Written by Huiyun Feng.

In a January issue of Foreign Policy, refuting the argument by Niall Ferguson on China and the liberal international order, Aaron Friedberg wrote an article entitled “China’s understanding of global order shouldn’t be ours”. Friedberg expressed concerns that “What Xi has in mind when he sings the praises of ‘globalisation’ is not a level playing field but a situation in which China is able to persist in these practices while preserving the greatest possible access to the economies and societies of its open, liberal trading partners”.

China has not challenged the legitimacy of the IMF and the World Bank, which are the foundations of the current financial global governance. This indicates that China is a constructive reformer instead of a destroyer of the current economic order.

This very pessimistic view of China’s rising power reveals, on the one hand, a serious sense of increasing frustration and disappointment with what is happening in China, on the other, a sense of bitterness over the relative decline of the West. This strong sense of differentiating “Chinese understanding” vs. “ours” (the West’s) discloses a strong sense of non-acceptance and regret. Friedberg pointed out that “engagement with the West has enabled China to grow richer, more quickly than would otherwise have been possible.” However, whilst the ‘West’ expected China to liberalise with this increase of power, liberalisation in China has not only not happened, but has also diminished on several fronts. “It is the unintended consequences of this strategy, and ultimately its failure, that lie at the heart of the current crisis”. Therefore, the ‘West’ feels a strong sense of “betrayal” over China’s “illiberal” rise, leading to several rounds of debates, featuring the China threat, the Yellow Peril, and most recently, Graham Allison’s “Thucydides’ Trap”.

One undeniable fact is that Chinese foreign policy has become more assertive particularly under President Xi Jinping, with island building in the South China Sea, assertive stands against Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, even using economic sanctions against South Korea for its deployment of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), manipulating rampant nationalism, moving closer to the ‘enemies’ of the West – Russia, Pakistan and Iran – and inaction against the nuclear threat from North Korea. The world is definitely experiencing a power shift, whether its “Easternisation”, or the “Decline of the West and Rise of the Rest”. What China needs to do now is to work out strategies to get accepted in the world if it is on route to becoming a world power.

What can China do to get accepted? Or will China ever get accepted? This is a hard question. It depends on how China will interact with the U.S. and the rest of the world.

In order to reassure the world, China needs to consider changing its strategy to adopt more openness and reciprocity. China should let the world know that the global order will be global in nature, and not a Chinese order. This important message will echo the aspirations of the world because China continues touting globalisation and openness. China will need to avoid any strategy with “Chinese characteristics” because it may not be helpful in persuading other states to accept it as part of their desired world. Since China has benefited from the current liberal international order, a commitment to upholding the basic norms and rules of that order will show that a mature China is willing to accommodate other countries, as they have accommodated China during its rise.

However, this does not mean that China will not change or reform any rules and norms of the current international order. While China is rising, its strategic interests and goals are also changing. This is why China has been fighting for more voting power in the IMF for many years. However, China has not challenged the legitimacy of the IMF and the World Bank, which are the foundations of the current financial global governance. This indicates that China is a constructive reformer instead of a destroyer of the current economic order. China could maintain this “reformer” role in other significant areas. More importantly, China needs to learn how to take up more responsibility in terms of offering leadership and international public goods.

Reciprocity is a significant Chinese foreign policy principle. Chinese culture is tolerant and inclusive. Chinese foreign policy towards developing countries was successful because China was able to put itself in the shoes of those countries based on a shared history and similar experiences. To get accepted in the global order, China needs to approach other countries similarly by looking at their concerns and aspirations.

The idea of an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) gained support internationally because China offered a niche solution to the desperate need of infrastructure investment in the developing world. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) could be more welcoming and promising if China addresses the concerns of the countries along the “Belt and Road,” and provides more substantive benefits to the local communities based on an investigation of the local needs. In a similar vein, Xi’s idea of “community with common destiny” or “community of shared future” might arouse more empathy and support in the region if China could indeed plan the future with others, including the international order.

Huiyun Feng is a senior lecturer in the school of government and international relations at Griffith University. Image Credit: CC by Obama White House/Flickr.


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