China and the New Revisionism

Late last month, China’s new president, Xi Jinping, undertook his first trip abroad as head of state. With the country’s once in a decade leadership transition now complete and the Obama administration several months into its second term, it is an appropriate moment to reflect on the evolving U.S.-Sino balance of power.

The past few months have been a banner one for China hawks. Its tit-for-tat complaints at the WTO; its territorial disputes with its Pacific neighbors; the fall boycott of the IMF meeting in Tokyo; and the successful first-ever landing on China’s newly acquired aircraft carrier: all reinforced the impression of a rising China that will challenge the liberal democratic order.

When speaking of the risks of China’s rise, commentators make much of the potentially destabilizing influence that China may present in the weak, resource-rich nations it depends upon to fuel its growth. Others fear that the “China model” of state capitalism will stall democratic progress and stress the global trading system. These risks are real, but arguably the most important risk that China presents to the liberal order is a more subtle, indirect, and, to some extent, unintentional one.

To date, China has largely disproven fears that it would seek to rewrite the rules of the international community as it rises. Harvard’s Alastair Johnston has written that multiple measures suggest that China is “more integrated into, and more cooperative within, regional and global” systems than ever. The real source of China’s disruptive potential is not in challenging the system as it currently exists, but where it is headed: a China steadfastly committed to the old state sovereignty-based international order presents an obstacle to the emergent “new liberal order” which seeks to address more complex transnational challenges, such as climate change, that are in significant part consequences of China’s rise.

China’s commitment to the primacy of state sovereignty means that it will oppose the trend towards transnational governance driven by global problems such as climate change which will require global solutions. And here the irony: from China’s perspective, the West is embarking on a revisionist path; from the perspective of the West, China’s embrace of the status quo has become the new revisionism.

So long as Beijing remains a one-party state, it will fundamentally oppose deeper integration that threatens the supremacy of its domestic authority. And as the Council on Foreign Relations’ Elizabeth Economy and Adam Segal observe, even if Beijing wanted closer coordination, China’s decentralized political and economic system mean that Beijing “is often incapable of following through on its international obligations because local actors have strong economic incentives to maintain the status quo.”

A country so large outside of important agreements not only undermines the effectiveness of the efforts of countries that do work together, but may mean no agreements are reached in the first place. As problems multiply that a divided world cannot jointly tackle, the temptation of unilateral “beggar thy neighbor” policies and resulting conflict becomes greater. Keeping China engaged in an increasingly transnational governance system will require some deference to the reality of Chinese exceptionalism as what the Financial Times‘ Martin Wolf calls a “pre-mature” superpower. On climate change for instance, it may make more sense for China initially to formally commit (as it already has for domestic policy) to reduce its carbon intensity, instead of any direct cap on emissions, before ultimately graduating to the agreed upon global norm. With a willingness to offer flexible carve-in agreements (preferable wherever possible to carve-outs), the essence of global agreements is preserved while still offering a good chance that China may meaningfully participate.

If Beijing is to be successfully engaged, the United States must first overcome its own hang-ups about the new liberal order. The United States has had a complicated history reconciling its conception of sovereignty with its obligations as a global leader. Despite this, there is little doubt that on the world’s biggest issues, the United States will be at the table. As Brookings’ Wolfgang H. Reinicke writes, a distinction can be made between global government, which would require formal abdication of sovereignty, and global public policy. On many issues, coordination by transnational networks of governments may be sufficient without formal vertical transfers of sovereignty, achieving transnational governance without global government.

China will not liberalize in the foreseeable future. An amoral foreign policy risks fomenting instability in fragile nations swept into the jet stream of China’s rise and its unwillingness to fully integrate on emerging transnational issues risks stressing the institutions of the liberal democratic order. This reality has left many to call for a strategy of “balancing” China that amounts to containment by another name. But to do so would be the worst possible strategy. China’s conduct does not suggest an attempt to intentionally undermine the traditional liberal order under which it has prospered. It wants to preserve that order even as its own rise makes this aging order increasingly unsustainable.

China’s rise will cause large, indirect stresses that must be thoughtfully managed or endured. A containment policy would push China into a posture that is directly antagonistic with the values of the global order. The West’s only option is engagement, working to overcome the great doubts that the Chinese have that the West seeks to undermine their rise. The West must be unambiguous in its support for the prosperity of the Chinese people. It can do this while staying true to its core principles. Better mutual understanding of each country’s systems, values, and objectives is essential, which will necessitate deepened exchanges in all sectors of society.

As the Allies deliberated on the post-World War II order, it was the United States under President Roosevelt that argued for China’s inclusion as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. While Europe again works to perfect its union in the wake of the Eurozone crisis, the United States must again carry the responsibility of robustly supporting China’s integration into the emergent global order. It will not be easy, but the right policies rarely are.

This essay was originally published on HuffPost