Is China a Status Quo or Revisionist State? Leadership Travel as an Empirical Indicator of Foreign Policy Priorities


  • Authors’ notes: The authors thank Anne Meng, Ryan Symonds, Patrice Thomas, and David Szerlip for excellent research assistance, and Allen Carlson, Michael Hanmer, Michael Glosny, and two anonymous reviewers for very helpful comments. The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or positions of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the US government. The data used in this article are available from the authors or from the ISQ data archive.


China’s rising power and increased global activism have attracted increasing attention, with particular focus on whether a stronger China is likely to be a revisionist or status quo state. Power transition theory highlights the potential for a dissatisfied rising power to challenge the existing international order, but it is difficult to evaluate whether a rising power is dissatisfied. Where Chinese leaders choose to travel can offer insights into whether China’s behavior is more consistent with that of a revisionist or status quo state and into China’s broader diplomatic priorities. We present a series of expectations concerning how the travel patterns of a challenger state are likely to differ from the travel patterns of a status quo state. Using a newly compiled data set, we then analyze the correlates of travel abroad by top Chinese leaders from 1998 to 2008. Our results are more consistent with a status quo conceptualization of China, though there are some important exceptions such as willingness to travel to rogue states. We also use travel data to test other hypotheses about Chinese foreign policy behavior.