“The Hegemonic Way” and “the Kingly Way”
No. 2 2015 April/June
Yaroslav Zaitsev

Yaroslav Zaitsev is a post-graduate student of the School of International Studies, Peking University.

How Russia and China Define Their National Interests

Comparing the national interests of China and Russia is especially important today when the two countries are going through a period of rapid political rapprochement, where it is vital to have a clear understanding of the partner’s logic. This article will try to analyze the foreign-policy strategies of the two countries and the attitudes of their elites to the contemporary international system through the prism of their national interests.


After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia’s foreign policy has gone through several stages of development, which can be divided into four periods.

The first period (1992 – 1999) – an openly pro-Western policy aimed at joining if not the European Union and NATO, then, at least, the Western world on equal terms.

The second period (1999 – 2008) – a gradual growth of anti-American sentiment among the political elite following the bombing of Yugoslavia and the invasion of Iraq; yet, the general policy of improving relations with the West continued until the Russian-Georgian war.

The third period (2008 – 2012) – the “reset” of relations with the United States during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev after the Five Day War, and a new advance in relations with the EU.

The fourth period (2012 – present) – a sharp growth of anti-American and, generally, anti-Western sentiment in Russia; a turn towards the East (above all, China); and aggravation of relations with the West in all areas after the Ukrainian crisis.

If we analyze Russia’s foreign policy over the last 20 years, we will see that it has always been Western-centric and that Russia’s relations with the East directly depend on its relations with the West. This state of things is due to how Russia sees its national interests and what content it puts into them.

Firstly, it is the maintenance of stability inside the country and the preservation of its territorial integrity. The break-up of the Soviet Union and the loss of vast territories, as well as the two Chechen wars have left a scar in the minds of not only people but also the political elite. The historical factor and peculiarities of the national mentality play a role too. For centuries, Russia’s rulers viewed its vast territories as the main guarantor of national security and protection from enemies. Unlike other countries, Russia could  withstand enemy attacks and retain sovereignty due to its large size. The Patriotic War of 1812 and the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 are the most graphic examples of that. The preservation of the territory and the creation of buffer zones have always been among the main national priorities, while the loss of territories has been regarded as the weakening of the country and its decline.

Secondly, it is the maintenance of an adequate army and military power. This issue stems directly from the first one: to retain sovereignty and the capability to rebuff attacks from any enemy, Russia needs not only a vast territory but also a powerful army to defend it. Because of the constant invasions Russia experienced for centuries, its people and political elite developed a cult of the army. The country used all its resources to keep and strengthen the army, which caused big imbalances in the Russian economy in favor of the military-industrial complex and had a negative impact on people’s well-being.

Thirdly, it is the maintenance of a buffer zone, dependent on Russia, along its borders. This national interest also directly relates to the first two, but it has a dimension of its own. Since the neighboring regions (primarily Central Asia and Eastern Europe) were under Russia’s influence for a long time, they formed stable interpersonal, cultural and ideological ties with it. These regions were always considered close and kindred to Russia, and its elite found it difficult to perceive them as “foreign.” As a result, Russia’s top leadership has developed the view that Moscow had the right to a “special” status and influence in these regions, and regarded attempts by other countries to compete with Russia there as an encroachment on its national interests.

Based on the above, it is easy to analyze Russia’s logic in its relations with the West. NATO’s policy is one of the most important factors in these relations. NATO’s eastward enlargement contrary if not to the letter, then to the spirit of the accords with Russia concluded in the final years of the Cold War; its aggressive actions against countries friendly to Russia, bypassing the UN Security Council (Yugoslavia and Libya); and the creation of a missile defense system in Europe – all these factors, coupled with Russia’s age-old mistrust towards the West, were taken by the Russian elite as gross violations of national interests and provoked its strong negative reaction. In the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis, Russia-West relations have hit an all-time low in Russia’s post-Soviet history and are unlikely to improve in the near future.


China’s present national interests, although somewhat amended and supplemented, were formulated under Deng Xiaoping who launched a policy of reform and openness. Unlike Russian leaders, Deng captured the essence of the contemporary era as development, primarily economic development, and believed that a big war between great powers was unlikely. His perception allowed him to formulate Chinese national interests, which, by analogy with Russia, can also be divided into three categories: economic development, the maintenance of internal stability and territorial integrity, and the maintenance of friendly relations with as many countries as possible, particularly with neighbors.

Economic development is the core of China’s foreign policy. The policy of reform and openness, which continues to this day, has brought big benefits to China. According to official Chinese statistics, over the last thirty years, 250 million people have ceased to be poor and the country’s GDP has increased 62 times from $148 billion in 1978 to $9 trillion in 2013. The average annual growth rate over the thirty years has been 9.8 percent. Due to these factors, in 2014 China became the world’s largest economy, based on purchasing power parity, and is increasingly often viewed as the world’s second major power, after the U.S., in terms of significance and influence. Committed to the priority of economic development, China has come out with new projects – the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road – aimed at supporting and boosting its decelerating economy.

Maintaining internal stability and territorial integrity is as important to China as it is to Russia. However, whereas Russia perceives its territory as a kind of “safety cushion” against enemy aggression, China’s attitude to its territory rather stems from its national identity and national dignity, which are rooted in the “Century of Humiliation.” For China, the preservation of its territorial integrity directly depends on economic growth rates as one of the most important factors. Economic growth leads to rising incomes for people, improves their standards of living, and brings revenues that can be used to develop and pacify problem regions.

Another important aspect of China’s foreign policy, included in the national interest, is maintaining friendly relations with countries along its borders, as well as with great powers. Good relations with neighbors are primarily needed for creating a favorable environment for economic development. China has territorial disputes with almost all its neighbors; yet, Beijing seeks to keep the peace on its borders. The most dangerous scenario for China would be a territorial conflict going out of control, as it would require spending what could otherwise be used to keep up stable economic growth. In addition, it may provoke unrest inside China and threaten the ruling party’s power.

Someone may argue that China itself provokes the aggravation of territorial disputes with its neighbors. However, this is often done for domestic political considerations (support of the party), as was, for example, in 2012, when power was handed over from the fourth generation of leaders to the fifth generation and when tensions arose with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Secondly, these developments are under full control of the authorities who keep a tight rein on them. There is every reason to believe that China will hardly make any serious moves in its territorial disputes in the short term. In general, the Chinese policy in this field has yielded the desired result – according to a recent survey studying the attitudes of Asian countries towards each other, six of the ten listed countries think positively rather than negatively about China.

Another peculiarity of China’s foreign policy, which is consonant with its national interests, is the creation of the image of a “giving state.” In Chinese political thought there are the notions of badao (“hegemonic way”) and wangdao (“kingly way”), which are rooted in the international system of East Asia that existed from the 3rd century BC to the end of the 19th century. The “hegemonic way” is a very negative state policy aimed at establishing control over neighboring countries and influencing their home and foreign policies. In this sense, all European great powers were hegemons. In addition, the current U.S. behavior in the world and Russia’s efforts to create a sphere of its influence in the post-Soviet space are nothing else but “hegemonic ways.”

In contrast, a state following the “kingly way” does not seek to impose its control over other countries but seeks to create conditions whereby countries cooperating with it get privileges and benefits. As a result, these countries themselves give the state every opportunity to establish control over them or at least get the status of “first among equals.” Some Chinese researchers believe that China’s Silk Road Economic Belt project and the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank reflect the Chinese policy of the “kingly way.” At the same time, it does not matter whether this is really so or not. What does matter is that Beijing is creating the image of a country, cooperation with which brings only advantages and mutual benefit. This policy looks much more attractive than U.S. efforts to promote democracy around the world.

Like any other country, China may make mistakes in its foreign policy, but on the whole it strictly adheres to its strategy of pursuing national interests. In simple terms, it can be described as the following sequence of moves: creating a favorable foreign-policy environment for economic development → maintaining economic growth → preserving domestic political stability and territorial integrity. In more general terms, these moves combined have two objectives: preserving the Communist Party’s rule and prolonging it for as long as possible, and transforming China into a global superpower.

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If we compare the international positions of Russia and China now and at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, we will see that the countries have kind of swapped places.

In 1991-1992, many countries looked at Russia with great hope and expectations. The country had just got rid of communist ideology; there had emerged positive tendencies in its relations with the world; and much progress had been made in relations with the West and China. Russia had moved away from its image of “evil empire” and was viewed as a country that had embarked on a path of civilized development. International financial institutions gave it generous loans for economic development. At the same time, China was still under sanctions following the events of 1989. Against the backdrop of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the world socialist system, China was seen as a close-minded, backward and totalitarian pariah state.

At the turn of 2014-2015, we see the opposite picture. Considering that initially Russia was in a more favorable situation compared to China, how come it has ended up like that?

I think the answer lies in the two countries’ definition of their national interests and priorities. The content put by Russia and China into their national interests can be compared in terms of success/failure, using their GDP figures (material aspect) and their image in the world (non-material aspect).

From 1991 to 2013, China’s GDP increased 24.3 times from $380 billion to $9 trillion. The Chinese economy grew at an average rate of 9.7 percent over the same period. In addition, the average life expectancy increased by five years from 70 to 75. Russia’s GDP over the same years grew only 4.1 times from $510 billion to $2 trillion. On average, the Russian economy grew by a mere 0.8 percent (it must be noted, however, that the 1990s were characterized by a sharp decline in production). The average life expectancy increased by only three years from 68 in 1991 to 71 in 2013.

It is hard to assess the policy of a country in terms of success/failure using its international image, as there are no clear indicators to use for that. In this case, we can look at statistics showing the attitude of various countries to Russia and China. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in February 2014, only an average of 36 percent of people in the world think positively of Russia, compared to 50 percent in China’s case.

China’s success is rooted in the narrative that it uses to define its national interests. Firstly, Beijing has changed it to meet the realities of the 21st century, when the main indicator of a country’s might is its economy rather than military power. It was due to this factor that China, even under sanctions, changed the course of events in its favor. This was a good example for Russia – instead of placing the responsibility and the blame for one’s failures on someone else, it is better to take control of one’s own destiny. Secondly, the wise Deng Xiaoping gave China good advice: “Hide our capacities and bide our time.” This policy helped Beijing create a foreign-policy environment needed for its economic development. Edward Luttwak in his book “Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace” wrote that any action by a country in the international arena causes a reaction from other countries. If a country constantly increases its defense budget or if it interferes in the affairs of other countries, this will naturally evoke fears among its neighbors and their desire to unite against a potential threat. Meanwhile, China, following Deng’s advice (at least, to date), has created a situation where other countries view its growth not as a threat but as a benefit. The emphasis constantly made by the Chinese leaders on “peaceful development” and mutually advantageous cooperation has created the image of China as a “giving state.”

What conclusions could Russia draw?

First of all, it should urgently bring its national interests into harmony with the realities of the 21st century. Naturally, the theory of realism which assigns primary importance to the pursuit of national interests is inevitable in foreign policy, but the content of these interests may change from era to era. Whereas in the 19th or early 20th century a strong army was the main indicator of a country’s power and a country could seize territories of other countries or fix its sphere of influence without regard for the opinion of the international community, such actions in the 21st century can bring only harm.

The main content of Russia’s national interest in the first half of the 21st century must be self-development, which includes general economic development, the new rise of Siberia and the Russian Far East, and the improvement of the quality of human capital. These indicators will be the main criteria by which to judge Russia as a great power.

Secondly, Russia should adopt the policy of “hiding its capacities and biding its time” for a while, meaning that it should create an image of itself as a responsible and peace-loving country, whose development can benefit the whole world. This is the so-called soft power, which any great power needs in the 21st century.

And there is one more important point. China has achieved what it has achieved, including the lifting of Western sanctions, without changing the ruling class. This factor may be one more argument in favor of Russia’s development personally for Vladimir Putin and his inner circle.