China’s Vision of World Order

China's Vision of World Order

by Thomas Fingar
September 13, 2012

This chapter examines three sets of factors that shape Chinese thinking and actions with respect to world order and examines the possible contours and implications of the order China may seek.


This chapter examines three sets of factors that shape Chinese thinking and actions with respect to world order and examines the possible contours and implications of the order China may seek.


China has benefited from the liberal international order led by the U.S. However, China is uncomfortable with aspects of the current system and will seek to change them as part of a broader effort to reform global institutions to reflect its perception of 21st-century realities. One set of shaping factors—China’s assessment of the current world order—identifies much that Chinese leaders would be reluctant to change because they want to continue to reap benefits without assuming greater burdens. A second set of factors includes traditional Chinese or Confucian concepts of world order. A third set of factors comprises the attitudes and actions of other countries. China’s rise has been achieved by accepting greater interdependence, and its ability to exert influence depends on the responses of other nations.

  • China appears to want to maintain most elements of the current global order, including U.S. leadership. But it also wants the U.S. to allow other nations, specifically China, to have a greater voice in decisions affecting the international system.
  • China is more interested in improving and establishing rules and institutions needed to meet 21st-century challenges than in wholesale replacement of existing mechanisms. This makes China a willing as well as necessary partner in the remaking of institutions to meet shared international challenges.
  • Despite incurring Beijing’s disapproval, the U.S. must continue to hedge against uncertainties by maintaining the collective security arrangements and institutions that have contributed to global stability and the security of individual nations.

If China had an opportunity to refashion the global order, what would it change and what would it seek to accomplish? The question is certainly premature because it will be a long time, if ever, before China has an opportunity to replace or restructure the liberal world order that has been established and led by the United States during the decades since World War II. [1] But many, inside and outside China, recognize that the current system is increasingly ill-suited for the challenges of today and tomorrow, and that China will have an important voice in deciding what to keep, what to replace, and what to reengineer. [2] That being the case, it is not at all premature to begin asking about China’s objectives and expectations with respect to a post-American world. This chapter relies more on inference and imagination than on discovery and analysis. Beijing has not published or even hinted at the existence of a vision statement, blueprint, or grand strategy for remaking the global order. [3] Desire to keep the plan secret probably is not the reason. A far more likely explanation is that there is no single specific Chinese plan or vision. Party, state, and military leaders, not to mention academics and “netizens,” appear to have significantly different views on what is desirable, what is possible, and how best to pursue particular objectives. [4] Views range from very cautious and pragmatic admonitions to eschew statements or actions that might jeopardize China’s ability to sustain rapid growth through participation in the existing world order, to jingoistic calls for China to speed the inevitable power transition to a Chinese-led world. [5] Rather than attempt to catalog, compare, and assess the relative strength of the various visions of world order discernible in the Chinese media and scholarly publications, the goal in this chapter is to explore factors that will shape Chinese views with respect to world order and the efforts China will make to change the existing system. [6]

The chapter first examines Chinese assessments of the current world order, focusing on its importance to China’s “rise” and on attributes that please and displease Chinese geopolitical thinkers. The next section speculates on the possible influence of traditional Chinese concepts of world order and preferences inferred from the nature of China’s political system and the interests of its ruling elite. The third section explores how other nations might perceive and respond to a China-dominant world order by examining China’s relations with its closest partners and Chinese foreign policy actions during 2010. The final two sections speculate about what to expect and the type of world order China is likely to seek in the foreseeable future…


[1] Stimulating recent works on the origins, character, and possible futures of the global order led and maintained by the United States include G. John Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011); Robert Kagan, The World America Made (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012); and Charles A. Kupchan, No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Tumult (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[2] See, for example, Kupchan, No One’s World, chapter 5; National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World, November 2008,; and National Intelligence Council, Global Governance 2025: At a Critical Juncture, September 2010, China’s interest in changing the existing system appears to be motivated by the recognition (shared with the United States and many other countries) that old arrangements are no longer adequate to manage the world they helped to create, by a desire to increase China’s influence in the system, and by an ability to use this influence to achieve Chinese objectives.

[3] See, for example, Wang Jisi, “China’s Search for a Grand Strategy: A Rising Great Power Finds Its Way,” Foreign Affairs 90, no. 2 (2011): 68–79; Aaron L. Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011); and Thomas Fingar, “China’s Rise: Contingency, Constraints, and Concerns,” Survival 54, no. 1 (2012): 195–204.

[4] See, for example, Linda Jakobson and Dean Knox, New Foreign Policy Actors in China (Solna: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2010),; and Chin-Hao Huang, “Assessing the Role of Foreign Policy Elites in China: Impact on Chinese Foreign Policy Formulation,” University of Southern California U.S.-China Institute, September 12, 2011,

[5] On power transitions, see, for example, Jack S. Levy, “Power Transition Theory and the Rise of China,” in China’s Ascent: Power, Security, and the Future of International Politics, ed. Robert Ross and Zhu Feng (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008), 11–33. See also Zhu Liqun, China’s Foreign Policy Debates (Paris: Institute for Security Studies, 2010),

[6] The existing global order is the product of both conscious design and decades of evolutionary adjustment. It has three principal subsystems: trade and finance, stability and security, and leadership and management. The subsystems are interconnected and, to a degree, interdependent. They and the operation of the system are characterized by John Ikenberry and others as “liberal” primarily because the trade and finance components seek to promote open markets and are relatively easy to join, and because U.S. leadership and management of the system allows for considerable diversity and independence. China, and now most other nations, likes the benefits and relatively low costs of participation in the trade and finance subsystem. Beijing understood when it decided to take advantage of the U.S.-led system that China’s ability to achieve rapid and sustained economic growth and modernization of the country was dependent on the maintenance of peace and stability. Beijing also recognized that its own security required acceptance, at least temporarily, of U.S. alliances, military deployments, and other arrangements considered important to the maintenance of peace and stability. The demise of the Soviet Union, however, reduced the perceived importance of the United States and its security arrangements and made them more objectionable to China. To take advantage of the trade-finance and peace-stability opportunities of participation in the international system, China also had to temporarily accept U.S. leadership and provision of services to maintain the system as a whole. In other words, China accepted the system as a whole because it wanted to take advantage of specific subsystems and opportunities. Changes in the world and in Chinese capabilities have caused some in China to demand—and many outside China to expect—Beijing to seek reforms to the stability and leadership subsystems.

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