Historical trajectory of China’s rise and the West’s response: Perspectives from Ditchley’s Conferences.

By Nathaniel Ocquaye

Nathaniel Ocquaye completed his MSc in International Relations at the LSE and is currently a research assistant at the Global South unit of LSE IDEAS. The views expressed here are the authors.


In 1964, just two years after Ditchley was established, the first conference on China was held to examine ‘British and American policies towards China’. Ever since, twenty-two more conferences have been held on China (or related to China) to discuss, analyse, and offer recommendations on China’s rising power and place within the Western world order. This paper examines the broad, significant themes in the conferences on China to show the transformations that have taken place in: (1) China and its rise in the liberal international order, (2) Western narratives/discussions on China’s rise at Ditchley, and (3) Ditchley and the participants on the conferences held on China. The paper will show that China’s rise has been reviewed by Ditchley conferences with in-depth analysis of key issues in China’s domestic and external affairs often resulting in sound policy ideas and influenced the publication of cutting-edge research on China that shaped the West’s approach. The paper will also show that Ditchley conferences held on China have often anticipated changes that then occurred and reiterated the idea of ‘certainty in uncertainty’. That is, even though participants generally agree that it is difficult to make predictions on China due to a lack of transparency in the central administration, these same participants have often been right in their predictions, analysis, suspicions, and recommendations. The Director’s Notes on each conference often include conclusions that have proved true over the years. Finally, this paper also highlights the progression made by conference participants illustrating the sustained engagement with expertise over the years.  

A scene from Ditchley and Asia.

The U.S created a network of allies and partners (e.g., Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Philippines) after the Second World War to lay the foundations for a new international order. Sir David Wills created The Ditchley Foundation, ‘to support the Transatlantic Alliance between the United States and Europe by bringing decision makers and experts together in a unique and inspiring setting’. One of the most topical issues at Ditchley has been China and its rise in the American led order. The consistency with which issues on China have been discussed bear witness to the fact that the West suspected that China could be a likely contender of Western supremacy on the world stage. Since 1964, when the first conference on China was held at Ditchley, each of the discussions held for more than five decades have chimed with policy formulation in the West on China. Additionally, many prominent scholars have also attended and contributed to these conferences: Hedley Bull, Rosemary Foot, Bobo Lo, David Shambaugh, Joseph S. Nye Jnr, Todd Hall, Peter Ferdinand, Michael Yahuda, David Lampton, Jessica Chen Weiss amongst others. The conferences on China have mainly discussed economic, political, military, social and environmental issues and how these ‘Chinese issues’ fit in or challenge the American led order. In the next sections below, I first present a quick analysis of significant trends in the Ditchley conferences on China. Next, I present an account of the historical trajectory of China’s rise and responses from the West as discussed at Ditchley. Finally, I offer a brief conclusion on the rise of China.

In focus…

Sir David Wills (1917-1999)

Born in 1917, Sir David Wills was a generous philanthropist whose best-known venture is the Ditchley Foundation. His daughter Dr Catherine Wills, a member of the Council of Management and his widow Lady Eva Wills, Life President remain closely involved in the Foundation.


The Ditchley conferences on and related to China, held for a period of more than five decades, reveal changes in the substance and focus of discussions depending on the international context (e.g., Cold War and post-Cold War era). First, trends in the conferences reveal that Chinese participants have increasingly been involved in the discussions. During the early years of the conferences (1964-1995), most participants were from the West with occasional additions from Russia and Hong Kong. However, Chinese participants, have been increasingly involved since 1998 when there was one participant on board the conference ‘China and its neighbours’, in the person of Ambassador Cheng Ruisheng - Deputy Director-General, China Centre for International Studies. Thereafter, there has been representation of participants from China, with their numbers increasing.

Second, the problem of Taiwan initially received much attention (1964-2008). Part of the reasons for increased attention on Taiwan during this period was due to the independence agenda that the island sought, which the US supported. However, assessments of the Taiwan quest for independence produced divergent opinions amongst participants at Ditchley. Agreement was never easily reached on how to handle the Taiwan problem in the face of growing Chinese economic and military power and was as such postponed many times. Moreover, China’s economic power quickly defeated the Taiwan dollar diplomacy by which Taiwan offered financial aid to countries that recognised Taipei instead of Beijing. Since the late 1990s till about 2020, Beijing has gradually used its economic leverage to gain diplomatic recognition of 53 out of the 54 African states, the exception being Eswatini which still maintains diplomatic ties with Taipei. Thus, leaving Taipei with little diplomatic recognition as a state within the international community.

Relatedly, the conferences have also toned down on the then Soviet threat to China (e.g., through border disputes with China for example). The Soviet Union was a very important point of discussion during the Cold War years [see section (1) below for detailed discussions]. However, in the post-Cold War era, China already becoming a pragmatic actor, discussions tended to examine the prospects of the marriage of convenience between Russia and China – two former rivals. The general notion has been that the two countries could achieve no meaningful or significant cooperation as compared to the relations between Western Europe and North America for instance.

Third, the link between economic reform and political reform has been a consistent topic that cuts across almost all the conferences held on and related to China (e.g., Ditchley, 1989, 2014). There has always been a debate about the possibility of democratisation in China as a feature of economic growth. This influenced the strategy of engagement by Western nations in the 1990s with an expectation of increasing the prospects of democracy in the People's Republic of China (PRC). One of the main features of the US-China relationship is that the economies of the two countries became so intertwined resulting from increased trade volumes since the 1970s. Though China has not become a democracy after all these years of strategic coupling, analysis of internal developments in the PRC presented at the conferences show that there has been some modicum of democratisation in terms of devolution to the provinces, increased flexibility, increased representation in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and general sensitivity to public opinion as well as allowing some amount of freedom of expression on social and economic issues. After all, it is logical that if the political legitimacy of the CCP is rooted in economic performance, then citizens should at least be allowed to engage in economic discussions.


Ambassador Cheng Ruisheng – Deputy Director-General, China Centre for International Studies was the first Chinese participant to attend Ditchley’s ‘China and its neighbours’ conference in 1998.

Fourth, discussions on China and the Asian region have also constantly emphasized the importance of the security umbrella provided by the US. Discussions have emphasised that providing a counterbalancing presence in Asia (by the US) and maintaining good relations with partners like Japan, South Korea, and India is essential to maintaining regional stability and peace (e.g., Ditchley, 1964; 1984; 2014). Constantly, evidence has been provided and the argument has been made that China’s (and Asia’s rise in general) rise and the economic progress of Asia in general has been anchored by the ‘overall security umbrella provided by the US in the region (Ditchley, 2010; 2015) – [e.g., stemming off the Soviet threat during the Cold War, keeping North Korea in check and still a force to counter present day Chinese (and Russian) adventurism in Asia]. The 2014 conference on ‘Power rivalries in Asia: towards a new arms race?’ considered that there was an ‘almost universal perception among Asian countries outside China that the US presence and military strength in the region were vital for future stability, and their consequent welcome for the US pivot, or rebalancing’. The desire for a continued US presence was described as due to ‘the opaque nature of much of China’s decision-making machinery, and the lack of transparency about military capabilities and intentions, combined with the perception of greater Chinese assertiveness in the region in recent years, …(posing) major obstacles to greater trust and co-operation’ (Ditchley, 2014).

Furthermore, though the conferences have sought to discuss the relationship between the West and China as the latter rises in the American-led international order, much emphasis has been put on the US amongst all Western countries. The US has been singled out as the most important actor in relation to China. Many a time, the conferences note how the US has often been left alone in tackling issues on China like human rights abuses (e.g., Ditchley, 1998). Thus, ‘it was fairly observed that the focus of Chinese discontent upon the United States sometimes reflected the fact that other Western actors tended to take refuge in leaving the United States to speak for all on “awkward” issues’ (Ditchley, 1998). Yet as some participants suggested, ‘given the colonial history, European countries were better off continuing to take a back seat’ though they are an important trading partner to China (Ditchley, 2012). Thus, US-China relations and how to attain a framework of cooperation between the two giants has been the pivot of almost all the discussions on and related to China/Asia with a particular allocation of greater responsibility, amongst all Western countries, to the US in dealing with the PRC.

Finally, at Ditchley, discussion has often proved prophetic. Much of the analysis, discussion and speculations raised in twenty-three conferences held on China have proved true over the years. For instance, China’s use of coal and the negative impact on climate change was highlighted in the 2008 conference held on ‘China, energy, and the environment’. Moreover, analysis of Chinese economic power mostly indicated that China could eventually become an assertive power where its interests were concerned.  Interestingly, these predictions often shaped the subsequent conferences and resulting recommendations. A good example to illustrate this would be the two consecutive conferences held on the ‘Balance of Power in Asia’ in 1976 and 1978. To a large extent the 1978 conference built on the earlier propositions made in the 1976 conference [see section (1) below for an elaboration].

It is also interesting to note that conference participants tend to be experts, diplomats or academics (as well as media representatives) with extensive knowledge on China. Specifically, about 98% of the Conference Chairs were key officials in government: ranging from ambassadors to political advisers. E.g., the Chair, in the person of The Lord Powell of Bayswater KCMG- Member (Crossbench), House of Lords, for the 2015 conference on ‘China: economic growth and political reform’ was formerly the Private Secretary and Foreign Affairs Adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1983-90) and Prime Minister John Major (1990-91). The majority of them had also been previous ambassadors to China or Hong Kong. For example, Sir Alan Donald KCMG - Retired from HM Diplomatic Service as Ambassador to People’s Republic of China (1988-91) who Chaired the 1992 conference on ‘China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan’

There was also The Lord Wilson of Tillyorn GCMG - Life Peer (1992); Governor and Commander-in-Chief, Hong Kong (1987-92) who Chaired two conferences [1993 Western relations with the People’s Republic of China & 1995 China after Deng: policy implications].

It should therefore not be surprising if you sense a strong correlation between the discussions held at Ditchley on China and the actual policies that were undertaken by the West in response to China’s rise.


The sections below examine Western narratives/discussions on China’s rise at Ditchley from  1964 to 2021.

Western Discussions on China’s rise at Ditchley

1. The Cold War Era: From Clash of Ideologies to Pragmatism [1964-1978]

The first Ditchley conference on China was held in 1964 to examine ‘British and American policies towards China’.

The conference noted that ‘China is the central problem of the far east’. This was in the light of the view that the problems in Asia were caused by the withdrawal of Western administration coupled with the general instability and domestic political and economic weaknesses. The CCP and its communist ideology was considered to have exacerbated the situation. China was considered a problem at this time because of its inimical attitude towards the West: in promoting communism and fuelling the anti-colonial movements in the Third World. Chairman Mao was a vocal advocate of the liberation of southern Africa from white oppression. China was also considered to be covertly supporting communist leaders in Third World countries like Angola and Ghana. In the 1970s, China built the TanZam railway at the bequest of Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda and Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere. The railway was built to break Zambia’s dependence on the Rhodesia and South Africa and enable Zambia to transport its copper to the Da er Salaam port in Tanzania. Unsurprisingly, China became the so-called leader of the present-day Global South- a term referring to states with a similar cultural, economic, and political experience. The solidarity between China and Global South countries has greatly increased over the decades.

Professor David Shambaugh and Professor Michael Yahuda each attended five of the China conferences starting from 1989. At the 1989 conference, they were both Dr (as title), but by the 1998 conference, Dr Yahuda became Professor Yahuda and Dr Shambaugh became Professor Shambaugh by the 2004 conference.

Both of them are key experts on China and the International Relations of Asia. Indeed, they co-edited the book ‘International Relations of Asia’ first published in 2008.

China, it was noted, was a paradox, in being both weak and strong. Weaknesses were evident in China’s underdeveloped military apparatus and the persistent problems in the agricultural sector (that had caused significant famine after the launch of the Great Leap Forward). Consequently, Chinese foreign policy was expected to avoid any direct clashes with the US while not investing any significant resources in foreign exchange or expertise.

Yet, there was an expectation that Chinese objectives would be inimical to the West: this involved pushing the US out of her periphery by, for example, encouraging the non-aligned movement in Cambodia or Nepal. It was also expected (given its history) China would surely support anti-colonialist movements and anti-American sentiments. Thus, attracting more communist followers to Beijing rather than Moscow, after the souring of relations between Russia and China.

Even though territorial disputes with India and Russia were discussed, more focus was put on the territories of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao. However, it was often agreed that those territories would be reclaimed through negotiation rather than by force. This was a more realistic assertion stemming from the military and economic weaknesses of the PRC. Moreover, China’s geopolitical position was expected to give ‘China and Chinese diplomacy force and influence out of all proportion to China’s economic or military power vis-à-vis the West’ (Ditchley, 1964). Thus, as early as 1964, there were strong suspicions from Ditchley’s conferences that China would exert much control over the countries in South-East Asia, having already been in the act of manipulating political conditions in its neighbouring countries.

The solution, the conference agreed, to the problem of China was to keep a heavy ‘American military presence in the area’.

Prior to China’s admittance to the UN in 1971, Ditchley held a conference on Sino-Soviet and Sino-Western relations’  in 1970. One critical issue was the recognition of China and how best to resolve the Taiwan issue. The US was to play the leading role in resolving this crisis as the conference generally agreed that the PRC should be officially recognised as the legitimate government of China. Although, there were propositions for a dual recognition of both the PRC and Taiwan, many participants felt this would escalate tensions and not be welcomed by China. Consequently, it was more expedient to give the UN seat to China than to provide two seats in the UN for Beijing and Taipei, which was argued to be useless as those seats would remain unoccupied.

In terms of military capacity, China had ‘since 1959…made a conscious, and consistently maintained, decision to develop…advanced nuclear weapons and defensively oriented conventional militia forces’ (Ditchley, 1970). This decision stemmed from the Soviet threat and was likely to make China not interested in any ‘international discussions on conventional or nuclear arms limitation’ till attaining a military apparatus comparable with the Soviet Union and the US (Ditchley, 1970). The West was strongly encouraged considering the above situation to engage China economically and politically. The Asian region required security and stability and the US had the most important role to strengthen relations with Japan to help maintain stability.

China’s geographic position is so complex and broad that it would be impossible to consider Asian stability without having to centre much on China (shares borders with 14 countries). The Sino-Soviet tensions coupled with China’s potential for a regional hegemon status spurred two consecutive conferences at Ditchley on ‘the Balance of Power in Asia’  (1976 & 1978).

First, border disputes with the Soviet Union resulting from the unequal treaties, (a legacy of Western imperialism), was a persistent problem in the region. The different strands of communism in the two countries coupled with competition for the communist movement further exacerbated tensions. Added to this was the notion that the Soviets were not really Asians while the Chinese were clearly Asians. Yet, conflict between the two countries was not in the interest of any Western power as that would jeopardise regional stability and peace. The US was expected to ‘act firmly towards the Soviet Union both at the margins of détente and in central areas’ to give the Chinese a somewhat covert assurance of US assistance (Ditchley, 1976). This was best to avoid Chinese accommodation or reunion with the Soviet Union. 

On the Chinese side, developing a strategic relationship with the US was essential for several reasons. First, a relationship with the US was necessary to gain insulation from ‘a possible Soviet pre-emptive strike on Chinese nuclear installations’ (Ditchley, 1978). Second, the relationship would help to maintain the balance the balance of power against an adventurist Soviet Union. Third, the relationship was a must owing to domestic debates within China that reached the consensus that it was best to connect with the US. This is directly connected to a fourth reason that involved access to Western technology. China needed technology from the West to develop its agriculture, science, and industry sectors to set the country on a modernisation path. 

On the American side, Soviet activities within the region which could destabilise it necessitated a rapprochement with China. Domestic politics in the US under the new administration was also a key factor in pushing for a PRC rapprochement. Moreover, China ‘could be helpful in Vietnam’ (Ditchley, 1976). The future of US-China relations was also contingent on whether the ‘pragmatists’ within the CCP took over the administration; this was likely to occur, per the conference, and would help begin a period of ‘cool’ relations between both countries (Ditchley, 1976).

Professor Hedley Bull (1932-1985) attended the 1978 Ditchley conference on ‘The Balance of Power in Asia’. Bull was a key proponent of the English School approach in International Relations. He taught at the Australian National University, LSE, and Oxford University. One of his key works include ‘The Anarchical Society: a study of order in world politics’ first published in 1977.

In the broader South-East Asian and South Asia region, China was expected to support Cambodia and revolutionary movements in Thailand, Malaysia, and Burma. The Association of Southeast Asian Nation's (ASEAN’s) role was not efficacious enough to bring any meaningful connectivity between the different states to promote trade and multilateralism. Japanese trade relations (for example oil) with China were good for maintaining amicable relations. Yet any idea of a triple alliance between the US, China and Japan would not sit well with Japan in particular. It was best that Japan remains neutral amidst tensions and not take sides with either the Soviet Union or the PRC. As it was noted, ‘Japan would like to be equidistant between China and Russia. This is hard to maintain, but is desirable, thus Japan should not be considered to have a role in influencing the Sino/Soviet relationship by moving so far towards one or the other as to affect her relationship with both’ (Ditchley, 1976).


The 1978 Ditchley conference on ‘The Balance of Power in Asia’went a step further to examine the prospects of the Hua/Teng government, noting the possibility for general success and progress under their leadership. Yet, there were ‘serious limitations on China’s ability to grow’ which included shortage of resources and technicians (Ditchley, 1978). The pervasive problems in China’s agricultural sector required massive mechanisation to help feed the ever-growing population.

Within the region of Asia, Russian activities in India, on the Korean peninsula and Vietnam had met difficulties from the heavy US presence coupled with the lack of Russian success in presenting themselves as Asians. Japan’s withdrawal from the development of eastern Siberia also limited Russia’s agenda for energy expansion. Additionally, ASEAN’s weaknesses meant the persistence of state-to-state relations rather than multilateralism to promote regional cooperation. The mix of relations between the West and Asian countries also made it difficult for the US to generate ‘a coherent policy’. However, the key message was that the US should engage China in every possible way.  A lack of consensus amongst participants meant the issue of Taiwan was mostly postponed. This lack of consensus stemmed from the divisions in opinion, noting that ‘there was a roughly equal split between those who advocated moving ahead by accepting the present Chinese conditions regarding Taiwan, and not requiring a guarantee from China that it would not use force to regain Taiwan, and those who would require a quid pro quo from China, providing what they regarded as greater security for Taiwan’ (Ditchley, 1978). Although there was ‘some urging of the USA to normalise relations, in spite of Taiwan, because of the benefits to be gained generally form a greater density of communication with China’, it was however ‘suggested that the issue of Taiwan could not be resolved under the present conditions, and that it might be better from the standpoint of either side to leave the question alone for the time being’ (Ditchley, 1978). Thus, the issue of Taiwan was often postponed due to competing/conflicting interests and views.

Persistently during the Cold War, the issue of Sino-Soviet relations and its effects on Asia were discussed at Ditchley. ‘The Soviet Union and China and their Asian neighbours’ was a conference held in 1984 to interrogate these issues. Mongolia had become a contested spot between the USSR and the PRC with the former ‘highly unlikely to make concessions which would imply forgoing the advantages which its immense investment in Mongolia has given it’ (Ditchley, 1984).

Mongolian fear of the PRC, especially with the killings during the cultural revolution, had caused them to accept the Russians instead.

Domestic reforms in China had gained significant traction but was very different from that of the USSR in not encouraging state-control of prices. The economic reforms had still not altered the political path of China. Yet, ‘China’s adoption of pragmatic policies was a major turning point’ that needed to be encouraged (Ditchley, 1984). The US was urged to maintain a strong presence in Asia while continuously ‘develop a strong relationship with China’ even though some participants argued that a stronger China would pursue more independent policies (Ditchley, 1984). Notably, Chinese economic progress posed a strong threat to the Soviets as the former was bent on increasing its military power from economic gains.

2. The Post-Cold War Era: To Contain or Engage the Reality of China [1989-2004]

The growing economic pragmatism of China called for another conference at Ditchley on ‘Political and Economic reform in China’(1989). The conference was held in June, just around the time when the Tiananmen massacre had occurred. ‘It was timed nevertheless to influence policy in the making’ even though the extent of the massacre was not fully known at the time, causing some participants to argue that enough sanctions had not been applied on the PRC (Ditchley, 1989). The modernisation process of China had opened the country to external influence and the people (the students in particular) wanted something better. There was dissatisfaction with the high levels of corruption, economic mismanagement, inflation, and unemployment. The June 1989 event had also set the notion that there could be future calls/possibilities for a reform in the system of governance. The West however was keen on imposing several sanctions through severing business deals and stricter regulations from the IMF and World Bank in financial packages to the PRC. This was necessary to send a clear message to all sides (that is, both the leadership and the reformers) in the PRC. China had lost many friends in the international community, thus, isolating Beijing on the diplomatic front. The turmoil at Tiananmen had also sparked fears and unrest in Hong Kong, and Britain was to take a firm stance on the situation to guarantee the political safety of the territory.

Despite the shocking events at Tiananmen in 1989, the Asian region was experiencing rapid economic growth. ‘The Growing Economic Power and Influence of East Asia: Implications for Governments’was a conference held in 1990 at Ditchley to examine the economic success of east Asia. The key message here was that the significant progress being made by the region was not to leave the agenda of the West, there was the need to study the region thoroughly to help Western countries generate better policies in dealing with the Asia-Pacific. The Tiananmen events, as noted by the conference, had less negative response from within the region than from the outside world (Ditchley, 1990).

In focus…

The Lord Powell of Bayswater KCMG- Member (Crossbench), House of Lords was the Chair for the 2015 conference on ‘China: economic growth and political reform’

Notably, he was formerly the Private Secretary and Foreign Affairs Adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1983-90) and Prime Minister John Major (1990-91).

He currently sits as a crossbench life peer in the House of Lords.

Amidst the rapid modernisation project that China was embarking on, beginning in the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping, the topic of Taiwan and Hong Kong came under the spotlight of Ditchley. ‘China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan’was a conference held in 1992 to examine in part the expansion of the Chinese military and how that might relate with reclaiming disputed territories on China’s periphery. Despite fears, it was generally agreed at the time that China, being an image/status sensitive state, would endeavour to honour the Joint Declaration of 1985 regarding Hong Kong. All the West had to do, the conference suggested, was to ‘embed in Hong Kong before 1997 a regulatory and legal system which could endure and guarantee the business climate to ensure Hong Kong’s continued prosperity’ (Ditchley, 1992). Taiwan was also becoming increasingly connected to China through trade, tourism, and investment…thus, it was unlikely that there should be any Chinese intentions to use force to reclaim Taiwan. Notably, the previous Soviet threats had died off, but it was noted that ‘Islam from across the borders might stir up trouble’ (Ditchley, 1992).


One clear trait of most conferences on China was that forecasting on the domestic affairs of China was impossible. The conference objective was to ascertain the possibility of political reform amidst the significant economic transformation that China was experiencing. It was generally argued that following the examples of Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, China could experience political reforms too especially with the return of Western educated Chinese graduates – something most participants hoped for.

The growing population of China at the time had implications on agriculture and exports. That is, China was estimated to be unable to feed more than 1.5bn people which would in turn imply having to import food from abroad while paying for such imports with the export of manufactures. The implications on the economies of the US, EU and Japan would be negative in the long run as the latter countries would lose out in their respective manufacturing industries due to competition from China. Yet, it was expedient, according to the conference, that the West should use levers such as trade to constructively engage China.

In the following year (1993) the conference ‘Western Relations with the People’s Republic of China’was held to ascertain the domestic and external affairs of the PRC post-Tiananmen Square events. The domestic problems were evident in energy deficiencies, unemployment, agricultural setbacks, lack of a dependable legal framework for business, and more importantly the increasing legitimacy crisis of the ageing leadership of the CCP. Knowing that the Chinese would jealously guard their sovereignty and territorial integrity, it was pointed out that the West needed to adopt policies that would help stabilise China and avoid any ripple effects that might result from domestic chaos and regime collapse. With regards to Taiwan and Hong Kong, the West generally agreed to allow trade/economics to secure the relationship with China while preparing very strong policies in case of any Chinese adventurism on the two provinces. Again, and again engaging China constructively to eliminate any notions of being a target in the West was a key driving motive behind Western policies during this period. A good example here is the continuous engagement and assistance that was given to China to ascend the then GATT (present day World Trade Organisation – WTO).

Consequently, a large portion of the 1994 conference on ‘East Asia: Security, Prosperity and Political Evolution’  examined China’s economic progress amidst the growing population, rural-urban migration, corruption, and lack of dependable legal frameworks for business. Yet, it had become very clear to the West that ‘China ought to be admitted to the WTO system, and certainly that MFN (Most Favoured Nation) status could not wisely be withdrawn’ (Ditchley, 1994). The interconnectedness of China to the global economy through globalisation had compelled Western nations to still engage rather than contain China. Environmental pollution and increased social vices resulting from the sharp unemployment created by the dissolution of unprofitable State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) was another major area of concern to the West. The solution, it was noted, was to employ powerful NGOs to act as advocates and bring awareness to the negative impacts of environmental pollution.

Deng Xiaoping had set China on a modernisation path – rapid economic growth rate of almost 10% annual GDP starting in 1978 – and avoided the ideological battles of his predecessors, but what would China become after his demise? ‘China after Deng: Policy Implications’ was a conference held at Ditchley, distinguished by the presence of Her Majesty The Queen during its opening session, in 1995. China’s 10% annual GDP growth rate though miraculous was still doubted to be sustainable in the long run. Even though previous hopes that economic reform would induce political reform had not been met, there was a modicum of democratisation at work in China. First, analysis presented at the conference showed that there had been devolution to the provinces that gave way to decentralisation and some level of autonomy to the provinces. Also, local opinion now mattered to some extent and the media was enjoying some level of freedom.

China was still having problems with agriculture due to poor land-use control and distorting price mechanisms.  Although communications and transportation infrastructure were improving, the country was still inadequate in that aspect. Economic inequalities had heightened not only amongst individuals but even between the provinces, with the coastal provinces being better off as compared to the Western provinces.

The leadership (CCP) and the People's Liberation Party (PLA) were also evolving, with the latter becoming more flexible and representative. The West had to accept the party as the only form of governmental structure in place for dealing with China. Moreover, the general atmosphere in the region called for a stable and prosperous China (most countries on China’s periphery held this view). It was therefore more expedient to facilitate the process and especially support ‘Chinese candidature for membership of the WTO’.

Within this timeframe, the reality of China’s growing economic power and global significance was of utmost importance to discussions held at Ditchley. The 1998 conference ‘China and its Neighbours’  started in retrospect by considering the Asian financial crisis of 1997. China had performed well in the eyes of outsiders. However, the domestic scene in China was still chaotic. There were still the persistent problems in agriculture, environmental pollution, mass unemployment, unprofitable SOEs, and increased corruption and social vices. Yet, China had done well in lifting many millions of its citizens out of poverty.

Notably, the CCP was progressively flexible, open, and allowed meritocracy to dictate positioning in the party (to some extent). As it was noted at the conference, ‘participants pointed to a gradual increase in openness and flexibility and in the criterion of competence as the path to power, and to some spreading of democratic practice upwards from village level’ (Ditchley, 1998). The enforcement of the rule of law however had been used as a tool to facilitate commercial activity rather than ‘as an inherent moral or social imperative’ (Ditchley, 1998). Half a loaf is better than none, China, it was agreed was to be managed despite these shortcomings and the secrecy and opaque nature of decision making within the CCP.

The future of China in the international system was unpredictable, but the agreements on China becoming a leader of the developing world proved true in the coming years. The Western expectation was that China would increasingly engage in multilateral rather than bilateral ways of dealing with issues of critical importance. Some level of progress was being made with China’s presence in ASEAN though. The US had to find ways of ‘befriending’ China while the remaining Western nations were urged to avoid leaving the US alone when dealing with China on issues like Taiwan. The significant message from this conference was that a stable and successful China was needed, and to see to that, the West had to constructively engage China while remaining firm on issues such as human rights abuses. Educational and cultural exchange and research was also another lever that could be used to engage China.

‘China’s external relations’  (2001) and ‘China: a power for the 21st century’  (2004) were two significant conferences that engaged with China’s rise on a more critical note. Rather than follow the conventional claims on China’s rise, these conferences examined the domestic affairs of China to validate the so-called rising China assertions. A view from within China showed that there still several challenges within the economy, environment, and population. Income inequalities was still on the rise, the population was ageing, and the pervasive problem of water scarcity was a hot topic in China. Endemic corruption also threatened the Chinese social contract by which economic growth and prosperity anchored the legitimacy of the CCP. The precarious nature of China’s financial structure was however remedied by the fact that ‘the state was both the debtor and creditor’ (Ditchley, 2001).

Thus, ‘the view of China from abroad, and from within, differed greatly’ (Ditchley, 2001). The general agreement was still to engage China constructively on all fronts, having already admitted her to the WTO. It was however noted that China was playing unfair in trade: exporting her manufactures to Western markets while tightening exports from those countries.

3. The Global Financial Crisis: The Turning Point? [2008-2018]

During this period one topical issue in China was its energy demands and resulting consequences on climate change. ‘China, energy and the environment’ (2008) observed that ‘coal would play the most prominent part in China’s electricity generation and heavy industry requirements well into the future, probably at a level of around 80%’ (Ditchley, 2008). The implications of the carbon emissions from the China’s continuous use of coal would have grave impacts on climate change. The conference noted how difficult it would be for international cooperation on climate change, noting that China would ultimately want the Western nations (especially the US) to take the first step. Internally, pollution and water scarcity plagued China, with 300 million peasants having no access to clean water. China needed Western technology to help curb most of its pollution problems. Yet, there was general satisfaction with ‘China’s preference for a peaceful, non-competitive route to the continuing development of China’s economy and society’ (Ditchley, 2008), thus, seeking to work cooperatively within the international order rather than taking unilateral actions.

Notably, China’s economic growth was still unstoppable, predicted to be in the range of 7-8% for the coming years. To this, many Chinese participants felt the West was trying to withhold China’s economic growth. The agenda again was to try as much as possible to eliminate any supposed threats to Chinese progress from the West as China had become too significant a player to be ignored in the global system. The point of convergence here was the need for collaboration with China to help combat climate change (for example by resorting to the use of cleaner greener forms of energy).

Going forward, Ditchley held a series of conferences related to the rise of Asia in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2007/8. ‘The Global Implications of the rise of Asia’ (2010), ‘Security and Prosperity in East Asia’ (2012), ‘Power Rivalries in Asia: towards a new arms race’  (2014), and ‘ASEAN: the key to East Asia’s future?’  (2016) are four conferences that examined dynamics within Asia, yet with significant emphasis on a key player: China. The issues discussed were of economic, political, military, and social significance. A powerful overarching theme emerging from the conferences was that ‘mindsets had to change on all sides to arrive at the necessary but historically challenging situation where an established power and a rising/re-emerging one could co-exist peacefully and cooperatively’ (Ditchley, 2012). Thus, the US and China should be more ‘explicit and honest with each other about their strategies and interests’ (Ditchley, 2012).


Most Asian economies were performing well even after the 2008 financial crisis (Ditchley, 2010), and this further bolstered the (political) legitimacy of many Asian countries (Ditchley, 2014). Concerns about an ‘Asian model’ were quickly debunked noting the diverse paths to economic growth taken by countries like India and China. The ‘overall security umbrella provided by the US’ had been vital in securing Asia’s economic growth, and progress had been made through ‘typical Western values of a work ethic, open markets, technological advance and improving education’ (Ditchley, 2010). The increasing weight of Asia’s economy had also seen changes to ‘voting weights and quota arrangements in the IMF and World Bank, and the creation of the G20’ (Ditchley, 2010). Yet, China’s overdependence on US consumer markets and rising wages in China’s manufacturing industry were huge economic risks. Again, China despite being the world’s second largest economy was still lagging Japan and the US: ‘on an average a Japanese person was still ten times as rich as a Chinese person’ (Ditchley, 2010). This called for a more cautious approach to talks of a declining West. Moreover, there was the need for China to move from over-reliance on export-oriented industrialisation to developing domestic consumption. Yet, the economies of the US and China had become intertwined, compelling the two countries to act strategically in terms of foreign and economic policies to avoid any negative impacts on their economies (Ditchley, 2014).

Emeritus Professor Rosemary Foot attended the Ditchley conferences on China in 1993 and 2015.

She completed her PhD at the LSE in 1977 and is currently an associate of the China centre at Oxford University and an Emeritus Fellow of St Anthony’s College.

She is the author of ‘China, the UN, and Human Protection: Beliefs, Power, Image’ (2020).

The role of ASEAN in fostering/promoting economic integration was very much needed as China would gain the benefits of increased trade amongst ASEAN countries (Ditchley, 2016).


Most Asian states, like China, did not prioritize individual human rights, rather, the emphasis was on ‘strong national sovereignty, territorial integrity, consensus-seeking, respect for others, and non-intervention’ (Ditchley, 2010). This approach ‘risked weakening international norms’ (Ditchley, 2010). There was also little sign of Asian soft power amidst the growing significance of the continent. Moreover, by favouring bilateralism over multilateralism, Asia risked progressing in regional integration and lack of solid conflict resolution platforms.

Rising nationalism in China, Japan, and South Korea was spurring conflicts and xenophobic attitudes. Adding to this flame, was the ‘strategic mistrust’ between the US and China (Ditchley, 2012). The Americans were not happy with China’s lack of transparency about its military capability/assertiveness in the South China Sea (SCS) and the Chinese were not happy about notions of coalition building with India, Japan, and South Korea to contain China’s rise. For Europe, ‘it was better off continuing to take a back seat’ considering the colonial history, though its role in engaging the continent in trade was very useful (Ditchley, 2012).


The consensus amongst many Asian nations was that its economic success was one thing from its military power. The call was for the US to continue the Pax Americana and keep its security umbrella in Asia. The most challenging relation would be that of the US and China, especially considering China’s increased assertiveness within the South China Sea. Disputes over several islands (e.g., Senkaku/Diaoyu islands) was particularly worrying. History tainted any meaningful bilateral dialogue between China and Japan, the latter not having done enough ‘to establish its sincerity about past apologies for its behaviour’ (Ditchley, 2014). The main concern of the West here was the absence of a ‘multilateral security architecture worthy of name’ (Ditchley, 2012; also 2014) to help settle conflicts. ASEAN though important ‘had not yet become as effective as many had hoped’ (Ditchley, 2012). China saw many outside options besides ASEAN and preferred to ‘address ASEAN states bilaterally’, thereby undermining multilateralism (Ditchley, 2016). This meant that there was ‘no consensus amongst ASEAN states on how to handle China and the South China Sea’ (Ditchley, 2016). Thus, ASEAN could not effectively check or constrain China’s rise because ‘ASEAN was not designed for this’ (constraining China’s behaviour) [Ditchley, 2016].

North Korea’s nuclear activity called for Chinese intervention using economic statecraft and diplomacy. China had been proactive with the Six Party talks, a multilateral forum that in 2003 became the locus of negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and North Korea needed to be brought back to the forum for discussions (by creating the Five-party talks) [Ditchley, 2012; 2014].

Increased military expenditure on ‘expeditionary capacity, particularly air and naval power than static forces like land mines’ was very disturbing as it could jeopardise regional peace and stability (Ditchley, 2014). Increased military expenditure in China particularly did not sit well with neighbouring countries owing to the ‘lack of transparency about Chinese capabilities, doctrines, and intentions’ (Ditchley, 2014). Nevertheless, the development of arms in the region was not like unto the arms race that ensued between the US and Russia during the Cold War. One consistent point made in light of rising tensions, especially with China’s growing military might, was to ‘strengthen the regional institutional architecture, ensuring in particular that there are plenty of fora which include both China and the US’ (Ditchley, 2014).


China’s thirst for coal and escalating number of coal-fired power stations was disturbing. Environmental pollution within China and resulting impacts on climate change could not be ignored. The ageing population and demographic imbalance was also another problem, not forgetting the issue of endemic corruption within China’s administrative apparatus. For example, as of 2009 China was ‘burning 2.6 tons of coal per person per year…China has become the number one contributor to the production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases(Nathan & Scobell,  2016, p.336).

In the final phase of this timeframe (2008-2018), two more conferences discussed China’s rise and how the West could respond appropriately. First, ‘China: economic growth and political reform’(2015) examined the slowing growth of the Chinese economy. Structural and cyclical reasons accounted for this, coupled with the well-known concept of the middle-income trap. There was the need to reduce state intervention and allow the invisible hand of the market to operate in the economy. Also, structural changes would be required…especially the switch to domestic consumption.

Tied to changes within the economy was the hopes for political reform, a much debatable concept with regards to China. The general view was that so long as economic progress was made China would be compelled to adopt democratic ideals like free press/freedom of expression (Ditchley, 2015). In the broader picture, China had no intentions of subverting the existing international order but was prepared to ‘create parallel structures where necessary’ (Ditchley, 2015). A notable expression of this was the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB), ‘partly triggered by the refusal of the US Congress to ratify the increase in Chinese voting rights in the IMF’ (Ditchley, 2015). Yet, any supposed threat from such an external innovation was softened by the presence of Western countries like Germany in the AIIB (Ikenberry & Lim, 2017).

Secondly, ‘China and the West: different values, the same global economy. How do we respond to the challenges on the premise of mutual respect?’ was a conference held in 2018 at Ditchley. Just as the title, this conference notably had one Chairman from China (Dean Xiang Bing) and the other from Britain (Sir Andrew Cahn KCMG). The conference sought to examine how best the US and China could cooperate in a tightly globalised world that differed in terms of international context from the Cold War era where there were two bounded orders. The trade war between the two powers was disturbing and the conference aimed to find the balance that would help foster cooperation between two distinct yet interconnected states. The general lesson from this discussion was that the West had to acknowledge the reality of China’s rise while remaining firm on its democratic ideals. Also, there was the need to strengthen multilateral institutions to discuss issues on AI and climate change in a mutually beneficial manner.

Dean Xiang Bing was the first Chinese to co-chair a conference on China at Ditchley. He was co-chair with Sir Andrew Cahn, KCMG.

He is Founding Dean and Professor of China Business and Globalization at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB) – China’s first independent business school.

4. Covid-19: Towards a Chinese Century? [2019 - present]

In early winter (November 2019), Ditchley held one more meeting to ascertain Japan’s future and role in the world in the context of the West and China. In the conference ‘Japan, the West, and China: Japan’s future and role in the world’, it was suggested that despite its own identity crisis, Japan was seen as capable of helping promote democratic ideals, amongst many other middle powers, and helping with regional stability in the face of US-China tensions. Failures in national education and gender equality were two pervasive domestic issues in Japan, especially with the reduction in Japanese overseas students (as compared to China). Nevertheless, Japan is ‘trusted as an honest broker sharing democratic interests’ and its prowess in digital economy and AI could be harnessed to help forge rules in the field together with the US and China (Ditchley, 2019). The increasing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and disputes over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands all call for a more strategic role [provide evidence or remove] for Japan in the Asian region. Japan had already received its fair share of the punitive measures of Chinese economic leverage in 2010, when the latter restricted the exports of rare earth materials to the former (Lai, 2018). Christina Lai argues that the negative effects of the restrictions on Japan’s economy probably helped resolve the situation in which ‘the Japanese government arrested a Chinese captain and his crew when their fishing boat collided with a Japanese Coast Guard vessel nearby the disputed Senkaku islands’ (Lai, 2018: 177). Japan was urged to up its game for example in ASEAN by balancing Chinese power through the proposition of effective rules to help foster multilateralism and regional security and stability in the face of declining US support under Trump.

Several scholars (e.g., Ikenberry, 2018; Jahn, 2018) have assessed the alleged crisis of the American led liberal international order which has partly resulted from Trump’s policies, rising populism in parts of Europe, Brexit and also the global financial crisis of 2008. This crisis was further exacerbated by the outbreak of the novel corona virus which exposed the weaknesses of the liberal international order. As G. John Ikenberry (2018) notes, not only has there been a crisis of authority from the US, but equally there has also been a crisis of social purpose. This crisis of social purpose emerged after the proliferation of states in the post-colonial era, and as Michael Mastanduno (2019) argues also stemmed from the fact that China and Russia were rather ‘invited and integrated’ to join the order after the end of the Cold War. Thus, there are free riders (Russia and China) who do not uphold the core values of the order. Not surprisingly, we saw a very uncooperative and ‘cover up’ China when the virus first broke out in Wuhan. Also, under its presidency at the UNSC, China refused to consider or discuss the outbreak of the corona virus, arguing that it was outside of the Council’s mandate (Patrick 2020). Rising populism and a lack of coordinated efforts amongst Western countries, especially from the then Trump administration, led to disappointment in the handling of the pandemic in the West. China’s health diplomacy took to new levels, supplying PPEs to many countries in Africa, Eastern Europe and even America. However, as the conference held in May 2021 on ‘China today and tomorrow’ demonstrated, there are both optimistic and pessimistic views to the ‘supposed’ Chinese victory over the pandemic and increasing appeal of its system as an alternative to Western democracy. The optimistic narrative sees China becoming more self-reliant and insulated from external manipulation of its economic growth. The dual circulation initiative will help ensure this by increasing domestic consumption while still maintaining relations with the external world. China is no threat to US hegemony in global order, the optimists argue; China is mainly concerned with self-sufficiency and a strong military to maintain domestic order and little bit of influence in its sphere. On the other hand, the pessimistic view contends that ‘China’s position is more precarious than it appears’ (Ditchley 2021), noting that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is likely to fail (in terms of economic gains) than succeed (China could get some soft power advantages). China’s record on human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong for example could damage its international image while the ageing population and increasing reluctance to produce more than two children could spiral a population decline. The pessimists argue further that a little more of coordinated efforts amongst Western countries could help restore and reinforce their economic and political supremacy, while pushing China to the side-lines of the global stage. Joseph S. Nye’s (2019) analysis also shows that China’s position is incomparable with that of the US: a Chinese century is still a dream and not a reality. First, should China become the world’s largest economy, there will still be a big gap in per capita income compared with the US, and ‘economic might is just part of the geopolitical equation’ notes Nye (2019: 73). Also, US military expenditure is currently four times that of China, and China still ranks low on soft power indices (Nye, 2019). The presence of Japan, Australia, and India in the Asian region also helps counter-balance Chinese power in that sphere.

In conclusion, China’s success should not be taken as comprehensive. China’s rise, per Ditchley conference analysis, has and is characterised by many internal dynamics that question arguments about a declining West and a rising East. Economic growth is a good thing, but what is economic growth without human liberty and freedom of expression? What is economic growth in a world of blazing wildfires, floods and general pollution partly resulting from excessive use of coal? Finally, what is economic growth if climate change is not addressed?

The end of the matter

This account of China’s rise is but a tip of the iceberg, as Todd Hall observes, we need to add a modicum of humility to our analysis and study of the PRC. China is a complex and unpredictable entity to be studied and ‘there may be actors, power relations, informal or submerged processes, internal battles and so on that may not be evident at first or even second glance, and yet crucial for understanding what is occurring’ (Hall 2020:18). Thus, this account acknowledges the limitations inherent and agrees with the experts’ assertion that China is indeed a complex entity to be studied. Yet, this paper also demonstrates that Ditchley has constantly engaged experts from all walks of life on the topic of China’s rise and its implications for world order. There is thus hope for the coming years at Ditchley that there will never be a time when we will be short of informed analysis on China’s rise and global order.

Going forward, Ditchley conferences aim to include relevant Chinese officials, academics, and businessmen and women. Western participants should also aim to reaffirm democracy as the bedrock of the liberal international order.

Finally, there is the need for tolerance and celebration of diversity in the West’s relations with China. While human rights abuses are a significant concern for Western counterparts and should be properly addressed in the right place (e.g., the UN), other relations should be managed on a basis of mutual respect. There should be continuous communication to help create connections that can be relied on to tackle issues like climate change and pandemics.

Timeline: 23 Conferences on China in more than five decades

1945 Post-World War II Era: Rebuilding Multilateralism at the UN

1949 Chairman Mao Zedong establishes the People’s Republic of China

1958 Sir David Wills establishes Ditchley

1964 China successfully detonates its first atomic bomb

  •  British and American policies towards China

1970 Sino-Soviet and Sino-Western Relations

1971 China ascends the UN and occupies the UNSC seat

1976 Chairman Mao Zedong passes on

  • Balance of Power in Asia

1978 China begins the ‘Reform and Opening’ (改革开放)

  • The Balance of Power in Asia

1989Soviet Union and China and their Asian neighbours

1989 The Tiananmen Massacre

  • Political and Economic Reform in China

1990 The Growing Economic Power and Influence of East Asia: Implications for Governments

1992 China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan

1993 Western relations with the People’s Republic of China

1994 East Asia security, prosperity, and political evolution

1995 China after Deng: policy implications

1997 The Asian Financial Crisis

1998 China and its neighbours

2001 China’s external relations

2004 China: a power for the 21st century

2007/8 The Global Financial Crisis

2008   China, energy, and the environment

2010 The global implications of the rise of Asia

2012 Security and prosperity in East Asia

2014 Power rivalries in Asia: towards a new arms race?

2015 China: economic growth and political reform

2016 ASEAN: the key to East Asia's future?

2018  China and the West: different values, the same global economy. How do we respond to challenges on the premise of mutual respect?

2019 Corona virus outbreak in Wuhan

2021 China Today and Tomorrow


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Jahn, B. (2018). Liberal internationalism: historical trajectory and current prospects. International affairs (London), 94(1), 43-61. doi:10.1093/ia/iix231

Lai, C. (2018). Acting one way and talking another: China's coercive economic diplomacy in East Asia and beyond. The Pacific Review, 31(2), 169-187. doi:10.1080/09512748.2017.1357652

Mastanduno, M. (2019). Partner Politics: Russia, China, and the Challenge of Extending US Hegemony after the Cold War. Security studies, 28(3), 479-504. doi:10.1080/09636412.2019.1604984

Nathan, A. J., & Scobell, A. (2016). Globalization as a Security Strategy: Power and Vulnerability in the “China Model”. Political Science Quarterly, 131(2), 313-339. doi:10.1002/polq.12477

Nye, J. S. (2019). The rise and fall of American hegemony from Wilson to Trump. International Affairs, 95(1), 63-80. doi:10.1093/ia/iiy212

Patrick, S. (2020). When the system fails. Foreign Affairs, 99, 40-46,48-50. Foreign Affairs, 99. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.gate3.library.lse.ac.uk/docview/2415031219?accountid=9630