Despite the fact that it remained outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty for over two decades, China has recently played a more active role in halting the spread of nuclear weapons. This was most notable in its support for the P5+1 negotiations with Iran and compliance with the global sanctions regime, which resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action under UN auspices. China has also signed on to several rounds of Security Council sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, although its support for these has been hard-won due to its long-standing relationship with Pyongyang. Nonetheless, as China has risen, it has clearly calculated that the spread of nuclear weapons, on balance, works against its interests. Despite the export of sensitive technologies by some Chinese firms, Beijing has generally acted through global institutions and regimes to constrain the spread of nuclear weapons.
China has demonstrated leadership on international efforts to combat climate change as well, both through the UN and outside of it. A 2014 U.S.-Chinese climate-change agreement led to the December 2015 Paris accord, in which 195 countries agreed to curb emissions. Beijing’s role is particularly noteworthy given that China helped to scuttle the passage of a binding treaty at Copenhagen just five years before.
Together, these examples suggest that an increasingly powerful China will not simply reject a monolithic international order but actively reinforce and shape elements of it where doing so advances Chinese interests.
CHINA STRADDLES the international economic order, having prospered under its rules while seeking to shift it away from U.S. dominance and toward a more China-centric model. Beijing is a prominent member of the World Trade Organization, but its globally competitive state-owned enterprises and their push for indigenous innovation have revealed gaps in the WTO’s regulatory structure, which divides trade into actions taken by governments and actions taken by private companies. Chinese efforts to use these enterprises to win market share have prompted nations that are unable to employ multilateral mechanisms in their defense to respond with ad hoc protectionist measures. And despite the fact that it has backed away from difficult market reforms, China has accelerated its push for Market Economy Status within the WTO. If China is granted such status, it will become more difficult for other countries to bring antidumping cases against Chinese companies, which may in turn flood European and U.S. markets with Chinese goods.
At the same time, China has pursued its own regional trade architecture, advancing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as an alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. RCEP would link the ten Association of Southeast Asian Nation members with six countries enjoying free-trade agreements with ASEAN, including China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. But it includes lower standards on food, safety, labor and currency issues, does not place restrictions on China’s state-owned enterprises and does not include the United States. RCEP and TPP need not necessarily stand as strict alternatives, and Beijing was invited to join TPP, which presently includes a dozen regional economies responsible for roughly 40 percent of global GDP. China seems unlikely to meet TPP’s high standards, however, and so the two trade deals may persist as competitors in practice.
In finance, China has bypassed the World Bank by lending bilaterally to developing countries, often without regard for good governance or transparency in the target states. It founded the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to support regional infrastructure projects and the New Development Bank (formerly the BRICS Bank) to finance development in emerging economies. Both new banks serve as alternatives to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
Beijing has also begun to transform the renminbi into a global currency, and was granted Special Drawing Rights status by the IMF in late 2015. This places the renminbi in an international reserve-currency basket alongside the U.S. dollar, the euro, the British pound and the Japanese yen, and may eventually move the international monetary system away from the dollar. In short, China has signed on to many of the prominent institutions that make up the global economic order, but sought to shift their rules from within and advance alternative arrangements from without.
BEIJING HAS generally sought to limit outside influence near its borders and to advance its own interests, sometimes at the expense of existing rules and regimes. In this, China is not so different from other rising powers, and Chinese officials in their private moments have been known to refer to the South China Sea, for instance, as their country’s Caribbean. Beijing has also led some limited security institution building. In 2001, China founded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which originally served as a confidence-building organization with the goal of demilitarizing borders in Central Asia. The SCO’s stated security goal is to combat the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism and extremism, although it appears aimed also at limiting U.S. influence in Central Asia and beyond. Even Iran is on the brink of membership.
China has also sought to elevate the status of the Conference on Interactions and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA), a regional security mechanism. At a 2014 meeting of CICA, Xi Jinping denounced U.S. alliances and called for security in Asia to be “maintained by Asians themselves,” urging the members to build a new regional security framework. The so-called New Security Concept that resulted was widely understood to have been a critique of existing U.S. regional-security institutions, and a gesture at how they might be replaced. (The concept has gained little traction so far.)
Nowhere has China more clearly repudiated a prevailing aspect of the international order than with its rejection of the Law of the Sea regime. China is a signatory to UNCLOS and helped to craft some of its most important features. It now holds a widely rejected interpretation of key provisions, despite the fact that Beijing did not raise these issues before acceding to the treaty.
China has more obviously flouted UNCLOS as its power has grown. In the early-to-mid 2000s, Beijing began interfering with U.S. military vessels and aircraft exercising their rights under the convention near Chinese shores. It later became more assertive about its own claims to distant islands, most notably ejecting the Philippines from Scarborough Shoal in 2012. It has formally submitted its dubious “Nine-Dash Line” maritime boundary to the United Nations in an attempt to legitimize this far-flung claim, but it refused to take part in an international court case brought by the Philippines under UNCLOS. Beijing insists that the court has no jurisdiction, despite widespread consensus to the contrary.
In addition, China has employed coercion in ways that violate its 2002 Declaration on Conduct with ASEAN. Following its rapid-fire construction of artificial landmasses in the Spratly Islands, for example, Beijing has attempted to impose so-called “military alert zones” in the seas and skies of the South China Sea, contravening international law. As it has taken these steps, Beijing has preferred to keep its long-term intentions ambiguous. It has eroded existing maritime regimes and rules without either leaving UNCLOS or offering replacements.
CHINA FIRMLY rejects most aspects of the international human-rights order, one that is rooted in respect for fundamental liberties and the democratic process. It is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for example, but clearly transgresses that document’s commitments to freedom of thought and religion, freedom of expression and right to peaceful assembly. Indeed, China’s own constitution enshrines freedoms of press, religion, speech and association, but Beijing routinely flouts these in its treatment of its own citizens. Whether at home or in its support for autocracies such as North Korea, Beijing tends to elevate the norm of sovereignty over those human-rights principles to which it has formally assented.
While its transgressions against prevailing human-rights norms were for decades largely a domestic affair, China’s increasing global weight means that it is now an issue in international fora. Beijing has taken a strong stance against the emerging “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, which elevates the protection of individuals against atrocities above the traditional sovereign norm against outside interference. Notably, China has joined Russia in vetoing four Security Council resolutions that provided for international intervention in the devastating Syrian civil war.
In addition, China has sought to rewrite the rules of Internet governance. It is attempting to move them away from the multistakeholder approach that involves businesses, civil society, research institutions and governments, toward a state-centric “Internet sovereignty” approach that would give governments a freer hand to restrict the flow of online communications. Xi Jinping has stated that “freedom and order are both necessary in cyberspace,” and Beijing has used major international Internet-governance summits to enlist other autocracies (such as Russia and Iran) in its efforts, putting it in direct competition with the United States and leading democracies.
THE BUILDING blocks of the current international system have served the United States and other nations extraordinarily well, and they are worth preserving, defending and extending. But there is no single international order to be saved, and should American policymakers wish to enlist China as a responsible stakeholder in its multitudinous components they must develop not one approach but many. Developing a granular appreciation for Beijing’s evolving disposition and building strategies informed by it are urgent tasks for the U.S. government. In the meantime, some policy prescriptions flow naturally from a broader understanding of world order and a closer analysis of Chinese behavior.