China recognizes that it has been a major beneficiary of the existing international order and it has proven to be a fast learner in operating as a responsible power within that order. Its primary goal therefore will not be to perturb the order, but to gain greater influence in writing the rules and running the institutions to develop and police the global order. China is not intent on exporting its authoritarian model and has never been enthusiastic about the so-called China model of an authoritarian state, political stability and state-directed development. Rather, its main focus has been on promoting political stability and economic growth at home and securing access to resources and markets abroad. However if denied its rightful place at the top tables of global governance institutions, China has proven it has the will and the resources to set up parallel, but not alternative, institutions, for example the AIIB.
With the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) China is positioning itself at the centre of a global economic hub-and-spoke system that mirrors the US-centric military hub-and-spoke system. Only China today could conceive of a project of such mind-boggling scale and ambition that symbolizes the expansion of its economic, political and strategic influence and could consolidate its position at the centre of global supply chains and manufacturing networks. But the protection of its investment, resources and markets will depend primarily on global rules rather than military power.
Yet as China’s self-confidence grows, it is becoming emboldened in rejecting inconvenient global rules and norms not unlike precedents set by the US, for example when Nicaragua took its case against the US to the International Court of Justice in the 1980s and won. Like the US then, China has simply ignored the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 judgment upholding the Philippines complaint and rejecting most of China’s claims. China interpreted the verdict as yet another instance in the long history of the West’s use of international law as an ideological battering ram with which to break down the defences of sovereign but vulnerable non-Western states.
Putting geopolitics to one side Joseph Nye points to the alternative ‘Kindleberger Trap’. International systems are more stable when the dominant power underwrites global public goods. The disaster of the 1930s resulted in part from the US refusal to provide global public goods despite having displaced the UK as the world’s leading power. In supporting the post-1945 order, the US government functioned as the de facto world government in writing and policing global rules. Will China accept this burden, and can the US acquiesce to playing second fiddle?
Pax Britannica was built on territorial control through legal colonialism that allowed Britain to extract, process, move and use or sell ownership of vast natural resource endowments around the globe. Pax Americana was built much more on control of resources through market access-guaranteeing regimes that ensured a worldwide flow of capital, goods and technology to underpin US prosperity and security. By building global markets instead of a global empire, the US escaped legal responsibility for the security and welfare of its neo-colonial dependants. It succeeded by convincing others that ‘global public goods’ were, if not synonymous with, then at least dependent on an order guaranteed by US hegemony.
As China expands its power and influence through buying goods and access and underwriting and building infrastructure in Asia, Africa and Latin America to cement geopolitical ties, boost trade and create energy corridors, so far at least it seems to have ignored the importance of conflating regional/global public goods with Chinese national interests. The continued failure to do so will guarantee ongoing turbulence and volatility in the emerging new order, whereas success would enhance the prospects of stability and longevity of China’s central role in the new era.
Conversely, Trump’s full throated assault on the central pillars of the existing global order is making it easier for China to form ad hoc diplomatic coalitions with Europe, Russia and others – in the case of the Iran nuclear deal, even Australia – to resist the US and protect valuable elements of the order, from climate change to trade.
Ramesh Thakur FAIIA is Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University and co-convenor of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. He is a Fellow of the AIIA.