top of page

How should the West respond to China’s challenge to the rules-based international order?


November 22, 2023

In recent years, the China’s leaders have intensified its criticism of the rules-based international order, labeling it as a tool of Western dominance designed to suppress the rise of alternative global powers. While the concerns of the Chinese Communist Party about this system should not be dismissed entirely, its critique often overlooks its own shortcomings and serves as a smokescreen for its ambitions to reshape the global order in its own image.

The CCP’s critique of the rules-based international order (RBIO) often centers on the concept of human rights, alleging that these universal principles are selectively applied to serve Western interests. While no nation, including those in the West, has a perfect human rights record, China’s own record is particularly troubling, marked by widespread suppression of dissent, arbitrary detention and systematic violations of fundamental freedoms.

The RBIO, with all its imperfections, has played a crucial role in promoting peace, prosperity, and respect for human rights. Established after the Second World War, institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations have contributed significantly to improving the lives of millions around the world, regardless of their nationality or political system.

China’s engagement with the RBIO has been characterized by a selective adherence to rules, a willingness to subvert norms when it suits its interests and a disregard for international law when it conflicts with its national objectives. This behavior is evident in its approach to the World Trade Organization, from which it has reaped significant benefits while simultaneously engaging in unfair trade practices and intellectual property theft.

In tandem with its criticism of the RBIO, China has been constructing its own parallel institutions, such as the Belt and Road Initiative and its policing training programs. While ostensibly designed to promote development and cooperation, these institutions are ultimately tools of Chinese influence, aimed at advancing Beijing’s political agenda and expanding its global footprint.

The Belt and Road Initiative, in particular, has been criticized for its debt-trap diplomacy, where China provides loans to developing countries that they are often unable to repay, effectively giving Beijing leverage over their economies and political decisions. This approach raises concerns about neocolonialism and the potential for China to exploit vulnerable nations for its own strategic interests.

China’s construction of these parallel institutions is not a sign of its commitment to a more inclusive global order. Rather, it is a deliberate attempt to undermine the existing RBIO and replace it with a system that prioritizes state sovereignty over individual rights and democratic values. The CCP desires a more “China-centric” global order, one where its authoritarian model can operate without challenge, where its interests take precedence over those of other nations and where its influence extends far beyond its borders.

Despite these concerns, it is important to approach China’s challenge to the rules-based order with restraint and a clear-eyed understanding of both its strengths and weaknesses. While China’s growing economic and military power cannot be ignored, its authoritarian model faces inherent limitations in terms of its ability to attract global cooperation and legitimacy.

In countering China’s challenge, the international community must remain committed to the principles of the RBIO, advocating for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. This requires consistent and principled engagement with China, highlighting its shortcomings and urging it to adhere to international norms.

However, the international community must also be mindful of the potential for confrontation and escalation. A policy of containment or outright demonization of China would be counterproductive, potentially leading to a dangerous cycle of rivalry. Instead, a more nuanced approach is needed, one that combines firmness with diplomacy and seeks to manage China’s rise in a way that upholds the values of the RBIO without provoking unnecessary conflict.

This approach, guided by prudent balancing and restraint, offers the best chance of upholding the principles of the rules-based international order in the face of China’s challenge. It requires strengthening and adapting existing international institutions to address new challenges like climate change and cybersecurity. It also necessitates building coalitions of like-minded nations to promote shared values and interests.

Finally, it demands engaging with China in a constructive but firm manner, maintaining dialogue and seeking solutions while standing firm against its authoritarian actions. By pursuing this approach, the international community can effectively manage China’s challenge to the rules-based international order, preserving the values of that system and promoting a more just and equitable world.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C. Follow him @aalatham. Eliora Hansonbrook is a researcher in the Political Science Department at Macalester College.



bottom of page