A meeting hailed as a chance to “air divisive issues” and stabilize relations between the United States and China quickly devolved into finger-pointing and recriminations by officials on both sides, spelling trouble for a relationship increasingly defined by hostility and conflict.
Addressing a group of high-level Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska on March 18, Secretary of State Antony Blinken excoriated Chinese officials for actions that “threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability.” Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi reciprocated with accusations of condescension and interference in China’s internal affairs.
Blinken’s characterization of China as a threat to a “rules-based order” echoes his administration’s language in its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance released March 3, as well as the Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy, which labeled China an existential threat to the U.S.-led, “free and open” world order.
While the Biden administration’s China policy has improved somewhat on the Trump administration’s approach by highlighting the need for U.S. domestic reform and admitting the need for cooperation with China in some areas, its embrace of this conception of the international system, or “world order,” and the U.S. and Chinese relationships to it is overly simplistic — and dangerously misleading.
This rhetoric reflects Washington’s tendency to imagine the current world order as a monolithic, liberal system of mutually-reinforcing laws, norms, institutions, and alliances, upheld by the United States and its allies. In this view, states like China and Russia seek to overthrow this order and replace it with one that is more lawless and repressive.
But this is deeply misleading. No such version of a world order has ever existed, nor has the relationship of the United States — or its adversaries — to the present order ever been so simple. And this misconception is perilous. Vastly overstating the nature of China’s challenge to the current “world order” stands to hinder vital U.S.-China cooperation on issues like climate change, fuel a massive and harmful overreaction in American foreign policy, and in the worst case could force China to assume a more aggressive and revisionist posture than it otherwise would.
Instead of adopting this dangerous course, the administration should recognize the reality of world order: that it is in fact a series of separate and sometimes contradictory orders, governing areas from trade, to arms control, to international humanitarian law. Like the United States, China has varying relationships with each of these orders, as Alastair Iain Johnston of Harvard University writes — upholding some, while rejecting or seeking to change others.
This understanding creates a more nuanced and accurate picture of China’s challenge. It better enables the United States to identify areas where it can cooperate with China to strengthen particular orders, where it may need to negotiate compromise with China and other states that adequately protects all parties’ bottom lines, and where it must push back on China’s influence.
Climate change, for instance, is an area that demands a cooperative international regime for both decarbonization and disaster relief and mitigation. It is one where collaboration with China is readily possible. China has recently positioned itself as a leader on climate, upholding the Paris Agreement and adopting a goal of carbon neutrality by 2060. As the world’s two largest economies, the United States and China can lead by adopting even more ambitious goals for decarbonization, and can provide financial and technology assistance to developing countries to accelerate their transition to carbon neutrality and build their climate resilience.
Similarly, in the international development regime, China is creating new institutions and initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative, but there is room for Washington and Beijing to coordinate productively in those contexts.
In other regimes, such as freedom of navigation, there is room for the United States, China, and other countries to negotiate compromise agreements to clarify existing ambiguity in international law. To support its global naval primacy, the United States asserts a maximal version of freedom of navigation, insisting that military vessels have the right to “fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.” Washington interprets the extent of that right more expansively than most countries in the Indo-Pacific region, including many U.S. allies and partners.
Despite U.S. rhetoric, China is not seeking to threaten freedom of navigation for commercial vessels, upon which its economy heavily depends. Even in the military realm, China, like the United States, is increasingly dependent on freedom of navigation for its own warships operating farther from its shores. If the United States were to reduce the tempo of its surveillance operations along China’s coast and freedom of navigation operations near disputed South China Sea islands, China would likely express stronger support for military freedom of navigation given its own growing naval power. Meanwhile, Washington and Beijing could work with other countries throughout the Indo-Pacific to reach a compromise understanding about the rights of foreign military vessels in exclusive economic zones.
Of course, China’s approach to other aspects of the law of the sea regime related to marine resources is more revisionist. This is most evident in its ill-defined claim to historic rights in the South China Sea and its claim to resources in vast swaths of ocean space around groups of small disputed offshore islands. These excessive claims merit pushback, but the United States should follow ASEAN’s lead in calling for the South China Sea disputes to be resolved in accordance with UNCLOS, rather than conducting unilateral freedom of navigation operations that risk destabilizing the situation.
Finally, in the global regimes related to human rights and domestic governance, the United States should counter China’s influence by deepening its engagement to strengthen and reform those regimes. In regimes that are not yet fully formed, such as internet governance, China is trying to shape norms in ways that favor state sovereignty and control. The United States should vigorously defend its own prerogatives and priorities in this regime — some of which it has yet to sort out at a domestic level, but which ought to entail a more open and less government-dominated approach to internet governance.
In other areas where China is acting as a conservative power resisting liberal norm revision, such as with its resistance to the “responsibility to protect” norm, the United States should emphasize the need for the international community to work together to respond to gross humanitarian violations. At the same time, Washington should recognize that its heavy use of economic sanctions to punish human rights abuses and its militarized humanitarian interventions not only often cause direct unintended humanitarian harm, but also have the predictable consequence of strengthening resistance to such liberal norm revision. If Washington desires to strengthen liberal human rights norms, it ought to adopt a more liberal diplomacy-centric approach that relies on soft power and modeling, in lieu of economic and military coercion.
As the United States seeks to adapt to a more multipolar global system and an increasingly powerful and important China, it should avoid the both inaccurate and harmful portrayal of China as a threat to the overall world order. A more fine-grained understanding and less Manichean rhetoric will help the United States make better strategy — avoiding Cold War-style competition, while identifying where to focus our efforts in both working with and against the Chinese government.