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China’s Hostile Takeover of the Current International Order?
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Commenting on the Spanish American War, the renowned American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said that a youthful nation tried to harmonize the imperialistic innocence of its childhood with the imperial impulses of its awkward youth after the war. What was true for US then is also applicable to China now, for it is also grappling to reconcile its imperialistic desires with the veneer of a responsible member of international polity. China, however, is neither young nor immature. The middle kingdom, with a civilizational history of millions of years, is now asserting itself to take its rightful position on the global scene, much like an awoken dragon. Yet, the pressing question of China’s rise has vexed scholars of international politics for the last two decades. Two prominent groups emerged out of the debate where one held the benign view of China’s rise and argued that the distinct nature of China’s domestic political apparatus, its civilizational history, and the changing nature of conflict does not harbinger a gloomy future and the co-existence of two great power (US and China) was after all possible.[1] On the other side of the table were the scholars who didn’t seem too optimistic about a peaceful rise and predicted a hegemonic conflict between the status quo power and the revisionist power, which in this case are US and China, respectively.[2] Yet, both these groups assume the international order to be an outcome of the Great Power Politics based on security considerations and power calculations. However, the current world order has a life of its own that it conjured through independent institutions and reinforcing regimes. Therefore, instead of asking who “creates” the new world order, the question should be who “controls” the existing world order.

After emerging triumphant out of World War II, the United States created a liberal-capitalist world order based on the principles of economic multilateralism. For a long time, owing to its preponderant military and economic strength, the US was able to unilaterally steer the reins of this liberal economic order. Recently, however, China has actively started asserting its ambitions for world leadership by possibly dethroning the United States from the top spot. To take the reins of world order, China has adopted three-pronged strategies: The strategies of Acquiescence, Appropriation, and Alternatives.

The strategy of Acquiescence entails China’s acceptance, albeit reluctant, of the existing global regimes, institutions, and values. These global institutions and regimes, mainly political and financial, have been ubiquitously adopted and accepted through processes like norms internalization and norms promotion. Not easy at first, but a combination of factors like a strategic restraint placed on itself by the US, binding effects of international institutions, and an open and democratic American political system convinced its other countries to assent to this new World Order. Although challenged by the Soviet Union for a decent period of time, the Western liberal order ultimately prevailed after the end of the Cold War. The tenacity of these institutions and America’s refusal to abrogate leadership has forced China to acquiesce to American leadership in these international bodies. Moreover, after its return to the international system in the early 1970s, China has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the current political and financial system. By following mercantilist economic policies and taking advantage of free trade regimes, China has accumulated profuse wealth. Beijing has also brazenly abused its special status as a P-5 member in UN Security Council to forward its political agenda and snub any legislation against its core interest or values. Hence, China’s main strategy is to accept American leadership in domains that serve former’s interests for as long as they can.

On other issues where China’s interests are in complete contradiction to global norms and values, the Middle Kingdom has sought to appropriate these institutions through hostile takeovers either through getting Chinese nationals elected to high councils or buying other countries’ votes through financial incentives. It might seem perplexing at first that US would allow this power-grab without any contestation, but it is actually not. Issue areas like health governance, educational, or cultural cooperation do not come under the ambit of Hard Politics like Security and Economics. Therefore, the US seems to have turned a blind eye to these transgressions, a strategy that might prove costly in the near future. The domestic political environment of the last decade in US and former President Trump’s diatribes against global institutions made it easier for China to squeak its way into the leadership roles of though appropriation strategies.

The last strategy entails the establishment of new, alternative bodies for global governance in the issues areas which lack any international regimes and have come to the political forefront more recently. Issues like internet governance, space collaboration, and Artificial Intelligence are where China is using its superior monetary and technological power to create new institutions in its own image and values. As the Chinese President Xi Jinping said that is time for a new era and the time for China to take center stage in the world. By spearheading the establishment of these new institutions and providing leadership in these areas, China has taken one step closer to the “World’s Center Stage”. 

To counter China’s Acquiescence, Appropriation, and Alternatives strategies, the US needs to step up its efforts to restore confidence in American leadership and the liberal institutions that it created after WWII. It needs to reassure rest of the world that American leadership of global economic institutions like the World Bank, IMF, and WTO is not predatory or manipulative (a common perception associated with these bodies), and these institutions are a perfect platform to ensure economic prosperity and financial equality. Same reassurances need to be made for global political and cultural institutions. 

Shaarif Sameer is a second-year Ph.D. student at the University of Utah. I focus on Alliances, Foreign Policy Analysis, and Great Power Politics.


[1] For reference, Read Kishore Mahbubani’s Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy; David C. Kang’s China Rising: Peace, Power, and Order in East Asia; and Martin Jacques’s When China Rules The World: The Rise Of The Middle Kingdom And The End Of The Western World

[2] For reference, go throuhg Graham Allison’s Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?; Robert Gilpin’s War and change in world politics; and John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics

 

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