Grappling with a more Multilateralist China

The intellectual coverage accorded to China from the IR, IPE, Global Governance and Internatlonal Security scholarly communities has considerably increased our knowledge of Beijing’s international overtures over the past two decades. Despite this, we are not better off when it comes to understanding what exactly Beijing is trying to achieve within the international order. Many claim it is trying to rewrite, overthrow, restructure, reform the order in its favour. The problem lies in the paucity of empirical work on China’s behaviour within multilateral institutions. Notwithstanding some important works, notably Alastair Iain Johnston’s Social States, there comes now some more work on China’s multilateral behaviour.

Rosemary Foot (Oxford) has published two recent articles that furnish us with a more micro-understanding of Beijing’s behaviour within specific multilateral venues. The first article published in the recent Asian Survey looks at China’s approach and manoeuvring in the recently established UN Human Rights Council from the erstwhile UN Council of Human Rights. Foot and Inboden present a narrative that describes China’s gradualist and pragmatic approach in the institutional design of the new forum and how Beijing cultivated and co-opted its Asian partners not through direct inducements but by negotiating and forging a common stand on matters where their norms have shown to converge. As they argue below:

‘China benefitted from the presence of many like-minded states in the Council; Asian developing countries and other states within this grouping are in relatively close alignment with China on human rights issues. The human rights issue does not split neatly into democracies versus non-democracies, but more into the West versus the developing world.’

What this indicates is that China will invest political capital within multilateral settings and institutions on matters they deeply care about and appear to be more status-quoesque than revisionist when it comes to particular matters, like human rights. And this clashes with commentaries that point to a more revisionist China.

The second article was published in this September’s International Affairs looks at China’s enthusiasm with the UN’s peacekeeping arm.  Foot argues that, under Xi in particular, Beijing has asserted itself in the peacekeeping sphere, with contributions in combat forces, engineering troops, police and medical units. Also, Beijing has doubled its peacekeeping budget. Why? Foot argues that the UN’s setup and organisational advantages are compatible with and underscore China as one of the many sovereign states. Hierarchy is eschewed, on paper. Also, the UN serves as a workable mechanism where China, through its financing and institutional preferences, can advance and work to institutionalise certain norms with respect to governance and economic development. On the peacekeeping and development assistance front, China has worked to strengthen the writ and capacity of the state within target nations such that they can then be relied on to be the principal arbiters and decision-makers. Sovereignty matters. Going ahead, as countries and the multilateral system rely more on China, it will be interesting to see this normative clash and contestation play out in the context of liberal international norms and rules that have governed the order since 1945.

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