Self-interest shapes China’s policies toward the international order

 by Andrew J Nathan/ 19 December 2017/ EAF

The dramatic increase in Chinese economic, military and soft power since the 1990s has generated rising concern that Beijing seeks to overturn the liberal international order. This US-constructed post-war order consists of a set of norms and institutions that promote free trade and other ‘open’ economic interactions and establish rules-based procedures for settling interstate disputes peacefully.Some believe that China seeks to change this order in fundamental ways. Amitav Acharya, for example, writes that ‘it is a fallacy to assume that just because China, India and other rising powers have benefitted from the liberal hegemonic order, they will abide by its norms and institutions. They may not seek to overthrow it but [may] push for changes that might significantly alter the rules and institutions of that order’.

But China’s relationship to the liberal international order is essentially the same as that of other major states. This is because in most respects this order serves Chinese interests. China has joined the agreements and institutions that make up this order and complies about as much as other major states do. It seeks to influence this order — but not to overthrow or fundamentally alter it.

A variety of theories have been proposed for what drives China’s foreign policy. One set of theories sees China promoting a particular ideology or vision of the international system and its role within it, such as the principle of sovereignty, a multi-polar world, Asian values or Chinese domination. Alternatively, China’s policies can be seen as pragmatic responses to specific national interests, such as protecting its material welfare, enhancing its influence and diminishing the influence of rival powers like the United States. A review of selected international regimes supports the view that China’s negotiating positions are interest-based rather than outright revolutionary.

In regional trade negotiations, China favours further opening world markets to manufactured exports. When the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was being negotiated, China showed an interest in it but no desire to join — presumably because the TPP framework imposed environmental and labour conditions that Chinese policymakers viewed as unfavourable. It has instead worked to join or create other bilateral and regional free trade agreements, such as the China–ASEAN Free Trade Area and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which set lower standards than the TPP on environmental and social protections. Read more…


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