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China’s contribution to world order: challenges and opportunities

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China’s contribution to world order: challenges and opportunities 

China promotes a world order based on coexistence. This concept of coexistence entails extensive policy coordination for conflict management. Coexistence is based on the principles of absolute sovereignty and non-intervention adjusted to developing countries’ demands for enhanced regionalisation of global security management. For Western defence establishments, Beijing’s efforts imply less room overseas for military operations and more room for capacity building.

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China’s concept of world order and the consequences for Western defence
Chinese-style coexistence involves policy coordination on conflict resolution and prioritising non-military means of persuasion and negotiation rather than coercion and punishment. On the basis of this concept, China has established a network of economic and political-strategic relations across all the world’s regions. This development testifies to the emergence of an alternative to the US alliance system that allows Beijing to implement an alternative to Western concepts of world order.

For Western defence establishments, Beijing’s alternative version of world order implies less room for overseas military operations and more room for capacity building. Western efforts to couple demands for liberal political reform to economic and political-strategic cooperation are challenged by China’s approach to foreign relations. This challenge encourages the US and its allies to focus on restoring their economic and financial capabilities, realising that Chinese influence is based on market economic reforms coupled to authoritarian political structures. As such, China challenges the necessity of political liberal reform as a precondition for economic success. Furthermore, China’s focus on economic and political linkages overseas, such as the financing and building of infrastructure and energy extraction facilities in developing countries pronounced pariah states by the West, prompts the US and its allies to reconsider the usefulness of major overseas military engagements with ambitious political objectives such as nation building. To ensure that the West continues to exercise global influence, its need to restore relations outside of the Western hemisphere and the necessity to focus on economic growth rather than military intervention  encourage the West to focus increasingly on capacity building with comprehensive means with regard to its overseas engagements.

Coexistence defined
China is attempting to revise the current international order by focusing on negotiation, compromise and policy coordination in conflict management efforts; by increasing the role of regional and functional institutions in security management in the UN system; and by preserving the status of absolute sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states. China’s understanding of coexistence does not entail extensive cooperation on the basis of common values. Instead, Beijing advocates that national interests should be pursued on the basis of a combination of individual foreign policy choices and extensive international dialogue to prevent the use of force between states with conflicting national interests. This form of policy coordination is a means of allowing states to concentrate on fulfilling their individual goals rather than an end in itself.

China’s policy not to use force for purposes of conflict management is based on the Cold War interpretation of the UN system as applied by the US and the Soviet Union. Beijing supports a fundamental role for absolute sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states. Intervention is only justified to prevent a threat to international peace and security or if the target government approves of interference. China’s record of not using force outside its borders lends some merit to this claim, if for no other reason than that, as the weaker power without an alliance system, China simply cannot afford to project military power beyond its borders in ways that may cause military conflict.

An example of China’s policy not to use force to manage conflicts is China’s response to UNSC Resolution 1973 which, acting under the peacemaking provisions of Chapter VII, approved a no-fly zone over Libya. The resolution authorised all necessary measures to protect civilians by a vote of ten in favour with five abstentions. China's abstention was determined by its preference for peaceful means of conflict settlement and its concern not to block measures approved by the African Union, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the League of Arab States. China has been critical of NATO’s very broad interpretation of the resolution. This interpretation has made China reluctant to accept similar UNSC resolutions. This reluctance was demonstrated by its veto of a proposed resolution endorsing an Arab League peace plan which called for Syrian President Assad to resign. Beijing was not willing to approve what it saw as a violation of Syrian sovereignty and a carte blanche to intervene with the purpose of regime change.

The UN system as a basis of influence
The UN system and its subset of regional and functional organisations form the basis of China’s diplomacy. In a sense, China has overtaken US post-World War II multilateralism, in part out of necessity, because Beijing’s economic and military capabilities remain far too modest to pursue a policy of imposition. In few years, China’s diplomacy has helped Beijing win numerous strategic partners across the world’s regions. In diplomatic relations China tends to emphasise areas of mutual benefit rather than areas of conflict. Issues of contention are often shelved in order to proceed with dialogue in areas where the element of common interest dominates. For example, in its relations with Russia China focuses on their mutual interest in preserving the Cold War interpretation of the UN system and mutual trade relations rather than issues of contention, such as Chinese immigration into Russia’s Far East and Russia’s 2008 military intervention in Georgia. Similarly, notwithstanding the South China Sea disputes of overlapping maritime claims between China and several Southeast Asian states, China’s relations with the ASEAN focus on trade and investment relations. Those relations are founded in China’s accession to the ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. This accession implies China’s willingness to adapt to concepts for preserving international peace and stability set up by other states, provided these are founded in the UN system. Similarly, China addresses forums such as the African Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency as entities recognised by the UN system. As such, Beijing sees them as entities that should play a determining role in establishing threats and what is to be done about these threats within their regional and functional area of specialisation. For example, in the run up to the UNSC vote, which established a joint UN-AU hybrid force, China’s special envoy to Darfur, Liu Guijin, commented that ‘it is not China’s Darfur. It is first Sudan’s Darfur and then Africa’s Darfur’.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia arguably demonstrates the kind of coexistence world order envisaged by China. The SCO was created at Beijing’s initiative to exercise some control over the growing great power competition for strategic and economic influence in Central Asia. The SCO brings together China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in an attempt to establish policy coordination on economic and military issues. This coordination is largely limited to the annual summit, joint cultural events and annual joint military exercises on a moderate scale. The SCO’s principal usefulness is as a flexible platform for policy coordination between its members as well as its observers: India, Iran, Pakistan, Mongolia and Afghanistan. Policy coordination is not an instrument for enhanced multilateral cooperation. Instead, it keeps a lid on potential international conflicts and facilitates bilateral agreements.

The legitimacy of Chinese coexistence
Chinese-style coexistence involves policy coordination on conflict resolution and prioritising non-military means of persuasion and negotiation rather than coercion and punishment. It is based on solidarity with other governments through top-down cooperation, and it involves strengthening the old UN system and its emphasis on absolute sovereignty. In addition, China appears to promote the regionalisation and specialisation of authority to assess and act upon alleged threats to regional peace and security. This set of coexistence principles enjoys widespread legitimacy in the developing world and justifies China’s status as a maker rather than a taker of international order. An indication of the support for China’s version of world order is that approximately half of the states in the UN Security Council favour the Chinese principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-aggression, equality and mutual benefit, and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states in the cases of Iran’s nuclear programme, Sudan’s Darfur conflict and Myanmar’s conflict between the regime and the opposition.

China’s coexistence world order is designed to maximise Beijing’s national interests from the uneasy position of a weak power that may wield political influence at the great power level, but as of yet without commanding economic and military power at US levels. Beijing’s global political influence stems from the fact that it provides secondary and small powers with an appealing complementary model of world order which attracts support from developing countries. Often, these countries seek protection against Western liberal world order aspirations that entail economic liberalisation and political democratisation processes.

Reservations about China’s version of world order emerge mainly due to the secondary nationalist theme in its foreign relations. The nationalist theme comes to the fore in situations where China is under pressure to compromise on issues of national identity and its definition of the so-called Chinese motherland, giving rise to the use of coercive means. This secondary nationalist theme calls into question Beijing’s genuine commitment to its coexistence programme of international order, indicating that national identity issues linked to demands for the restoration of the Chinese motherland are its ultimate objective. These identity issues hamper Beijing’s efforts to win a stable group of loyal partners comparable to Washington’s alliance system.

The Chinese coexistence model is an interest-based programme designed to protect China against overseas interference and maintain international peace and stability without obligations for extensive cooperation. One reason for these modest international ambitions is that China does not have a domestic state-society model which complements its world order model. The Confucian notion of a harmonious society remains a rhetorical device without much practical applicability. The idea has not been translated into essential political structures, such as feedback mechanisms from society to government, or into processes such as the use of elections to facilitate political succession. The absence of a political model to complement the market economic transition means that China relies on continued economic growth and improved standards of living for regime legitimacy. The lack of new thinking regarding how to structure state-society relations also implies that Beijing relies on random feedback mechanisms of protest and complaint and on coercion for dealing with societal dissatisfaction. Another implication is that no one knows by which value standard to measure China’s performance. Hence, Beijing’s objectives as a prospective great power remain unknown beyond those of maintaining national unity and restoring the Chinese motherland. This is not an attractive great power in the eyes of most states. The majority therefore continues to rely on US security guarantees for the foreseeable future.


Further reading:

  • Liselotte Odgaard, “Between Integration and Coexistence: US-Chinese Strategies of International Order”, Strategic Studies Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 1, Spring 2013, pp. 15-39.
  • Liselotte Odgaard, China and Coexistence: Beijing’s National Security Strategy for the Twenty-First Century, Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.
  • Liselotte Odgaard, “Peaceful Coexistence Strategy and China’s Diplomatic Power”, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Autumn 2013, Vol. 22, No. 82, forthcoming.

About the author

Civilian researcher

Liselotte Odgaard

Mail: ifs-13@fak.dk