China and the Rules-based orderRBO
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An order aligned with Chinese values

Elizabeth Economy

“[Xi Jinping’s initiatives] all speak in one form or another to his desire to transform the rules‑based order.”

There is no mystery around Chinese president Xi Jinping’s global ambitions. His oft cited “community of shared destiny”, “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, and aspiration to “lead in the reform of the global governance system”, all speak in one form or another to his desire to transform the rules-based order in ways that will align it more closely with Chinese values, norms, and policy preferences.

To that end, Xi has aggressively advanced Chinese sovereignty claims over the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. He has pushed to embed his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a permanent feature of the international system, and he has worked assiduously to imbue international values and norms around human rights, internet governance, and economic development with those of China. Xi also frequently deploys the power of the Chinese market to punish countries and companies for adopting policies he dislikes, such as banning Huawei, supporting the Hong Kong democracy activists, and calling for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. Xi’s drive for China to become a global centre of innovation has fuelled a relentless press of Chinese state-sponsored economic espionage costing multinationals and governments hundreds of billions of dollars. And much of the world is appalled that the Chinese government has forcibly relocated more than one million of its own citizens into labour and re-education camps in Xinjiang.

There is no magical mix of incentives or disincentives that is guaranteed to deter China from pursuing what it views as its priorities and upending the rules-based order in the process. Nonetheless, under certain conditions, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has also demonstrated the capacity to modify its behaviour in ways that allow it both to achieve its objectives and to support the current rules-based order. Such policy change is facilitated when there is widespread agreement that a particular Chinese behaviour exerts a significant and negative impact on the wellbeing of much of the international community; when the international community (particularly the still-developing economies) presses China to change its behaviour; and when important actors inside China also support the policy change.

This particular constellation of factors contributed, for example, to Xi’s decision to agree to cap China’s CO2 emissions and help forge the 2016 Paris Climate Accord, as well as his willingness in 2019 to recalibrate the lending practices of the BRI. The COVID-19 pandemic will likely also produce changes in the way China approaches food safety and perhaps transparency in its reporting and handling of new viruses and diseases. And there may even be the potential to realise a change in Chinese policy on the contentious issue of data privacy.

As Chinese technology companies expand their position globally, many countries are concerned about the Chinese government’s ability to access their citizens’ personal data. At the same time, there is a growing sentiment among Chinese citizens that the government should not be permitted unrestrained access to their personal data. At May’s Two Sessions - China’s annual legislative and political advisory gathering - for example, Robin Li, co-founder of internet giant Baidu, suggested that there should be an opt-out choice for people with regard to the health information collected during the pandemic.

This set of policy issues has the advantage of not directly engaging with Chinese sovereignty and human rights sensitivities, or with what are sometimes called ‘third rail’ issues such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China Sea, and Xinjiang. Here, the international community is more divided over whether it should demand policy change from China, and there is little demonstrable public support within China for the government to change course. Yet how China manages these issues is a direct reflection of the character of the polity and the nature of its leadership on the global stage. The international community cannot afford to look away and avoid mounting a robust campaign through political, economic, and, in the case of the South China Sea and perhaps Taiwan, military means to defend the values inherent in the rules-based order. Ultimately, these are critical issues for the international community as well.

Dr Elizabeth Economy is Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and Senior Fellow for China Studies, Council on Foreign Relations.