17 July 2017
The transition towards a more pluralistic form of global governance that is inclusive of emerging powers remains fraught with tensions. Whether the existing global framework of rules and institutions can adapt to this new paradigm will depend upon whether liberal states can work in tandem with China in tackling the core challenges facing global governance.
Old alignments based upon geopolitical divisions do not sufficiently address transnational threats affecting societies across the globe, such as irregular migration, terrorism and violent extremism, illicit trade and environmental disasters precipitated by climate change.
China is not immune to these threats, yet working with China to strengthen collective security arrangements presents challenges as well as opportunities. In the case of counter-terrorism, the dilemma over how to secure the nation against terrorist threats while protecting civil liberties is particularly acute — the Xinjiang ‘people’s war on terror’ has blurred the line between internecine struggle and counter-terrorism.
More recently, the involvement of Chinese nationals in global terrorist networks has led to greater cooperation within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) — particularly in sharing intelligence, repatriating terrorists and financing counter-terrorism operations. The consensus over terrorism is weak at the global level, so countering violent extremism has the potential to provide a common platform for achieving a greater balance between strategy and the rule of law — if not a means of bridging the normative divide between the SCO and Europe’s Organisation for Security and Cooperation.
At the regional level, the initial political furore over Chinese sponsorship of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) shows how mistrust on both sides can undermine positive intentions. At the time of its establishment, it was seen by many as a prelude to the creation of an alternative World Bank — or even a new economic order.
Such claims were grossly exaggerated. Ongoing projects are co-sponsored with the World Bank, and the articles of agreement confirm a partnership model with other multilateral institutions.
Similarly, the Belt and Road Initiative — China’s expansive transcontinental infrastructure and development framework — poses a dilemma concerning the overlap between strategic and developmental objectives. But just like the AIIB, it will be hard to achieve successful outcomes in the absence of international financial, economic and environmental safeguards. The United States’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership means that China is now the lead player in regional integration and hence far more exposed to international criticism.
As a counterbalance to ideological competition, enhanced cooperation on climate change presents a bright spot on the horizon. Yet, while Beijing’s commitment towards reducing emissions on a voluntary basis will likely endure, burden-sharing remains a central prerogative in negotiating international cooperation, and domestic priorities continue to drive China’s low-carbon policies.
Can a cautious, common-ground approach towards international cooperation with China lead to the effective delivery of public goods?
Joseph Nye recently questioned whether China could fall into the ‘Kindleberger trap’. Charles Kindleberger, the intellectual architect of the Marshall Plan, argued that when the United States replaced Britain in the 1930s as the largest global power, it failed to carry the burden for the provision of public goods, leading to the Great Depression and war.
While this prediction merits attention, it fails to recognise China is not acting alone. Beijing is still playing catch-up and in some respects benefiting from being a late developer — emulating, learning and re-inventing. In particular, the intellectual ideas underpinning China’s role in global governance are still in the making and rely on interactions with the outside world.
Under these conditions, it is not enough simply to set up more representative institutions and hope that better governance will prevail. An approach that seeks open, fair and legitimate governance in dealing with the challenges of the contemporary era is our best option for maintaining a political equilibrium during a period of structural transition. Perhaps this approach, reviving political theorist David Mitrany’s traditional functionalist principle of a ‘working peace’ across continents, would be more effective than some grand universal design.
After all, the preservation of principled arrangements for governing international affairs lies in cooperation. In a speech at Chatham House in 1948, Mitrany introduced his transcontinental perspective: ‘It seems to be the fate of all periods of transition that reformers are more willing to fight over a theory than to pull together over a problem. At this stage, I can only be given credit for the claim that I do not represent a theory. I represent an anxiety’.
Today, our anxiety is of a different kind — that the rules-based international order appears now on the verge of disintegration. China’s stronger political leverage means that international politics is likely to become less transformative and more transactional over time. We are likely to witness more bargains over the rules, but not necessarily more conflict over strategic priorities — and it is this pragmatic orientation that provides optimism for the future of global governance.
Katherine Morton is Professor in China’s International Relations, School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield.
This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Strategic diplomacy in Asia’.