Hardly a day goes by without more pronouncements about China’s intent to remodel the world order.
“China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and the power to do it,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned. Beijing’s “clear goal is a systemic change of the international order with China at its center,” echoed Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission. “Together,” China and Brazil can “change world governance,” Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva promised.
Every move from Beijing is read as an attempt to further “China’s blueprint for an alternative world order,” as the Financial Times titled a recent article, and build “The World According to Xi” – a recent cover of The Economist. Not a week passes without prominent international relations scholars or a former world leader opining on what should be done to preserve the so-called “rules-based order” threatened by a revisionist China.
The evidence marshaled ranges from China’s own pronouncements about its ambition to usher a “new type of international relations” to its economic sway over most of the developing world, its achievements in enlarging China-centered groupings such as the BRICS or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), its indisputable surpassing of former peer powers such as Russia and India, the success of new diplomatic initiatives such as the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal, and the general decline in power and prestige of the West.
The main virtue of this narrative lies in its simplicity: China has risen to be a major power in the world, the story goes, and therefore wants its preferences and values reflected in the international order, much in the same way that the United States imposed its imprint on postwar institutions. That much is true. But the real question is how successful Beijing really is at building a new order, as opposed to chipping away at the old one.
There is no denying that China has considerably fleshed out its ambition to make its voice heard on the international stage. Since September 2021, Beijing has unveiled no less than three “Global Initiatives,” on, respectively, development, security, and civilization. Alongside the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) these now form the four pillars of President Xi Jinping’s “Community for a Shared Future” initiative, hailed by Beijing as a plan for “world peace and stability” and “a strong driving force for global development.”
Neither is China’s growing clout within the United Nations disputable. Beijing is the second largest contributor to the U.N. budget, and operates its own separate $200 million “Peace and Development Trust Fund” directly under the secretary general. Chinese nationals staff the highest echelons of the organizations, with positions such as under-secretary general for Economic and Social Affairs (ECOSOC) and director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). At the Security Council, Beijing is no longer shy about wielding its veto power and shaping the direction of debates by threatening to use it. And it is increasingly able to rally other member states in support of its positions: Last year it defeated a proposed resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council to examine allegations that crimes against humanity were being committed in Xinjiang.
Yet, the idea that China is therefore single-mindedly pursuing a coherent strategy couldn’t be further from the truth. Why? Because viewed at close range, Chinese diplomacy is in practice riven by contradictions, incoherence, and confusion.
Start with the role of the United Nations. A week before the opening of the U.N. General Assembly earlier this month, China issued a “Proposal on the Reform and Development of Global Governance,” which laid out an ambitious agenda for implementing “true multilateralism” by supporting the U.N. “in playing a central role in international affairs” and “increasing the voice of developing countries.” But at the General Assembly itself, Beijing chose to only send a third-rank official, while its chief diplomat Wang Yi was busy on a high-profile trip to Russia during which he met with Vladimir Putin.
China’s attitude toward the BRICS, a grouping initially comprised of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa that now represents over 40 percent of the world’s GDP, appears similarly inconsistent. Last month, at Beijing’s initiative, the group added six members (Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), in what the news agency Reuters predictably called “a move aimed at accelerating [China’s] push to reshuffle a world order.”
Xi attended the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, in person, delivering a major speech during which he assured that China was “ready to work with BRICS and deepen cooperation across the board.”
“No matter how the international situation changes,” he promised, “our commitment to cooperation since the very beginning and our common aspiration will not change.”
Yet, a few weeks later, Xi deliberately snubbed the G-20 Summit hosted by India, despite BRICS members accounting for over a third of the G-20 membership and a summit agenda that echoed many of their concerns.
It is equally difficult to make sense of China’s much vaunted self-portrayal as a champion of the Global South. On the one hand Beijing has undoubtedly invested considerable diplomatic and economic capital with developing countries across the world, and never misses an opportunity to reaffirm that China is itself a developing country.
“China is the world’s largest developing nation and a natural member of the Global South,” Li Xi, Xi Jinping’s personal representative, told a meeting of the Group of 77, a 135 member-strong coalition of developing countries that met in Cuba during the U.N. General Assembly. “No matter what stage of development it reaches,” he added, “China will always be part of the developing world.”
But what then should Global South members make of Xi Jinping’s vision of an ever-closer partnership with Russia? “Right now, there are changes, the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years,” he memorably told his Russian counterpart as he stood on the steps of the Kremlin at the conclusion of his state visit in March 2023. “When we are together, we can drive these changes.” This emphasis on a leading global affairs as a Sino-Russian duo appears starkly at odds with promises to build “true multilateralism” with the Global South and denunciations of how “unilateralism and hegemonism are becoming rampant.”
And while China’s economy has benefited handsomely from increased trade with Russia, and as the top importer of grain from Ukraine under the U.N.-backed “Black Sea Initiative” scheme, developing countries with whom Beijing pledges solidary have been hit by food insecurity and a sharp deterioration of economic conditions as a result of Moscow’s invasion.
A clear-eyed look at China’s conduct on the diplomatic stage yields numerous similar contradictions and inconsistencies. China needs to present a “lovable” face to the world, Xi Jinping exhorted, but its foreign policy remains dominated by “wolf warrior” diplomacy, a combination of bluster, disinformation, and invectives, initially limited to social media but now common in diplomatic settings too.
France’s heavyweight status in Europe warranted the most meticulous scenography for its President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to China. But China’s most vociferous and universally disliked diplomat, Lu Shaye, was Beijing’s choice for the ambassadorship in Paris.
Xi Jinping picked Qin Gang as foreign minister, a position he had been groomed for through a posting as ambassador to the United States. Seven months later, Qin fell from grace and inexplicably vanished, leaving foreign diplomats scratching their heads. The list goes on.
Yet all these incoherencies pale compared to the fundamental contradiction that has now reached the heart of China’s foreign policy: its previously sacrosanct attachment to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Since its establishment in 1949, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has always made these principles the cornerstone of its diplomacy, in part as a reflection of China’s bitter history as a victim of Western and Japanese imperialist encroachments in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“Sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected and safeguarded. This is a basic norm of international relations that embodies the purposes of the U.N. Charter. It is also the consistent, principled position of China,” stressed Foreign Minister Wang Yi on February 19, 2022, as Russian troops massed along Ukraine’s border. “And that applies equally to Ukraine.”
Nonetheless, the following week Beijing jettisoned the preeminence of these principles and defended Moscow’s actions, in the name of “legitimate security concerns” – a term that has no basis in international law or under the U.N. Charter. Beijing’s initial intention was clear: condemning Western security alliances that both Moscow and Beijing see as a threat to their security and, in the case of China, to its ambitions over Taiwan. But this has come at the cost of China’s long-standing position regarding the international order.
China has now effectively posited the existence of “legitimate security concerns” (合理安全关切, actually better translated as “reasonable security concerns”) as valid exceptions to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity across all its diplomacy, from the U.N. Security Council to its Global Security Initiative. And this without providing any indication about what exactly qualifies as a “legitimate security concern.” Who is to decide what is “legitimate”? According to what criteria? On what legal basis? To anyone paying attention, the clumsy way in which China has chosen to justify Moscow’s aggression has opened a Pandora’s box of major collective security issues.
In fact, it is hard to see how any country would trade the relative security of the U.N. Charter system and international law for a Chinese world order in which their territorial sovereignty would be qualified by unspecified “legitimate security concerns” any other country may have. In other words, China can either try to rally countries to its positions about global governance, as it asserts with increasing forcefulness, or it can push for a vision of a new international regime of diminished territorial sovereignty. Promoting both at the same time, as China is currently doing, is plainly incoherent.
“What we’re experiencing now is more than a test of the post-Cold War order,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken cautioned ahead of this year’s U.N. General Assembly. “It’s the end of it.” This is an exaggeration. Beijing is certainly determined to undermine some of its tenets, so as to make the international system even more accommodating to non-democratic regimes. But if China’s current foreign policy is anything to go by, disorder, rather than a new Chinese world order, is the most likely outcome. No matter how hard fixing the existing multilateral system may seem, it is still the best offer on the table.