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European Voices on China
MERICS Blog

Preparing (for) China's vision of international order

23 February 2016

By Mikko Huotari

China’s articulation of a vision of international order may be in its early stages. But some central elements are out – time for Europe and the US to start working on an answer.

It has become a common chorus at international meetings: China is now a global power – but where is its vision for a global order? The world is waiting for China to position itself and to articulate its views.

The past few weeks and months have shown that China is working on an answer. One of the country’s leading international voices on foreign policy, the chairwoman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the National People’s Congress, Fu Ying, has repeatedly expressed China’s commitment to address global problems, indicating sustained willingness to cooperate with the U.S. and other governments around the world.

At this year’s Munich Security Conference, Fu revealed more elements of China’s evolving vision in a programmatic speech to kick off a panel on China’s global role, which was co-hosted by MERICS. Her remarks were an occasion to get a better sense of what China thinks about the global order – even though Fu’s Western audience may not like the answer.

“China cannot support the US-led ‘world order’ in its entirety”, Fu said. “Changes are needed.” Most of us already knew, or suspected, as much, but now it is out, in clear words. With a view to a US-dominated world, Fu positioned China as a (smart) revisionist power.

World order versus international order

At the same time, she was also careful to stress that it was not China’s intention to upset the current international order. In her argument, the “US-led world order” rests on three pillars: the American/Western value system, the US-led military alignment system and international institutions such as the United Nations.

According to Fu, China rejects the first two of these pillars, but views itself as deeply rooted in international norms and institutions. “China has a strong sense of belonging to this order, as China is one of its founders and is a beneficiary, a contributor, as well as part of its reform efforts”, she said.

She avoided the notion that China’s recent forays into creating new “parallel” international economic institutions and initiatives – from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to the New Silk Road project competed with the established order. These projects are, according to Fu, “new public goods that China is offering” and as “non-exclusive and guided by UN principles”.

Western observers are increasingly trying to make sense of China’s evolving position. To Kevin Rudd, also a panellist at the MSC, China’s “assertive” commitment to the UN system – as incarnation of international order – needs to be taken very seriously.

More sceptical observers accuse China of “free-riding” on the current global order or find China’s holding up the international institutions hypocritical. They argue that China is in fact also undermining the UN system by vetoing crucial decisions in the Security Council or by pushing its state-centred approach in fields ranging from Internet governance and human rights to humanitarian interventions.

More optimistic analysts argue that recent Chinese initiatives such as the “One Belt and Road” could develop into alternative ideas on how the “common space of international politics could be organised.”

A vision in the making

For sure, there is a huge gap between China’s articulation of its own vision and current global realities. We also need to be clear that this vision is only just in the making. As of now, China still tends to define its role ex negativo – in contrasting it with a no longer desired dominance of the United States. But when it comes to how China might change the current system, the message still remains vague. It is also important to note that Fu Ying’s rather soft position does not necessarily represent the collective views of China’s leadership.

There is no doubt, however, that Fu’s remarks are another important contribution to a slowly maturing debate about China’s place in the world. The “West”, i.e. the US and the EU, should take her views seriously and jointly develop transatlantic responses – especially since any efforts to exclude it from international rule-making for the 21st century are bound to backfire.

Transcending the baseline of the transatlantic military alliance, this debate will take different forms on both sides of the Atlantic. Europeans, for example, may be more willing than the US to accept a decentred world order and engage with new emerging power poles. At the same time, we are also entering a period in which a stronger European and transatlantic alignment along core liberal economic and political norms is critically necessary for dealing with China.

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The  Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS)is a Stiftung Mercatorinitiative. Established in 2013, MERICS is a Berlin-based institute for contemporary and practical research into China.

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