Chinese relational constructivism

Shanghai, China. Image by Vineet Pal


The dynamics of global geopolitics are constantly changing and evolving, and The events that lead China to increasingly assert itself as world leader reveal a lot to us about this change

The Constructivist theory of International Relations, as an integral part of contemporary theories in the area, primarily contests the dominant Realist paradigm in International Relations studies, as well as its perspective of immutability of the anarchic condition of the international system and the epistemic primacy given to the essential dichotomy of war versus peace.

In addition to these criticisms, constructivist theory offers a change of parameters by placing relationships as the basic unit of analysis, inaugurating a new metatheoretical field that denies the ontological advance of any of the actors in the international system, arguing that they all implicate, create and influence each other. in a mutual and concomitant way, thus rethinking the production of internationalist knowledge itself.

The establishment of this dialectical relationship expands our horizon of observation and makes us understand the behavior of States beyond the cost-benefit calculation, incorporating the space-time factor into the analysis and showing us that national interests are not given, but change to suit each other. adapt to the new conditions of the international system.

Based on this theory, the Chinese political scientist and theorist, Qin Yaqing, builds his own constructivist approach, based on the concept of international society or society of States, originating from the English School. However, by understanding the practices of this society from the Chinese point of view, he ends up differentiating his theory from the English school itself and the Western vision. The author calls this constructivist theory with Chinese characteristics the name Relational Theory, Integrative Theory or Interactive Theory.

The Chinese understanding of the interactivity of States within international society is defined as a process in constant movement, a construction. Inspired by the idea of ​​complementarity of Confucian philosophy, which starts from the assumption of harmony intrinsic to all things, and in the Ying Yang, where opposites live in balance and provide living conditions for each other, Qin Yaqing's constructivism establishes the integrative and relational character of interactions within the society of States.

In other words, the synthesis of the relationship between opposites would not be the result of the opposition of a thesis and an antithesis, which culminates in homogenization through the elimination or absorption of the other, according to Western thought; but rather, it would be the result of the creation of a non-exclusive environment, which brings together a little bit of everyone and enhances everyone's existence, since it is only possible to exist in relation to the other. Thus, we can observe how actors' relationships are defined and changed by the context in a scenario of complex connections, opposing the Western trend that seeks to define international society as a homogeneous and universal entity.

The Chinese vision combines multiple entities and identities into a communicative network, which seeks to adapt to the challenges and opportunities of the modern world, providing greater possibilities for dialogue in the complex geopolitical chessboard.

Constructivism offers a different perspective from classical theories to understand International Relations and, even more so in its Chinese aspect, to understand the contractual sphere of the New Silk Road, as it focuses on how social structures and interactions shape interests and actions of the States. This method also allows us to examine not only the concrete objectives of the initiative, but also how it reflects and seeks to reshape norms, values ​​and perceptions at a global level.

The new silk road under construction

A Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Belt and Road Initiative, or New Silk Road, is one of the most ambitious development and economic integration initiatives of the 2013st century. Launched by China in XNUMX, the Belt and Road Initiative extends across continents and involves an extensive network of infrastructure projects and investments in more than 60 countries, with the initial objective of recreating the ancient commercial routes of the traditional Silk Road, however, the substantial Chinese investments for its design and the promises of local development after its consolidation, heightened the interest of several other countries outside the Euro-Afro-Asian axis, which maximized its reach beyond the old routes and extended its ventures even to Latin America.

Given the Belt and Road Initiative an initiative of great effort to redefine economic and geopolitical interactions in this century, China positions the project as an innovative model of international cooperation due to its objectives of development and infrastructural connectivity, carried out through “six corridors, six routes”, which create a multidimensional network of different levels, with the construction of railways, highways, seaports and digital communication networks, with the installation of 5G networks; integration and sustainable economic growth, with the potential to create new opportunities and strengthen ties between nations by considering the disparities in development of each one of them, in addition to promoting regional economic cooperation and transcending ideologies and geographic borders, through cultural exchange and free movement of people, goods and capital.

By analyzing the Chinese reports published since 2012 and endorsed by both the former general secretary of the Communist Party of China, Hu Jintao, and the current general secretary, Xi Jinping, in their speeches, we can finally understand and summarize the objectives above into a single and specific one: Form a “global community with a shared future”, based on values ​​such as mutualism, inclusion and shared benefits, seeking to build a more interconnected and prosperous future for all.

The strength of relationships on route

When thinking about the feasibility of a project of this magnitude, in contractual terms, we readily assume the drafting of extensive and intricate contracts; with definitive clauses that clearly determine duties to do and not to do, strict conditions for granting loans to promote projects, as well as deadlines, targets and values ​​for their settlement; in addition to the provision of sanctions for both parties in case of non-compliance or breach of any of the terms of the agreement. However, using contracts in a different way to the models usually used by countries within the international system is China.

The requirement to sign a simple bilateral Memorandum of Understanding to enter the New Silk Road challenges the pre-conceived parameters of international agreements, which often impose uniform conditions, without taking into account local particularities, and leads to a change in the economic order. neoliberal from Qin Yaqing's relational constructivist perspective.

The preparation of this entry memorandum, with very few paragraphs (only six), and with comprehensive clauses aimed, almost entirely, at integration and cooperation (the word cooperation appears 41 times in a document of just nine pages), largely converges with the Chinese constructivist perspective and with Qin Yaqing's vision of global governance, which considers the construction of a relationship of trust between the parties to be of utmost importance, therefore not requiring the establishment of rules and norms rigid rules that, ordinarily, focus on controlling the individual behavior of actors (States), who, in return, adhere to these rules according to their interests.

Global governance from a constructivist-relational perspective sees rules, norms, and the formation of institutions as the result of processes that are in constant movement and guidelines that are uninterruptedly defined and redefined according to the relationships that actors build reciprocally. , exchanging the logic of control for the logic of negotiation.

Based on this premise, we can understand another of the main characteristics of the agreements and contracts of the Belt and Road Initiative, its flexible approach. The defense of adaptable memoranda of understanding allows adjustments according to national conditions and their particular needs, this process being essential to accommodate the political, economic and legal diversity of the countries involved. The relationships construct the behavior of the actors within the agreement (actors in motion) and the actors constitute the processes and establish rules among themselves (relations in motion). This flexibility shows a pragmatic understanding of geopolitics and economics, seeing conflict situations not as determinants, but as transitory oppositions resolved through interaction between the parties, facilitating cooperation and the execution of projects in a multiform world.

The initiative is an alternative proposed to replace the individual and competitive development that the West encourages; There is much to be gained by seeking integrated development with other countries, in a mentality of mutual benefit and common good. A Belt and Road Initiative This is, in practice, what Qin's constructivist theory proposes as an alternative to the Western approach, by proposing integration and exchange across a varied set of agendas. Peace, prosperity, openness, innovation and social progress are areas outlined in the preparation of the document, and in these agendas, the formulation of the policy-making is an open letter, in which all member countries are invited to participate.

The conception of norms and rules is demarcated, in this recent document, as a joint activity between countries and China, a factor that generates great criticism of the Belt and Road Initiative, and it is an activity that is also in continuous processing. All of these creations of norms, rules and procedures are made through bilateral agreements, reinforcing once again the constructivist characteristic of actors acting in a relational way.

Also in a continuous process is the construction of economic corridors that trace the Belt and Road Initiative and the structure necessary to support them. Its function and purpose are in accordance with the nature of relations between the countries included in these respective corridors. Words such as facilitation and “non-impediment” appear, pointing to the Chinese constructivist characteristic of not excluding different or antagonistic people. Finally, the document positions, on several occasions, integration and cooperation as fundamental for peace and the well-being of civilizations, where development, economic prosperity, poverty eradication, among others, are placed as global objectives and not as objectives of just some.

When analyzing all these characteristics, the deep alignment between the approach proposed by Belt and Road Initiative and the characteristics theorized by Qin Yaqing in his Chinese constructivism.

Shared future or imperialist project?

The New Silk Road is the enterprise most deeply linked to the Chinese idea of ​​a “global community with a shared future”, a concept that, for many authors, summarizes the essence of Chinese civilization and aims to value, through diplomatic relations, the extraordinary achievements of all civilizations, crystallizing values ​​shared by all, despite coming from different regions with different cultures and beliefs. However, when the concept and philosophical thought materialize into practical actions, mainly in the economic sphere, with China making million-dollar investments in extremely poor countries, other geopolitical aspects begin to be observed and questioned by the international community.

Firstly, it is necessary to understand that two thirds of world trade has China as its main partner, according to research by the World Bank. Additionally, China is one of the largest loan providers in the world, having surpassed the trillion dollar figure in 2020 according to the AidData Research Institute. The World Bank also estimates that the new Silk Road will represent a sharp reduction in the costs of international trade and, in addition to economic indicators, the implementation of the initiative will extend Beijing's influence across almost the entire globe. It is in this panorama that we see the establishment of discussions about China's true intentions, which question whether its search is truly for commercial partnerships and shared growth or whether the country is using the initiative as a strategy of domination through the countries' debt.

During the Cold War, the ideological and security dimensions were widely emphasized by the United States of America, the main representative of capitalism and neoliberalism in the world, and these ideologies spread quickly across the globe, encouraged by the “end of history”, with the fall of socialism. in Eastern European countries, giving even more compelling reasons to defenders of neoliberalism to consider it as the only possible way to promote development.

Loans granted to countries by international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, were approved if certain conditions or “structural adjustment requirements” were met, which included austerity programs involving cuts in government spending, cuts in social programs and reduction in the size of the public sector; government deregulations on the economy, facilitating the entry of foreign companies and promoting free competition; privatizations supported by the argument of increasing efficiency and competitiveness; opening the economy to international trade, reducing tariffs and trade barriers, also allowing the entry and exit of foreign investments more freely and the adherence to a restrictive monetary policy to control inflation, with an increase in interest rates, for example.

All these policies implemented without taking into account the particularities, mainly of the poorest countries, as proposed by Qin's relational theory, exacerbated existing problems and created new challenges, such as economic dependence, social, economic and political instability, and the increase in unemployment and poverty, especially after the oil shock. The neoliberal system still continued to show its vulnerability by suffering successive crises after this one, leaving the poorest countries without any room for maneuver. Furthermore, other ideological alignments were necessary despite not being concrete requirements, such as the country having a democratic republican government, respecting individual freedoms and being aligned with human rights practices.

It is in this gap of weakening multilateral cooperation mechanisms and the relative inability of the United States to provide solutions to local demands, that China positions itself as an alternative capable of supplying demand, both for raw materials markets and for investments in infrastructure. , contributing to overcoming a historical bottleneck that has existed since the Cold War, not demanding from countries that want the partnership any type of economic-structural adjustment, change in the form of government, execution of any political-ideological turn, or alignment automatic its communist ideology, privileging the economic scope of relations through bilateral contracts that can be renegotiated according to time, events, and the wishes of both parties, aligning its commercial practices with the integrative theory developed by Qin.

Precisely because of their flexible nature and without many demands, the company’s contracts Belt and Road Initiative are harshly criticized by international analysts who claim that such substantial loans made to countries with such dramatic financial situations will become unpayable, causing countries to fall into the so-called “debt trap”, a concept described by Indian geostrategist, columnist and author Brahma Chellaney , which describes how such debts will make these countries vulnerable to Beijing's demands, given that, if they are unable to pay their debts, they will have to give up control of key assets or the management of projects under their financing to China, making the country creditor absorbs a gigantic infrastructure network spread across the world, carrying out its imperialist intentions.

Such assumptions are based, to a large extent, on the confidentiality clauses of Chinese contracts, which make them unpublishable, but confidential between the contracting parties, which, for Western countries, immediately makes detailed analysis of their kind unfeasible, raising doubts about its legality, veracity and transparency, but which, for China, guarantees the security of the parties and the readjustable nature of contracts.

The contradiction in the specific case

Regarding the debt trap, analysts critical of China cite the example of Sri Lanka, a small island country, which, after acquiring loans between 2007, before the launch of the BRI, and 2014, in the amount of more than US$1,5 billion, used for the construction of a port in the city of Hambantota, ceded a 70% controlling stake in the project to the Chinese state-owned China Merchants, on a 99-year lease in exchange for a significant debt reduction in addition to new Chinese investments.

At the time, taking political ownership of the “debt trap” concept, the then US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, on a visit to Sri Lanka in 2020, accused China of acting illegally, violating the country's sovereignty, and declared yet “the United States acts differently, as a friend and partner, promoting Sri Lanka’s freedom, independence, and support for sustainable development.” China responded that it would not comment on the speeches as it was busy promoting China-Sri Lanka friendship, relationship and cooperation and Sri Lanka, in turn, spoke out saying it was no stranger to geopolitical games and ratifying its policy of non-alignment .

Three years later, the two countries released a joint statement agreeing to sign the Memorandum of Understanding, with Sri Lanka reiterating its full partnership with China, which, in return, confirmed its willingness to reach an agreement on debt treatment, as well such as the willingness to continue investing in the country's sustainable development.

Conflicting analyzes of Sri Lanka's internal situation also fuel the countries' distrust. There are verifications that market debts, added to those of the World Bank, represent half of the country's debt, in addition to representing higher total values ​​because they are indexed in euros, or in dollars, with China not being its largest creditor under these conditions. Other analyzes show that the country's bilateral debt with China reaches 51% of its total amount, making China its largest creditor. This inconsistency is often generated by the incommunicability of some contracts signed between countries, which makes it difficult to accurately verify the amounts borrowed.

Despite the lack of information and the consummation of the transfer of the port to the Chinese state-owned company, other factors indicate that the “debt trap” may be a fallacy used by the West to once again evoke political-ideological dimensions in the recreation of the bipolar world.

After the feasibility analysis of the port in Hambantota, carried out by Canada, the project for its construction was offered to several countries, such as Canada itself, the United States and India, which refused. With China being the only interested party, work began. Once completed, the performance of the project was far below what was projected, becoming a “white elephant” and generating enormous losses for the small nation, with its leasing being recommended, also by Canada, to mitigate costs.

The administration of the port was once again offered to several countries, with the only two offers also coming from China, through the companies China Merchants and China Harbor. Sri Lanka chose the first, which became the majority shareholder, and used the US$1,12 billion remittance to reinforce its dollar reserves, not to pay the Chinese financier.

Another characteristic, pointed out by the president of Sri Lanka and negotiator of the cession agreement, Maithripala Sirisena, is that there was no default, but rather negotiation between the parties, so that the lease also included debt reduction, evoking the relational essence of contracts .

Furthermore, Chinese companies are not the only ones to benefit from the project. India has teamed up with the United Kingdom, through engineering companies, to write a long-term design for the Port in Hambantota, in addition to the development of a new business zone. French companies have partnered with China Merchants and China Harbor to develop ports in Nigeria, Cameroon and other African countries, showing us how BRI projects can bring together countless state and non-state actors around shared goals.

Leaving Sri Lanka and moving on to a larger-scale analysis, statistics from the World Bank and the IMF show that almost three-quarters of Africa's total external debt is contained in multilateral financial institutions and commercial creditors, that is, loans are still carried out within of the neoliberal structure, while, in return, China forgave at least 3 billion in debts of African countries until 4, with Zambia being the biggest beneficiary during this period.

China confirmed that it will continue to support African countries in improving their infrastructure conditions through financing, investment and assistance projects, once again reinforcing the value of relations and its commitment to achieving the “global community with a shared future” .

Geopolitical resets in motion

The dynamics of global geopolitics are constantly changing and evolving, and the events that lead China to increasingly assert itself as world leader reveal a lot to us about this change. It and other countries have become increasingly sophisticated in negotiations with each other, as well as more independent on the international stage, with China demonstrating that it is a superpower that “understands” the developing world.

Qin Yaqing's constructivist approach provides us with the apparatus to understand the flexible nature of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), highlighting in theoretical terms how ideas, norms and identities shape the formation of international policies, decisions and strategies of the actors involved at Belt and Road Initiative.

Qin Yaqing argues that the Belt and Road Initiative is not just an economic project, but also a project of identity and power construction, where states and non-state actors seek to assert their position and influence on the global stage not only motivated by material interests, suggesting that global policies are not merely dictated by market logic, but are also influenced by shared narratives, perceptions and values.

In this scenario, the flexibility of the company’s contracts Belt and Road Initiative can be understood as a response to relational dynamics, reflecting the ability of the actors involved to adapt and negotiate different interests and values, in contrast to neoliberal practices that tend to simplify international relations, emphasizing the primacy of the market and the rationality of individual actors .

This broader understanding of international relations has important implications for the practice of global politics, assuming that it is not or is necessarily predetermined, but can be shaped and transformed through public diplomacy efforts, coalition building and consensus formation. through open and active dialogue.

*Joyce Cipriano Victurino is a graduate student in Science and Humanities and International Relations at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC).


QIN, Yaqing. International Society as a Process: Institutions, Identities, and China's Peaceful Rise. The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 3, 2010.

QIN, Yaqing. International Society as a Process: Institutions, Identities, and China's Peaceful Rise. The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 3, 2010.

THE PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF CHINA; The State Council Information Office. The Belt and Road Initiative: A Key Pillar of the Global Community of Shared Future. Available in:

FLOURS, Giselle. Analysis of the new Chinese silk road – One belt and road initiative. Migalhas, 06 Sep. 2021. Available at:–one-belt-and-road-initiative

WU, Lunting. China's Transition From the Belt and Road to the Global Development Initiative. The Diplomat, 11 July. 2023. Available at:

Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the Portuguese Republic and the Government of the People's Republic of China on Cooperation under the Silk Road Economic Belt Initiative and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Obtained from:

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