. By publicly entering into deals and agreements with other countries, China is perceived to have obtained legitimacy.


The evolution of China’s environmental foreign policy can therefore be explained by constructivist notions of socialisation and legitimacy. The earlier stages from 1980s to early 2000s is marked by China gradually adopting environmental protection norms from international regimes such as the UNFCCC. From 2010, China’s more outward stance on environmental foreign policy is marked by a drive for legitimacy and recognition. However, there are of course other factors that do influence China’s environmental foreign policy that I haven’t discussed – examples include China’s grand strategy and their role as the leader of developing countries, China’s changing conception of sovereignty, bureaucratic politics and the domestic sentiment towards climate change.

[1] Johnston, A. 2008.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Finnemore, M. & Sikkink, K. 1998. p.891

[6] Yu, HY. 2008. p.84

[7] For more detailed analysis of GEF, read Chapter 7 of YHY

[8] Ibid. p.105

[9] Ibid. p.108

[10] He, Lichao. 2010. p.7

[11] Otsuka, K. 2018. p.24

[12] Ibid.

[13] Miliband, E. 2009.

[14] The White House. 2014.


Miliband, E. 2009. Copenhagen climate summit: Ed Miliband accuses China of ‘hijacking’ conference. Accessed at

Finnemore, M. & Sikkink, K. 1998. International Norm Dynamics and Political Change. Accessed at

He, Lichao. 2010. China’s Climate Change Policy from Kyoto to Copenhagen: Domestic Needs and International Aspirations. Accessed at

Johnston, A. 2008. Social states: China in International Institutions, 1980-2000. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press

Otsuka, K. 2018.  Shift in China’s commitment to regional environmental governance in Northeast Asia? Accessed at

The White House. 2014. U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change. Accessed at

Yu, HY. 2008. Global warming and China’s Environmental Diplomacy. New York, US. Nova Science Publishers Inc.

Taiwan, Soft Balancing and Hong Kong Protests

Image Source (Edmund Yeo)

Written by James Lo

Building on last week’s post on the stances that Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar took on Hong Kong protests, this essay will look at Taiwan’s stance towards the Hong Kong Protests. Taiwan is the only Asian country to have outwardly spoken in support of Hong Kong protestors and denounce the “One-country-two-system” policy. I will look at Walt’s balancing theory & Pape’s soft balancing theory and explore how well they explain Taiwan’s stance on Hong Kong Protests.

What Taiwan said

Tsai stated in her National Day speech in 2019 that Hong Kong protests signalled the ‘failure of the one-country-two-system’[1] model and asked the Taiwanese people to stand with her to reject Chinese efforts to impose such a system in Taiwan. She referred to Hong Kong protestors as ‘friends from Hong Kong’[2] when they visited Taiwan in attempts to drum up support.

What the theory says


Walt argued that states ‘ally in opposition to the source of danger’[3]. They align with different states to ‘prevent domination by stronger powers’[4]. If they fail to curb a potential aggressor, their own survival is at risk. States will choose this behaviour because bandwagoning behaviour (discussed last week) relies on the ‘continued benevolence’[5] on the dominant power. In the case between China and Taiwan, it is no secret that Xi has aspirations to incorporate Taiwan into China’s territory and complete the “One-China policy”. In Jan 2019 Xi gave two speeches which reinforced their stance on Taiwan. On 2nd Jan Xi declared that Beijing would never tolerate independence of Taiwan and reserve ‘the option of taking all necessary measures’ against independence forces. 3 days later, Xi ordered the PLA to increase their battle readiness against all challenges.[6] The timings of these speeches suggest that Xi is ready to take a harder stance against Taiwan in 2019 and beyond. Thus, Taiwan’s survival may be increasingly at risk.

In militaristic and hard power terms, Taiwan’s alliance is with the US not with Hong Kong. US supplies 100% of Taiwan’s arms[7], most recently being the $8b sale of F16s to Taiwan in August and the $2.2b sale of more than 100 M-1 tanks in Oct 2019.[8] US fleets have also frequently visited the Taiwan strait, making eight passes in the first half of 2019 alone.[9] To counter China’s possible military incursion into Taiwan, Taiwan has opted to enter an alliance with US to build up their own capacities in hard power terms.

However, the traditional form of balancing does not explain why Taiwan and Tsai particularly chose to speak out on the Hong Kong protests. The alignment with Hong Kong protestors is not founded in concerns of combining military capabilities through alignment. The incorporation of one of the criticisms of Walt’s balancing power – the development of soft balancing – will help explain this particular alignment.

Soft balancing

Building on the original balancing theory, Pape argued that non-military tools, such as international institutions, economic statecraft, and strict interpretations of neutrality, can have a real, if indirect, effect on the military prospects of a unipole.[10] The key of soft balancing is to ‘undermine and constrain the influence of the threatening state without direct military confrontation’[11]. One of the key components of soft balancing is the idea of ‘entangling diplomacy’[12] – the ‘use of diplomatic manoeuvres to delay the superior side’s plans…even to make the issue irrelevant’[13].

Taiwan’s support for the Hong Kong protestors can be viewed in such a vein. Taiwan and Tsai’s denouncement of the “one-country-two-system” policy is an attempt to delegitimise the policy altogether. This acts to delay China’s aspirations for Taiwan because China’s plan is to reunite with Taiwan through the imposing of the “one-country-two-system” policy. Tsai is attempting to delegitimise the policy by using Hong Kong as an example as to the chaos and problems that the policy will bring to the country. In delegitimising China’s “one-country-two-systems”, Tsai hopes to disrupt China’s existing plans for Taiwan and to make it untenable for China to reunite with Taiwan using the “one-country-two-systems” policy.

Taiwan has been using soft balancing policy to prevent the implementation of the “one-country-two system” policy. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council published a report in 2018 regarding the “one-country-two-system” policy and its impact in Hong Kong.[14] Within the report, it outlined 218 instances of controversial incidents regarding China’s potential encroachment into Hong Kong’s autonomy. Conclusions from the report suggest that the Hong Kong’s values of ‘human rights, freedom and rule of law suffer from Mainland China factors’[15].

Hong Kong protests have therefore offered Taiwan with a crucial opportunity to defend its sovereignty and China’s increasing assertion on reunification. Taiwan’s main policy is the delegitimisation of China’s possible method of reunification. With Hong Kong being the only example of China implementing such a policy, the alignment of Tsai with the Hong Kong protestors thus provided Tsai with evidence to back up her position. The use of diplomatic alignment with Hong Kong protestors can therefore be seen as a tactic to negate China’s superior military capabilities without military confrontation.

Economic dependency

In the previous essay, I argued that economic dependency is the main factor influencing Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar’s support for China on the issue of Hong Kong protests. Does this apply to Taiwan? China is the Taiwan’s top trading partner at 28.8%, with Hong Kong coming in at second at 12.4%.[16] Tourism is one of the main ways China and Taiwan interact together – Chinese tourists accounted for 22.6% of tourism in Taiwan.[17] Compared to the three countries in the first essay, Taiwan has a larger GDP compared to the three Southeast Asian countries. Tsai has also embarked on a policy of diversification and reducing dependency on China since her presidency through the New Southbound Policy to increase cooperation with Southeast Asia.[18] This has reduced Taiwan’s dependency on China – seen recently through the ability for Taiwan to cope with China’s ban on independent tourism to Taiwan.[19]


All in all, the theory of soft balancing can help explain Taiwan’s stance on Hong Kong protests. Indeed, the alignment with the Hong Kong protests is one of the policies that Taiwan is adopting to prevent Chinese reunification and the implementation of the “one-country-two-systems” on Taiwan shores. Tsai hopes to delegitimise the “one-country-two-systems” policy by using the example of the chaos and violence currently raging in Hong Kong to indicate the policy’s failure and the possible consequences for Taiwan if implemented.

[1] Chung, L. 2019.  

[2] Lew, L. 2019.

[3] Walt, S. 1985. p.4

[4] Ibid. p.5

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lau, M. 2019.

[7] Sipri. 2019.

[8] Mehta, A. & Gould, J. 2019.

[9] Maizland, L. 2019.

[10] Pape, R. 2005. p.36

[11] He, K. & Fung, H. 2008. p.372. Definition of direct military confrontation Includes arms races

[12] Pape, R. 2005. p.36

[13] Ibid.

[14] Mainland Affairs Council. 2018. p.11

[15] Ibid. p.6

[16] Workman, D. 2019.

[17] Taiwan Tourism Bureau. 2019.

[18] Marston, H. & Bush, R. 2018.

[19] Jennings, R. 2019.


Chung, L. 2019. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen urges rejection of ‘one country, two systems’ model she says fails Hong Kong. Accessed at

He, K. & Fung, H. 2008. If Not Soft Balancing, Then What? Reconsidering Soft Balancing and U.S. Policy Toward China. Accessed at

Jennings, R. 2019. Taiwan Will Easily Overcome China’s Ban On 82,000 Tourists Per Month. Accessed at

Lau, M. 2019. Chinese President Xi Jinping gives army its first order of 2019: be ready for battle. Accessed at

Lew, L. 2019. Tsai Ing-wen says ‘friends from Hong Kong’ will be considered for asylum on humanitarian grounds. Accessed at

Mainland Affairs Council. 2018. Analysis Report: 20 years after Hong Kong’s Handover. Accessed at

Maizland, L. 2019. U.S. Military Support for Taiwan: What’s Changed Under Trump? Accessed at

Marston, H. & Bush, R. 2018. Taiwan’s engagement with Southeast Asia is making progress under the New Southbound Policy. Accessed at

Mehta, A. & Gould, J. 2019. Taiwan F-16 sale officially cleared by Trump administration. Accessed at

Pape, R. 2005. Soft Balancing against the United States. Accessed at

Taiwan Tourism Bureau. 2019. Tourism Annual Reports. Accessed at

Sipri. 2019. Trends in International Arms Transfers. Accessed at

Walt, S. 1985. Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power. Accessed at

Workman, D. 2019. Taiwan’s top import partners. Accessed at