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China and the USA: cooperation or conflict?
China and the USA: cooperation or conflict?

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6.3 International order

Another area of debate you have touched on concerns China’s integration into, or opposition to, established arenas and institutions of international cooperation. As commentators in both the United States and China note, much of this institutional order is Western in origin and liberal in character. Does China want to utilise its increasing influence to change existing rules and norms in the international arena to better suit its priorities? Statements such as that by Zheng Bijian (Section 2) suggest a recognition that China does seek some changes to that order even if he is at pains to claim this will be incremental and democratic. Others aren’t so sure and think that China’s authoritarian political system will lead to a less liberal as well as less Western international order in the future. Speaking of an ‘axis of authoritarianism’ consisting of China, Russia and regionally powerful states such as Iran and Venezuela, Gideon Rachman argued:

The axis of authoritarianism shares a distinctive approach to the world that contrasts sharply with liberal attitudes … A world in which the authoritarian powers wield considerably more influence looks very different from the years 1991–2008, when the world order was informally based on two central facts – American power and globalization.

(2010, p. 239)

Against this view are those who suggest that the preferences of the West and China are not so opposed. On economic questions, China clearly poses a different kind of problem for the United States (and other Western countries) than China and the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. Unlike then, China’s post-1978 strategy has been based on integration into, not separation from, the international economy (Bromley, 2009). This has encouraged China to make some moves to become more closely involved in existing structures of economic governance like the WTO, which it joined in 2001, and the G20. Furthermore as John Ikenberry (2008) argues (Section 2), many international institutions governing economic, military and cultural matters are already in existence. China therefore now has a choice as to whether to join (and maybe seek reforms in due course) or not. In his view, there are powerful mutual gains to be had from joining and significant costs to challenging the established order.

Such considerations lead you back into the more general assessments of the relative place of China and the United States in the international system, and what China’s rise may presage for your understanding of that system, which you saw at the beginning of this free course. But by now you should have a deeper understanding of some of the concepts and tools analysts of international relations use to study the prospects for cooperation or conflict.