Discussing China and Global Norms with Rosemary Foot
Image Credit: University of Oxford

Discussing China and Global Norms with Rosemary Foot


The bilateral relationship between the United States and China holds great potential for global stability and development. But national interests and fundamental differences limit the extent to which change can collectively be pursued. Global norms, and how and by whom they are shaped, say a lot about the dynamic of international relations and the direction in which the world order is headed. In an interview with The Diplomat, Rosemary Foot analyzes China’s ability to influence global norms against the backdrop of U.S.-China relations, global governance, and more. Foot is a Professor at Oxford University and an expert in areas such as China’s regional diplomacy and U.S.-China relations.

The Diplomat: How has China’s engagement in global governance evolved in the last decades?

Rosemary Foot: China’s participation in global governance institutions advanced substantially after the start of “reform and opening” and with the normalization in 1979 of relations with the United States. But Beijing’s ability and willingness to engage fully with these institutions and at times to reshape them has increased markedly in the last few years and even more so under the presidency of Xi Jinping. In September 2016, for example, Xi described “global governance system reform” as the “trend of the times” and called for China to participate fully in those reform efforts.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

When it comes to the definition and reach of the state, how does the Chinese view differ from the Western view?

Chinese leaders regularly express a positive view of a state-led world order. They express a strong belief in the need to maintain the legal sovereign equality of nations; they believe that if we want to have well-governed societies and a well-governed world society, the strong state needs to play the paramount role. It is a paternalistic view of the state and of state institutions and represents a reluctance to recognize that other actors in domestic and transnational society have legitimate ideas that can contribute to the well-being of the state, of society, and of global order. It also fails to acknowledge that states, or at least the governments of some states, may be the source of disorder, abuse, and neglect. The Western view tends to be more inclusive and accommodative of non-state viewpoints.

For the U.S. and China, when does compliance with global norms and institutions seem to be the strongest and weakest?

This is difficult to answer in a straightforward way because it implies that global norms and institutions are unproblematic, clear-cut constructions. Yet there are conflicting norms in global society; norms can be complex and layered, thus providing the opportunity for different interpretations to emerge and for a certain amount of cherry-picking among the components of a norm. Bearing this in mind, in my 2011 book with Andrew Walter, we concluded, on the basis of an investigation into U.S. and Chinese behavior towards five economic and security norms, that where global norms have a high policy impact at the domestic level, the level of challenge to those global norms depends on the degree of “fit” between global norms and dominant domestic level norms. Where the levels of fit are high, we see behavioral consistency; where it is lower, then there is more challenging behavior. In policy areas where the levels of intrusiveness at the domestic level are lower, then we argue that other factors come to the fore to explain behavior, including the perceived degree of international consensus behind a global norm, the perceived procedural and substantive legitimacy of the norm, and finally the implications that a particular policy norm has for the relationship between the United States and China.

Why does the U.S.-led transatlantic order have an advantage in global-norm setting and how is China getting more influential in this respect?

At the end of World War II, the United States and its allies (but as recent scholarship has shown, with important inputs from states outside of the Western sphere) played major roles in setting up the UN system, the Bretton Woods institutions, and international treaty rules based on a commitment to multilateralism, and so on. China is now seeking to increase its voice within these institutions, has set up some additional institutions such as the AIIB [Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank] and the BRICS development bank, and is supporting the idea of the G20 as the major economic management institution. If the concept of emerging powers means anything, it means a larger role for these states within these newer and older institutions, with China in particular – and especially in light of its economic strength – playing a more influential role.

How has the United Nations influenced Beijing in adopting global norms and best practices, and how is China using its engagement in the United Nations to influence norm-setting?

The United Nations has been very important in influencing Chinese behavior. For example, China changed its attitude towards UN peacekeeping in the 1980s and now plays a major role in those operations; it participated fully in deliberations connected with the millennium development goals and later in the negotiations for the subsequent sustainable development goals; it signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in 1992 in part because many UN members had already signed up to this initiative, including all other Permanent Members of the UN Security Council. Chinese officials often state that the UN is the world’s most authoritative and representative global institution and needs to be supported for those reasons. Of course that is not unconnected with the fact that China enjoys special status within the UN Security Council as well as veto power. It uses that special position to influence and shape the agenda of the Security Council, the resolutions that it puts forward, and the way that new and old treaties and norms should be conceived, interpreted and implemented.

How does the relationship between the U.S. and China affect the way in which Beijing is able to reshape the world order and global norms?

I think both China and the United States regard their mutual relationship as the most important state-to-state relationship in world politics. Thus, when they are able to work together (as, for example, in their recent joint statement on matters of climate change, or on the Iranian nuclear issue, or on sanctions resolutions that relate to the North Korean nuclear issue) they underline the importance of this bilateral relationship for world order and their role as the “great responsibles” – as IR scholar Hedley Bull once put it – in world politics. But China is sometimes tempted to hold back on levels of support on issues of major importance to the United States where that holding back can improve China’s bargaining power, or advance China’s relative power vis-a-vis the United States. More recently, high-level Chinese officials have returned to the language of “the international balance of power” as a key factor shaping world politics, including global governance arrangements. This is regrettable because such language can lead to a failure to conceive of issues such as humanitarian disasters, protection of the oceans and polar regions, or of outer space, as matters in which we all have a collective stake in seeing them properly and fairly managed or resolved. Instead it represents an approach to world order that examines collective, shared fate issues through the lens of a contest with the United States.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief