The consensus is growing in Washington that the effort to integrate China into a multilateral international order has flopped. “Neither carrots nor sticks have swayed China as predicted,” Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner argue. The West “bet that China would head towards democracy and the free market,” the Economist laments. But “the gamble has failed.” Perhaps most directly of all, the new U.S. National Security Strategy charges that China “wants to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests.”
Such arguments reflect disappointment among western experts that China has opted to use the wealth and power gained from engagement with the international system to undercut aspects of the same system. From the South China Sea territorial claims to the terms of trade to censorship and harassment directed at foreign governments and companies, Beijing is flexing its muscles and claiming the right to revise and reinterpret the rules of the game. These actions pose a growing challenge for key rules and norms of the post-war international order so painstakingly crafted by the United States and others. That order includes the United Nations system, the suite of international economic institutions, regional organizations from the European Union to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the dense network of rules, norms, and values associated with that system.
It is true that crude versions of the integrationist thesis—the idea that China would simply hitch its wagon to this American-led order and be economically as well as politically transformed—have been discredited. But such naïve visions were never likely to bear out anyway. China is too powerful and ambitious to have submitted to such a passive approach. It is also too big, too convinced of its own global destiny, and too motivated by a desire to restore its rightful place after centuries of “humiliation.” Moreover, the fragmentation of the international order is hardly the fault of China alone. The retreat of democratic values worldwide, Russia’s seizure of Crimea with impunity, and the failure of the international community to resolve persistent problems of climate change, refugee crises, and global economic stagnation underscore the fragile and frayed state of the international order. The real question today is enormously complex: What role should the US expect an increasingly powerful China to play in shaping a multilateral order that is itself under severe strain?
A team of RAND researchers set out to address this question in a new study of China’s approach to the international order. We examined China’s participation in international institutions, adherence to international norms, compliance with established rule sets, and level of support for multilateral coordination and problem-solving. We tried to take seriously not only the history of China’s behavior but its rapidly shifting tone and tenor—which unquestionably points to worrying trends in Chinese willingness to contest aspects of the international order.
Our research confirmed that China’s engagement with the order has been and remains a complex, often contradictory work in progress. From the standpoint of China’s modern history, our research confirms that China’s more recent approach to the postwar order represents notable progress. In the Maoist era, China maintained a mostly antagonistic posture to the international system as a whole. Beijing proudly counted itself as not just a revisionist but an avowedly revolutionary power.
Since the advent of the reform and opening up period in the late 1970s, however, China has been more supportive toward the post-war order, viewing it as broadly in China’s interests. It has joined hundreds of leading institutions such as the United Nations and World Trade Organization, gradually boosted its direct and indirect support for many multilateral activities and norms, and expressed a commitment to increasing its role in global governance. It has been more supportive in some areas than others, pursuing significant engagement in areas like management of the international economy, peacekeeping, dealing with global security threats like piracy and terrorism, foreign aid and development, and nonproliferation. But overall, China’s behavior in the post-Cold War era has been largely supportive of the international system.
In the areas where China continues to contest aspects of the international order, such as the norm of unilateral military intervention nominally in support of humanitarian values—Beijing is hardly alone. Its objections fall squarely into broader fault lines that divide global opinion on the character of the postwar order.
On one side of this divide are states that cling to a more limited, sovereignty-based conception of the order’s norms and rules. This limited conception is built around the non-aggression guarantee of the UN Charter and the idea of territorial integrity. That group includes not only China and Russia but many other emerging democracies such as India, Brazil, and South Africa. On the other side are countries who support an order characterized by the active promotion of liberal values, including the rule of law and human rights. This second camp also believes that sovereignty must give way when necessary to enforce those rules and values. That means everything from economic sanctions to stiff conditions on aid to humanitarian interventions. The debate between these two groups is a legitimate argument about the extent of the international order, not a signal that the countries supporting a narrower conception of that system aim to destroy it.
More broadly, China’s misgivings do not generally extend to the international order’s most essential rules. Notwithstanding its muscle-flexing in the South China Sea, for example, Beijing continues to support the principle of territorial non-aggression and has refrained from military violence to seize disputed territory.
Nonetheless, although China’s international behavior for the past three decades has been mostly supportive of the international order, the country has taken a strikingly assertive turn in recent years. In part, Beijing's shift reflects the reality that a narrowing gap in national power between China and the United States has fueled a deepening strategic competition between the two giants. In its struggle for influence and status, Beijing has shown a willingness to assert its preferences in a bolder and more confrontational manner than before. This is particularly true in three areas: China’s predatory trade and industrial policies; its growing willingness to impose its limits on free speech and action on foreign governments and companies; and its coercive approaches to territorial claims.
China’s belligerence in the South and East China Seas and its state-supported industrial policies and theft of intellectual property are well cataloged. Increasingly, however, China’s challenge to the existing order is also apparent in its efforts to shut down discussion of issues like Taiwan and Tibet—and to punish journalists, scholars, or officials who violate these demands—around the world. Resisting the forcible extension of democracy is one thing. Actively undermining free societies from the outside is a very different proposition—and one that could place China far more at odds with the prevailing order than has previously been the case.
Given that the United States remains the essential leader of the international system, growing Chinese willingness to contest aspects of that order unavoidably weaken U.S. influence and exacerbate instability. If left unchecked, China’s challenge could also result in the export of increasingly authoritarian values and shape an international order in which Beijing sets the terms of every deal, takes whatever intellectual property or resources it wants, and threatens those who resist with economic ruin and military force.
A revitalized international order thus requires the United States to compete more effectively with China to defend fundamental values and norms—and a vibrant multilateral order can help in that process. The United States could strengthen its engagement with international institutions and take action to protect its interests and those of its allies. The United States could continue to muster international backing for the widely-supported norm of the peaceful resolution of disputes. America could also continue to press China to cease predatory economic policies such as intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer.
But unavoidable U.S.-China competition for influence does not invalidate the possibility, and potential value, of collaborating with Beijing on a shared international order. The global system is already experiencing considerable stress, and finding ways to cooperate with China on shared concerns is essential if the situation is not to worsen further. Working with China, the United States and its allies and partners could help fashion a multilateral system that ultimately provides the United States with greater influence and sets norms to which all countries could be judged, including China. Strong U.S. leadership, backed by military strength and cooperation with its network of allies and partners, will remain essential to deterring China from considering dangerous acts of aggression against its neighbors. But a resilient and responsive multilateral order can incentivize China to operate primarily within, as opposed to outside, international institutions.