by Richard Gowan
March 13, 2017

from WorldPoliticsReview Website

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Richard Gowan is an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and nonresident fellow at NYU's Center on International Cooperation, where he was previously research director. He also teaches at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter at @RichardGowan1.


Chinese President Xi Jinping with other ministers at the

Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia,

Beijing, April 28, 2016

(AP pool photo)


Is China going to pass up an opportunity to reshape the international order?


Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. appears to be distancing itself from its established role as leader of the global system. Many excitable pundits and even sober diplomats have speculated that Beijing could fill the vacuum America is creating.

I have to confess to being one of the excitable ones.


I argued in December that Chinese President Xi Jinping could counter Trump,

"by seizing the initiative on issues including climate change and free trade."

At the time, Trump - then the president-elect - threatened to punish the United Nations for a Security Council resolution on Israel.


It was asserted that,

"China, which has long punched below its weight in the U.N.'s halls of power, has the potential to assert greater authority across the U.N. system if Trump attempts to undercut it."

This wasn't just armchair speculation.


In the aftermath of the U.S. election, Chinese officials made it plain that they wanted the new administration in Washington to stand by the Paris climate change treaty.


In January, Xi stole headlines with a pointed speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos lauding globalization and free trade.

Chinese officials have continued to emphasize differences with the disruptive American administration over multilateral affairs. They pledged to support the World Trade Organization after rumors that the U.S. would disregard the body.


Beijing is sending representatives to talks with other Pacific nations in Chile this week to discuss what can be salvaged from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Obama administration's flagship trade agreement that Trump abandoned in one of his first official acts as president.


China is liable to take

a more transactional

than transformational approach

to international institutions,

looking to strike specific bargains

rather than take the lead.



But while these diplomatic maneuvers send the message that China remains a solid partner in an uncertain world, Beijing has yet to make a serious play to supplant the U.S. as a global leader.


China's immediate priorities appear to have been persuading Trump to stand by the One China policy regarding Taiwan and to ease mounting tensions on the Korean peninsula.


It has very publicly suspended coal imports from North Korea to comply with U.N. sanctions.


China currently looks more like a status quo power focused on regional security rather than a revisionist power with aspirations to global leadership.

It may simply be that China does not want to depose the U.S. at the apex of the multilateral system. International officials and liberally-minded diplomats may want to cast Beijing in the role of a multilateral messiah in the face of Trump's nationalist America First approach, but this could say more about their own insecurities than China's actual intentions.

This is the theme of a compelling new paper by Francois Godemont for the European Council on Foreign Relations.


Godemont argues that, while China has benefited from liberal international institutions and globalization, it does not necessarily have a cohesive vision of these.

"The most important component of China's attitude to both the global order and globalization," he writes, "is that it analyzes them piecemeal."

To simplify the argument, the U.S. and other Western counterparts tend to see the sprawling international system that has evolved since 1945 as some sort of package.


If you like breaking down trade barriers, you should also believe in limits to sovereign states' right to suppress their citizens. If you think that the U.N. should invest in global development, to get more technical, you should also prize its human rights work.

China, Godemont explains, simply does not buy into the system as a package. It broadly likes the work of international financial and trade institutions, genuinely wants to fight climate change, and appreciates the geopolitical advantages of its permanent seat on the Security Council.


It is also keen on, and good at, securing more senior positions in international secretariats for its nationals.


But Chinese officials also see many dimensions of the liberal order as irrelevant or actively antagonistic to their interests.


They have not offered any serious funds to U.N. humanitarian efforts to ease the global refugee crisis, which has little direct impact on China, and consistently oppose U.N. bodies' efforts to promote liberal human rights norms.

Beijing's preferred version of the international order, Godemont suggests, would be "both low cost and illiberal." Recent negotiations over U.N. peace operations in New York offer a small but telling example of what this looks like in practice.


China became the second-biggest contributor to the $8 billion peacekeeping budget in 2016, and its diplomats are evidently proud of this. The fact that Beijing relegated Japan to third place in the process probably helps.


But the newly emboldened Chinese delegation in Turtle Bay took a destructive approach to their new status in budget talks last year, demanding big cuts to the human rights components of U.N. blue-helmet missions, as well as to the staff dealing with sexual abuses by peacekeepers.

By this model, China is liable to take a more transactional than transformational approach to international institutions, looking to strike specific bargains on multilateral affairs rather than take the lead.


Chinese analysts often frame this relatively cautious approach as the "democratization" of international organizations, or a search for "harmony" within them.


This sort of language may obscure Beijing's specific diplomatic goals, but many Asian and African officials much prefer it to Western hectoring about liberal values.

For as long as officials in Beijing maintain a piecemeal approach to international order, they will be neither positioned nor inclined to make a bid to replace the U.S. as the order's leader. In an era in which the U.S. is also moving toward a transactional approach to the world, it may be best to stop believing that anyone can truly "lead" anyway.


Instead, the global system will evolve through friction, barter and compromise.

Beijing may be willing to buy that.

"China has always had a far less demanding vision for the international order than the West," Godemont observes. "China may rule the world one day, but only if the West has lost the capacity or the will to do so."

The problem is that the West may have reached that point already.