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China’s Varied Approach to the Liberal International Order

18 Jun 2020
By Eloise Watson
President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping at an informal meeting of the heads of state and government of the BRICS member countries. Source: Kremlin

Pundits often negatively portray China’s current posture towards the liberal international order. A more nuanced, and arguably more apt, characterisation of its stance is that of a “conditional supporter.”

Is Beijing a champion or a scofflaw of the rules-based multilateral order? China selectively adheres to elements of the system wherever is in its interests, while often resisting or seeking to reform elements that conflict with its interests. Certainly, China’s increasing stridency on the need for reform reveals a desire to modify the liberal international order to better reflect its growing influence. But its proposed changes and efforts to implement them are not attempts to overhaul the current order.  Indeed, China is all too aware that it has risen successfully within – and continues to benefit from – the liberal international order, and its interests are strongly linked to other key players within the system.

Yves Tiberghien’s framework of mediated strategic interactions provides a strong foundation for explaining this fluctuating engagement with the liberal international order. A key guiding factor of China’s external actions, according to the model, are its interactions with other established opponents and partners within the global order, including whether or not China, the rising power, feels constrained by the dominant power and international system more broadly. Additionally, entrenched domestic narratives and historically-induced ideas feed into China’s worldview, shape its domestic strategic priorities, and guide its response to the global order. Different alignments of these factors have influenced China’s varied approaches towards the liberal international order.

China as a ballast of the international system

China’s switch to a proactive stance on climate governance,  particularly after singing the 2015 Paris Agreement, demonstrates that when China faces a permissive international environment and sees an opportunity to align action with its domestic development narrative, it is capable of leading constructively. For example, its leadership at the Paris Conference and its climate governance sea change was influenced by a highly cooperative US position following the US-China strategic dialogue in November 2014 and the space opened by the French presidency before and during the conference, where trust and goodwill was built among parties through concerted efforts to include all perspectives. Additionally, China’s PM2.5 crisis in 2013 sparked an environmental consciousness and understanding within Beijing that a green economy (and the improved air quality and other beneficial effects associated with climate mitigation) is crucial to the country’s new domestic development strategy, and to the elites’ performance legitimacy.

China as a pioneer of global order reform

China’s approach to development governance – including its establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), and co-founding of the New Development Bank (NDB) – reveals that it can proactively and innovatively contribute global public goods to the international community when it faces a more constraining international environment yet sees an opportunity to advance its development agenda and build international influence. The AIIB and NDB largely serve to augment existing multilateral development efforts; they mobilise new resources for development and maintain rules-based multilateral institutional structures that are largely transparent. One factor pushing China to resort to launching these supplemental international economic governance bodies was its desire to circumvent US stonewalling of major IMF reforms. Additionally, the creation of the AIIB and BRI were motivated by China’s preoccupation with its development trajectory, offering Beijing new mechanisms to deliver on economic growth, including by increasing its foreign investment returns.

China as a disruptor of the international system

Conversely, China’s cyber governance strategy highlights a capacity to act disruptively when faced with hostile actions by traditional powers, when its historical sense of vulnerability is triggered, or when its internal development and national rejuvenation narratives are threatened. Beijing’s protective, non-cooperative cyber governance approach, including its heavily promulgated concept of cyber sovereignty, conflicts with foundational rules and principles of the internet in market-based democracies, namely online privacy, international openness, freedom of expression, and access to information. China’s defiance in the cyber realm has been partly spurred by perceived adverse moves by the US, including funding of organisations seeking to evade China’s “Great Firewall,” Google’s cooperation with the National Security Agency, former Secretary of State Clinton’s major speech on Internet freedom in 2010 (perceived by many as an attack against China), and the alleged US government control of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

China’s strong preference for cyber sovereignty and opposition to Western cyber governance monopolisation is also partly rooted in its narrative of national vulnerability. Its experiences in the 19th and 20th centuries, the West’s interference in Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang affairs, and human rights issues have bred within China a deep desire for state sovereignty across domains. Accordingly, Beijing seeks to protect itself from what it identifies as “Western anti-China forces [that continue to…] use the internet to topple China.”  China’s cyber posture is also significantly shaped by its defensive framing around the importance of internal stability and public order, as well as by its national development objectives – including avoiding the middle-income trap and maximising opportunities for modernisation. President Xi affirms this rationale: “[W]ithout cybersecurity, there is no national security; without informatisation, there is no modernisation.”


While China’s rise presents a formidable challenge when it comes to the future of global governance, its approach to the liberal international order has nonetheless been varied, adaptive, and in many cases, constructive, demonstrating a degree of malleability which the West should leverage. In order to most effectively steer China’s power in a direction that strengthens the existing global order, several conditions must be met. Firstly, efforts to limit or oppose China’s participation in the liberal international order should be abandoned. In reality, China is more likely to act disruptively when its voice is blocked, or it perceives itself as constrained by hostile US actions. The US should seek to further integrate China into the liberal international order by allowing it to expand its leadership role. Undoubtedly, ceding partial control (and accepting a new multi-polar order) may cost the US a reduction in its institutional authority. But it would also likely serve to more deeply entrench China within the current order, especially given China’s proclivity for stabilising action when provided with sufficient strategic space.

However, accommodating Beijing’s rising power and different perspectives will require adjusting aspects of the liberal international order to make it more representative, while preserving its essential spirit. Striking this balance is a complex task. For example, existing institutions such as the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund could be adapted more fairly to reflect China’s influence, while simultaneously providing more enforceable rules of behaviour that all powers accept. That said, compromise on every global norm and rule is far from recommended, and the US should continue pressing for Chinese reforms in areas such as technology transfer demands and finding effective non-escalatory means with which to deter China’s assertive pursuit of its maritime and territorial claims.

It will also be necessary to undertake rejuvenated investment in reinforcing common interests between Washington and Beijing. The powers increasingly share mutual interests, chiefly those in the environmental and economic domains. More challenging will be improving cooperation on perceived threats in the security sphere. Success in this respect will partly depend on how well both global players can heed the advice of Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong: “each must understand the other’s point of view and reconcile the other’s interests.” One practical way to help attain this mutual understanding might be to build a US-China global governance collaboration centre. As Yanzhong Huang envisages, such a centre could “test new ideas for global governance, familiarise with each other’s operation protocols, and teach needed skills and knowledge for effective and efficient cooperation.”

In sum, the US’s current acrimonious approach to China of intense bilateral confrontation must be replaced by a strategy that better balances competition and cooperation with a rising China. Granted, attaining such a strategic equilibrium will prove immensely challenging, but the alternatives – future global fragmentation or great power conflict – make it well worth striving for.

Eloise Watson is currently undertaking her Masters of International Security at Science Po in Paris, France. Before this, Eloise graduated from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) with First Class Honours in International Relations and spent four years working in the Australian Public Service.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.