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China and the Future International Order(s)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 March 2018


In this essay I survey the key themes within China's discourse on international order, especially how China views its position and role in shaping the existing and future order. I go on to explore the possible implications of China's thinking and actions toward the existing international order. I conclude that overall, China sees no need for and hence does not seek fundamental transformation, but rather piecemeal modification of the existing order. In fact, China has been quite content with the existing order that supports globalization, despite occasional rhetoric indicating otherwise. In the near future, China will likely invest heavily in two key issue areas: (1) regionalism in East Asia and Central Asia; and (2) interregional cooperation and coordination. Perhaps unsurprisingly, China's ambitious “One Belt and One Road” initiative seeks to integrate these two issue areas.

Roundtable: Rising Powers and the International Order
Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 2018 

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1 Bull, Hedley, The Anarchical Society, 3rd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002)Google Scholar, pp. 4, 8, 16–21, 51. Many authors have adopted Bull's definition either verbatim or with some modification. One flaw is that Bull never clearly defined what he meant by “activity.” To give him the benefit of the doubt, I assume that his definition is a broad one that includes both behavior and interactions.

2 Weber, Max, Economy and Society (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1978), pp. 37–8Google Scholar. See also Tang, Shiping, “Order: A Conceptual Analysis,” Chinese Political Science Review 1, no. 1 (2016), pp. 3046 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Weber, Economy and Society, pp. 29–36.

4 Tang, “Order: A Conceptual Analysis.” A conceptual analysis of order is not the same as assigning the proper label for the emerging order.

5 For details, see Tang, “Order: A Conceptual Analysis.”

6 With Trump now in the White House, we have even less reason to call the existing order a liberal one.

7 Mitter, Rana, A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle with the Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004)Google Scholar.

8 Johnston, Alastair Iain, Social States: China in International Institutions, 1980–2000 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Wang Yi, “China as Defender, Builder, and Contributor to the International and Regional Order” (Speech at the fourth “World Peace Forum,” Beijing, June 27, 2015),

10 Xi Jinping, “China Has Been a Participant, Builder, Contributor, but also Beneficiary of the Existing International Order,” September 25, 2015, Xinhua News Agency,

11 Xi Jinping, “President Xi's Speech in Davos in Full,” World Economic Forum, January 17, 2017,

12 “Xin Jinping Chairs Sessions of National Security Committee,” February 17, 2017, Xinhua News Agency, The exact word in Chinese is “yin-dao,” which can be translated into “guide” and “channel,” but not exactly “lead.” One must wonder whether this word has been carefully chosen to test the waters.

13 Yinhong Shi, “‘Triumphalism’ and Decision Making in China's Asia Policy,” China Daily Blog, March 14, 2013,

14 Needless to say, this increase is statistically significant (p < 0.01). A more detailed “content analysis” of these discussions will be provided elsewhere. Here, I merely provide some snapshots.

15 Tianxia/all-under-heaven” is a central notion within the traditional Chinese philosophy of governance and order. For our discussion here, its key implication is that the world (as a planet under the empyrean or within the cosmos) should live in more-or-less perfect harmony.

16 For the original notion of the “Chinese World Order,” see Fairbank, John K., “A Preliminary Framework,” in Fairbank, John K., ed., The Chinese World Order (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968), pp. 123 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. It is important to point out that the “Chinese World Order” should not be misleadingly simplified as the tributary system. See Perdue, Peter C., “The Tenacious Tributary System,” Journal of Contemporary China 24, no. 96 (2015), pp. 10021014 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Interestingly, the number of papers on East Asian order has not witnessed any significant change before and after 2008, unlike the number of papers on international world order.

18 Xi, “President Xi's Speech in Davos in Full.”

19 Proponents of forced regime change, if not most IR scholars, tend to conveniently ignore this fact.

20 Feigenbaum, Evan A., “China and the World: Dealing with a Reluctant Power,” Foreign Affairs 96, no. 1 (2017), pp. 3340 Google Scholar.

21 Acharya, Amitav, The End of American World Order (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2014)Google Scholar; and Buzan, Barry, “A World Order without Superpowers,” International Relations 25, no. 1 (2011), pp. 325 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Acharya, The End of American World Order; Ikenberry, G. John, Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011)Google Scholar; and Tang, Shiping, The Social Evolution of International Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 The term comes from Morse, Julia C. and Keohane, Robert O., “Contested Multilateralism,” Review of International Organizations 9 (2014), pp. 385412 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.