The Chinese World Order
If one thing should be taken from competing power dynamics in East Asia it should be the status China plays in its determination. Consider for a moment the concept of a ‘world society’. Is this a possible achievement, where all institutions, norms and behavioural conducts are standardised? One might be tempted to say yes. Though upon closer inspection one can see that the Western model of global governance has failed to absolutely consolidate its hold on many states. Nowhere is this more prominent than China, whose great power status allows the projection of a new form of ideals and norms which can counter the influence of the West.
The Western model, put simply, revolves around the concept of legally equal (if potently unequal) sovereign states who all exercise autonomy and equivalence within the international system. It is a system of idealised territorial integrity and autonomy. This worldview, despite being transplanted onto other regions of the world, does not necessarily mean it is best suited for those regions or indeed if it is what alternative states desire. The Western model supposes that the system is anarchic, and states are bound to go to war unless incentivised against it by a variable mechanism such as war, diplomacy, trade, shared values and so on. By contrast, the Chinese view of world order can be bundled into the term of ‘Confucianism’. While principally a philosophical term, it can be applied to international relations when one focuses on its emphasis on morality and hierarchy.
A Confucian worldview maintains that the international system is in fact non-anarchic, instead it is hierarchic. For China, the hierarchy of states (with itself at the top) allows peace and stability. This is in stark contrast to Western modes of thought which otherwise would discourage a de jure hierarchical worldview, even if a de facto hierarchy is inevitable. As the IISS notes, a Confucian stance is all about hierarchy: “the idea that each person in society has their place – and social harmony, requiring the interests of the individual to be subordinated to those of the collective.” If one subtracts “individual” for “state” and “collective” for a more general notion of “world” one can envisage how Beijing views the position of periphery states in Asia. Historically and philosophically, China has seen itself as the centre of the world. Indeed, the Tianxia framework infers that ‘all under heaven’ resides in China, beyond which is inconsequential and irrelevant. As Nele Noesselt noted in 2012 China, unlike the West, takes the world as the systemic level of analysis as opposed to individual states. For China, the state centred world we live in is a product of our times. Or rather, it is the way things are, not precisely how they ought to be. If a world society is to exist it should not be one of self-interested states constantly bargaining for peace, it should be one founded on a “good” social and political order, one which surpasses the nation-state and rests on interactions between societies. Societies that, in the end, are measured morally based on conformity to Chinese values and norms.
If China places itself at the top of the hierarchy philosophically, can it be criticised for its behaviour? The Western model cannot provide a definitive answer, finding itself split between two lanes of thought. On the one hand, the West criticises China for its aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea, its support for North Korea and military advancements. On the other hand, it seemingly justifies it by suggesting that, in the anarchic society we inhabit, Chinese behaviour is not just natural, it is justified. What perhaps we should be considering is whether Beijing sees its ‘confrontational’ behaviour through the Western lens of competition, or through the Confucian lens of peaceful reordering. What remains the greatest variable in the mix is the presence of the current world hegemon, the United States, in the region which serves (in this theoretical instance) only to complicate predictions of Chinese intentions. If the US were to withdraw entirely, would Chinese philosophy dictate that the other states in the region must be subordinated? If that were the case, the next question would be to determine what the response from these other states would be. Certainly, not all states in the region conform to Chinese values and would accept a subordinated position. In the coming decades it will be increasingly fascinating to see not just how power changes in the region, but how this can be interpreted in different ways.
- Is there a Chinese School if IR? by Nele Noesselt (2012)
At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a third year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK defence strategy and foreign policy.