China’s surprise request:Change the rules of international order

August 25, 2020 08:03
Photo: Reuters

A series of Chinese officials, including the country’s top diplomat, have recently called on the United States for talks to halt the unraveling of the relationship and to pave the way to stable, mutually beneficial ties in the future.

Recently, Ambassador Cui Tiankai said in Washington that China wasn’t waiting for the outcome of the November election but was ready to talk now.

The ambassador’s speech, made at a Brookings Institution webinar, was highly interesting in that he posed a challenge to Washington. “Is the United States ready to accommodate China,” he asked, “and live with a country with a different history, culture and system?”

In fact, the Chinese official asked for much more than just acceptance. He asked the United States to change the international order that it fashioned after World War II and has led since then in order to accommodate China.

“As a major country with an ancient civilization,” the ambassador said, “China’s integration would inevitably bring changes to the international system, which needs to make adjustments accordingly. This is only logical and natural, like a kind of chemical reaction.”

Of course, after more than 70 years, there is undoubtedly need for reform in certain areas, such as the much discussed expansion of the United Nations Security Council. But that, apparently, is not what China has in mind.
It seems that China is calling for change in the international system specifically to accommodate itself. This is odd, considering that it joined the United Nations half a century ago and, in the meantime, has joined just about every important world body, including the World Trade Organization.

Ambassador Cui said reassuringly that China’s intention “is not to have a revolution or start up an entirely new system,” but its hope was that “the system could make necessary reforms.” He did not spell out what changes China wants. Presumably, that will come later if the United States should agree to such talks, a highly doubtful prospect.

The ambassador asked if the United States and other countries would work with China and other countries to “ensure that the international order and global system will meet the needs of the entire international community.” In this context, “the entire international community” clearly means the inclusion of China and its supporters.

The alternative, the ambassador said, would be for the United States to “remain obsessed with zero-sum game and major-power competition” and fall into the “Thucydides Trap,” alluding to the theory that war is virtually inevitable between a rising power like China and the existing hegemon, namely the United States. This, he said, is a “fundamental choice for the United States” to make.

But why does China need special accommodation? Already, the country has inordinate influence in international bodies. In the United Nations Security Council, China is one of five veto-wielding powers.

Even in other UN agencies, its influence is close to being unsurpassed. For example, last month when the Human Rights Council discussed China’s imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong, Britain made a statement critical of China on behalf of 27 countries. But when Cuba made a statement supporting China, 53 countries associated themselves with it. Does that suggest that China needs special help?

Moreover, of the 15 specialized agencies of the United Nations, Chinese nationals lead four of them. No other country heads more than one agency. China recently tried to gain control of a fifth agency but failed.

In fact, whenever China or any country joins an international body, it promises to abide by its rules. Now, why should China demand the right to change the rules if the world wants China to stay? Where is the logic in that?

Let’s take one concrete example, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into effect in 1982. China signed the convention in 1982 and, in 1996, ratified the treaty. Now, more than three decades later, it apparently wants to rewrite the convention to justify its territorial claims in the South China Sea. That is because the convention, as signed by China and other states, doesn’t allow claims based on so-called historical rights.

In 2016, an arbitral tribunal set up under UNCLOS dealt with dueling claims by the Philippines and China. The tribunal decided that China’s claims to historical rights were “contrary to the convention.” China has refused to be bound by this finding.

Stripped of its verbiage, what China is saying comes down to this: “I won’t leave the current international order to set up my own if you will let me control it.” But demanding the right to change the rules isn’t what a rules-based order is about.

-- Contact us at [email protected]

Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.