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Australian and People’s Republic of China Government Conceptions of the International Order

04 May 2019
By Simone van Nieuwenhuizen
Analysis of Australia and the PRC's government documents and official public statements highlight their differing conceptions of the global order. Photo: Hans Splinter, Flickr,

Through a comparative analysis of Australia and the PRC’s policy documents and official statements over the last ten years, it is possible to highlight their differing conceptions of the global order.

There is a thriving debate in Australia about the nature and future of the international order. This has been largely driven by two factors. First, the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s economic significance to Australia and the rest of the world has increased. This has been accompanied by concern regarding the PRC’s approach to the international order, exacerbated by the PRC’s militarisation of and assertiveness in the South China Sea and its implementation of the controversial Belt and Road Initiative. Second, US commitment to and authority over the international order is increasingly uncertain, particularly since the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January 2017. There is acknowledgment in Australia of the PRC’s importance to the future of the international order, for good or ill. Amidst speculation about PRC approaches to the international order, and arguments that the PRC constitutes a challenge to the norms and principles underpinning Australia’s understanding of the international order, there is a need for more systematic comparative analysis of Australian and PRC conceptions of the international order.

Through a qualitative comparative analysis of policy documents and official statements over the last ten years (2008–2018), it is possible to identify Australian and PRC government conceptions of the international order and the associated policy implications. Their understandings of the international order are informed by their self-defined national role conceptions and perceptions of other states, and are manifested in discussions of institutional reform, international law and human rights. Australia’s self-conception as a middle power informs its emphasis on maintenance and US leadership of the existing order, while the PRC’s self-conceptions as both a developing and established power enable it to frame itself as either an upholder or reformer of the order. Both governments highlight the “rules-based” mechanisms of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and are more likely to agree on trade and economic issues than on other matters. While Australia considers the PRC a potential challenger to the existing order, Australia does not feature in PRC discussions of international order, suggesting its limited ability to affect PRC foreign policy decisions.

Language of international order

For the last ten years, the Australian and PRC governments have used different vocabularies for the international order. The Australian government’s preferred term is “rules-based international order,” while the PRC government has tended to omit the “rules-based” prefix. However, statements made since July 2018 indicate the PRC may be moving towards adoption of the “rules-based” descriptor.


The Australian and PRC governments demonstrate divergent national role conceptions. The Australian government conceives of Australia as a middle power, with regional and international responsibility to uphold the existing order. The PRC government self-defines as both a developing country and a founder of the international order, which enables it to shift its perceived roles.

Australian governments have since 2008 continued to describe Australia as a middle power and highlighted its middle power status in the international order. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called for “creative middle power diplomacy,” stating it is, “… the best means of acting as effective international citizens in enhancing the global and regional order on which we all depend.” In addition to utilisation of its United Nation (UN)’s membership and the pursuit of multilateral cooperation, Rudd’s articulation of Australia’s middle power status emphasised its alliance with the United States. Former Prime Ministers Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull also used the term “middle power” to describe Australia’s international role.

The Australian government thus portrays Australia as an active shaper of the international order, as well as a supporter of a US-led international order. Australia’s role in “helping to develop the rules-based component of the global order,” especially in the UN’s establishment, was cited in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper as evidence of Australia’s long-term dedication to the rules-based international order. The Australian government has also called Australia “an upholder and defender of the international rules-based order” and stated that Australia “needs to play its part in assisting the United States to deal with global security challenges.”

PRC government statements and documents demonstrate its self-conception as both a “developing country” and “protector, founder and contributor” to the international order. The 2015 Military Strategy White Paper described China as a “developing major country.” PRC statements at the UN General Debate since 2008 have used the term “responsible major developing country” to describe the country’s place in the world. The PRC government thus portrays China as an advocate of developing countries and smaller powers, and as a responsible contributor to the improvement of the existing order, not an over-turner of it.

The PRC cites China’s position as one of five original UN Security Council permanent members to justify its self-conception as an established power and a founder of the international order. This contrasts with the Australian government’s depictions of China as being an emerging great power and challenger of the existing international order.

Roles of other states in the international order

The Australian and PRC governments have different understandings of the roles of other states within the international order, which are influenced by their self-conceptions as a middle power, and an established and emerging power respectively. While the Australian government has portrayed Australia as a key founder of the international order, as a middle power its self-conception is nested within the understanding that the United States remains at the centre of this order, and Australia should, therefore, support US endeavours. Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper noted, “Without sustained US support, the effectiveness and liberal character of the rules-based order will decline.” Australian defence white papers over the last decade have also consistently highlighted the importance of the United States. For example, the 2009 edition stated, “The global leadership role played by the United States since the end of World War II has provided the strategic underpinning for the post-war global order.”

The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper explicitly stated the Australian government’s vision for the PRC’s role as one that “strengthens a regional order based on the principles of cooperation, open markets, freedom of navigation and overflight, and a strongly engaged US.” The 2009 Defence White Paper suggested broad support for a larger PRC role in the existing order. It said:

China’s political leadership is likely to continue to appreciate the need for it to make a strong contribution to strengthening the regional security environment and the global rules-based order.

This implies that the PRC will and should socialise within existing rules and institutions, as they are in the PRC’s interests.

The PRC’s 2012 UN General Assembly national statement claimed that in the context of territorial disputes over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, Japan’s actions constituted a threat to the “post-war international order.” This understanding was reflected in the 2015 PRC Military Strategy White Paper, which stated that Japan was “actively seeking to overturn the post-war system” and that the United States “rebalance to Asia” was concerning. Its portrayal of Japanese and US aggression contrasts with the PRC government’s self-ascribed peaceful developing major power role, which frames the PRC as an upholder, rather than over-turner, of the international order.

Australia’s attention to the PRC is not reciprocated; Australia does not feature in PRC discussions on the international order in any remarkable way. This may be due to the perception of Australia’s lack of ability to independently shape the order and other actors’ behaviour and approaches to the order, which could limit Australia’s ability to defend or uphold the existing order against potential challenges posed by the PRC.

The role of institutions and the need for reform

Both the Australian and PRC governments consider the UN central to the international order and have called for its reform. Their priorities, however, are different. While reflecting the desire for greater representation of developing and emerging powers, the Australian government emphasises maintenance of the existing order. The PRC suggests existing rules are fundamentally unfair and require comprehensive revision. When it comes to the WTO, both governments agree that it lies at the centre of a “rules-based multilateral trading system.”

International law and human rights

There is significant divergence between the Australian and PRC governments on the relative importance of sovereignty and international law within the international order. PRC statements and documents prioritise “sovereign equality” and reflect an understanding that international law has been used as a coercive tool or excuse to violate its sovereignty. The PRC promotes states’ right to determine their own political systems and citizens’ right to development as opposed to individual human rights. This reduces the emphasis on liberal, democratic norms prevalent in Australian government interpretations of the international order.

The Australian government’s conception of the international order is one centred on democratic values and US leadership and a belief that adherence to established international law and norms regarding human rights is essential to the security of the order. Australia and the PRC are therefore likely to continue to disagree on matters of international law and human rights.


States’ understandings of the international order inform their foreign policy decisions. Mutual awareness of similarities and differences, therefore, has the potential to enable policymakers to better predict their counterparts’ actions. States’ conceptions of the international order are informed by their self-conceptions and conceptions of other states’ roles within the order. As a self-described middle power that advocates for continued US leadership and cooperation of “like-minded,” democratic states in upholding the order, Australia is likely to continue promoting the existing order; it is also not in a position to directly shape it.

There are some similarities between PRC and Australian government conceptions of the international order. Perhaps most significantly, Australia and the PRC converge in their understanding of the WTO as the centre of a “rules-based multilateral trading system” and highlight the need to resolve trade disputes through its mechanisms. This suggests consensus on trade and economic issues is more likely than on matters of international law and human rights.

In addition to its self-conception as a “responsible major developing country,” the PRC considers itself an upholder, and indeed founder of, the international order. Australian government statements, however, suggest the PRC is a rising power that constitutes a challenge to a US-led international order. Australia, on the other hand, does not feature in PRC discussions of the international order. This lack of recognition suggests limited efficacy of Australia’s middle power diplomacy in upholding the existing order in the face of alternative PRC approaches.

The PRC government has tended to promote what it calls a “democratic and equitable” rather than “rules-based” international order. In its conception the existing rules are unfair, and international law has been used as a coercive tool, not a stabilising force. This may explain why statements have highlighted the importance of “sovereign equality” as the basis of the international order. Due to its self-conception as a peaceful actor, and a founder and upholder of the international order, the PRC is unlikely to alter its current position on international law, particularly when applied to territorial disputes such as in the South China Sea. Its recent application of the “rules-based” descriptor may serve to bolster its view that its approach to international law is legitimate and beyond reproach. International law will therefore likely continue to be a major sticking point in the Australia-China relationship. The PRC continues to attempt to introduce its own vocabulary, hitherto unfamiliar to international organisations, in order to influence the discourse of international order. That it is doing this even as recent statements appear to endorse a “rules-based international order” points to the continuation of its dual role conception as an “emerging” and “established” power.

Simone van Nieuwenhuizen is a researcher at the Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney. She is co-author, with Kerry Brown, of “China and the New Maoists.” She holds a Master of International Relations (Diplomacy) in Chinese from Peking University and a Bachelor of Arts (Languages) from the University of Sydney.

This is an extract of van Nieuwebhuizen’s article in Volume 73, Issue 2 of the Australian Journal of International Affairs titled, “Australian and People’s Republic of China Government Conceptions of the International Order.” It is republished with permission.