The False Promise of Chinese Integration into the Liberal International Order

December 3, 2014 Topic: Foreign Policy Region: China

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." 

If it wants to be more direct but still peaceful, then China has numerous other options as well. It can throw around its growing economic heft. For example, Beijing has already chipped away at the human-rights regime by threatening economic retaliation for hosting the Dalai Lama or other Chinese personae non gratae. Someday, too, China may acquire the sort of cultural cache that allows it to add soft power to its diplomatic toolbox. Finally, Beijing can set up competing global institutions—like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank—that sap Western institutions of their previous vitality.

The point is simple. 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. Because even “part-time spoilers” (in Ikenberry’s words) can undermine key pillars of the liberal international order, the question once again becomes: what parts would China spoil if it had the opportunity?

The Quicksand of International Institutions?

Taking another tack, integrationists suggest that selective engagement with the international order will lead to engagement across the board. In other words, China may choose to uphold certain aspects of the international order at first—say, the open economic system—but over time, this initial investment will lead inexorably to deeper and deeper integration.

There is something to this view. After all, states often bite off more than they expect to chew when they sign on to certain institutional regimes. One reason why is that selective integration can spawn new domestic constituencies with a stake in upholding international commitments. For a classic example, look no further than the Helsinki Accords and the succor they gave to domestic dissidents in the Soviet bloc.

But while the United States has had limited success in creating sticky institutional micro-commitments, it has not been able to entangle unwilling nations into the entire international order. This failure is not for lack of trying. Take the case of China itself. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States secured China a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. Then, since the 1970s and 1980s, Washington has welcomed China into a number of other pivotal institutions in the world order, including the WTO. Integrationists expected these moves to ineluctably lead to deeper integration.

Yet Beijing has belied these hopes and continued to sign onto new regimes at its own pace. Rather than being drawn into new institutional fora and constraints against its will, China has pursued a straightforward conception of its national interests in deciding which international rules to play by. Consider the APEC agreements. It made perfect sense for China to announce its intention to peak C02 emissions “around 2030.” This nonbinding pledge imposes few meaningful constraints on China, and it aligns with President Xi Jinping’s domestic-policy goals, which include both transforming China’s economy and wresting control over environmental policy away from local governments. At the same time, China has shown little appetite for binding international climate-change agreements that could thwart its economic growth, which remains a priority at the highest levels.

Likewise, China has steered clear of a “Code of Conduct” with the other South China Sea claimants, because Beijing would prefer to delay resolution of the conflict. But at the APEC summit, Beijing was happy to reach military-to-military confidence-building mechanisms (CBMs) with the United States that would “increase transparency and predictability and reduce the risk of unintended incidents.” These CBMs align perfectly with China’s delaying strategy; Beijing has no interest in antagonizing both the United States and its neighbors at the same time.

Indeed, it should not come as a surprise that China is unlikely to buy wholesale into the international order when even the architect of that order has engaged only selectively. The United States set up much of the liberal international order in the aftermath of World War II. But it has resolutely stayed out of (or even flouted) regimes that contravene its perceived national interests. Even putting aside extreme cases like the second Gulf War—widely perceived across the world as a violation of the core principles of the UN Charter—Washington has remained conspicuously absent from numerous treaty regimes, despite helping to negotiate many of them. So, for example, the United States has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (although that fact has not stopped Washington from chiding Beijing about its wayward interpretation). If the architect of the liberal international order will not deign to sleep in parts of the house that it helped build, then why should China?

In short, China’s decision to sign several agreements during the APEC summit—agreements that advance its national interests—does not augur a broader commitment to all aspects of the liberal international order.


If China takes the helm of the international system, then the United States—along with the rest of the world—should expect it to set a new course, one that ultimately redounds to China’s perceived benefit. Whether these course corrections would be normatively desirable depends on one’s interests and ideological priors. But the latest APEC agreements are not harbingers of wholesale Chinese integration into the global order, and it would be wishful thinking to believe otherwise.

Sean Mirski is a third-year student at Harvard Law School, where he is Supreme Court Chair of the Harvard Law Review.

Image: Flickr/Philip Jagenstedt/CC by 2.0