The False Promise of Chinese Integration into the Liberal International Order

"No one argues that China is about to make a mad grab at world domination. That doesn’t mean, though, that Beijing cannot erode elements of the current global dispensation and substitute its own over time." 

Three weeks ago, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit concluded with a diplomatic bang. On November 12, President Obama and President Xi announced a “historic” climate-change pledge, as well as deals on military-to-military encounters, visas and tariffs. But for some, the real prize lay beneath the surface. By cooperating with China in multiple areas, Washington was able to draw Beijing further into the folds of the U.S.-designed and -backed liberal international order. Accordingly, these agreements represented more than isolated policy choices on China’s part. They suggested that even if global primacy passes from the United States to China, the latter will still uphold the rules and institutions of the international system it inherits.

Though seductive, the promise of Chinese integration into the liberal international order is ultimately hollow. “Integrationists” resist this conclusion only by resting their arguments on conceptually uninteresting definitions of what it means for China to reinforce the Western order. To show that China will integrate fully, they set up a false, all-or-nothing choice between rejecting the liberal international order and upholding it. This strawman is easy to knock down, but it has little to say about the question that matters most: if China clinches primacy in the international system, how will it manage aspects of the inherited international order that do not suit it?

Although experts will continue to debate which aspects of the order Beijing is likely to alter, the larger point is that like every other nation, China will support certain features of the system while opposing others. There is no reason to believe that Beijing will preserve every pro-American element of the bequeathed order; indeed, China and the United States clash frequently over such basic pillars of the international system as human rights and regional security arrangements, and Beijing will have little incentive to preserve these institutions—as well as many others—if and when it has the power to abandon them. For that reason alone, a Chinese world order is likely to be less favorable to American interests than the current Pax Americana, and Washington has cause for concern about China’s increasing influence.

A False Promise

Some commentators have applauded the string of APEC summit agreements as a “real win” for the United States because they “[keep] China in the tent or, in political science speak, reinforc[e] Beijing’s commitment to the liberal international order.” On this account, President Obama has deftly managed China’s rise by wedding Beijing to the key pillars of the liberal international order. To be sure, challenges remain: China may continue to invest in competing institutions (such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) even as it participates in Western ones. But on the whole, the APEC summit agreements “bind[] China more deeply to U.S.-backed international security, trade, and environmental regimes.”

This perspective on integration has informed American policy for decades. As Ashley J. Tellis has lucidly explained, the United States invited China into the liberal international order during the 1980s and 1990s in part because it hoped to promote economic interdependence and thereby achieve two crucial ends. First, interdependence would, like the touch of Midas, multiply riches for every state. Second and more significantly, the promise of additional prosperity would corral the interests of the system’s stakeholders into alignment and thereby quell the possibility of conflict. As a result, Washington policy makers believed that by welcoming China into key trading institutions such as the WTO, they could reinforce China’s commitment to the international order as a whole.

Although the wisdom of this integrationist policy has become increasingly contested—China continues to enhance its martial, political and economic capabilities with little sign that it has become socialized as a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system—scholars have continued to argue that China’s rise does not present a threat to the liberal international order. Perhaps most prominently, Professor G. John Ikenberry has claimed that China “is increasingly working within, rather than outside of, the Western order.” According to this view, the prevailing international order “is distinctive in that it has been more liberal than imperial—and so unusually accessible, legitimate, and durable.” As a result, the order is “hard to overturn and easy to join,” meaning that the United States should not fret unduly: China will find itself increasingly enmeshed over time in a rules-bound system that serves American interests.

The Whole Is the Sum of Its Parts