Debating China and International Order

Conference participants included scholars from from Australia, mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, United Kingdom, Canada and the United States exchange views at the Debating China and international order conference.

By Diego LeivaSchool of Government and International Relations

Professor Ned Pankhurst opens the conference with warm welcome to participants.

On 17th and 18th of January 2018, the Griffith Asia Institute, with generous support of the The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, hosted a conference on “Debating China and International Order: Contending Perspectives on the Rise of China”. Leading scholars from Australia, mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, United Kingdom, Canada and the United States debated and exchanged views on what the rise of China means for international order. Griffith University’s Senior Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Ned Pankhurst and the Co-PIs of the MacArthur project “How China Sees the World” Professor Kai He and Dr Huiyun Feng opened the conference with warm welcome and an introduction to the MacArthur Project.

The participants approached the conference theme from different theoretical and empirical lenses. Kai He and Huiyun Feng’s paper on “international order” provided the basic conceptual basis for the discussion. Their definition of international order unpacked the “international order” into three levels (norm-based, power-based, and rules-based) and three issue-areas (security, political and economic). They argued that China may only challenge the US-led international order in the economic arena, but not on other issue areas.

Norms, culture and history

Two panels looked at China’s challenges in regards to norms, culture and history. Yuan-kang Wang (Western Michigan University) proposed a definition combining rules and norms into institutions and he tested two historical cases in East Asia’s regional order change, i.e., the Ming-Qing transition (1616-1683) and the Westphalian system after the Opium War (1839-42). Fangyin Zhou (Guangdong Foreign Studies University) presents another historical case of the Ming Dynasty, emphasising how different emperors’ roles influenced China’s foreign policy behaviour in history. Haig Patapan (Griffith University) chaired the panel and Andrew Phillips (University of Queensland) served as discussant.

Etel Solingen Chaired another panel with Baogang He (Deakin University) as discussant, which emphasises ideas, norms and culture in shaping international order. Mark Beeson (Western Australian University), questioned China’s “ideational influence” as an important element in the underlying structural transformation of the international system. Chih-yu Shih (National Taiwan University) further unpacked the concept of “Tianxia” and the different ontological understanding of Tianxia and its implications. Sun Jisheng (China Foreign Affairs University) focused on the relevance of Chinese traditional values and ideas, and how they influence the Chinese perceptions of international order as well as China’s foreign policy behaviour, particularly after the 19th Party Congress.

Institutions and global governance

(L to R) Professor Jisheng Sun, Professor Steve Walker, Professor Kai He and Emeritus Professor Prof Colin Mackerras.

Liberalist scholars argued that China’s rise is benefiting significantly from the existing order, therefore, China’s rise may not change the international liberal order. Colin Mackerras (Griffith University) chaired a panel engaging the liberal arguments on global governance and institutions, with Etel Solingen (UC Irvine) as discussant. Shiping Tang (Fudan University) predicted that the future of the current international order in which it will become less West-centric, more bottom-up, and more regionalised and fragmented. Xinbo Wu’s (Fudan University) paper argued that the existing liberal hegemonic order is essentially an American-led and Western-centred one, and that China will search for a “liberal partnership order”, preserving and even expanding the liberal features of the current one. China will then pursue incremental adjustments and not a drastic overrun of the order. Bradley Thayer (Oxford University) emphasised the significance of US primacy and proposed a “Primacy 2.0” grand strategy to address the China threat. He stressed that the United States should simultaneously reaffirm its commitment to the liberal world order, balance against Chinese influence, and directly challenge the Beijing Consensus by touting Western values.

Another panel chaired by Bates Gill (Macquarie University), with Jeffrey Wilson (Murdoch University) as main discussant, focused on China’s leadership and its role in global economic governance. Xiaoyu Pu (University of Nevada) emphasised the “Trump factor” and the impact of its inward looking perspective on the international order. He stated that China’s more active role in global governance was not necessarily a challenge to the existing order, stating that Beijing could even co-lead the order. Xiao Ren (Fudan University) suggested that throughout the past 40 years of reform and opening-up, China was mainly shaped by the existing institutions –or the rules— and is now shifting to help to shape a new global economic governance. Etel provided a comparison of China now with Germany before World War I from a domestic perspective. Her presentation suggested that the internal dynamics and domestic differences might not direct China onto Germany’s choice.

Power transition and regional order

Tapping into the current popular realist argument of the “Thucydides’s Trap,” the two realist panels discussed the power transition and its impact on regional order. Andrew O’Neil (Griffith University) chaired a panel with William Tow (Australian National University) as discussant.  Mingjing Li (RSIS, Nanyang Technological University) analysed the possible impacts of the Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) on China’s relation with Southeast Asia but suggested that China would not be able to fundamentally transform regional strategic order. T.V. Paul (McGill University), emphasised the importance of considering the Indo – Pacific region in the analysis, as China’s power will be balanced and contained by other powerful actors, and that China’s rise is unlikely to produce a hierarchical or a typical balance of power system in the Indo – Pacific region.  Xuefeng Sun (Tsinhua University) suggested a “partial hierarchical” order with the US as the dominant superpower in regional security hierarchy, along with other regional self-help states (i.e. China and Vietnam).

(L. to R.) Professor Shiping Tang, Fudan University, Professor Etel Solingen, University of California Irvine, Dr Bradley Thayer,University of Oxford, Professor Xinbo Wu, Fudan University

Stephen Walker (Arizona State University) chaired a panel with Bates Gill as discussant targeting directly Graham Allison’s recent work on the “Thucydides’s trap”. Steve Chan (University of Colorado), opened the debate by questioning the concept, and its main claim that when a rising power catches up to an incumbent hegemon, the danger of war between them increases. Chan challenged the theoretical foundation and the logic, as well as the scholarly contribution of the work, cautioning its misleading impact on Sino – American relations. Feng Liu (Nankai University), echoed Chan’s critique on misreading historical records of great power interactions and suggested that a relative peaceful transition was highly possible because the two contemporary great powers would try their best to manage a series of risks, escalations, and non-militarised conflicts in their geopolitical rivalry. David Welch (University of Waterloo) joined the debate, arguing four main points:

  • this metaphor misread Thucydides;
  • it would not apply to the current US – China case even if it did not misread Thucydides;
  • it distracted our attention from alternative pathways to Sino – American conflict that were indeed worrisome; and
  • it was dangerous, because policymakers might believe it.

The Conference was closed with Kai He and Stephen Walker’s final remarks on how to proceed with an edited volume. The two-day conference was a success with broad discussions, debates, and conversations. The outcome of the conference will provide a major contribution to scholarly debate in the fields of China’s international relations as well as IR theory in general.

Photos from the conference can be found at the Griffith Asia Institute facebook page.

More information about the How China sees the World project can be found online.