China’s Role in International Order

In the last three decades, we have witnessed historic events of milestone that had tremendous impacts on the evolution of world order. The end of communism in Eastern Europe, fall of Berlin War, Unification of Germany and disintegration of the Soviet Union marked the collapse of the bi-polar order and the end of the Cold War. NATO’s military intervention in former Yugoslavia and NATO enlargement in Central and Eastern Europe strengthened America’s predominance in Europe. The signing of Maastricht Treaty, establishment of the European Union, creation of single European currency and three rounds of EU enlargement made the European Union a big player in international arena. 9/11 attack led America into war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Global financial crisis in 2008 resulted in global economic downturn, eurozone debt crisis had undermined European economy, jeopardized the existence of the euro for a time. As China started to introduce economic reform and openness in 1978, market-oriented reform has born fruits, China has maintained highest economic growth rate in the world, become the one of the global economic powerhouses.

Author: Kong Tianping – Senior Researcher of the Institute of European Studies, China Academy of Social Sciences

Perception of the evolving world order

The tectonic change is underway in the world, the global order is evolving and remaking. How to characterize current world order is a great intellectual challenge in academic community. Different scholars have different opinions over the issue. Some scholars think that there is world disorder rather than world order, while some observers still believe that we live in a unipolar world, some scholars assume that we live in a multi-polar world, Simon Tisdall states what has emerged is “a tri-polar world, dominated by the US, a resurgent Russia, and China.[i]” Some scholars prefer to call the current world order as the post-Cold War world order, there is no doubt that the Cold War ended in Europe in early 1990s, however, in Asia, especially in the Korean Peninsula, the Cold War is far from over, the DPRK nuclear crisis has been the thorny issue that affects the security of Northeast Asia. There are various descriptions of the world order, for example, G2 (naming America and China), G3 (naming America, China and Europe or Russia),while Ian Bremmer illustrated the world after 2008 financial crisis with G-Zero, the world without global leadership[ii], economist Joseph Stiglitz had similar view, he deemed that we have moved from a world dominated by two superpowers to one dominated by one, and now to a leaderless, multi-polar world, the new world of G-0[iii]. One China’s former senior diplomat stated that the world order led by the United States has begun to change, with the 2008 global financial crisis possibly being the turning point and the year of 2017 signaling a new beginning[iv].

Henry Kissinger points out that no truly global “world order” has ever existed, his insight is based on different concepts of world order in different historical periods by different civilizations, for example Europe, China and Islam. He assumes that the mystery to be overcome is how divergent historical experiences and values can be shaped into a common order[v]. In today’s world, all countries live in some kind of world order, whether a country likes or not like it. The world order is changing over time, distribution of power capabilities in international system and interaction of great powers can lead to the incremental or radical change of the world order.

The world order is moving from uni-polarity towards multi-polarity. The main players of world politics are the United States, China, the European Union and Russia. Although America’s relative weight has declined, it is still the sole superpower, it has strong alliance both in Europe and in Asia. It has well-functioning market economy and largest economy in the world, it accounts for 24.3% of the world GDP in 2015. It has dynamic financial system, American dollar remains the largest international reserve currency. It has strongest military strength and largest military expenditure, its military spending in 2016 was ranked first in the world with $611 billion, which is 36 percent of the global total and over three times the amount spent by second-placed China. America takes the lead in cutting-edge technology and innovation, it was ranked as second in Global Competitiveness Report 2017-2018. The Trump administration pursued policy of “America First” in world affairs, pulled out Trans-Pacific Partnership, renegotiated NAFTA, withdrew from Paris climate agreement, pressured NATO allies to increase military spending, these actions surprised some observers who considered President Trump upended the world order. These actions maybe perceived as an approach of hreculer pour mieux sauter. On the other hand, the Trump administration took a hawkish stance towards China and Russia, described China and Russia as “rivals” in its new national security strategy, castigated them for challenging American power, influence, and interests. It is expected that America still committed to maintain global hegemony.

The European Union with 28 member states as a super-national organization is viewed as a civilian or normative power. It has strong economic power, but limited military power. It emphasizes soft power over hard power. It likes multilateralism rather than unilateralism. The EU as largest trade bloc in the world has influence over global economy, Eurozone as monetary union with 19 member states has global ramifications. The EU’s foreign and security policy is at initial stage, defence cooperation is the topic for discussion. The EU takes a leading role in globally fighting climate change. After the big bang enlargement in 2004, the EU has experienced multiple crises, from constitutional crisis to Euro debt crisis, from Ukraine crisis to security crisis, from migration crisis to Brexit crisis. The dispute between EU and Poland and Hungary over democracy, rule of law and the way of EU functioning exposed the rift within the EU. These crises undermine the EU as a credible actor in international arena. When the EU is confronted with the uncertainty of Trump presidency to commitment to international order, the EU finds out chance to rethink about its role in international system. In spite of different perceptions about the world order and occasional frictions between Europe and America, there are more common interests than differences in the defence of the world order dominated by the West. It is not rational to blow out of proportion of the differences between the EU and America. 

Russia remains a major player in Eurasian continent as successor state of the Soviet Union and Tsarist Russia. Because of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia ceased to be an empire. Russia has not recovered from the loss of empire as President Putin refereed the breakup of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical tragedy in 20th century. After Putin came into power, Russia has started to pursue confrontational approach towards the West, oppose NATO enlargement, restore its influence in the space of former Soviet Union, reclaimed great power status in the world. Russia initiated Eurasian Union to bind the former Soviet republics together to counteract the influence of the EU. Russia regards the former Soviet space as its sphere of influence, makes use of every opportunity to retake lost ground. Russia is not hesitant to use of force to defend its interests, one of the example is Russia sized the opportunity of Ukraine political crisis to annex Crimea, make Eastern Ukraine become the zone of frozen conflict. Russia is very critical of the world order dominated by the West, it does not hide its intention to see the end the world order and formation of the post-West world order[vi]. The relationship between Russia and the West is not limited in geopolitical rivalry, the accused Russian intervention in election in the United States and other West countries demonstrates the complicacy of the relations. Russia has strong military power, but its economy is heavily depended on export of oil and natural gas. Russia economy suffers as long as the commodities have lower price. Russia economic growth has been sluggish after 2008, stalled structural reform and Western sanction constitute impediments for economic growth.

China’s peaceful rise is one of the factors in shifting the global balance of power. Since China introduced market-oriented economic reform in 1978, China has transformed its economic system from centrally planned economy to market economy, achieved remarkable record of economic growth in the last four decades. Economic reform has contributed to the improvement of people’s well-being, lifted more than 800 million people out of poverty. China’s GDP surpassed Japan in 2009, became the second largest economy in the world. Based on the relative faster growth rate than the US, it is matter of time to overtake America to become the largest economy in the world. China plays an important in the global economy, it has been the largest contributor of the world growth after 2008. China’s average annual contribution to the global growth from 2012-2016 reached 30.2%, while America’s contribution was17.8%,the contribution of Eurozone and Japan was 5.3% and 3.8% respectively. After accession of WTO in 2001, China’s foreign trade has grown rapidly, China overtook the US to become the largest trading nation in 2012. China’s outward foreign direct investment (OFDI) increased substantially after mid-2000s, OFDI flow grew from $ 20 billion in 2006 to almost 200 billion in 2016, China has become main global source of FDI. At the same time, China’s outbound M&A activity surged in the past decade. China’s companies have strengthened position in world economy, the number of companies listed in Fortune 500 increased from 9 in 2000 to 54 in 2010, it reached 115 in 2017. China’s economic rise has important impact on international order. Sustainable economic growth makes China to increase military spending possible, China has made stride in modernization of armed forces. China has narrowed down its distance in sciences and technology, its ranking in Global Innovation Index moved from 29th in 2011 to 22nd in 2017. China has its high-tech companies, for example, Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei, Baidu, etc. China’s development in last four decades has impact on global reconfiguration of power.

The world order is evolving, fall of the developed West and the rise of developing countries will result in the changes in relative strength. Brexit and Trump’s presidency did surprised the world, but these events do not spell of the end of the so-called liberal order, president Trump’s protectionist conviction and isolationist inclination does hurt the liberal order. The rise of trade protectionism, economic nationalism, populism and ethnic nationalism in the West has led to the West countries not able to cope with political, economic and social challenges effectively. The struggle between Forces for de-globalization and forces for globalization is far from over. When the US retreated in global economy, China has become the proponent of open globalization and free trade. China and other emerging powers still focus on economic development, make use of comparative advantages to develop in order to catch up with the developed West. The rise of emerging powers and change of relations among great powers will dramatically alter the balance of power and shape the international order.

China’s role in international order

In the post-Cold War era, China has to adapt to the changing international order, find out its place in international order. In recent years, China’s role in international order has become a hot topic, whether in Munich Security Conference or in Valdai Forum. It is true that China officially rarely use the term “world order”, “international order” (alternatively international system) is widely used in official documents and speeches, as Madam Fu Yin pointed out in her address in Munich Security Conference two years ago. China draws distinction between world order and international order, as the world order always equals to the US-led world order. Madam Fu assumed that the US-led world order rests on three pillars: first, the American value system, which is also accepted as the western values; second, the U.S. military alignment system, which is claimed to be the security foundation for US leadership; third, the international institutions including the UN system[vii]. In china’s opinion, the international order is the UN based system including the international institutions and norms. Fu Yin emphasized that China has a strong sense of belonging to this order, as China is one of its founders and is a beneficiary, a contributor, as well as part of its reform efforts[viii]. President Xi Jinping explained China’s role in his speech in Seattle in 2015 in this way, “as far as the existing international system is concerned, China has been a participant, builder and contributor. We stand firmly for the international order and system that is based on the purposes and principles of the UN Charter”. He stated “a great number of countries, especially developing countries, want to see a more just and equitable international system, but it doesn’t mean they want to unravel the entire system or start all over again. Rather, what they want is to reform and improve the system to keep up with the times. This would serve the common interests of all countries and mankind as a whole”[ix]. What China envisions the international order is not fully compatible with the America-dominated world order. China does not fully embrace the US-dominated world order. One the one hand, China is a contributor of current international order, on the other hand, China is a reformer of current international order. The collapse of the current international order is not in the interests of China, therefore, China seeks to defend current international order find out its place. In this sense, Mr. Xi Jinping highlighted in his address in 19th party congress last year that China will be a staunch upholder of the international order.

China’s vision over the world order demonstrates in the conception of building a community with a shared future for mankind. President Xi put forward the idea of building a community with a shared future for mankind, the conception is the continuation of the previous ideas in post-Cold War era, for example, building new political and economic order, pursuing the path of peaceful development and building harmonious world. Mr. Xi Jinping elaborated China’s vision in 19th Congress of CPC, he stated that “We call on the people of all countries to work together to build a community with a shared future for mankind, to build an open, inclusive, clean, and beautiful world that enjoys lasting peace, universal security, and common prosperity”[x]. To large extent, the ruling party’s evaluation of the international situation determines the orientation of foreign policies. Mr. Xi Jinping deemed “The world is undergoing major developments, transformation, and adjustment, but peace and development remain the call of our day. The trends of global multi-polarity, economic globalization, IT application, and cultural diversity are surging forward; changes in the global governance system and the international order are speeding up; countries are becoming increasingly interconnected and interdependent; relative international forces are becoming more balanced; and peace and development remain irreversible trends”[xi]. Based on the vision of building community of shared future for humankind and judgement about international situation, Mr. Xi Jinping sent the message to the world what kind of role China will play in international order. The message is quite clear, China will be an architect of world peace, China will be a stalwart of global development, China will be a staunch upholder of the international order. As for the way of diplomacy, China seeks communication rather than confrontation, China seeks partnership rather than alliance. China pursues independent and peaceful foreign policies, defends its legitimate interests, dedicates to construct stable and balanced framework for relations with great powers.

After 18th National Congress of CPC, China has introduced proactive foreign policy away from the policy of “keeping a low profile and never taking the lead” set by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1990s. China’s emergence as the economic powerhouse is a shock for global economic order based on Bretton Woods system, the idea of new Bretton Woods system never has the chance to be tried. China realized that the current global economic order does not fit well for itself, the transition of global economic order should accommodate its needs. China’s notion of global governance is based on the principle of achieving shared growth through discussion and collaboration in engaging in global governance. China pledged to play its part in global governance, take an active part in reforming and developing the global governance system, and keep contributing Chinese wisdom and strength to global governance. One of the most important policy initiatives is the One Belt and One Road Initiative (Belt and Road Initiative, in short, BRI). This is regarded as the public goods that China provides for the world. The BRI is a comprehensive initiative, including political communication, policy coordination, infrastructure building, connectivity, trade and investment, financial integration and people-to-people exchange. The BRI is a geo-economic conception rather than a geo-political strategy. The BRI is not based on geopolitical rivalry, rather than it is based on economic cooperation, mutual trust and mutual benefit. If we examine the official discourse and narrative, geopolitics is beyond consideration. As one senior decision-maker for foreign policy pointed out in Boao Forum in 2014, “Chinese leaders have made it clear that in implementing the initiatives, China will uphold the spirit of ‘amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness’, which guide China’s diplomacy regarding its neighbors, and China will not interfere in other countries’ internal affairs or seek dominance over regional affairs or sphere of influence. The Belt and Road initiative is for open cooperation, with economic and cultural cooperation being the focus. They are not aimed at creating exclusive blocks or compromising existing multilateral mechanisms[xii]” The BRI is not intended to undermine and destabilize current global economic order. China as one of the beneficiaries of the globalization, strongly supports the globalization process, opposes different kinds of protectionism. President Xi’s speech at World Economic Forum last year showed that China is a strong supporter of free trade and economic globalization[xiii]. In essence, the BRI is the continuation of opening policy. The BRI may be regarded as China’s regional integration initiative with wide-ranging countries. The BRI is a loose, flexible arrangement, it contrasts sharply with the usually treaty-based or rule-based integration model. The AIIB and the Silk Road Fund are complementary to the global and regional multilateral development bank rather than substitutes. The new financial institutions established by China, for example, AIIB and Silk Road Fund operate under current global economic and financial order. The BRI is one of the most important initiative in the last 3 decades, if it is implemented adequately, it will shape the global economic order.

China’s role in international system is constrained by its relations with major players in the world, especially with the United States. The evolution of the relations between an emerging power and a hegemonic power in international politics is widely discussed, when an emerging power attempts to supplant a hegemonic power, the conflict follows, this scenario is called as “Thucydides Trap.” When president Xi Jinping came into power, how to deal with the relations with the United States has been a main challenge. President Xi proposed to build a new model of a major power relationship with the United States that features non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation. When president Xi visited the United States in 2015, he stated there is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides trap in the world, but should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves[xiv]. China’s former ambassador to France Wu Jianmin pointed out that China and the United States would not fall into “Thucydides Trap”.[xv] The trade dispute and geopolitical rivalry between China and the US under Trump administration could pose threats to the global stability, newly unveiled American national security strategy identified China as rival, accused China of attempting to erode American security and prosperity. How to prudently manage the differences and conflicts in the field of economy and security will be the test for decision-makers in Beijing and Washington. Except for the United States, major European countries expressed worry about China’s influence. German outgoing foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel accused China – alongside Russia – of “constantly trying to test and undermine the unity of the European Union”, seeking to influence individual states with “sticks and carrots” in Munich Security Conference. He slammed China’s Belt and Road Initiative, claiming that China has been using a huge amount of funds to promote a value system different from the West’s[xvi]. German Chancellor Merkel recently warned European Union member states that participate in Chinese government-led infrastructure initiatives should be aware of the risk of undermining the bloc’s common foreign policy stance toward China[xvii]. European powers’ hostile attitude towards China has worsen the atmosphere between China and Europe. The rising tide of “China threat” rhetoric in the West has to be taken seriously. Building sound and stable relationship with the EU, major European powers and Russia could contribute to the smoothly transition of the international order.

As a rising power, China has to learn how to live with established powers, how to protect the interests of emerging powers. China has not finished the tasks of reforms, China has no intention to export its development model and ideology. When we formulate foreign policies, we should always keep in mind that China is still in the primary stage of socialism, China is still the largest developing country. Global ambition has to be matched by national strength, China will bear international responsibility within its capacity. The role of China in international system is finally determined by domestic development, the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is still an unfinished enterprise.

Madam Fu’s interesting comment on global order represents reflection on international order by some Chinese decision-makers. “we may go beyond the debate and create a new overarching concept, like ‘a global order.’ It should accommodate as much as possible global governance, world power coordination, regional cooperation, North-South dialogue, etc”. She thought a global order should provide a common roof for all. This common roof of global order should at least have three major institutional capabilities: to guarantee world peace; to ensure global sustainable development; and to ensure that all solutions to problems be found through cooperation. It should be constructed around three pillars: major country coordination, full role for multilateral frameworks and habits and norms of cooperation[xviii]. In the multi-polar world, conflict among different visions of global order is inevitable, only through interaction among different visions of global order, new global order can be shaped.


Author: Kong Tianping – Senior Researcher of the Institute of European Studies, China Academy of Social Sciences

[i] TISDALL, Simon, „Munich conference: three dangerous superpowers – and we’re stuck in the middle”. In Guardian, 20170219,

[ii] Welcome to the G-Zero World, An interview with Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group and author of Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero, 201205,

[iii]STIGLITZ, Joseph, The Davos Disappointment-Growing Complacency in a Leaderless World?. 20130207,

[iv] YAFEI, He, „New world order is the inevitable trend”. In: China Daily, 2017.08.21,.

[v] KISSINGER, Henry, World Order, New York. Penguin Press, 2014., 430 pages.

[vi] Russia calls for ‘post-West’ world order: Lavrov, 20170218,

[vii] FU, Ying, Putting the Order(s) Shift in Perspective, 20160215,

[viii] FU, Ying, Putting the Order(s) Shift in Perspective, 20160215,

[ix] Full text of Xi Jinping’s speech on China-U.S. relations in Seattle, 20150924,

[x] XI, Jinping, Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, Delivered at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, October 18, 2017, (20171018),’s_report_at_19th_CPC_National_Congress.pdf(20180125.)

[xi] ibid

[xii] YANG, Jiechi, Jointly Undertake the Great Initiatives With Confidence and Mutual Trust, At the Session of “Reviving the Silk Road: A Dialogue with Asian Leaders” at the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2014, Boao, Hainan,


[xiii] Full Text of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s keynote speech at the World Economic Forum in 2017, 20170406,

[xiv] LI, Zhihui, China Voice: Ten reasons China, U.S. can avoid Thucydides Trap, 20150927,

[xv] WU, Jianmin, Zhong mei buhui xianru “xiuxidide xianjin, 吴建民,中美不会陷入“修昔底德陷阱”,, 20160508,

[xvi] MILLER, Nick, China undermining us ‘with sticks and carrots’: Outgoing German minister, 20180219,

[xvii]EU members must not let Chinese investment undermine bloc’s unity, Merkel says, 20180228,

[xviii] FU, Ying, Under the Same Roof: China’s View of Global Order, 20151102


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