China and the Rules-based orderRBO
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Can Washington call the shots?

Wu Xinbo
Professor & Dean, International
Studies at Fudan University

“When pondering the emerging world order, [the US] should adopt a healthy dose of humility and open-mindedness.”

There exist some obvious problems in the discussion of whether a US–China compromise can be reached on the emerging international order.

First, some analysts fail to recognise the need for the United States to adapt to a fast-changing world characterised by a shifting balance of power and rising challenges to domestic and global governance. There is an assumption that Washington still has the luxury to decide whether it would like to strike a deal with Beijing, which is now a more ambitious, capable, and active player on the world stage. Second, a number of analysts focus on the international order’s liberal traits while ignoring its functionality, failing to answer the big question of how the order should be reformed and strengthened so as to effectively enhance development, security (both traditional and non-traditional), and global governance. No matter how good the liberal traits sound, if the order does not address the major global challenges, it should not stand in the way of necessary reform and adjustments to the international system. Third, parts of this debate concentrate almost exclusively on domestic dimensions, however, a functioning international order depends mainly on the external behaviours of the major players, whether they have mutual interests and willingness to pursue a common international agenda, and whether they hold consensus about the approaches. Domestic politics are relevant, but not decisive.

Like the United States, China also holds the key to the future order. It is misleading and even harmful to cast China in a stereotyped, ideological, and oversimplified way. To tag the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with Leninism blurs the line between Mao’s CCP and today’s CCP, or between today’s CCP and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Ironically, many Western analysts tend to describe the Chinese economic model as state capitalism. How can a Leninist party adopt capitalism? Also, an ideological perspective on China ignores the sea change that has taken place in economic, social, and even political fields over the past four decades, and blinds oneself to the growing diversity and complexity in Chinese society. It is interesting to see how many China analysts visit China regularly, have lived in China for an extended period in the last 10 years, or have access to China’s social media where the pulse of Chinese society can really be felt. In addition, an exclusive focus on some problematic aspects of China’s external behaviour misses the main story that over the past several decades China has emerged as both a major stakeholder as well as a significant supporter of the current order. A more balanced perspective would acknowledge China’s growing contribution to the existing international system. Equally, one should never underestimate the adaptability of Chinese leaders, whose policies and approaches are constantly shaped and reshaped in an interactive process, both internally and externally.

In fact, the challenge to a possible US–China compromise comes as much from the United States as from China. A hegemon beleaguered by declining power superiority and formidable domestic headaches is likely to undermine and even walk away from the liberal order it helped craft should it believe this order no longer works for its own primacy and privilege. This tendency has been fully manifested during Donald Trump’s presidency, his administration launching tariff wars of unprecedented scale on China, paralysing the World Trade Organization, and withdrawing from the World Health Organization, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and other international accords. In fact, over the last four years, by shirking its leadership responsibility, undermining multilateralism, and embracing unilateralism, protectionism, nationalism, and even racism, the United States under President Donald Trump has done far more damage than China to the prevailing order.

The world today is unlike the post-Cold War or Second World War eras. The United States, and the West in general, are being challenged and tested in terms of power, institutions, and values. The United States and the West, when pondering the emerging world order, should adopt a healthy dose of humility and open-mindedness, endeavouring to accommodate diversity in institutions and values, and treating non-Western countries, China included, with a greater spirit of equality. The mentality of occidental centralism, ideological bias, cultural arrogance, and even racial pride does not help the West adapt to a drastically changing world. If the so-called liberal order turns out to be only an instrument for the United States and the West to serve its selfish purpose, it is not going to be endorsed by China and many other countries. The most important thing to bear in mind is that throughout history, international order has never been static, but has been in constant evolution so as to meet new challenges and adapt to changing realities.

Professor Wu Xinbo is Professor and Dean, Institute of International Studies; and Director at the Center for American Studies, Fudan University.