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HomeGeopolitical CompassEast AsiaChina and the Liberal International Order: A Pragmatic and Dynamic Approach

China and the Liberal International Order: A Pragmatic and Dynamic Approach

Author: Ruonan Liu and Songpo Yang

Affiliation: School of Social Sciences, Tsinghua University, and Department of International Relations at Tsinghua University

Organization/Publisher: International Affairs

Date/Place: July 2023/ UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Number of Pages: 18



Keywords: China, Liberal International Order, Multilateralism



Amid the ongoing US-China strategic competition, many have begun to question the future of the liberal international order (LIO). The article acknowledges this debate about the LIO’s crisis, which some attribute to internal flaws within dominant powers, while others see external challenges as the main threat. The rise of China and the decline of US leadership have caused concerns in the West regarding how China might reshape the LIO. While some portray China as a revisionist state with ambitions to replace the international order, the article notes that a growing number of scholars offer a more nuanced perspective, describing China’s interactions with the LIO as “selective engagement” or “selective reform.” This approach is not unique to emerging powers, as all states, liberal or illiberal, engage with international norms selectively. The article emphasizes the perceptual gap between China and the West in understanding the post-1945 international order. While the West emphasizes liberal values, China takes a pragmatic and functional view. It concludes that China, as a whole, continues to exhibit significant support for the existing order and has not displayed an intent to establish a wholly new international order. 

After the introduction, the article is structured into three main body sections, a review of debates among Chinese scholars, China’s perceptions of the LIO, and China’s attitudes toward different components of the LIO, before the concluding remarks.

  • The Debate Around China’s Vision of International Order:

This section of the article discusses the ongoing debate about China’s vision of the international order among Western scholars. It highlights two main camps of thought within the Chinese literature:

  1. Beneficiary and Reformers Camp: Some scholars argue that China has benefited from the current international order and has no interest in overthrowing it. They believe that China should continue to integrate into the order while advocating for reforms to make it more just and reasonable. They assume that the world will transition to a multipolar system, and it is therefore in China’s interest to work with the United States and other major powers to create a more accommodating order.
  2. Critical Reformers Camp: Others take a more critical stance, seeing dysfunction in the current US-led international order due to its lack of legitimacy and Western-centric values. They argue that China should provide an alternative framework to address global crises and create a more inclusive and diverse international order. These scholars draw on traditional Chinese philosophies and values as a basis for reshaping the world order.

The article acknowledges that these perspectives reveal complex and nuanced views among Chinese intellectuals about China’s role in the international order. The differences in perception between China and the West, as well as China’s multifaceted responses to various components of the order, contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of China’s position. Understanding these nuanced differences is crucial for interpreting China’s future actions and its current international practices.


2 – Chinese Perceptions of the LIO:

The perception and narrative of the current international order differs significantly between China and the West. The Western view, often referred to as the ‘Liberal International Order,’ is rooted in Western liberal values, including liberal democracy, free enterprise, and individual political freedoms. This order is associated with the US and its allies and has a strong ideological element.

On the other hand, the Chinese government, while recognizing the existence of an international order, does not embrace Western liberal ideology as its foundation. Instead, it emphasizes a pragmatic, rules-based multilateral international framework, with the UN at its core, in both the political and security domains, and multinational mechanisms like the WTO, IMF, and WB in the economic domain. China focuses on international rules and de-emphasizes the significance of power and ideology. It refrains from attaching an ideological value to the international order and is particularly critical of the perception that Western liberal democratic values and military alliances are inherent to this order.

The difference in ideology and perception of the international order has led to mutual suspicion and accusations between China and the United States. The US often views China as a revisionist state challenging the order, while China criticizes the LIO for being a hypocritical, Western-centric club that prioritizes Western ideologies and policies over international norms and rules.

Understanding this perception gap is crucial when evaluating China’s stance and dissatisfaction with the international order. China’s critique may target the ‘reality part’ of the order, such as international laws and rules centered around the UN, rather than the ‘value part’ that encompasses liberal principles and democracy. This divide in perceptions has caused misunderstandings and tensions between China and the West regarding the root causes of issues within the current international order.


3- The LIO’s Subcomponents and China’s Reactions:

China’s approach to the international order is not static but complex and dynamic. This complexity is influenced by three key subcomponents of the Liberal International Order (LIO):

  1. The international political/security order: China strongly supports this order, which centers around the United Nations (UN) and is based on the UN Charter and international law. This order is seen as a cornerstone for global peace and stability. China’s commitment to upholding this order includes substantial investments, contributing troops to UN peacekeeping missions, and funding UN peacekeeping operations. China’s support for this order aligns with its aspiration to attain great power status, its emphasis on state sovereignty, and the platform it provides for addressing global issues critical to domestic stability.
  2. The international economic order: China’s approach to the economic order is more dynamic. While China has been a major supporter of the multilateral trade order, it is increasingly pushing for reforms in various suborders within the international economic order. China firmly upholds the principles of multilateral trade and has significantly benefited from these mechanisms. It has also sought to increase its influence within international financial institutions while internationalizing its currency. Additionally, China complements the international development assistance order with its own approach, emphasizing economic development over political reform. This approach is rooted in China’s growing economic power.
  3. The regional economic order: China’s response to the regional economic order, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, has evolved from initial dismissal to accommodation. For example, its attitude toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) shifted from suspicion to interest in joining the agreement, which later transformed into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). This evolution reflects China’s pragmatic approach to regional order, driven by cost-benefit analysis and economic considerations rather than ideological competition with the United States.

China’s approach to the international order is pragmatic and influenced by its domestic political and economic agendas, its national strength, and its relationship with the United States. These dynamic variables play a crucial role in shaping China’s evolving conception of the international order.


4- Challenges to the LIO and China’s Responses:

In the context of China’s changing approach to the international order, two major changes are notable:

  1. China’s proposals have evolved to be more ‘macro’ in character. They have shifted from regime-oriented to norm-oriented. China is promoting concepts like the ‘community of common destiny for mankind’ and offering Chinese solutions through initiatives like the Global Development Initiative (GDI). These approaches aim to reshape global norms and offer alternatives to Western norms in various domains, including human rights.
  2. China’s investment in international institution building has increased, extending beyond the existing Liberal International Order (LIO) architecture. While these moves are primarily linked to China’s domestic political and economic agendas, they are closely watched as US-China strategic competition intensifies.

China’s aim is not to overturn the LIO but to reform it to better reflect its great power status, ensure a more equitable distribution of benefits, and resist some liberal norms that may threaten its core interests. China seeks a balanced relationship with the United States, the dominant power in the LIO, to fulfill its aspirations for great power status.

However, China faces challenges. Its current capacity and vision for an alternative international order is insufficient. Developing universal values that can replace American values remains a challenge. How the competition between the US and China over the values underpinning the international order unfolds will depend on various factors, including domestic developments, external support, and the rate of growth of China’s power.



In conclusion, this article highlights the differences between how China and the West perceive the postwar international order, which have led to suspicions about China’s intentions toward the existing order. China emphasizes the UN-centered, rule-based multilateral international framework as the core foundation of the postwar order, downplaying the role of power and ideology in international relations. In contrast, the West sees liberal values as integral to that order.

China’s interactions with the international order have been dynamic and adaptable, influenced by various subcomponents of the order. While recent interactions may appear more ambitious, China faces internal and external constraints, limited capacity, and a lack of universally appealing values that prevent the emergence of a distinct Chinese version of the international order.

The rise of China has raised concerns about the future of the international order, but China’s official statements, academic thoughts, and policy practices suggest it largely supports the current order, except for concerns about inadequately addressed global crises. China’s approach to the international order is influenced by three camps: pro-West and liberal, anti-West and revolutionary, and pro-globalization and growth-driven. The pro-globalization and growth-driven perspective, emphasizing pragmatism, has been dominant and can potentially help avoid a new Cold War.

While this article does not establish a theoretical framework, it provides a foundation for future research, including exploring how the evolving China-US relationship influences China’s view of the international order and the role of domestic factors in shaping its approach.


By: Dr. Nabil Kahlouche, Strategic Researcher



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