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The liberal global order is widely endorsed for the liberal
values and principles that it maintains. As an illiberal and undemocratic
rising power, China has been seen as an inevitable threat to this current
order. Nevertheless, China has shown willingness in recent years to abandon
some of its unfitting core principles, instead prioritising its position and
image as a leader in the liberal global order. This has meant that China has
not only become a conformist in the norms and institutions of the current
global order, but has actively worked to enhance these liberal values by
contributing additional structural frameworks and norms to the order. Indeed,
not only does it seem highly unlikely that China will pose any threat to the
liberal global order, China may in fact become the liberal global order’s
saving grace. By reforming the liberal global order, China will ensure a longer
life span for its existence in an ever-changing international community. Although
this vision for China is contradicted by the domestic nature of Chinese
governance, it is nevertheless, backed by countless pieces of evidence, some of
which will be discussed in this essay. 


I will define the Liberal Global Order as institutions,
regimes rules and norms that seek to govern international behaviour. The
liberal global order is commonly characterised as (1) rule and norm based, (2)
open, because any state can join and, (3) liberal, because it is weighted
towards the protection of free-market capitalism and liberal political values
(Fontaine, Rapp-Hooper, 2016). Due to China’s illiberal and undemocratic
nature, many American policymakers and academics express worry about China’s
challenge to the underlying rules and norms of the liberal global order (Barma,
Ratner, 2006). Many fear that as China’s power and influence grows, China will
prove to be a revisionist, rather than a ‘status quo’, power; eventually seeking
to undermine its rule-based order and fashion, and instead, create an illiberal
alternative that excludes the US. Hence, the claim that the rise of China poses
the greatest challenge to the extant order since the US became the dominant
force in international affairs at the end of World War Two’ (Schweller, Pu,


Realists assume that China’s rise will result in China using
its growing influence to reshape the rules and institutions of the
international system to serve its own interests (Mearsheimer, 2001). This will
result in a security competition that will conclude with the great ascendance
of China and the onset of a Sino-centric world order (Ikenberry, 2008). As
China is a characteristically illiberal and undemocratic power, Realists assume
the new perused order will inevitably be illiberal. Those adhering to this
assertion often point to Chinese created initiatives and institutions as hints
of a Chinese vision for a new Sino-centric, alternative global order. They also
use China’s forceful insistence on its claims regarding disputed territories,
as evidence that China will not play by the rules of the current order.

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The liberal aspect of the global order rests on the economic
and political freedoms that citizens have in relation to government, and the belief
that it is the responsibility of the international community to promote and
protect those rights worldwide (Barma, Ratner, 2006); the rise of China
therefore presents a daunting ideological challenge to that the current archetype.
As global power with influence in the liberal global order, China could easily
transform global governance and promote illiberal norms and practices.


The ‘China model’ for development combines two illiberal
features; (a) illiberal capitalism, where markets are free but politics are not
and, (b) illiberal sovereignty which is an approach to international relations
that emphasises the inviolability of national borders in the face of
international intervention (Barma, Ratner, 2006). This poses a direct threat to
Western-style democratic liberalism as a model for national development.
Indeed, the spreading of Chinese illiberalism could set a whole community of
developing countries off the path of liberal democratic development; especially
considering most developing countries are disenchanted with the Washington
Consensus’ results in terms of their development. The effective popularity of
Chinese illiberalism can be seen in South America, where Venezuela and Bolivia
have both embraced the China Model. These countries may ultimately reject
Western views of human rights and accepted standards of national governance,
and instead subscribe to a new Sino-fashioned illiberal global order (ibid.). China’s
insistence on respect for national borders and sovereignty also seems in direct
opposition to the entire structure of the liberal global order’s governance
structures, which ultimately require countries to forfeit some national
sovereignty in order to function.


Additionally, China’s domestic human rights governance has
been seen as the antithesis of liberal values. During the Tiananmen Square
(1989) incident the ‘democracy movement’ and their protests were forcibly
suppressed after the government fired rifles and tanks, killing at least
several hundred demonstrators (Kristoff, 1989). After this incident, human
rights were put firmly on foreign policy agendas of western governments in
their engagement with China. This incident led to China being branded as one of
the worst human right violators in the world, a label China has had trouble shaking
off ever since. Moreover, China’s highly censored society and one-party,
undemocratic government is at direct odds with the liberal guiding principles
of the current global order.


Nevertheless, China’s integration into the liberal global
order in recent years proves China’s strong capabilities in following the rules
of the game, which are greater than some critics would suggest. In the initial
years of China’s rise, China was a fairly indifferent global actor; often being
branded a free-rider, and norm-breaker or taker, rather than an active
‘responsible stakeholder’ in the liberal global order. As an outsider of the
liberal global order, many claimed it was China’s intention to eventually
transform the current order into a Sino-centric illiberal order.


In recent years, we have seen a marked shift in Chinese
foreign policy away from the ‘biding time policy’, towards ‘striving for
achievement’ through taking a more active role in global governance and
leadership (Rudd, 2016). So far, China’s rise has served to either reinforce or
not affect the existing norms and institutions of the liberal global order
(Gilley, 2011). China’s energetic participation in bolstering many existing
global institutions refutes the claim that China seeks to create its own alternative
global order. Indeed, China’s primary goal of national rejuvenation into a
great power often forms the basis for its strategic foreign policy decisions. In
effect, the road to global power runs through the Western liberal order and its
multilateral economic institutions (Ikenberry, 2011:62); in order for China to
realise great power status, they will have to become a participant in the
current global order. China is also well aware that no major state can modernise
without integrating into the globalised capitalist system; indeed, it has no
choice but to be involved with organisations such as the WTO. Chinese economic
interests are extremely compatible with the current global economic system;
China is one of the main national beneficiaries of the spread of neo-liberal
globalisation that is typically associated with the liberal global order
(Breslin, 2005:742).


Moreover, as the IMF and World Bank’s governance systems are
based on economic shares, it enables growing countries to have a greater
institutional voice (Ikenberry, 2008). Through this China has been able to
successfully campaign for its desired redistribution of power within the
liberal global order, shown by the IMF meeting in Singapore (September, 2006)
in which subsequent reforms reflected these Chinese ambitions. Appointment of
Justin Lin as chief economist of the World Bank (2008) and China’s hosting of
the G20 summit in Hangzhou (2016) shows an increasing tendency of Chinese
officials to voice their opinions and attempt to reform from within the
structural frameworks of the liberal global order, rather than providing an external
threat. Likewise, by forming ‘alliance of the dissatisfied’ such as FOCAC and
BRICS, China can push for global reform and redistribution of power, without
threatening the liberal global order (Breslin, 2005:740). By representing those
without voices in the international community, it could also be argued that China
is helping to further democratise the liberal global order through power
redistribution. This could mean that the large group of emerging ‘global middle
class’ (Kharas, 2017) countries will be less incentivised to diverge from the
liberal global order in the future, as China’s reforms will mean their potential
influence will increase proportionately with their development.


Not only has China become an active participant in upholding
the institutions that make up the liberal global order, China has also added
liberal institutions of its own. Indeed, the most significant of China’s
initiatives within the liberal global order, the Belt Road Initiative (BRI), is
fashioned on these liberal-natured principles; openness, inclusiveness and
win-win balanced economic cooperation (Callahan, 2016). Indeed, BRI has the
potential to be the world’s largest regional collaboration platform (Blackwill,
Campbell, 2016), fostering liberal principles of cooperation and trust. The
Silk Roads involved with the BRI won’t just enhance the interconnectedness of
economies, but also civilisations and culture and can therefore, be seen as
enhancing the ideals of globalisation, which are crucial to the liberal global
order. The AIIB, which is financing the BRI, shows China’s ability to put aside
their national economic interests in the pursuit of a more inter-connected
global economy, which is crucial for the survival of the liberal global order. By
championing the principles of free trade, China is actively supporting one of
the primary bedrocks of the liberal global order (Johnston, 2003). In
comparison with Donald Trump’s recent protectionist economic policies, which
are generally opposed to free trade, it doesn’t seem that the Chinese are the
ones threatening the liberal global order (Spriha, 2017).


China has also proved supportive in terms of promoting the
norms and values traditionally associated with the liberal global order, both
in regards to abiding by these norms, but also in enhancing them through their
creation of new norms. In adopting the norms and values associated with the
liberal global order, China has experienced ‘identity transformation’ (Wan,
2005). This has often entailed changing international and domestic behaviour in
order to operate as a legitimate actor in the international community
(Johnston, 2003). By rebalancing and abandoning certain national priorities in
order to facilitate compromise and cooperation, China has shown a further willingness
to unite with the current governing structures of the global liberal order.


This has included relaxing the illiberal and essential
Chinese ideal of respecting sovereignty and non-intervention, in order to
impose sanctions on North Korea in accordance with a UN Security Council
Resolution, despite initial hesitation (Ferdinand, 2016). Additionally, in 2015
Xi announced that China would contribute 8,000 troops for UN peacekeeping
standby forces making China one of the largest players in UN peacekeeping
efforts (Mengzhen, 2016). Clearly, China’s ambitions to rejuvenate themselves
as a great power in the international community have overridden Chinese values
of absolute sovereignty and non-intervention.


In terms of human rights, China is not the international
community’s typical liberal actor. Nevertheless, China has made significant
progress in gradually being socialised into human rights dialogues and norms
diffusion processes. Since Tiananmen Sq. (1989), China has endorsed the UN’s
universal declaration of human rights and formalised bilateral human rights
dialogues with various western governments. China has also signed various
treaties on human rights protection including ones referring to racial discrimination,
gender discrimination, torture and inhumane punishment etc. many of which the
US and other western states have failed to sign. Significantly, China has
shifted its position on the UN’s Responsibility to Protect principle from
initial opposition to cautious supporter (Fung 2016). As Responsibility to
Protect is grounded in the support for intervention in other states when
necessary, this shows again a clear abdication of China’s core principle of
unwavering respect for sovereignty, and instead prioritising China’s
‘responsible power’ image in the liberal global order.


Arguably, China is judged unfairly with regards to their
human rights violations. Many of the leading countries in the liberal global
order have equally distressing human rights abuses to answer for. In response
to this often-unfair judgement, China began publishing a human rights record
for the US, as a counter-offensive measure; some of the noted abuses included reported
human rights violations in Guantanamo bay, rampant gun violence (massively due
to ineffective government policy) and high, disproportionate levels of African-American
and Latino incarceration, to name a few (Staff, 2017). Although the human
right’s abuses of the US do not excuse those of China, the liberal global order
has survived decades of human right’s abuses by its most powerful members,
without ever being significantly damaged by those practices.


As mentioned, China has not only adopted the norms and
values that underpin the liberal global order, China has also enhanced these
values by contributing additional, liberal and beneficial norms to the system. Indeed,
anytime China has shown a determination to reshape either the norms or
institutions of the current liberal global order, it has served to enhance both
the liberal and democratic nature of the current global order.


Xi’s ‘new type of great power relations’ signifies China’s
interest in non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation with the
US, all of which are essentially liberal values, and boost the lifespan of the
liberal global order by avoiding potential conflict. This was a milestone in
Chinese foreign policy and began the transition of China from norm-taker or
breaker, to norm-maker (Zeng, Breslin, 2016). Additionally, Xi’s pivotal phrase
‘community of common destiny’ is possibly the clearest indication that China
wishes to enhance, liberalise and democratise the current order to become more
just and equitable for all (Mardell, 2017). Although it originated as a
regional policy, it has since expanded to global motivations, and it is no
exaggeration to say that the ‘community of common destiny’ now defines Chinese
foreign policy as it has also been officially written into the party
constitution (Mardell, 2017). The community of shared destiny is characterised
by principles of mutual respect and trust, reciprocity, equality and win-win
cooperation (Callahan, 2016), all of which are in keeping with the liberal
global order’s nature.


Indeed, as it currently stands, the struggle today is over
authority, or who gets to sit at the table and decide over the rights and
privileges in the global political hierarchy; it is less about contrasting
ideologies or rival models of the international order (Ikenberry, 2011:67). It
is the general consensus among most nations that the liberal global order,
which has mostly preserved inter-state peace for decades, is the most suitable
order for the anarchical international system. This post-war western order has
unusually dense, broadly endorsed systems of rules and institutions with deep
political foundations (Ikenberry, 2008). Primarily, it is a system that is much
easier to join than it is to overturn (ibid.), offering a wide array of
incentives to join, as well as room to push for reform from within.


The order’s flexibility in the face of proposed reforms will
undoubtedly be the key to its survival. The liberal global order is in need of
reform, it is no longer representative of the international community or
fitting for the many challenges of a globalised world; it is ‘out of date and
inappropriate’ (Beeson, Fujian, 2016). Nevertheless, reform does not
necessarily mean destruction, the order can be updated and still remain intact.
Many countries that fear China’s rise have painted a black and white picture of
the possible implications of China’s rise. That as a dissatisfied rising power,
this automatically translates into China seeking an entirely new order in the
future. However, as shown, there is a middle ground that China has taken in
terms of reforming rather than transforming.


China is a paradoxical state in numerous ways; it is
Communist and yet, simultaneously hyper-capitalist and it is seeking great
power status, whist still defining itself as a developing country (Larson, 2011).
More significantly, China’s domestic and foreign policy actions are also inconsistent.
Although China may act in an illiberal nature with regards to much of its
domestic affairs, China shows reluctance to do so in the international sphere,
setting a positive example for developing countries with regards to both
adopting the current norms and values of the liberal global order, and in its participation
of liberal institutions to push for reform and modification where necessary.  It seems this is most probably due to a
prioritisation of the realisation of Xi’s ‘China Dream’, which will result in
national rejuvenation and will put China back in her ‘rightful’ place as global
superpower (Ferdinand, 2016); it seems the only road towards this goal is
through the liberal global order. Therefore, Chinese leaders must make
appropriate adjustments in terms of their foreign policy objectives in order to
be seen as a legitimate and appropriate leader in the liberal global order.


Despite the current rhetoric surrounding China’s rise, China
has shown no indication or enthusiasm for fundamentally reshaping the liberal
global order in the future. China has fully enveloped herself in the liberal
global order, serving to either maintain or enhance its liberal norms and
institutions. China’s pursuit for national rejuvenation and the realisation of
the ‘China Dream’ has stimulated this fast socialisation into the current
order. Though China will undoubtedly seek reform to this order, China has
proven capable of doing so from within the liberal frameworks of the current
liberal order. Moreover, the reforms China has suggested thus far have mostly
been in keeping with democratising and further liberalising the current liberal
global order. To predict the implications of China’s rise, one must separate
their domestic governance from their foreign policy objectives; this creates a
much more hopeful picture for the current liberal global order, one that is
fairer and more equitable for all.


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