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   China’s growing economic and military power has prompted urgent questions about its approach to the rules-based international order, which can be loosely defined as a shared commitment to conduct international affairs in accordance with laws, principles and practices embodied in institutions such as the United Nations, regional security arrangements, trade agreements and multilateral financial institutions. On the one hand, China could be expected to have a stake in maintaining the existing order which, after all, has provided the stability necessary for the country’s rise. On the other hand, it cannot be assumed that China supports all elements of the current order, which Beijing claims it had no hand in creating.

  To interpret and explain these issues, the Lowy Institute asked experts about Beijing’s goals for the international order; the changes it seeks and what compromises China might agree to, especially with the United States.

  A select group of seven experts from China, the United States and Australia debate “China’s approach to the rules-based international order” upon invitation by The Lowy Institute in Australia. The Lowy Institute feature presents the experts’ responses to these questions and their reactions to one another’s arguments. Professor Wu Xinbo, Dean of the Institute of International Studies and Director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University commences the interactive thematic debates as follows.

Can Washington compromise?




  “China is not going to overturn the current order or create a new one, but it will drive the order’s evolution.”

   China is a major beneficiary of the prevailing international order. Politically, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, China enjoys significant privileges as well as high international standing. Economically, China has emerged as the world’s second-largest economy during the last four decades, thanks to an open international economic system. On the security front, since the end of the Cold War, China has not been confronted with a major external military threat and has benefited from an overall peaceful international environment.

   On the other hand, Beijing also harbours reservations and even dissatisfaction about the current order. Politically, this is an American-led and Western-centred order — developing and non-Western countries are generally subject to a lesser position. Economically, Beijing aspires to a status commensurate with its growing power in major international economic and financial institutions. Regarding security, Beijing seeks reunification with Taiwan as well as greater security in the Western Pacific.

   Generally speaking, China holds a significant stake in the existing order and, by and large, favours its preservation. Meanwhile, Beijing also desires to reform the order so as to better accommodate its interests and preferences. China is not going to overturn the current order or create a new one, but it will drive the order’s evolution and adaption in a fast-changing world.

 Taking into consideration its capabilities, interests, and feasibility, China’s efforts to reform the current world order have prioritised the international economy and finance, regional cooperation, and emerging areas such as the oceans, the poles, cyberspace, and outer space. Beijing seeks to increase further its voting rights and quotas in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) to reflect its ranking in the world economy. Meanwhile, it also endeavours to promote various forms of regional economic and security cooperation, establishing mechanisms that serve Chinese interests and preferences. In the international efforts to establish rules for cyberspace and outer space, China will make sure that it is a rule-maker, not just a rule-taker.

   Compromise between China and the United States and the West could be reached in the areas of international economy and finance. For instance, China’s voting rights and quotas in the World Bank and IMF have been steadily increasing, reflecting its growing weight in the global economy, with an expectation that China will make more contributions to these multilateral institutions. Despite opposition from Washington, Beijing’s initiative in establishing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was endorsed by most Western countries, including many US allies. Compromise is also possible in the field of regional cooperation — even though there are differences between mechanisms favoured by China and the United States, they can still co-exist, as shown by the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the US-led alliance system. In emerging areas such as cyber and outer space, some kind of deal can be struck given the fact that China is already a major player, and its voice has to be heard if the rules and mechanisms are going to apply to China.

   The main challenge will be security. While China has been seeking a more favourable security situation in the Western Pacific, the United States has been trying hard to resist. It is an open question whether Washington is willing, or has the capability, to reach a strategic understanding with Beijing over the security landscape, which reflects a shifting balance of power in the region. Also, any compromise that does not include a solution to the Taiwan issue is unsustainable for Beijing. In fact, Beijing is likely to push harder on the matter in due course, either because it loses patience with separatist momentum in Taiwan, becomes more confident of its growing military capability, or both. This requires a new understanding across the Taiwan Strait and between Beijing and Washington.   
   Professor Wu Xinbo is Dean of the Institute of International Studies and Director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University.

Can Washington call the shots?




   There exist some obvious problems in the discussion of whether a US–China compromise can be reached on the emerging international order.

   First, some analysts fail to recognise the need for the United States to adapt to a fast-changing world characterised by a shifting balance of power and rising challenges to domestic and global governance. There is an assumption that Washington still has the luxury to decide whether it would like to strike a deal with Beijing, which is now a more ambitious, capable, and active player on the world stage. Second, a number of analysts focus on the international order’s liberal traits while ignoring its functionality, failing to answer the big question of how the order should be reformed and strengthened so as to effectively enhance development, security (both traditional and non-traditional), and global governance. No matter how good the liberal traits sound, if the order does not address the major global challenges, it should not stand in the way of necessary reform and adjustments to the international system. Third, parts of this debate concentrate almost exclusively on domestic dimensions, however, a functioning international order depends mainly on the external behaviours of the major players, whether they have mutual interests and willingness to pursue a common international agenda, and whether they hold consensus about the approaches. Domestic politics are relevant, but not decisive.

   Like the United States, China also holds the key to the future order. It is misleading and even harmful to cast China in a stereotyped, ideological, and oversimplified way. To tag the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with Leninism blurs the line between Mao’s CCP and today’s CCP, or between today’s CCP and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Ironically, many Western analysts tend to describe the Chinese economic model as state capitalism. How can a Leninist party adopt capitalism? Also, an ideological perspective on China ignores the sea change that has taken place in economic, social, and even political fields over the past four decades, and blinds oneself to the growing diversity and complexity in Chinese society. It is interesting to see how many China analysts visit China regularly, have lived in China for an extended period in the last 10 years, or have access to China’s social media where the pulse of Chinese society can really be felt. In addition, an exclusive focus on some problematic aspects of China’s external behaviour misses the main story that over the past several decades China has emerged as both a major stakeholder as well as a significant supporter of the current order. A more balanced perspective would acknowledge China’s growing contribution to the existing international system. Equally, one should never underestimate the adaptability of Chinese leaders, whose policies and approaches are constantly shaped and reshaped in an interactive process, both internally and externally.

   In fact, the challenge to a possible US–China compromise comes as much from the United States as from China. A hegemon beleaguered by declining power superiority and formidable domestic headaches is likely to undermine and even walk away from the liberal order it helped craft should it believe this order no longer works for its own primacy and privilege. This tendency has been fully manifested during Donald Trump’s presidency, his administration launching tariff wars of unprecedented scale on China, paralysing the World Trade Organization, and withdrawing from the World Health Organization, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and other international accords. In fact, over the last four years, by shirking its leadership responsibility, undermining multilateralism, and embracing unilateralism, protectionism, nationalism, and even racism, the United States under President Donald Trump has done far more damage than China to the prevailing order.

   The world today is unlike the post-Cold War or Second World War eras. The United States, and the West in general, are being challenged and tested in terms of power, institutions, and values. The United States and the West, when pondering the emerging world order, should adopt a healthy dose of humility and open-mindedness, endeavouring to accommodate diversity in institutions and values, and treating non-Western countries, China included, with a greater spirit of equality. The mentality of occidental centralism, ideological bias, cultural arrogance, and even racial pride does not help the West adapt to a drastically changing world. If the so-called liberal order turns out to be only an instrument for the United States and the West to serve its selfish purpose, it is not going to be endorsed by China and many other countries. The most important thing to bear in mind is that throughout history, international order has never been static, but has been in constant evolution so as to meet new challenges and adapt to changing realities.
    Professor Wu Xinbo is Dean of the Institute of International Studies and Director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University.


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