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 You are in: Bureaus/Offices Reporting Directly to the Secretary > Policy Planning Staff > Secretary's Open Forum > Proceedings > 2001 - 2002

China and the International Order

Harry Harding, Dean, Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University
Remarks to the Open Forum
Washington, DC
April 3, 2002

Photograph of Harry Harding

China appears to be emerging as a major power. It possesses a huge population and a strategic location. It has developed nuclear weapons, and the means for delivering them. It occupies one of the permanent seats in the United Nations Security Council. And, for the last two decades, it has been engaged in a concerted effort at economic reform and development, through a strategy of integration with the regional and global economies. That has made it a major trading nation, one of the top destinations of foreign direct investment, and increasingly a source of capital as well. It has also given the Chinese government the resources to devote to the modernization of its armed forces.

Given its internal contradictions, it is of course not absolutely certain that China will continue to emerge as a major power. But if it does -- and I believe that to be far more likely than not -- what kind of nation will it be? What will be China's relationship to the international order? Will it be destructive or constructive? A cooperative actor or a disruptive one? A force for continuity, or a force for change?

Let me address this crucial question by examining China's relationship to three aspects of international order. These correspond to three major analytic traditions in international affairs:

  • To analysts in the realist tradition, international order refers to the balance of power among the major national actors.
  • To some analysts in the neo-liberal tradition, international order refers to the regimes and institutions that nations have created to manage international issues.
  • To other analysts in the liberal tradition, a key dimension of international order is the nature of the actors that compose it, particularly the domestic political systems of major states.

The Balance of Power
What international balance of power does China prefer? And does China see present trends moving in directions that conform to, or depart from, that vision?

China has long favored a multipolar world, in which China could play an autonomous role as a major power. In such a world, China could maximize its maneuverability and its leverage.

Given this consistent preference, Chinese leaders were never entirely comfortable with the bipolarity of the early Cold War era. To be sure, their ideological framework provided a dialectical analysis of international affairs, and emphasized the contradiction the confrontation between capitalism and socialism. But in other ways their foreign policy sought to preserve China's maximize its leverage within that framework.

  • In 1949, Mao indicated China's preferences in this regard when he passed a message to the United States, saying that he would certainly "lean to one side" -- toward the Soviet Union -- after coming to power, but "how far to lean" would depend on the United States.
  • In 1950, China entered an alliance with the Soviet Union. But within a few years, Mao expressed growing dissatisfaction with the Soviet political and. economic model. He never agreed to the stationing of Soviet troops on Chinese soil, and never agreed to join COMECON or its successor, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. And, of course, the Sino-Soviet alliance fell apart over these issues by the early 1960s.

Later in the Cold War, China tried to create a tripolar world, with itself occupying the pivotal position between the two superpowers. It envisioned a large "intermediate zone' -- composed of the third world and the smaller developed countries -- between the Soviet Union and the United States. It committed itself to obtaining nuclear weapons, an objective that it achieved in 1964.

In the 1970s, the growing military confrontation between China and the Soviet Union forced an alignment with the United States. But here, too, Beijing was uncomfortable. As soon as feasible, by 1982, Chinese leaders announced that they were adopting an "independent" foreign policy, that would maintain China's autonomy from both superpowers.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chinese analysts confidently predicted that the post-Cold War world would be a multipolar international order. As they saw it, Russia would remain a significant force, even after the break-up of the former Soviet Union. The United States seemed in a period of relative decline. Japan and Europe appeared to be rising powers. And China had completed a decade of rapid economic growth.

China's foreign policy seemed to be to foster such a multipolar order. It encouraged greater distance between the U.S. and Japan, and between the U.S. and Europe, arguing that the American alliance structure was in some ways obsolete in the post-Cold War world. It joined Russia in objecting to the expansion of NATO. And it sought to create what it called "partnerships" with all other major powers -- Russia, Japan, the U. S., India -- as the basis for the shifting alignments on major issues that characterize diplomacy in a truly multipolar world.

Now, ten years later, Chinese analysts are not so sure that this vision will be realized.

  • U.S. has retained a far more dominant role than they anticipated. The revival of the American economy stands in contrast with the prolonged stagnation of Japan, the internal orientation of Europe, the continued sluggishness of Russia, and the slowing of China's own growth rates. The RMA has produced a growing -- and some say unsurmountable -- gap between the military power of the United States and that of other major states.
  • Moreover, China has found it difficult to find partners to counterbalance the U.S. on international issues. Some Chinese analysts have suggested the possibility of an alignment of China, India, and Russia against American "hegemony." But Russia does not wish to break with the U.S., and India indeed seems intent on expanding its ties with Washington. Rather than counterbalancing American power, Moscow and New Delhi seem to have chosen, at least for the moment, to bandwagon with it.

Chinese analysts still talk about the long-term inevitability of a multipolar world, but acknowledge that the medium term trends are toward a unipolar system centered on the United States. They seem resigned to this development, at least for the time being:

  • In the middle of a leadership succession, do not want controversial foreign policy issues.
  • After a brief interlude during the first months of the Bush Administration, the U.S. and China have reasserted their desire for a cooperative relationship, and have found common ground with regard to America's principal foreign policy objective, the struggle against terrorism.
  • U.S. remains one of China's most important partners for trade and investment.

However, one wonders the extent to which China is comfortable with unipolarity, even in the face of a relatively benign American policy.

Regimes and Institutions
Modern China has long been skeptical about key international regimes and institutions. Its experience with the West in the 19th and early 20th centuries taught the bitter lesson that these institutions these represented not universal norms or the general good but rather the interests of major powers. Marxism-Leninism similarly taught that the major post-War institutions -- the UN, the World Bank, and the IMF -- were primarily the instruments of the international capitalist system, biased against the interests of socialist countries like China. The development of the arms control regimes of the 1960s were also interpreted as an attempt by both the Soviet Union and the United States to prevent countries like China from obtaining nuclear weapons while preserving their own nuclear monopoly.

China's skepticism towards international regimes and institutions began to change when it was admitted to the UN in 1971, and the World Bank and the IMF in the early 1980s. In particular, China gained great benefit from the technical advice and financial capital provided by the World Bank --and even more benefit from its growing integration into the international economic order in the 1980s and 1990s. Subsequently, China has joined the majority of international organizations and regimes -- not only in the economic realm, but also in the areas of arms control and human rights -- although in some cases it has not yet ratified the conventions it has signed.

China's reasons for joining these institutions varies.

  • In some cases, it is persuaded that membership carries significant benefits, and few costs or constraints. (Membership in the World Bank and the ADB are perhaps the principal examples of this kind of institution.)
  • In others, China sees significant costs of membership, but also perceives benefits that outweigh the costs. (The WTO is the prime example here.)
  • In some cases, China has joined international regimes that it once rejected, but only after it had improved its own circumstances to the point that it could accept the obligations of membership (Thus, it accepted the non-proliferation treaty, the partial test-ban treaty, and the comprehensive test-ban treaty only after it had developed its own nuclear arsenal, and had assisted Pakistan's nuclear weapons program.)
  • In still other cases, China has joined reluctantly, not because it shares the values or purposes of the regimes in question, but largely because it does not wish to be seen as isolated from the rest of the international community (Perhaps international human rights regimes are the best example here.)

In other words, China has joined many international regimes for fear of exclusion and to achieve the benefits of membership. It is not necessarily fully committed to the principles on which they are founded, nor has concluded in every case that the regimes and institutions represent a true international consensus. Its skepticism has been reduced, but not eliminated.

What has been the pattern of Chinese participation in these institutions? Academic analysis has reached the following conclusions: {1}

  • China does not wish to stand alone in blocking international action. It has been extremely reluctant to use its veto in the United Nations Security Council, unless it can join with one or more other permanent members of that body.
  • Compliance with regimes is a significant issue. But on regimes governing international (as opposed to domestic) behavior, lack of compliance is more likely to involve gray areas, rather than open violation of core norms. But the U.S. cannot assume that China's growing integration in international regimes will resolve all our concerns about Beijing's conduct at home and abroad.
  • There has been some learning. China seems increasingly willing to accept some international activity -- such as international peacekeeping -- that it once regarded as infringements on sovereignty. It has also made considerable progress toward accepting, at least in principle, the concept of universal standards of human rights, even as it continues to insist that countries should advance those rights at their own pace and in their own way.
  • But China has taken few initiatives through international regimes and organizations to address major problems. Even less has it proposed major changes in international regimes and organizations that it has joined.
  • China continues to take what one scholar has called a "maxi-mini" approach to international regimes and organizations: obtaining the maximum benefit for itself, while paying the minimal cost, in terms not only of financial sacrifice but also of restrictions on its own autonomy. {2}

In short, China's recent policy toward this aspect of international order has been relatively positive, but also rather passive. It is no longer trying to undermine the international order, or remain aloof from it, as it did in the Maoist era. It has joined a wide range of international regimes, including those that it previously denounced as embodying unacceptable values or as being creations of American hegemony. It does not use its veto to obstruct the will of the majority. But it has not taken an active role in shaping the agendas of very many of these organizations, except to obtain the benefits that membership provides. It has not sought to propose changes, to raise new issues for consideration, or to join with others to solve global problems through these organizations. As Samuel Kim has summarized China's behavior in the UN Security Council: "China pursues a reactive minimalist approach, as made evident by the fact that a Chinese veto has become as rare as China-initiated. . . resolutions." {3}

Some exceptions may be occurring in Asia. Here, China remained skeptical of multilateralism, especially in the security realm, fearing that multilateral institutions would be controlled by Japan and the United States, and that they would be arenas for mobilizing pressure against China. Increasingly, however, Beijing seems to be aware of the benefits of various kinds of multilateral organization. It has taken a leading role in the creation of the Shanghai Cooperative Organization (the Shanghai-6), and shaping a new security agenda after its original purpose -- stabilizing the border between China and the former Soviet Union -- had been achieved. It has been an enthusiastic participant in the ASEAN + 3, and now has proposed a free trade area between China and ASEAN.

Beijing may well see these forms of multilateralism as a way of leavening the role of the United States in the region, and thus as a way of promoting the more multipolar world that it has so long favored.

A final dimension of the international order concerns the nature of the major actors that compose it.

A major element in American foreign policy, for example, has been to promote the spread of democratic systems. During the Clinton Administration, this received its most elaborate justification. It was argued that democracies did not go to war with each other, that they made better trading partners, that they did not harbor terrorists, and that they were more willing to cooperate to address international issues.

In the last century, the foreign policy of the Soviet Union had a mirror image: the promote the spread of Communist systems, notionally justified as a way of creating a prosperous, peaceful, just, and harmonious socialist community.

China has been remarkably indifferent to this aspect of international order. To be sure, at some points during the Maoist era, Beijing sought to promote revolutionary movements abroad. When it did so, its objective was primarily to weaken or overthrow governments allied to or friendly with the United States, rather than to spread any particular model of domestic development. {4} Even with its closest allies -- nations such as Albania and Tanzania -- the Chinese were relatively uninterested in the degree to which their policies and institutions were copied abroad . {5}

Today, China appears to have little interest in the internal dynamics of the nations that comprise the international order. It still regards this as an issue of sovereignty, and something that other governments should be concerned with. But here, too, there may be some signs of change: Beijing's growing concern with fundamentalism, and with the treatment of ethnic Chinese in multiethnic states such as Indonesia, are examples of a growing interest in the internal dynamics of neighboring states because of their impact on Chinese interests.

Moreover, China has been remarkably slow to understand the importance of non-state actors in the contemporary world. Its own statist tradition, of course, has thus far prevented the emergence of truly independent NGOs, and has led it to interpret nonprofit organizations and multinational corporations as the reflections of the preferences of their governments. Chinese analysts still see a state-centered world, to a degree that fits the 19th century far better than the 21st.

China's views toward the international order may have reached a fundamental turning point.

For the entire 20th century, China was obsessed with the problem of overcoming humiliation: weakness, restrictions on its sovereignty, target of invasion, second-class status in the international order. In the last two decades, it has achieved great success in this regard. China has embarked on a path of economic development that, thus far, has been largely successful. It has been recognized by governments that once rejected it. It has welcomed into international organizations that once excluded it. To the Chinese, its membership in the WTO, after 15 years of discussions; and Beijing's selection to host the 2008 Olympics, after a failed bid for 2000, are the most important symbols of this success. In a little-noticed passage in his speech on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the CCP last year, Jiang Zemin concluded that the task of overcoming humiliation had been completed successfully.

To the extent that this conclusion is widely shared in China, it could have fundamental implications for Chinese foreign policy. The problem is that the nature of these implications is not entirely clear:

  • The international balance of power could make China feel more secure, and thus less concerned with a multipolar world. Or it could lead Beijing to feel that its time has come to remake the world in its preferences, and to challenge American unipolarity as soon as is feasible.
  • International regimes and institutions have been one of the main arenas for China's success. Membership could reinforce China's present low-keyed approach. Or Beijing could now feel that, with the task of membership complete, it's time to advance a more active agenda.
  • International actors. As China becomes more integrated with the rest of the world, it will likely come to understand the ways in which domestic circumstances in other countries affect its own interests. But it remains to be seen the extent to which Beijing will undertake unilateral interventionist policies, work through international institutions, or stick to its traditional commitment to international sovereignty. It also is unclear how quickly or enthusiastically Beijing will appreciate the role of non-state actors in international affairs.

But the uncertainties involve more than China. One issue, of course, is whether other states will join China in either effort, since China will almost certainly be unable and unwilling to act alone. The equally important issue is American policy. The more America insists on constructing a unipolar world, the more resistance it is likely to generate, from China and others. The less the U.S. considers the interests of others in its approach to international regimes and institutions, the more others will join China in challenging American preferences. It will be the interaction of American policy, the policy of other major powers toward China, and China's own preferences -- not one acting alone -- that will determine the impact on the international order of China's emergence as a major power.

1. This section draws heavily on China Joins the World, Elizabeth Economy and Michel Oksenberg (eds.), (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1999).

2. The phrase is drawn from "China and the United Nations," Samuel S. Kim in China Joins the World, pp. 42-89.

3. Kim, "China and the United Nations," p. 65.

4. Revolution and Chinese Foreign Policy: Peking's Support for Wars of National Liberation, Peter Van Ness, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970).

5. See Harry Harding, "China's Cooperative Behavior," by Harry Harding in Chinese Foreinn Policy: Theory and Practice, Thomas W. Robinson and David Shambaugh (eds.), p. 375-400, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994)

Released on July 2, 2002

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