China’s alternative world order leaves Europe a choice

Guest post by Liselotte Odgaard

China is pursuing an alternative to Western political order based on absolutist state sovereignty and a non-military and non-political approach to global governance and development. As international norms become more regional and fractured, European states may end up choosing between two competing visions as individuals, not a cohesive European unit.

The world order of the 21st century can be described as an order of coexistence. Coexistence entails co-management of global security by great powers with different programs for world order. The conflicting demands of great powers are accommodated through policy coordination to preserve peace and stability. This type of order neither presupposes extensive cooperation nor precludes conflict. Rather, it means that conflicts can be resolved without requiring extensive integration between states or agreement on universal principles of international conduct based on the same set of values. Cooperation is limited to situations where conflicting great power interests necessitate conflict management to avoid the use of force.

This order of coexistence is driven by China’s pursuit of global political great power status. China has the status of a would-be great power that falls short of possessing the capabilities necessary for full-blown great power status. China has all the problems of a development state such as corruption, insufficient health care, pollution, extensive poverty, contaminated food, malfunctioning infrastructure, etc. In addition, China has no alliance system, and so China’s ability to use military capabilities offshore is limited, even if military modernization is progressing fast. China pursues an order of coexistence in the sense that it aspires to define the rules of the game of international politics. In this way, Beijing is able to determine the foreign policy choices that are open to other international actors without spending inordinate economic and military resources. China’s pursuit of coexistence allows China to become a maker rather than a taker of international order. It also helps China to focus on its social and economic development.

China’s program for world order involves four types of practices:

  1. Promoting the non-use of force in global security management.
  2. Pursuing social and economic development by assisting governments who effectively control territory without political demands.
  3. Supporting the role in conflict management of regional and functional organizations recognized by the UN system.
  4. Defending the fundamental status of absolute sovereignty in international law.

China’s version of world order receives support in many developing states looking for alternatives to the liberal integrationist aspirations of the West. This support justifies China’s status as a global political-diplomatic great power.

Where does China’s attempt to revise the existing world order leave Europe? To a large extent, this depends on Washington’s response. In particular, continued US willingness to pursue an increased role for civil and political rights in global security management determines if the West remains a coherent grouping with a common value-based, integration-oriented program for world order. The 2011 Libya intervention may provide clues to the future. On the one hand, despite the difficulties of contributing to civil and political rights regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, the West continues to pursue humanitarian intervention. On the other hand, European leadership in the military intervention in Libya implies that the West supports calls for regionalization of global security management that has formed part of China’s program for world order for some time. Moreover, Germany’s agreement with China’s abstention on UNSC Resolution 1973 due to unwillingness to authorize the use of force in Libya indicates that the dividing lines between those countries supporting an integrationist order and those supporting a coexistence-style order are becoming more and more blurred.

This development does not indicate a merger between the US- and Chinese-led programs for world order. Instead, it implies the necessity of increasing regionalization in the absence of one coherent set of principles that universally define right and wrong conduct. The problems of economic, political and military coherence that currently pervade Europe coupled with decreasing US engagement in security management in Europe’s neighborhood suggest that the incentives in Europe to redirect national interests towards either the US or China are stronger than incentives to consolidate European cooperation. The tendency towards regionalization may therefore result in the fragmentation of Europe as a coherent decision-making entity.

Liselotte Odgaard is an associate professor specializing in Asia-Pacific security and China studies at the Royal Danish Defence College and the author of China and Coexistence: Beijing’s National Security Strategy for the Twenty-First Century. This post was originally published by, an online foreign policy think tank connecting experts and the interested public for informed policy debates. 

(The views expressed in this guest post belong to the author and in no way reflect the official opinion of the JHU Press.)