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Director of Asia Program Abraham Denmark discusses China’s rise, agenda

Courtesy of Abraham Denmark LinkedIn
Courtesy of Abraham Denmark LinkedIn

Abraham Denmark, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia and current Director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, spoke yesterday on China’s growing role in the international scene as part of the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program.

In the talk, Denmark analyzed recent trends in Chinese foreign and domestic policies to attempt to understand China’s emergent power and what a China-led world order may look like.


Denmark began by pointing out the differences between Nixon-era China and modern-day China.

“It’s easy to forget how far China has come since when President Richard Nixon and Dr. Kissinger first reached out,” Denmark said.

“At the time, few acknowledged the long-term geopolitical implications of engaging China and encouraging its rise,” Denmark said. “Those who did just spoke hopefully of China’s peaceful evolution and predicted liberalism’s eventual victory. For a time, it seemed that history was moving in this direction.”

According to Denmark, the West hoped that China would conform and contribute to the existing liberal world order. As China continued to develop, however, it has adopted its own independent agenda.

“China is emerging as a power we’ve never seen before: wealthy, technocratic, and confident national security state based on the strictures of Leninism and with ambitions driven by a force that goes beyond nationalism,” Denmark said. “While Beijing likely views its approach as benevolent and virtuous, a Chinese world order will cast aside assumptions of liberal internationalism and embrace a system founded on Chinese exceptionalism.”

Denmark pointed out two key motivating factors of China’s world order.


The first is Xi Jinping, who recently made headlines for abolishing the presidential term limit. To emphasize Xi’s potential influence on China, Denmark quoted three phases of Chinese socialism: “under Mao, China stood up; under Deng, China grew rich; under Xi, China will become strong.”

The second is the party itself. China’s goal, Denmark explained, is to ensure that the Chinese Communist Party can pursue its interests without any obstacles.

Similarly, a key attribute of China’s foreign policy, Denmark explained, is that it is almost exclusively motivated by domestic concerns.

“There’s no discussion in China of Manifest Destiny,” Denmark said. “Their ambitions are much more narrow.”

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Such a narrow focus comes from cultural precedence as well as from China’s dynastic history.

Denmark then went over a few more specific examples of China’s interactions with other nations, including the United States’s commitment to its alliances in the Asia-Pacific region, Taiwan’s ambiguous status in relation to China, and the recent focus on diplomacy with North Korea.

In regard to U.S.-China relations, Denmark emphasized that the relationship shouldn’t be hostile, stressing that the relationship should not be like the one between the United States and USSR during the Cold War.

"Our goal should not be to win, whatever that means, but to find a way to live together with China, in a way that allows both societies to flourish," he said.

The question-and-answer session focused on the growing competition between the United States and China.

The talk, titled “Beyond Nationalism: Considering a Chinese World Order,” took place in Robertson Hall on Wednesday, April 18, at 4:30 p.m.