Beijing on International Arena – Reformer or Revolutionary?

Anna Kostenko

1 MB

Key Takeaways

  • Beijing’s Global Governance Strategy: The paper examines China’s stance on global governance and its willingness to challenge the status quo. It also explores China’s intentions within the international system, whether it seeks to reform or completely overhaul it.
  • Appeal to the Global South: The article discusses China’s strategy of capitalizing on the dissatisfaction of Global South countries with the West. Beijing is offering these countries an alternative to the Western economic model, thus redefining global values and creating new institutions.
  • Sustainability of the China Model: China’s development model, characterized by strong state control over strategic industries and minimal political liberalization, presents a viable alternative to the Western model. This model has shown that economic advancement can occur without conforming to liberal political norms. However, the author raises concerns about the universal applicability and long-term sustainability of the China model, given country’s unique demographic and economic context.
  • China’s Involvement in International Institutions: The paper highlights China’s increased participation in global institutions and its efforts to establish new ones like the AIIB and BRICS’ Bank, signaling a strategy of cautious reform rather than outright revolution.

Over the last decade, the liberal world order led by the Western powers has been challenged by new emerging authoritarian regimes, the most influential of which is China. The rapid rise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from a non-recognized country to a major power in the international arena took less than a century and surprised the whole world.

Recently, the PRC has been taking a grip on its economic strength in order to enter the “elite club” of world leaders. As a major power, China strives to use its experience to provide an appealing alternative to the Western economic model based on democracy, transparency, and liberal values. Exploiting the dissatisfaction of the countries of the Global South with the West, Beijing is redefining values that underpin the liberal world order and creating new institutions for countries whose voices have not been heard. These factors pose a troubling question to the world. Does China intend to reform the global order or establish a new authoritarian one?

This paper explores the key features of the US-dominated liberal world order, the challenges it currently faces, and the role that China is willing to play within (or outside) this system. It also discusses the concerns Beijing has about the current system of global governance and whether the PRC is ready to take radical steps to overthrow it.

Is the liberal world order failing?

After the end of World War II, the US finally managed to build a liberal world order – a system based on norms, institutions, the rule of law, and liberal values. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US became the only superpower and gained the opportunity to extend its influence and values to the whole world. At the moment of ideological victory, the future seemed positive and bright: Francis Fukuyama even declared it to be the end of history – the triumph of liberal values.

While the US and its allies were celebrating their victory in the Cold War, new powers rose that were willing to challenge the triumphant world order. China and Russia were two authoritarian powers that sought to take their place among the world leaders.

Now, looking from 2023, it’s hard to imagine that bright future envisioned by the Western leaders. The world has seen two devastating economic crises, a rise in populism, neglect of human rights, terrorism, and new military conflicts. The EU is being challenged by democratic backsliding and backlash politics, Japan is struggling to contain China, and even the US, the pillar of the system, has seen a president whose views were controversial to most of the declared liberal values.

In order to preserve the liberal world order, the Western democracies sometimes had to resort to non-liberal means of deterrence and conflict resolution, earning them a reputation as hypocrites. The fact that even Western powers that created the norms and institutions do not adhere to them allowed authoritarian powers to manipulate this controversy: they use it to justify violations of norms and rules established in the liberal world order.

The 2022 full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine became a clear sign that Moscow plans to overthrow the liberal world order and created even more challenges for the weakened democracies of the West. This turn of events sparked another important discussion – what China’s goals within the international system are and how far Beijing is willing to go to achieve them.

The “China Model” – Economic Growth Without Political Liberalization

The People’s Republic of China takes a lot of pride in what they call a “peaceful rise” – no wars, no intervention in other countries’ affairs. Whether or not it was as peaceful as the Chinese claim it to be can be a subject of debate, but one thing is clear: the “rise” did happen – and it shook the whole world.

Over the last few decades, the PRC has gone through a rapid economic advancement – something that Western powers have managed to achieve over several centuries. When the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, it was a war-torn country with an extremely poor population and no prospects for a bright future – it wasn’t deemed a legitimate successor of the Chinese Empire and was excluded from all international institutions. At that time 70 years ago, no one could have expected that in 2010 the PRC would surpass Japan and become the second-biggest economy of the world. The Chinese officials were smart and strategic about the social economic reforms, and so were able to use the advantages of the US-led world order to their benefit.

Chinese Professor Zhang Weiwei claims that China has undergone 4 industrial revolutions in only 40 years – starting with the reforms of Deng Xiaoping who “opened” China to the world. Over these 40 years, the quality of life of Chinese citizens improved astonishingly: once living in a poor agrarian country, they now enjoy high-tech cities, 5G internet, bullet trains, and constant scientific advancement. Such rapid rise provided the CCP with the unwavering support of their population and allowed the PRC to become one of the major players in the international arena.

As the Chinese economy grew, so did their ambitions. Taking into consideration its achievements and enjoying the newly gained power in world politics, the CCP realized that it no longer had to play by the rules of the West – instead, it could provide an alternative model of economic development. Often referred to as the “China model”, it serves as an example that successful economic advancement doesn’t require political liberalization. The main features of this model are an export-oriented economy with strong state intervention, pragmatic reform, and reliance on foreign investment. All strategic industries of the Chinese economy are controlled by state-owned enterprises (SOEs) which allows the state to have absolute dominance in the economic sector. This along with the undisputed power of the CCP is seen as a source of stability, crucial to successful development. China sees the constant change of power and political liberalization in Western democracies as their weakness, which leads to different crises that slow down the country’s advancement.

Why is the Chinese model so appealing?

China has proved that authoritarianism is not the opposite of modernity – these two features don’t contradict each other, but rather can exist simultaneously and thrive. Such an idea is extremely popular among the leaders of developing countries struggling to meet all the liberalization and democratization requirements from the Western world.

The developing countries are always on the lookout for investment and financial support. One way to receive it is to work with the IMF, World Bank, European Investment Bank, or other West-led institutions, whose loans always include conditions and require reform. And although these conditions are meant to boost the economic development of a borrowing country, they often become a heavy burden for the government. Moreover, not all developing countries find the liberal world order and the West-led system appealing – they are not willing to become electoral democracies, protect human rights, and adhere to the rule of law. This creates a conflict of interest and leads to the search for other ways to develop economically and receive loans.

Considering the situation, the “China model” seems to be the perfect answer. Chinese politicians claim that they are not planning on exporting explicitly “socialism with Chinese characteristics” to other countries, but they believe to have set an example of an economic model that ensures development and at the same time doesn’t require drastic liberal reform. Furthermore, within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the PRC is ready to invest in developing countries and collaborate with them on infrastructure projects.

China also claims to set no conditions on the loans, and not interfere in the domestic policy, in contrast to the Western countries. For example, in terms of cooperation with African countries, the PRC declares to be using a principle of “five no”: no interference in the development paths of individual countries; no interference in their internal affairs; no imposition of China’s will; no attachment of political strings regarding assistance; and no seeking of selfish political gains in investment and financing cooperation.

While it’s true that the PRC doesn’t try to impose its view on how to manage internal affairs, the conditions still do exist, their nature is just different. China uses loans to gain support for itself within the international institutions and – in the long term – to gain political leverage over those countries that will not be able to pay off their debts or even gain access to their critical infrastructure. Still, the governments of developing countries, especially those controlled by corrupt authoritarian regimes, are eager to accept Chinese investment and promote the CCP’s interests abroad.

Although the “China model” definitely does have a certain appeal, there is a concern that it can’t be applied to any other developing countries, except for the PRC itself. Due to a huge population and skilled cheap labor, China has managed to attract a lot of investors and boost its exports – an advantage that many smaller developing countries don’t have. Another crucial issue is that the Chinese economy is starting to slow down and challenges within the system are starting to emerge, e.g., the real estate crisis. Whether the CCP will be able to overcome those difficulties and ensure further development of the country or not is the question for the upcoming years. Considering these factors, it would be a quite risky choice for developing countries to try to apply the “China model”.

Beijing – a reformer or a revolutionary?

Modern China has a major political and economic power – so one of the most pressing questions is what the PRC is planning to do with it. Will it try to overthrow the US-led liberal world order? Or will it try to transform it to fit its own interests?

Beijing has no intention of accepting the liberal world order the way it exists now. Although the Chinese leadership hasn’t expressed any direct views on the suitability of the current order for the PRC, it has claimed to adhere to the so-called “Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence”: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. These values could lie at the core of China’s ideal world order and allow us to analyze the Chinese concerns about the existing one.

Data via the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative;
Design by Aliza Grant, Forbes Staff

Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity is the most crucial value for China to adhere to in the international arena. Beijing considers the island of Taiwan, where the Republic of China is located, to be its territory and is unsatisfied with countries that despite following the “One China” policy still collaborate with Taipei. Except that, the issue of territorial integrity concerns the region of Tibet along with the island chains in the South China Sea disputed by the world community. In a scandalous act of disrespect to the rule of law, China has refused to adhere to the 2016 ruling in favor of the Philippines by The Permanent Court of Arbitration concerning the dispute in the South China Sea. Having these problems at hand, Beijing places a strong emphasis on the importance of respecting territorial integrity in the international arena. For example, the PRC has never recognized the annexation of Crimea and four Ukrainian regions by Russia, although it didn’t condemn Moscow’s actions either. It is important to note that the PRC wouldn’t be taking the issue of meddling with territorial integrity as seriously if it weren’t for its own disputable claims for Taiwan, Tibet, and the South China Sea.

Another important principle is non-interference in domestic affairs. The Chinese officials believe that foreign governments no matter what shouldn’t be able to justify intervention in the internal affairs of another state. This is a pressing issue for Beijing, especially in terms of the protection of human rights. The Western liberal world order implies that in case of violations of human rights, the foreign powers have the right to intervene to stop the atrocities. China, being an authoritarian country accused of various human rights violations, doesn’t agree with the concept of humanitarian intervention and would collaborate with any regime as long as it is beneficial for it.

China’s President Xi Jinping sits on the
podium while people leave at the World
Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland,
on Jan. 17. (Michel Euler/AP)

The attention needs to be drawn to the equality and mutual benefit principle. Although it sounds self-evident and obvious, it reflects one of the fundamental concerns that China has about the liberal world order – Beijing doesn’t believe it to be equal. The PRC claims that the institutions and norms that lie at the core of the liberal world order serve to the advantage of the Western powers (e.g., the US de-facto having a veto power in the IMF).

To deal with the issues discussed above, China is becoming more and more involved in international institutions and engaged in world affairs. Beijing is actively using the UN and its institutions to establish itself as one of the world leaders. Currently, the PRC is one of the countries that provide the most peacekeepers to the UN peacekeeping missions, exceeding all other members of the UN Security Council.

Another noticeable measure that China undertakes within the current world order is the creation of new or strengthening existing institutions to serve Beijing’s interests. Shanghai Organization of Cooperation (SOC), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and BRICS’ Bank are presented as the alternatives to the Western-led bodies. Remarkably, the AIIB, created in 2016, has already become a more powerful financial institution than the West-established Asian Development Bank. Through the creation of these institutions, China hopes to present itself as a leader of the Global South and an advocate for developing countries’ interests.

Considering the factors mentioned above there is not enough evidence to claim that China is becoming a revolutionary. Although Beijing is trying to redefine some of the liberal values and is creating alternative international institutions, its principles still mostly align with the Western ones, it promotes collaboration within the institutions created by the Western powers, looks for allies and support within those institutions (e.g., with the help of BRI) and does not express much interest in undermining the existing order. China benefits from a globalized world, free trade, and cooperation with its Western counterparts, so it would not be beneficial for the PRC to completely overthrow the existing world order. What we can see is that Beijing is trying to adjust some of the structural elements of the liberal world to better serve its interests, and is aiming to become a leader within the Global South.


The rapid rise of China and the challenges faced by the liberal world order in the 21st century have sparked debates about the future of global institutions. China is using its unprecedented economic growth to promote an alternative model of development that doesn’t include political liberalization. This allows the developing countries to avoid the necessity of fulfilling burdening conditions imposed by Western-led institutions. The “China model” presents an authoritarian approach to economic advancement, challenging the traditional Western narrative that political liberalization is a prerequisite for modernization. Although appealing to a certain extent, it hasn’t existed long enough to prove its effectiveness in the long run.

As China continues to expand its influence by creating new institutions and projects like the Belt and Road Initiative, Western leaders are becoming more and more concerned about Beijing’s intentions. China openly disapproves of the liberal values that lie at the core of the modern international system and promotes its own view of the principles that should be the basis of the global order. At the same time, China endorses cooperation within the framework of the UN and is not willing to give up on the advantages provided by the globalized and multilateral system. Currently, China can hardly be seen as a revolutionary that tries to undermine the existing world order as a whole and build an entirely new one. PRC is more of a force that aims to adjust the international system to its needs. Whether Beijing’s ambitions and assertiveness will rise or stay the same in the future remains to be seen. But if the Western powers want to see their liberal order stable and unchanged, they will have to be united in their policy aimed toward containing China.

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