CHINA’S RISE A Threat to Global Norms?


The contemporary world is going through a global power shift. There are debates all around as to what would be the nature of the next phase of the world order. There’s a wide agreement that a global power transition is underway. Unipolarity — the US dominating the world — is giving way and a new global order is fast emerging. States are rising, states are declining. Power is shifting. Many people suggest that it’s a shift from West to East and from North to South. Of course, China is at the centre of this. China is now or will soon pass the US as the world’s largest economy. 

Does the rise of China pose a fundamental threat to existing global norms? Not necessarily. To be sure, if the global order is defined as the structural distribution of power among states, then China’s rise by definition constitutes a fundamental change. But a shift in the structural distribution of power among states is not the same as a change in the nature of the norms that states have created to govern the interactions among themselves: what international relations scholars call “international regimes.” As China has risen, it has joined — and, for the most part, complied with — most international regimes.

Certainly, China has worked to influence the way in which these regimes have evolved, but in this regard it is no different from the United States or other major powers. There was a time when China rejected the international regime system as a matter of principle. During the Mao period, China disapproved ideas like arms control, international human rights, the exchange of public health information, etc. as hostile efforts by the incumbent superpowers to constrain the sovereign rights of other states. Therefore, China accepted no foreign direct investment and conducted little foreign trade. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was a member of no international organization except, in the 1950s, those that formed parts of the socialist camp.

After the PRC regained the China seat in the United Nations in 1971, it began to join international organizations connected to the UN, such as the WHO and FAO. It started to take an active role in UN bodies related to human rights. And it regained the China seat in World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, the ADB, and the International Olympic Committee. China has by now become a member of virtually all of the major international regimes in which it is eligible to participate. There are a small number of widely acceded treaties that China has not joined — often the same ones that the US has rejected. These include the Rome Statute (the treaty that established the International Criminal Court) and the Land Mines Convention. Likewise, China and the US are among a few countries that reject the informal international norm regarding the death penalty as a violation of human rights.

Now consider China’s participation in the international arms control and disarmament (ACD) regime. Because of the secrecy that attends arms transfers, it is difficult to be sure about how strictly China has complied with its ACD obligations. The public record does not show that China has ever violated any arms control treaty commitment after signing a treaty. The US, however, has often accused China of violating other, non-treaty nonproliferation norms or commitments. So far, though, China eventually complied with US demands in all of those cases.

China complies in a formal sense even with the international regimes like the international human rights. It attends the necessary meetings and files the necessary reports on time with the relevant treaty bodies. It has undergone the Human Rights Council’s process of Universal Periodic Review. It participates in some programmes with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and participates in bilateral human rights dialogues with Western states. In 2004, the National People’s Congress amended the Chinese Constitution to say, “The State respects and preserves human rights,” a gesture that seemed to symbolize the PRC’s investment in international human rights discourses.


China has progressed toward achieving many economic, social and cultural rights. Moreover, it claims that its acts in terms of human rights are consistent with its interpretation of international human rights law or that it is engaging in a process to eliminate violations that still occur.

Overall, then, China joins and complies with international regimes. However, like other major states, China has tried to influence the further evolution of the regimes it has joined. In doing so, has China sought to remake these regimes in some unfamiliar image, or has it merely sought to push regime norms in directions that serve its pragmatic interests better without changing their fundamental character?

In the international trade regime, the issues on the table in the Doha Round of WTO negotiations have been of peripheral relevance to Chinese trade interests, which centre on the export of manufactured goods. In these negotiations, China has tended to back a general developing-country position that calls for the elimination of agricultural subsidies by developed countries to allow former’s agricultural products to be more competitive in world markets. Although some analysts blame China for the lack of progress in the Doha Round, most agree that China has adopted a relatively passive position in these negotiations. In regional trade negotiations, China’s position favours the further opening of world markets to manufactured exports, which would obviously benefit China as a manufacturing powerhouse.

China has so far not shown a clear desire to join the recently-concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) presumably because the TPP framework imposes environmental and labour rights conditions. It has instead worked to join or create bilateral and regional FTAs, such as the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, all of which set lower standards than the TPP on environmental and social protections.

In the WTO Dispute Resolution Procedure, China has used its positions as a complainant, defendant or interested party to try to clarify issue areas in its own interest; for example, by arguing that its pricing system does not constitute dumping. China has also begun to use its domestic laws to exert an influence on the international trading system. With the implementation of its antimonopoly law on August 1, 2008, China became one of three markets with the power to regulate the ability of transnational corporations to merge (along with the US and the EU).

In all, China’s negotiating positions in the international trade regime can be characterized as pragmatic-interest-driven. These interests, and their corresponding negotiating positions, are in some respects the same as those of other major trading nations. In other respects, China’s interests are different — namely, in that China seeks to enjoy competitive advantages in its own and in others’ markets. The pursuit of these interests by way of trading agreements and institutionalized dispute resolution is consistent with the basic open, rule-bound, character of the contemporary international trade regime. That being the case, China’s negotiating positions do not represent a threat to the essential principles of this regime.

China’s negotiating position in the arms control and disarmament regime tends to support the strategic status quo. China backs opposition to North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons development and proliferation. And it supports the further development of the ACD regime in ways that would further limit arms development, proliferation and utilization. For example, China backs proposed treaties to ban the first use of nuclear weapons, to ban the development of antiballistic missiles, and to ban an arms race in outer space. China advocates the “norm of non-discrimination,” in which nonproliferation does not only target certain regimes like Iran and North Korea but is also universalistic.

In addition, China does not favour coercive measures (military strikes or sanctions) to enforce nonproliferation commitments but favours persuasive measures, a stance that comports with China’s maintenance of good relations with Iran and North Korea. As both a major user of nuclear energy and a uranium importer, China favours the establishment of a global nuclear fuel supply mechanism, in which China would probably emerge as a major supplier.

A common theme running through China’s negotiating positions is the desire to use international agreements to weaken or constrain areas of American military superiority. As such, China’s negotiating positions are pragmatic, but consistent with the overarching norms of the arms control regime.

Within the human rights regime, China has exerted considerable influence over the way the regime functions. In the Human Rights Council, China and cooperating states pushed a “principle of universality,” which reduced the degree to which individual countries are singled out for attention. The current process of Universal Periodic Review, which China helped promote, subjects every state to review by the Council, and does so in a way that allows the state being reviewed and its sympathizers to heavily shape the agenda of the review. Similarly, China was one of the promoters of a Council initiative to have each state submit a Human Rights Action Plan, which allows each state to put forward its own interpretation of how international human rights norms should be interpreted for application in that country. China has also worked to restrict the role of NGOs in the Council and in the Treaty Bodies and to restrict the length and content of mandates given by the Council to the so-called Special Procedures. The net effect of these efforts has been to position China in compliance with self-set priorities and to insulate it from serious pressure from the Human Rights Council.

China has for the most part compelled Western governments to tacitly accept the norm that government-to-government complaints about human rights issues should be conducted in private, and that public airing of such interventions is disruptive of diplomatic courtesy. In the process of state-to-state human rights dialogues, China established the practices that such dialogues should be secret and bilateral rather than multilateral, that foreign dialogue partners should not coordinate with one another, and that invitees to the non-governmental specialist components of these dialogues need to be vetted by both sides. It has sapped the value of human rights dialogues by frequently postponing them and when they meet, engaging on a merely pro forma basis.

In these and other global regimes, China’s behaviour does not show a pattern of promoting a distinctive “Chinese model” or an alternative vision of world order. If there is a larger pattern, it is that China tends to be a conservative power, resisting efforts by the United States and its partners to shape regimes in ways that are unfavourable to China and its partners. This happens fairly often, because the US actively continues to try to shape the future evolution of regimes. In its competition with the US and its allies, China often defends the more old-fashioned interpretation of sovereignty against efforts to reinterpret sovereignty in a more limited way. On issues that relate to limiting sovereignty, China often argues the more traditional, conservative position, and existing law is often on its side.

As long as China remains roughly on its current trajectory — politically stable with a growing economy — its stake in various international regimes is unlikely to change dramatically. For example, it will continue to gain more than it loses from the trade, finance and arms control regimes, and to resist Western efforts to strengthen the human rights, humanitarian intervention, and information freedom regimes. If China becomes an even stronger power relative to its rivals, it is likely to bid for more influence in existing regimes rather than try to overthrow them. If it suffers economic or political setbacks, it will have less influence on the evolution of the regimes, but will hardly be able to afford to abandon them. While China will continue to influence the evolution of global norms, it is hard to imagine a realistic scenario in which it will try to revolutionize or overthrow them.

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