May 10, 2016
“International order” has become a buzzword in scholarly discourse and policy debate, in part because rising powers cause anxieties, especially for the reigning hegemon. Will rising powers support the prevailing order, or will they try to overthrow it? Can the existing international order accommodate rising powers’ aspirations? Things become even more complex when one of the rising powers is not a liberal democracy and the prevailing international order is centered upon democratic countries. After all, didn’t the rise of the autocratic Axis Powers before WWII cause a world war with leading democratic powers (the United States, United Kingdom, and France)? So, will history repeat itself now that an illiberal power (China) is rising and the reigning hegemon (America) is a liberal power?
Though it may be a bit of an over-simplification, there are three basic answers to the question of whether the US and China can cooperate with each other under the existing international order. The first answer, which can be labeled as “offensive realism pessimism,” is no, because as China’s power grows, the US and China will inevitably have conflicts with each other. The second answer, which can be labeled as “liberal pessimism,” is also no, because China is an autocracy and the US-centric international order is liberal. The answer given by the third position, which can be labeled as “pragmatic optimism,” is yes. In this view, just because China is a rising illiberal power does not mean that the US and China cannot cooperate with each other.
This commentary takes issue with the “liberal pessimism” position and supports the “pragmatic optimism” position. I argue that the position that the “liberal” international order cannot accommodate a rising illiberal power like China is fundamentally based upon a misunderstanding about the nature of the “liberal” international order, partly because order itself is one of those broad concepts that have been much talked about but never rigorously defined.
Once order is understood properly, it becomes clear that only a liberal democracy can approach the ideal world of having subjects willingly submit to an order. As such, only a liberal democracy can be a genuinely liberal political order, and only in domestic politics. In contrast, even under the present “liberal” international order, countries do not get to willingly submit to an order. Indeed, a genuinely liberal order governing international politics is impossible even if all the countries on the planet become liberal democracies. The “liberal” international order is “liberal” only in the open-trading sense but not in the political sense. As such, there is nothing within the “liberal” international order that should prevent the order from integrating and accommodating an illiberal rising power, as long as the rising power relies on peaceful means for shaping specific rules within the international order.
Fundamentally, the stability of an order depends on three pillars: 1) the relative monopoly of violent power by an order; 2) the institutions or rules that constrain agents’ conduct and their interactions; and 3) the internalization of those rules. On all three fronts, China’s rise itself does not pose foundational challenges to the “liberal” international order.
Let’s start with economics. Since its “opening and reform,” China has been a prominent beneficiary of the open-trading international order. Thus, China sees no need to challenge the fundamental rules of the international economic order. Take the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which has received much attention, for example. Although many pundits believe that the AIIB constitutes as a foundational challenge to the existing economic order, it is not. China has repeatedly emphasized that the AIIB will work with existing international organizations. Moreover, the foundational rules of the AIIB (charters, agreements, code of conduct for officials and personnel, but especially operational procedures for financing etc.) are almost identical to standard practices in the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank. The only key difference is how a project is run: the AIIB does not have a board of directors to micro-manage projects.
Even on security matters, for all its territorial disputes with other countries, China has peacefully settled most of its territorial disputes in the past three decades or so. Moreover, China has only contested those territories that were already in dispute, and has not created new territorial disputes. Thus, China’s behavior regarding territorial disputes does not signal any desire to challenge the two foundational rules of the current international order, namely, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Indeed, one can argue that China has completely internalized these two foundational rules of the current international order.
The present international order is foremost underpinned by the victorious United States and its allies (including China, which was not a liberal democracy at that time either) after World War II. Yet, ultimately, America’s relative power position in the “liberal” international order is only one of the three pillars that underpin the stability of the existing order. In other words, America’s relative decline, by itself alone, cannot determine the stability of the order. If rising powers submit to, and even internalize, the foundational rules of the international order and the “liberal” international order can accommodate some roles for rising powers, the US-centric international order can be even more enduring than what many liberals are willing to believe.
A critical danger does exist. This danger will materialize if the United States takes any of China’s attempts to shape some rules within the international order as a contest of honor. This is implied in President Obama’s rhetoric that “We cannot allow countries like China to set rules.” This danger derives from the fact that compromises become less likely if countries are more concerned with prestige or honor rather than material gains: honor or prestige tends to be more zero-sum whereas material benefits tend to be more positive-sum. Fundamentally, if the U.S. wants China to obey most, if not all, of the rules, but does not see any role for China to make some of these rules, then the only reason for China to obey would be China’s weakness, and only so long as it is weak. Where that is the case, few compromises that are based on foundational understandings between US and China are possible. Rising powers, whether liberal or not, should be allocated some roles in shaping (or reshaping) the “liberal” international order. Otherwise, they cannot be true “stakeholders.”
Shiping Tang is Fudan Distinguished Professor and Dr. Seaker Chan Chair Professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs (SIRPA), Fudan University, Shanghai, China. His most recent book, The Social Evolution of International Politics (Oxford University Press, 2013), received the 2015 “Annual Best Book Award” from the International Studies Association (ISA). He is also the author of A General Theory of Institutional Change (Routledge, 2011), A Theory of Security Strategy for Our Time: Defensive Realism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), and many articles in international relations, comparative politics, and philosophy of the social sciences. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org;email@example.com