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Chinese Centralities

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As the Chinese renaissance unfolds and profoundly modifies the structure of international relations, it is the terminology of network analysis more than the usual vocabulary of political science which provides the tools to apprehend the nature of China's global posture, for while Washington explicitly pursues leadership, the concept of centrality explains Beijing's actions.

If, especially protective of its sovereignty, Beijing refuses to yield to the injunctions of any external power, China's grand strategy does not aim to replace the U.S. as the leader of the community of nations but, in a singular attitude congenial with the values of its civilization and the patterns of its history, she is already one of the most significant nodes of the global network of politics, business and ideas, gradually but ineluctably moving the world's center of gravity.

Zhong -- 中, or centrality -- is one of the most ancient and common Chinese characters and, in an analogy which sheds a light on China's global modus operandi, its polysemy in the Chinese historical and cultural context mirrors three important measures of centrality in the field of graph theory.

Zhong has first a well known spatial connotation. While the two characters for Japan -- riben, 日本 -- which literally mean "sun's origin," the source of the expression "Land of the Rising Sun," imply a location in the east of the Chinese continent, while Vietnam -- Southern Viet -- is named in reference to its northern neighbor, China, zhongguo -- 中国 -- presents itself to the world as the Middle Country. In the perspective of graph theory, sinocentrism is synonymous with a high degree centrality, the Middle Country is standing as an immense geographic hub with numerous direct links to a vast periphery.

Second, zhong can be interpreted in a metaphoric sense as a nexus or a bridge. In the traditional Chinese representation of the world often referred as the Five Elements, wood, fire, metal and water correspond to the four cardinal points while a fifth element, earth, is associated with the center, a medium through which the fundamental principles are in relation. In this acception, zhong is the equivalent of what network analysis defines as betweenness centrality where the quantity of links matters less than the capacity to connect nodes which would be otherwise unconnected. In that sense, China is the Connector Country.

Third, zhong envelops a moral dimension introduced by The Doctrine of the Mean -- Zhong Yong, 中庸 -, one of the Four Books which constitute the foundations of the Confucian philosophy: "The superior man cultivates harmony without being weak -- how firm is he in his force of character! He stands erect in the middle without inclining to either side -- how firm is he in his force of character!"

When network analysis appreciates the closeness centrality of a node, it looks at its direct or indirect simultaneous relations with all the other nodes, it models what is at an ethical level impartiality, a capacity to remain relatively close with all the parties, arguably the most important quality of an effective mediator. This third variation on the theme of zhong introduces to China as the Pivot Country.

Therefore, the name China -- zhongguo -- can be analyzed into three concepts along the lines of zhong's polysemy which respectively covers three functions: the Middle Country, the Connector Country and the Pivot Country.

By definition, the Middle Country has a 360-degree outlook and its foreign relations are multidirectional. China does not target any special relationship with the West nor with any other actors, but she is at ease in an environment where she can evolve in conjunction with a plurality of forces. At the opposite of the G2 paradigm where Beijing would enter into an exclusive bipolar relation with the U.S., China both endorses and induces multipolarity, an arrangement in which she can maximize the advantages of its high degree centrality.

While the U.S. views itself as the "indispensable nation," the Connector Country has de facto become the "necessary nation" of the global village, in finance, international trade, supply chain, tourism or education China is an unavoidable partner, the essential catalyst for economic growth and business activity.

Following Deng Xiaoping's opening-up, globalization is defined to a large extent by the interrelations between China's transformation and the world. In the document published by the Information Office of the State Council in September 2011 entitled China's peaceful development, this unprecedented interdependence is explicitly underlined: "China can not develop itself in isolation from the rest of the world, and global prosperity and stability cannot be maintained without China."

In diplomacy, the Connector Country functions as a power broker. Able to maintain good relations with both Iran and Israel, as well as with Tehran and Riyadh, Beijing is increasingly perceived in the Middle East as a factor of stability, by having simultaneous relations with North Korea, South Korea and the U.S., China is the key parameter in the Northeast Asian equation.

In a sector which deserves great attention, the United Nations peacekeeping missions, the Connector Country is playing an increasing role and brings with her inclusiveness and impartiality.

The Chinese idiosyncratic cultivation of centrality contrasts with the American proactive quest for leadership. While in the name of universal values the West missionary zeal justifies interference but turns out to be too often divisive, the Pivot Country inspired by the principles of conciliation develops what can be called a purposeful neutrality.

In 1951 American poet and critic Ezra Pound (1885-1972) published a new English edition of the Zhong Yong where The Doctrine of the Mean became in an insightful rendering The Unwobbling Pivot. Six years later, the then secretary-general of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld, "the greatest statesman of our century" in the words of John F. Kennedy, sent a letter to Ezra Pound in which he acknowledged a strong sympathy for the themes developed in the Confucian classic.

Since China's centrality and American leadership operate differently on the grand chessboard of world politics, the current mistrust which marks the Sino-Western relations does not have to generate sterile tensions or to escalate into conflicts, China will be attentive to connect with the American entrepreneurial and innovative society while it would be a colossal strategic miscalculation for the U.S. to try to shape a world which would exclude what the Chinese renaissance has to offer. In the 20th century, interdependence was still contingent, in the 21st century it has imposed itself as a vital and irreversible reality.

If technology has reduced distance, the renewed life of the Chinese civilization within the global village is enlarging its horizon and invites to explore new territories where all mankind can live in peace and prosper. On a small planet but within an expanding world of ideas, there is not only space for the Chinese intelligence of centrality and the Western urge for transformational leadership to coexist, but a growing need for the two to cross-fertilize.

David Gosset is director of the Academia Sinica Europaea at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), Shanghai, Beijing & Accra, and founder of the Euro-China Forum.