CHINA’S RAPID ascent to great-power status has, more than any other international development, raised concerns about the future of the liberal international order. Forged in the ashes of the Second World War, that order has enabled a seven-decade period of great-power peace, the expansion of democratic rule and a massive increase in global prosperity. Now, it seems, world order is under threat—not least from China’s rising power. While Beijing has thus far avoided active military aggression and refrained from exclusionary economic arrangements, American policymakers worry quite openly about China’s challenge to the underlying rules of the road. They hope that Beijing will embrace the existing pillars of global order and even work to support them; they fear that China will prove revisionist, seeking to undermine the rules-based order and fashion an illiberal alternative that excludes the United States.
This combination of hopes and fears has driven America’s China policy across multiple administrations. From Bush administration–era exhortations that Beijing act as a “ responsible stakeholder ” to Obama administration hopes that China would become a “ partner in underwriting the international order ,” American leaders have consistently called on China to join the prevailing global system. The question underlying the U.S. approach has not been whether the premise is correct, but rather which combination of carrots, sticks and engagement is likeliest to ensure that Beijing firmly embraces global rules and institutions. But at a moment when China is transgressing some of those rules and establishing alternative institutions, it is worth looking closely at the assumptions that have undergirded U.S. policy.
Three propositions support America’s approach. The first is that there exists one more-or-less-unified liberal international order, and that this order is both based on rules and open to any nation that seeks to join it. The second is that if China is brought into this liberal order, the underlying rules and institutions will shape Beijing more than they will be shaped by it. The third is that it is the task of the United States and its partners is to bring China into the existing order, and that if the attempt proves unsuccessful, the seventy-year-old, rules-based global order is headed for the dustbin of history.
The three propositions suggest a sophisticated U.S. approach to the world’s second most powerful country—one that sails between the Scylla of containment and the Charybdis of unconditional engagement. They promise an American policy based on enlightened self-interest and positive-sum outcomes in which, as Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently said, “ everyone rises and everybody wins .” And it extends a hand to Beijing: come on in, China, and you’ll see that the rules-based water is fine.
The trouble is that each of these propositions is woefully incomplete. They simplify both the nature of world order and China’s role in it. And so long as they serve as the basis for American policy, Washington’s approach will lack the nuance and understanding required both to prod China toward greater global integration and to bring partners on board the effort.
CONSIDER FIRST the liberal international order from which China has benefitted and to which it should contribute. The term “international order” is shorthand and can invite confusion. There is not one order but many different components and layers of order. These include global institutions, such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, as well as regional institutions, such as the Asia Development Bank. They also include a dense network of treaties and regimes, ranging from the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The United States itself cannot be considered a “responsible stakeholder” in every one of them. Together with various rules and norms, ranging from those governing state sovereignty to those that relate to human rights, these institutions and regimes are interconnected but have distinct aims. They vary widely in their reach and purpose.
China has long been party to institutions and regimes, and its decision to support the prevailing system is not a binary one: Beijing rejects some rules, accepts others and seeks to rewrite others still. As a result, there is no single answer to the question of whether China intends to embrace the rules-based international order, nor is there a monolithic way to characterize the type of great power that China aspires to be.
In many global institutions, Beijing has proven a willing partner, and it has sought a leadership role in crafting new international regimes. In economic affairs, China seeks greater representation in and revisions to global institutions, just as it creates new economic institutions and regimes at the regional level. When it comes to security issues close to its borders, China is especially likely to reject prevailing regimes and rules.
Because there is no single international order, and because Chinese participation is diverse and complex, U.S. leaders cannot simply absorb China into a preexisting structure. If American policymakers hope to increase China’s participation in the web of institutions, regimes, rules and norms that together constitute world order, they must craft an engagement strategy that is as nimble as Beijing’s international participation itself.