Is China Overturning the International Order?

Por: | 05 de junio de 2015

Melissa Conley Tyler
China 2
One of the most significant questions in contemporary international politics is how states should respond to the reemergence of China as a leading global power. Does China's rise threaten to overturn the current international order? Should Beijing beaccommodated or is this a form of appeasement? 

International divisions have emerged recently over these issues: in particular, regarding the widespread participation of Western states in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the controversy over China’s land reclamation activities in the South China Sea. In both cases, concerns have been raised that states are being too accommodating of Beijing. 

Spain and the AIIB

The AIIB's final list of its 57 approved founding members shows that after a rush of final applications the AIIB now has strong representation from Western states, including Spain.  This is despite Washington’s reported efforts to dissuade its allies from participating in the Bank as part of a ‘trend of constant accommodation’ of China.  Some in Spain will have noted these warnings and be wondering whether its government made the right decision in applying for AIIB membership. 

The United States and Japan both declined to apply, citing concerns about transparency and the risk of the Bank undercutting the existing (and Japan- and US-dominated) Asian Development Bank and World Bank. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund have governed the global economy since their formation in the wake of World War II and there are fears that the global economic governance architecture will be fragmented by the AIIB, citing it as an example of China seeking to upturn the current international order.  However, such claims should be scrutinised.

The primary objective of the AIIB is to invest in global public goods: financing road, port, rail and other infrastructure projects in Asia in order to facilitate economic growth and stability.  It remains an open question whether the AIIB will operate according to the liberal economic principles privileging multilateralism, openness and stability that have characterised the post-war global economy.  Beijing claims that it will; if it does the AIIB will operate in a similar way to the ADB and World Bank in order to achieve very similar objectives. The main distinction is that it will be led from Beijing. From China's perspective, it is securing itself a place in the global financial architecture that reflects its contemporary economic significance.  

China has repeatedly stated that the AIIB will complement rather than compete with existing international institutions.  Indeed, given the acute need for infrastructure in developing Asian economies, there is no immediate reason for the AIIB to compete with these other institutions.  Whether the AIIB will ultimately be ‘lean, clean and green’ remains to be seen, however for now it can be hoped that, rather than undermining the international order, the AIIB may strengthen it. As such, Spain should not be overly concerned that its decision to join the Bank has accommodated any Chinese efforts to overhaul the contemporary system of global economic governance.  

Australia and the South China Sea

Australia faces a similar dilemma in responding to China's behaviour in South China Sea territorial disputes with criticism that it has been too accommodating of Beijing.

In a speech at the Australian War Memorial, US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Harry Harris declared that China was creating a “great wall of sand” in these contested waters citing the growing collection of images showing Beijing's land reclamation work. US President Barack Obama echoed these sentiments when he expressed concern about China ‘not necessarily abiding by international norms and rules’ and using its ‘sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions’. Arguments that China’s reclamation activities pose a threat to the contemporary international order were strongly in evidence at last week's Shangri-La Dialogue. 

States that seek to remain neutral on the issue are criticised for accommodating China.  However, again, a question arises as to whether this claim is accurate.

The first problem with the notion that these activities are upturning the international order is that China is not the only disputant engaging in land reclamation: Vietnam has done so at Sin Cowe Island and Taiwan is expanding and reinforcing its port and airstrip on Itu Aba Island.  Indeed, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) does not prohibit the construction and use of artificial islands and structures and thus little can be said against it from the perspective of the Convention. 

The broader problem with the claim that China’s behaviour is undermining the international order is that it assumes the rules and institutions of the contemporary international system offer a clear mechanism for the resolution of these disputes.  UNCLOS does not address the issue of territorial sovereignty; rather, it provides a framework for, amongst other things, the delimitation of maritime zones adjacent to land and other features. With none of the claimants willing to make concessions on sovereignty, UNCLOS does not resolve the dispute. One regional institution that could play a leading role, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), has been hamstrung because five of its members are rival claimant states who do not agree with each other on their sovereignty claims. Many respected international lawyers have underlined the fact that the disputes and the legal issues they raise are extremely complex

With no resolution in sight, it is unsurprising that China and other claimants seek to reinforce their sovereignty claims by strengthening control over the various maritime features.  This in itself does not indicate Beijing’s intention to overturn the contemporary international order, but rather the reality that this is an area where international rules and institutions do not provide a clear-cut answer to these disputes. 

A Reform-Minded Status Quo Power

The debates about the establishment of the AIIB and land reclamation activity in the South China Sea are part of a wider, ongoing debate about whether China’s rise poses a fundamental threat to existing systems of global governance. In each case Western countries have to analyse carefully whether China is seeking to overturn the international order or merely asserting its interests within it. 

Fudan academic Ren Xiao has characterised China as a ‘reform-minded status-quo power’: that is, a country that is generally satisfied with the existing international system, from which it has benefited significantly, but pushing for changes where reform is overdue. If this is correct, the best approach is to accommodate reasonable demands for reform rather than give China the impression that there is no way for it incrementally to improve the status quo. 

China’s creation of the AIIB may be seen as an example of this.  Frustrated by the failure of US Congress to pass reforms to IMF voting rights to give greater power to China and other emerging economies, and discontent with its limited influence in the Asian Development Bank despite being the largest economy in Asia, Beijing may have felt that the only way forward was to create its own development bank with an organisational structure that reflects its contemporary economic significance.

Observers should resist the tendency automatically to construe Chinese behaviour as antithetical to the contemporary international order; it may be a push for adjustments within that order. In the case of the AIIB and the South China Sea, Beijing is definitely asserting its interests; it is not clear that it is overthrowing the basic tenets of the international system in doing so. As such, it seems some reasonable accommodation of China’s expanding interests is not as dangerous as some would suggest. It seems wiser than denying China a greater role which risks convincing China that its only option is to remake the international system entirely.

Melissa Conley Tyler is National Executive Director and Victor Ferguson is a researcher at the Australian Institute of International Affairs The AIIA was recently ranked the Top Think Tank in Southeast Asia and the Pacific in the Global Go To Think Tanks Index.

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Nicolás SartoriusNicolás Sartorius. Vicepresidente Ejecutivo de la Fundación Alternativas (FA), abogado y periodista, ha sido diputado al Congreso.

Carlos CarneroCarlos Carnero. Director Gerente de FA, ha sido Embajador de España en Misión Especial para Proyectos en el Marco de la Integración Europea y eurodiputado.

Vicente PalacioVicente Palacio. Director del Observatorio de Política Exterior de la Fundación Alternativas, Doctor en Filosofía, Visiting Fellow y Visiting Researcher en Harvard.

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Carlos MaravallCarlos Maravall. Doctor en Macroeconomía y Finanzas Internacionales por la Universidad de Nueva York. Ha trabajado como asesor en Presidencia del Gobierno en temas financieros.

Erika RodriguezErika Rodriguez Pinzón. Doctora en relaciones internacionales por la Universidad Autónoma de Madrid y coordinadora de América Latina en la Fundación Alternativas.

Ana Belén SánchezAna Belén Sánchez, coordinadora de Sostenibilidad y Medio Ambiente de la Fundación Alternativas.

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Kattya CascanteKattya Cascante coordina el área de Cooperación al Desarrollo del Observatorio de Política Exterior de la Fundación.

Enrique BustamanteEnrique Bustamante. Catedrático de Comunicación Audiovisual y Publicidad en la UCM. Es un experto de la economía y sociología de la televisión y de las industrias culturales en España.

Alfons MartinellAlfons Martinell. Director de la Cátedra Unesco en la Universidad de Girona y profesor titular en esa misma institución. Codirige el Laboratorio Iberoamericano de Investigación e Innovación en Cultura y Desarrollo.

Carles ManeraCarles Manera. Catedrático de Historia e Instituciones Económicas en la Universitat de les Illes Balears. Es Premio Catalunya de Economía (Societat Catalana d’Economia, 2003).

Stuart MedinaStuart Medina Miltimore. Economista y MBA por la Darden School de la Universidad de Virginia. Es presidente de la Red MMT y fundador de la consultora MetasBio.

Luis Fernando MedinaLuis Fernando Medina. Profesor de ciencia política en la Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. Es autor de 'A Unified Theory of Collective Action and Social Change' (University of Michigan Press) y de "El Fénix Rojo" (Editorial Catarata).

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Antonio QueroAntonio Quero. Experto en instrumentos financieros de la Comisión Europea y coordinador de Factoría Democrática. Es autor de "La reforma progresista del sistema financiero" (Ed. Catarata).

Paloma Román MarugánPaloma Román Marugán. Profesora de Ciencia Política en la Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Autora y coordinadora de distintos libros, artículos en revistas especializadas, artículos divulgativos y artículos de prensa.

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