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World Politics

Eternal return of the dragon: discursive power trap and decolonial critique of international relations theory

Kocherov Oleg Sergeevich

PhD in Politics

Research fellow, Department of Oriental Philosophies, Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Associate professor, Faculty of Political Science, State Academic University for the Humanities

603064, Russia, Nizhny Novgorod region, Nizhny Novgorod, Lenin ave., 70, sq. 40

Other publications by this author










Abstract: The paper explores discursive power and related concepts (institutional power, normative power, epistemic power) as an important part of contemporary PRC foreign strategy. As Westphalian identity carries certain risks for Beijing, China is actively trying to reconceptualize its identity through the development of epistemic power, its main manifestation being the emergence of the Chinese IR school. China’s two main strategies of interaction with the Western IR theory are (1) transcending its parochiality through inclusion of Chinese concepts and research methods and (2) creating radical alternatives to Western IR theory. At a more fundamental level of theorizing about non-Western IR, the former strategy is broadly aligned with the project of “global IR” and the latter with a decolonial/postcolonial approach to IR. Decolonial hermeneutics allows for revealing the main shortcomings of “global IR” and the underlying epistemic culture, as well as for examining problems that arise from China's accumulation of discursive power. Based on the analysis, we can conclude that there are three potential strategies of the PRC: Westphalian discursivity, Westphalian discursivity with Chinese characteristics, and critical discursivity. The first two strategies can potentially lead China into the trap of discursive power: trying to resist Western discursive aggression through accumulation of discursive power, Beijing begins to internalize power structures and narratives inherent in the Western political model or romanticize alternative systems for the reproduction of power in imperial China, hence reinforcing international suspicions regarding its true intentions and taking a less advantageous strategic position. The paper proposes a number of ways out of this trap (development of cooperation with countries of the global South, interaction with their epistemic cultures, critical rethinking of modern Chinese concepts of international relations).


discursive power, epistemic power, decolonial theory, non-Western IR theory, colonial house of IR theory, dichotomy of identity, Chinese IR theory, global international relations, discursive power trap, foreign strategy

This article is automatically translated. You can find original text of the article here.

I assure you, the only way to get rid of dragons is to have one of your own.

E. Schwartz. "The Dragon"


The Pen is stronger than the Sword: Discursive force as an important component of China's Foreign Policy strategy

One of the objective trends in international relations at the present stage is an increase in the share of non–Western actors in both regional and global politics. At the same time, the growth of the power of such countries is manifested not only in political, economic and military aspects (which, of course, remain extremely important factors of international dynamics), but also in other respects – primarily in attempts to realize themselves at the institutional, normative and discursive levels, which in many ways represent the foundation of modern world political architecture.

Many modern international institutions do not meet the needs and interests of the countries of the global South. For example, such pillars of the international financial system as the World Bank Group or the Asian Development Bank are actually agents of the interests of Western countries and their non-Western partners due to the rather conservative quota allocation policy, which, despite all attempts by non-Western countries to achieve greater representation and inclusivity, the direction of work of these organizations and the conditions Their provision of loans continues to be determined by the largest shareholders (primarily the United States and Japan). In this regard, non-Western actors began to build an alternative international financial architecture. Vivid examples of such institutions are the Chinese Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank, established under the patronage of the BRICS.

At the same time, the question remains debatable as to how such institutions really reflect the interests of the entire "global South", and not just its most developed representatives. For example, China is often accused of building its lending strategy in such a way as to plunge less developed countries into a debt trap and then exploit their dependence on Beijing. The PRC rejects all such accusations, but the problem lies in the fact that this criticism is voiced not only by Western countries [26, 32].

The regulatory level is of no less interest to non-Western countries. Many countries of the global South do not agree with all the norms that, according to the United States and its partners, should regulate political processes in international relations. At the same time, this, contrary to popular opinion, does not mean that non-Western countries oppose the "rules-based order"[1] - in fact, they just want to have more weight in determining what the rules of global interaction should be.

First of all, normative force means rethinking existing practices. In particular, the modern Chinese leadership has an extremely negative attitude to the concept of humanitarian intervention due to the fact that the United States has largely discredited this practice with its invasions. Nevertheless, in the past, the PRC has demonstrated support for a number of operations that were carried out by decision of the UN Security Council [37, p. 207]. In addition, given that China has long advocated reforming the Security Council [46] by including new participants in it and increasing the role of regions in it, it is likely that Beijing may also advocate such a norm that would allow humanitarian intervention against any of the countries of the region in the event that other countries the regions advocate such an operation.

The normative force also expresses the desire of non-Western countries to reflect their values more on the global agenda. A vivid example of the articulation of norms in this context is the Bangkok Declaration on Human Rights of 1993, in which the signatory countries, on the one hand, expressed support for the concept of human rights, and on the other hand stressed the inviolability of the principles of national sovereignty and non–interference in internal affairs, as well as the need to take into account the influence of regional cultural contexts on the essence of human rights in specific countries.

Finally, even more important than the ability to influence the policies of international institutions and play a role in the articulation of international norms is the ability to influence global discourse – a discursive force[2]. In its most general form, it refers to the ability of a political actor to set a global agenda, to spread a profitable interpretation of various socio-political processes as a mainstream narrative. A striking example here is the international discussion on Chinese policy in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Western countries criticize the activities of the PRC and accuse it of gross systematic violation of human rights. Beijing's official position is that the Xinjiang labor camps are intended for the ideological re-education of radical elements (potential terrorists and separatists). In 2021, at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council, 69 countries declared their support for the PRC's activities in Xinjiang [31]. By 2023, according to the statement of the official representative of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Mao Ning, almost 100 countries have already publicly advocated that the Xinjiang issue is an internal matter of the PRC [38]. At the same time, it is worth noting that many of the countries that supported the PRC are small states that largely depend on Chinese financial and economic assistance. At the same time, more developed economies can support China both because of their unwillingness to lose a profitable economic partner, and because of the principle of mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs: if they support the Chinese narrative about Xinjiang, then China will continue to turn a blind eye to the practices of Middle Eastern regimes (however, unofficial assessments of Beijing's policy in Arab countries are very mixed [40, pp. 127-131]).

In this regard, it is not surprising that in recent years, discursive force has become one of the most important components of Chinese foreign policy strategy. As I.E. Denisov notes, in the modern Chinese political space, the idea is quite widespread that "whoever owns the discursive force has the "right to organize" the world order, and he has the key power" [6, p. 44]. Experts point out various areas in which Beijing is trying to use discursive force: the promotion of the Chinese project "One Belt, One Road" [1], digitalization [9] and many other areas.

At the same time, discursive power has another dimension, which can be called epistemic power. It is associated with control not so much over the global agenda and its interpretation, but over the production of knowledge itself: which methods of obtaining and verifying knowledge are considered legitimate, with which structures and practices knowledge is produced, which knowledge producers are considered the most authoritative. This type of discursive power plays a special role primarily in discussions about the status and essence of the social sciences, including the modern theory of international relations (TMO) and other related academic disciplines. In this regard, it is advisable to consider the discursive force in the context of China's search for its political identity and the reflection of these searches in the theoretical constructions of the Chinese MO school.


Discursive power and Westphalian identity

Many international experts have long drawn attention to the fact that modern political disciplines represent the theorization of the experience of exclusively Western countries, which, during colonization, became by default considered universal human experience. In this regard, non-Western countries had to abandon their traditional ways of conceptualizing political space and adopt Western political categories and narratives. All this has led to at least three fundamental changes in the non-Western political worldview:

1.      Ontologically, the global political space began to be conceptualized as a Westphalian plurality of nation-states. The political order in such a space arises as a result of either the distribution of forces between the most powerful players, or the achievement of agreements on the "rules of the game" (a combination of these options is quite possible). Although some states may try to overcome the anarchy of international relations through cooperation and unification into larger political configurations (for example, the EU), currently there is no global supranational institution that could fully control world political processes, which is largely explained by the unwillingness of national states to sacrifice their sovereignty.

2.      Ethically, the mainstream Western theory of international relations offers a choice of either realistic "ethics" (the dilution of political and moral issues, the struggle for survival and the rise of power as the most important trend in international relations), or liberal ethics (peaceful coexistence of capitalist liberal democracies dependent on each other)

3.      Logically, the actions of actors in international relations are usually conceptualized in terms of rational participation in zero-sum games. It is believed that states always proceed solely from their own interests, strive to maximize their benefits and choose the most rational means for this. Although liberal logic paints a slightly different picture of the world, where interaction brings much more benefits (both individual and collective) than confrontation, it also absolutizes economic interest and individual game rationality.

Of course, the Western theory of international relations should not be reduced only to the confrontation of realism and liberalism. For example, the English school of international relations conceptualizes the global space in terms of a "society of states", which, according to a number of experts [41, p. 2], is much closer to the traditional Chinese view of the global order. Nevertheless, in many ways such theories continue to remain on the periphery of Western political science.

It should also not be assumed that the non-Western political experience and the ways of its conceptualization were radically different from Western practices in everything. Of course, in various non-Western cultures, one can find motives of political philosophy, strategies and elements of political imagination similar to Western ones (suffice it to mention the philosophy of Chinese legalism, which has much in common with Western political realism). At the same time, even in such cases, it is not necessary to equate intellectual movements in other traditions, since often, upon closer examination, extremely important differences appear between them.

It is obvious that non-Western countries have largely adopted the rules of the "Westphalian game", modernized according to the Western model and transformed into nation-states. At the same time, it remains debatable to what extent they have really internalized these political norms and conceptual schemes. Thus, many researchers note that China as a whole is a defender of the classical version of the Westphalian system, while the United States often departs from it, trying to change the rules of the game in its favor [44]. However, this thesis has a number of problems.

Firstly, at the present stage, the Westphalian state-centered ontology of international relations is facing quite serious challenges. On the one hand, globalization has led to an increase in cross-border financial and investment flows, the emergence of global supply chains, and the expansion of the influence of TNCs. At the same time, thanks to information technologies, people around the world are increasingly feeling part of the global space, becoming participants in various international organizations and informal communities, which leads to an intensification of cross-border movements of "tourists and terrorists". All this leads to the fact that the borders are becoming more and more transparent. In this regard, China, as an active participant and one of the main beneficiaries of such processes, is forced to balance between the principle of inviolability of sovereignty, which implies significant political control over a sovereign territory and minimizing external influence on it, and the principle of openness, which brings significant dividends to Beijing, but at the same time expands foreign presence in the PRC.

In addition, in addition to economic processes, the Chinese leadership is also involved in some political practices, which also largely blur the concept of Westphalian sovereignty. First of all, we are talking about the principle of "one country, two systems", which provides residents of Chinese special administrative regions with significant autonomy (including the right to membership in international organizations as independent units). This also includes Deng Xiaoping's famous principle aimed at resolving disputes in the South China Sea - "put aside differences and jointly develop" (gezhi zhengyi gongtong kaifa) – according to which the parties freeze discussions on the delimitation of exclusive economic zones and engage in mutually beneficial cooperation.

On the other hand, the state-centered ontology also faces a challenge from various secessionist movements that appeal to the right to self-determination. Within the framework of Western TMO, it is quite difficult to develop mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of such issues, which is why there are many unresolved and regularly recurring territorial conflicts in the modern world.

Secondly, Western TMO (as well as the political and philosophical tradition that preceded it) was used to enslave non-Western countries, which affected its main political categories and narratives. Speaking in support of the Westphalian identity, Western countries largely legitimize the "colonial matrix of power" [36] that led to their oppression. Of course, the Westphalian system prioritized sovereignty, which ideally should have led to respect for the territorial integrity of non-Western countries and communities. The problem, however, was that although all sovereignties are equal, not all have sovereignty: within the framework of colonial expansion, the concept of sovereignty actually began to be applied only to Western powers, while non-Western cultures were denied sovereignty primarily because of their race [25].   Thus, although the concept of national sovereignty is not imperialist in itself, its long-term use in discriminatory practices has largely discredited this concept.

Despite the fact that at the inception of the TMO, one of the most important goals was the maximum internationalization of the discipline, the unreflected imperialist, Eurocentric foundations of the TMO significantly prevented the realization of this task [33]. According to the American researcher D. Hobson, despite the fact that modern international experts largely disown the problematic political discourse of the initial stages of the formation of TMO, the discipline still continues to proceed from very racist fundamental assumptions [29]. Thus, China's adoption of Westphalian logic in a certain sense means the victory of Western identity, the reign of Western cultural (theoretical, epistemic) hegemony.

The third problem with the Westphalian worldview is that the principles of balance of power and priority of national interests articulated within it result in a rather antagonistic international policy. This led to the fact that non-Western countries were first forcibly incorporated into the Western system of international relations, and after their formation as independent nation-states, they were conceptualized as threats to the influence of traditional powers (primarily the United States). In this regard, in the last couple of decades, the narrative of the inevitable clash between the United States and China has become extremely popular. The "prediction" of this collision is largely embedded in the theory of the transfer of power by A. Organsky and the "trap of Thucydides" by A. Graham [5]. Despite the fact that the reliability of these forecasts is questioned by many critics, the problem lies in the fact that increased attention to such narratives strongly affects the political course of the main actors in international relations, which is why these concepts may well become self-fulfilling prophecies [28, pp. 143-154]. The Chinese leadership constantly declares that the conflict between the United States and China is not inevitable[3], and has repeatedly interpreted the Chinese foreign policy course as "peaceful development" [13]. Nevertheless, the narrative of the upcoming confrontation between China and the United States remains extremely popular, and this confirms the thesis that it will be very difficult for Chinese discursive power in all its manifestations to be realized in a world where social knowledge is produced and reproduced largely according to Western models, where Western political science is considered the most authoritative, and Western academic The community has privileged access to leading scientific journals and research resources.

Thus, although the PRC's commitment to the Westphalian identity helps the PRC in many ways to protect its national interests and at the same time exploit the erroneous actions and statements of Western countries, it also carries risks for Beijing. In this regard, it is not surprising that one of the manifestations of Chinese discursive and epistemic power is academic discursive power (Xueshu Huayu quan). First of all, this is understood as the popularization of the Chinese language as the lingua franca of international academic communication, as well as the development and promotion of original Chinese concepts, theories and research methods [2]. In the context of TMO, academic discursive power means the creation of a Chinese school of international relations.


Chinese Theory of International Relations as a manifestation of discursive Power

One of the most important motives of Chinese TMO is the appeal to the classical Chinese philosophical heritage as a source of unique Chinese identity. At the same time, we can talk about two strategies for such treatment.

The first strategy is to look for such elements in the Chinese intellectual tradition that could enrich Western TMO conceptually or instrumentally. A prominent representative of this approach is Yan Xuetong, a political scientist who so subtly understands the logic of the development of modern China that, according to M.Y. Korostikov, his work "during the reign of Xi Jinping will continue to lift the veil over the intricacies of Chinese foreign policy and anticipate the actions of the country's leadership" [11, p. 123]. Yan analyzes the approaches of classical Chinese philosophers using the tools of Western political science and, based on the results obtained, builds a new theoretical variety of Western political realism – moral realism (daoi xianshijui). According to this theory, leadership in the world political configuration depends on a number of factors, of which the moral qualities of political leaders should be considered one of the most important. Morality here does not mean an attempt to present the values of a particular culture as universal, but compliance with those moral principles that most actors share (i.e., the rules on which the order is based). The more a leader adheres to these rules and confirms his commitment to them in practice, the more legitimate he appears to other actors and the more reason they have to support the existing political order [12]. At the same time, at the present stage, neither the United States nor China can claim leadership (in particular, due to the heterogeneity of the ideologies of these countries), which is why the world order is evolving towards a bipolar system. However, this does not mean that conflict is inevitable – in contrast to the "Thucydides trap", Yan Xuetong gives an example of the rivalry between the ancient Chinese kingdoms of Jin and Chu, which proves that a bipolar configuration can be stable and generally peaceful [14].

Another strategy is to try to go beyond the conceptual framework of Western TMO and develop an alternative to it based on the Chinese intellectual tradition. One of the most important representatives of this approach is Zhao Tingyang, who reinterprets in his works [47] the traditional Chinese geopolitical model of Tianxia. According to the researcher, this model is much more attractive to the rest of the world and more inclusive than the modern Western model of international relations, and therefore it is necessary to build all international interactions based on its four principles:

1.      Internalization of the world, i.e. the need to comprehend the political space not as a set of national states, but as the most inclusive cosmopolitan continuum in which there is a place for all cultures and political systems;

2. Relational rationality, which should complement individualistic rationality and thus shift the focus from the realization of personal interests to achieving harmony between the personal and the common;

3. Confucian improvement, which is a development of V. Pareto's concept of efficiency. According to Zhao, in accordance with the Confucian maxim "if you want to stand firmly on your own feet, then make sure that the other one stands firmly on his feet" [10, p. 180] this improvement means the adoption by all participants in the political process of a strategy that is aimed at such an improvement in the general interest, in which not only there will be no there will be a deterioration in the position of any actors, but the change will necessarily be in their interests.

4.      Compatibility universalism, which means that only those values that appear in people's relationships with each other can be universal.

As can be seen, the fundamental principles of the world political system proposed by Zhao differ significantly from the traditional foundations of the Western political model. It should be noted that Zhao's work aroused serious interest in the Chinese academic community, which led to the emergence of many other concepts based on the rethinking of Tianxia [24].

Of course, Chinese political thought is not limited to these two areas only (many Chinese international experts do not refer to the classical Chinese heritage at all). Nevertheless, these areas are very popular and, more importantly for the purposes of this article, largely correspond to the general trends in the formation of non-Western TMO.


The problem of the ratio of Western and non-Western TMOS

Chinese TMO is far from the only response of the global South to the discursive and epistemic dominance of Western thought. Authentic TMOS are also appearing in many other non-Western countries. In addition, many Western international researchers also declare the need for greater inclusivity of Western TMO or even its radical rethinking from non-Western positions. Nevertheless, the problem of the correlation between Western and non-Western theories of international relations remains largely unresolved.

First, if the Western theory of international relations cannot explain any phenomena in non-Western contexts, this does not mean that a non-Western theory is needed to explain them. Like other sciences, the theory of international relations develops gradually, through the promotion of hypotheses and their verification on various materials. Accordingly, in order to explain the specifics of non-Western political processes, the Western theory of international relations simply needs to pay more attention to non-Western material, to involve it in correcting Western hypotheses. As A. Voskresensky notes, in the increasingly complex international interaction, new methods of global governance are needed, and not "statements that our world is bursting at the seams, and in order to realize this, we need to replace Western TMO with its non-Western variants" [43, p. 1]

Secondly, what is the explanatory power of non-Western theories of international relations? If they explain only the context in which they originated, but at the same time they cannot explain the political processes in other regions, then this is actually equivalent to saying that the peoples in a particular region of the globe radically differ from other peoples in other regions in their practices, which sounds extremely essentialist. If non-Western theories claim to be a universal explanation of political processes around the world, then their supporters will have to do a tremendous job of restructuring TMO, and it is not a fact that they are ready to carry out such work.

These and many other similar issues have been reflected in a number of approaches to non-Western theories of international relations. One of the most influential projects is the concept of "global international relations" proposed by A. Acharia and B. Buzan. In their opinion, it is necessary to integrate non-Western concepts and methods into the Western theory of international relations and use them to rethink the former in a broader historical and cultural context [21]. This project has gained many followers, although Acharya and Buzan admit that the influence of global MO on the mainstream Western theory of international relations is still very limited [22].

One of the important components of global MO is the idea of "regional worlds". A striking example of this idea is the concept of the multiplex world. Acharya compares the world to a cinema, under one roof of which there are several halls where various films are shown, and the viewer can choose any of them [20]. Similarly, in modern international relations in many regions, such orders are beginning to emerge that draw inspiration from the traditional political cultures of the countries of these regions.

At first glance, the approach in the spirit of global MO is quite consistent with the trends of the time, and also corresponds to the modern Chinese discursive strategy. However, it is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, quite often both Western and non-Western researchers, wishing to overcome colonial stereotypes about the backwardness of non-Western traditions, reproduce other stereotypes when developing their concepts and essentialize non-Western cultures in the same way (for example, reduce Chinese culture to Confucianism, and Confucianism to harmony) [39].

Secondly, a more fundamental problem lies in the fact that within the framework of global MO and other projects dedicated to increasing the inclusivity of Western TMOS, research is conducted within the conceptual framework of a certain epistemic culture. In other words, although A. Acharya's cinema has halls and films for almost every taste, what do we know about the cinema itself, the principles of its operation and its owners? Who shot the films offered for viewing? In what language are they demonstrated? Can we choose to watch a movie not from the list offered to us? In order to better understand the essence of this problem, it is necessary to turn to the decolonization criticism of Western TMOS.


Criticism of the Colonial House of International Relations

The specificity of the decolonization/postcolonial[4] approach to international relations is clearly expressed in the metaphor of the "colonial house" proposed by A. Agafangel and L. Ling [23], which succinctly describes the power relations prevailing within the discipline.

The most honorable place in this colonial estate is occupied by a married couple – realism and liberalism, which, despite not all their apparent contradictions, in fact proceed from largely similar premises and perfectly complement each other. Realism exercises control over the house by force, while liberalism uses another lever – interest. At the same time, they have long understood that power and economic interest are closely interrelated, and therefore they are building a single power infrastructure designed only to satisfy the appetites of the Western political elite.

Along with realism and liberalism, their obedient offspring live in the house: neoliberalism, liberal feminism, positional feminism (feminist epistemology), as well as the heir – neorealism. Neoliberalism develops the ideas of its parents, "turning the realistic theory of hegemonic stability into a user-friendly manual for managing happy consumers" [23, p. 52]. In alliance with its feminist sisters, neoliberalism provides political and discursive power to white rich Western women who promote liberal practices as a means of emancipation and at the same time, speaking on behalf of women around the world, drown out the voices of much less privileged women of the global South, thereby reproducing and consolidating existing power practices and relationships. Neorealism, the fruit of an extramarital relationship between realism and economics, the mistress of the house next door, is concerned only with his own status in the hierarchy, which is why he is very suspicious of the rest of the MO family and is ready to do anything to maintain his dominant position.

The second group of inhabitants of the house includes sons and daughters who are in disfavor with realism and liberalism because of their rebelliousness. These are Marxism, Gramscian political economy, postmodernism and constructivism, as well as "fallen daughters": postmodern feminism and queer theory. They all try to overcome their parents with the help of critical theory, but at the same time they are similar to him in that they rely exclusively on the Western intellectual tradition in the face of critical theory.

The third group of inhabitants of the house includes servants – regional studies and comparative political science. They are servants in the sense that their main function is to collect ethnographic material, on the basis of which their masters can engage in theorizing, high politics. In other words, within these fields, representatives of non-Western cultures are instrumentalized and objectified: they always act only as informants, objects of research, and not subjects. At the same time, they, using their official position, can periodically secretly launch lovers of the owners of the estate or their illegitimate children into the colonial house (for example, Asian capitalism, which arose as a result of a secret connection between liberalism and Confucianism and repeatedly tried to demonstrate its attractiveness to the owners of the colonial estate until the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998. didn't ruin his plans).

Finally, there are those outside the house who oppose the existing system in it. These are critics of orientalism, postcolonial TMO, as well as the proposed "worldism" by A. Agafangel and L. Ling. From their point of view, A. Acharya's cinema is located inside a colonial house, and everyone who wants to get to the show must either receive an invitation from the owners of the estate, or sneak into the house. Nevertheless, all such guests are always at the mercy of the hosts, who have full power over the MO estate. In this regard, representatives of these approaches oppose the very structure of power embodied in the colonial house and the identities imposed on it.

What is the decolonial alternative to Western TMO and global MO? In general, decolonization approaches global MO within the framework of the concept of "global worlds". At the same time, the optics of exploring these worlds differ in many ways. Thus, E. Viramontes identifies the following four criteria of the decolonization theory of international relations: (1) she is skeptical about the thesis of the need to search for universal universal knowledge and instead seeks to comprehend the "pluriverse"; (2) she denies positivist objectivism and stands on the positions of postpositivism and non-positivism; (3) It seeks to expand the concept of international through the problematization of the ontology of national states; (4) it aims to overcome the "I am the Other" dichotomy through the de-exotisation of non-Western cultures and the exotisation of Western ones [42]. At the same time, the most important problem of decolonization/postcolonialism is that it is extremely difficult to translate it into political practice, which is largely due to its anti-government position. In general, the decolonization approach can influence political reality either through academic practices (rethinking the methodological foundations of research in the social sciences, identifying problem areas in existing power relations), or through the activities of activist groups (primarily ethnic minorities).

All of this does not mean that global MO and the decolonization approach cannot be reconciled. In recent years, a discussion has developed in the Western academic community [45], in which proponents of the first approach recognized the problematic aspects existing in it and outlined the main ways to bring the two approaches closer. However, there are still many obstacles on the way to this.

Based on the analysis of two approaches to the construction of non-Western TMO, it is possible to problematize the concept of discursive force in the context of its epistemic foundations.


The Trap of Discursive Power

I.Yu. Zuenko and I.E. Denisov believe that at the present stage the West has fallen into a "Nye trap" (or "soft power trap"). According to researchers, the essence of this trap is as follows: The West believes that China, due to the authoritarianism of its regime, is not able to effectively project soft power, and that Beijing seeks to expand its influence actually only through bribing other countries [7]. Empirical studies confirm that China is quite effectively promoting the idea in the international arena that the Chinese authoritarian government copes with modern socio-political and economic challenges much more effectively than democratic regimes [34].

At the same time, in our opinion, China itself risks falling into what can be called a "trap of discursive power." In an attempt to counter Western discourse that conceptualizes China as a threat to the regional and global order, Beijing may choose one of several strategies.

First, China can counterattack Western countries from the discursive positions of a defender of the classic version of the Westphalian Defense system, while in no way addressing its intellectual heritage. This approach hardly solves China's problems, as it provides extremely limited room for maneuver. Of course, Beijing can exploit the actions of the West negatively perceived by other countries (violations of the sovereignty of the countries of the global South) in order to earn "discursive points", but within the framework of Westphalian discourse (even if adapted to modern realities), it will not be able to refute the thesis that it is a threat. It is unlikely that he will be able to present in a positive light those of his international practices that are regularly criticized ("debt trap" diplomacy, cooperation with regimes accused of large-scale human rights violations). This is explained by the fact that when using Western political optics, China's seemingly positive practices and proposed foreign policy concepts aimed at creating a harmonious world will be perceived as Beijing's disguised desire to maximize its influence. At the same time, the more fundamental problem with this approach is that with such a strategy, China legitimizes those power practices and discourses on which the Western political model is based.

The second strategy is to construct a kind of Westphalian discourse with Chinese specifics. In our opinion, this is the strategy that the modern Chinese leadership adheres to. With this approach, China already has much more opportunities both to protect its interests and to attack Western narratives, because by referring to episodes from its history, Beijing can prove that the laws of Western trade and trade are far from universal and cannot always explain China's actions in the international arena.

One of the problems with this approach is that China does not always manage to convey its message to an international audience. A striking example here is the famous testament of Deng Xiaoping "keep in the shadows, trying not to show themselves in any way" (Taoguang Yanhui). In many ways, this foreign policy strategy was a direct continuation of the course of a non-independent peaceful foreign policy adjusted for geopolitical changes (the collapse of the USSR) and meant the creation of a favorable external environment for the development of the Chinese economy. But, as V.Ya. Portyakov notes, at the beginning of the XXI century. Attempts were made in the West "to use the multidimensional nature of some of Deng's statements ... to justify various modifications of the "theory of the Chinese threat"" [16, p. 4], in connection with which the Chinese leader saw in this statement the intention of the PRC to avenge "a century of humiliation". It is obvious that in many ways the United States was already biased against China at that time. Nevertheless, it hardly helped in this case that in Chinese culture this expression first appeared to describe the actions of the Tang ruler Xuanzong (reign: 846-859), who, as a prince, pretended to be a simpleton for a long time so as not to suffer in palace intrigues, and, having lulled the vigilance of scheming eunuchs, He came to power and dealt with all his political opponents.

Its neighbors are particularly wary of China's treatment of its history and culture, relations with which have historically developed very differently, but have almost always been conceptualized in the format of a "tributary system".

In addition, China is not always able to choose such methods to confront the West that would not negatively affect its image among non-Western countries. Thus, one of the most frequently discussed ways of China's realization of discursive power – "diplomacy of wolf warriors" (Zhan Lan Weijiao) - boils down to the fact that, trying to find an adequate response to the increasing criticism from the West, China begins to resort to aggressive rhetoric. This raises doubts about Beijing's true intentions not only in the West, but also in the countries of the global South [35].

The third strategy is to construct a radically different discourse, in which the very foundations of Western TMO would be rethought. At first glance, it seems that Zhao Tingyang's concept is an example of such a strategy. Nevertheless, the problem here is that Zhao, refusing to build his model on the field of Western discourse, largely romanticizes the political practices of imperial China. At the same time, Zhao ignores the issues of perception of this model by both China's neighbors and non-Han peoples living on its territory, thereby obscuring its ethnocentrism and imperialism [27]

In many ways, the problem here lies in the fact that, as E.N. Grachikov correctly noted, modern China has a "dichotomy of identity" [4, p. 196]. At the same time, in our opinion, this dichotomy lies not in the search for an answer to the question of whether the PRC is a developed or developing power, but rather in the problem of representation. Does China identify itself as a great power or as a defender of the global South? This dichotomy has its roots in the 50s of the XX century, when the PRC simultaneously tried on two identities: an important member of the socialist bloc and one of the leaders of the non-aligned movement. The first identity presupposed participation in a rather traditional confrontation of great powers for Western political practice (albeit conceptualized in terms of Marxist philosophy). The second identity, although it was built largely through bricolage, through borrowing elements of Western political theory, nevertheless assumed opposition not only to two superpowers, but also opposition to the very Western discourse about power as the highest value of international relations. China eventually chose the first identity, although it often resorted to rhetoric that would be more characteristic of the second identity. Nevertheless, at the present stage of international relations, having become a much more powerful state, China again faces the same choice in many ways: whether to divide the world in the G2 format or to abandon the fetishization of power and try to break out of the vicious circle of realpolitik. The PRC, of course, may try to balance between these two identities (at the discursive level, this, in particular, is manifested in the simultaneous existence of Chinese political concepts like "a new type of relations between great powers" and "a community of common destiny"), in which economic instruments can help it, but such an attempt to sit between two chairs with Over time, it will raise more and more questions among the peoples of the global South.

Thus, the trap of discursive power lies in the fact that China, trying to accumulate discursive power in order to resist Western discursive aggression, begins to internalize the power structures and narratives inherent in the Western political model or romanticize alternative systems of reproduction of imperial Chinese power. In this, both China's opponents and the countries of the global South are beginning to see confirmation of their fears about Beijing's hegemonic/imperialist ambitions. Thus, trying to maximize its discursive power within the framework of a predominantly Western epistemic culture, China ends up in a less advantageous strategic position than it was initially.

What are the ways out of the discursive trap? There are no easy recipes here, especially considering that Beijing, in its foreign policy course, is largely forced to reckon with the strong nationalist sentiments of its population, which it has been heating up for a long time. In general, however, the following paths can be outlined:

1.      Increasing the attention of the Chinese academic community to critical, decolonial and postcolonial theories in various social sciences and in TMO in particular.

2.      Creating alternative models of the world political structure to Western ones and involving them in a dialogue with models from other countries of the global South, as well as critically rethinking existing Chinese models, taking into account the optics of non-Han peoples and countries that were previously part of the Chinese tributary system.

3. The development of cooperation within the global South and the rejection of dubious practices aimed at establishing Chinese control (defending the "nine-point line" in the South China Sea, creating infrastructure in Africa to drain resources, etc.), an attempt to reach a compromise based on a limited rejection of the idea of sovereignty (for example, the rejection of the principle according to to which, even with the joint development of resources in the South China Sea, China's sovereignty extends to disputed territories). 

4.      China's focus has shifted from opposing the United States to cooperating with the countries of the global South.

Of course, these principles are not easy to implement, especially given the Western pressure on China. But Beijing certainly has the opportunity to try to overcome the dragon, which has always been reborn in both Western and Chinese imperialist discourses.


[1] The juxtaposition of "rule-based order" and "order based on the rule of law" is somewhat artificial, if only because the rule of law is in many ways exactly the same fundamental rule. Of course, the former is often understood as international norms interpreted by the United States, and the latter as provisions fixed in various international documents. However, such an understanding is quite problematic. Firstly, not all countries adhere to this interpretation, and there is quite a significant variability in the meanings put into this term [3]. Secondly, as A. convincingly shows. Johnston, it is hardly possible to talk about a single "rules-based order" - in reality, rather, there are many similar "orders" operating at different levels and relating to different spheres (institutional, military, social development, international trade, etc.). In this regard, the same country can-to evaluate the rules existing in different orders differently, and to have a different degree of involvement in the articulation of rules of different orders [30].

[2] This concept goes back to the works of M. Foucault – primarily to the essay "The Order of Discourse" [18] – which the modern Chinese establishment has rather radically reinterpreted. At the same time, the concept of discursive power has much in common with the Gramscian idea of cultural hegemony (for more information about this idea and its modern relevance, see [8]).

[3] Thus, in a press release following the meeting between Xi Jinping and a delegation of American senators in October 2023, it is noted: "the Chinese side has always believed that in US-Chinese relations, common interests far outweigh differences, and the successes of one side are not challenges, but opportunities for the other side. The trap of Thucydides is not at all inevitable" [17].

[4] In many ways, the positions of representatives of the decolonization and postcolonial approaches are similar. At the same time, according to I.D. Loshkarev [15], there are two main logics/strategies within this approach. The first of them is bifocality, which involves the identification and deconstruction of existing power relations, as well as the creation of an "alternative Eastern agenda" (this strategy can be called "postcolonialism of difference"). The second strategy implies a rejection of the logic of contrasting West and East and an emphasis on finding common ground between Western and non-Western traditions ("postcolonialism of interdependence"). In general, the first strategy can be identified with the decolonization approach, and the second with the postcolonial one. At the same time, as A. notes. Elmuradov, "postcolonial theory in a narrow sense is most often perceived as a reflection of dualism typical of European modernity, thereby reproducing the state of epistemological colonialism" [19, p. 25].


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This article is devoted to the modern system of international relations, in which there is an imbalance between existing global institutions and Western-style structures and regional institutions, which are gaining an increasing share in international politics and the global economy. The main subject of the article is the policy of the countries of the global south, in particular China, in the field of countering the hegemony of the United States and the Western world in the system of international relations. The author examines both the normative aspects of such a policy, as well as specific measures, as well as processes carried out in the global space through various international institutions. The article is accompanied by a detailed introduction, which leads to the definition of the discursive force in international politics that developing countries seek to possess. Along with this term, the author introduces the concept of epistemic power, which is associated with the management of the interpretation of the global agenda, the production of knowledge. The purpose of the study is to: "to consider the discursive force in the context of China's search for its political identity and the reflection of these searches in the theoretical constructions of the Chinese MO school." The presented research is of a fundamental theoretical nature and represents a significant contribution to modern discussions about modern theories of international relations. This thesis is confirmed, among other things, by the abundance of scientific literature and sources used in the work. At the same time, the author should strengthen the methodological component of the research to a greater extent, describe the object-subject area and research objectives more clearly – this will allow articulating the conclusions and their significance for modern international politics and relevant theory. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that this article is of considerable interest to the readership of the World Politics magazine. It is written in a good scientific language and is based on quite weighty scientific, methodological and conceptual tools. The structure of the article is made in accordance with the requirements for publications in Nota Bene publications and contains a division into thematic subheadings, which makes it convenient for the reader to perceive the research material. Statistical reports and data from international institutions that would confirm some hypotheses and theoretical postulates of the "colonial" and "decolonization" approaches of Western and non-Western countries to building effective international cooperation and promoting their own national and regional interests on the world stage could strengthen the direction of research outlined by the author in this publication. Separately, the current military doctrines and national security strategies of China and the United States could be analyzed from the point of view of the above-mentioned approaches. The article can be recommended for publication without making any significant corrections.
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