Liberalism and the Rise of China

"Liberalism" is a word with sometimes contradictory meanings. In international relations, it refers to a school of thought that supports internationalism: free trade, international institutions and laws, and, by association, the decline of realism, with its concepts of power, national interests, and the nation-state in a world of anarchy. The United States, many or most European states, and other "western" countries like Canada and Australia are, more or less, liberal powers (though all of them bow to the exigencies of realpolitik when they deem it necessary). China, too, is liberal, at least in the sense of free trade. It was quick to understand the benefits and reap the rewards of free trade. On foreign relations, however, China is decidedly realist.

While the EU and the U.S. often make trade and aid agreements contingent on certain human rights standards being met, China relates with other states as it suits it, largely ignoring what is going on within those states. Pakistan and Sri Lanka are two excellent examples. China has helped Pakistan build several nuclear reactors, even though China's membership of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) means it has a responsibility to prevent the proliferation of nuclear technology that could be used in weapons and is barred from providing nuclear assistance of any kind to non-members of the treaty (such as Pakistan). Admittedly, this is partly a response to America's bending of the rules (nonetheless the "proper way," by getting a legal exception to them passed) to do the same for India, Pakistan's arch rival and also a non-member of the NPT. (America did this largely because it sees China as a counterweight to India in the Indian Ocean and in the world.)

In Sri Lanka, China has been selling weapons at low prices and donating handsomely to infrastructure investment programs there, no strings attached. The U.S. and the EU had halted such activity after concerns arose about alleged war crimes being committed by government forces when fighting (and finally, after decades) defeating the Tamil Tigers, a separatist militia group. China's generosity has more than made up for the West's cutoff, so Sri Lanka was unconcerned about the West's threats. Will the West have any influence anymore?

The difficulty with liberalism is that it requires worldwide cooperation (at least until a world authority, replete with legislative, executive, and judicial institutions arises to run and enforce things, a simultaneously Utopian- and somewhat frightening-sounding idea). Even one systemically important straggler can bring the liberal system to its knees. During the world's brief "unipolar moment," in which the fall of the USSR has left the United States the world's only "hyperpower," this has been less problematic. The U.S. has had the resources and the lack of opposition necessary to push for such cooperation. However, this has never been a complete success, and unipolarity is ending (aided in part by a broad interpretation of U.S. goals leading to overstretch of its resources). China is on the rise, India and Brazil are possible future Great Powers, and Russia is insistent on not being forgotten. Economically, the EU is a Great Power, but it lacks the political, foreign policy, and military unity to have a real enforcement-related presence in the world. As the center of economic and military gravity shifts away from the U.S. and the EU (in relative terms), it will be increasingly harder for the West to make sanctions stick if other powers do not cooperate. It will also become ever harder to cajole them into cooperation.

The question that presents itself is: how much longer will it make sense to attach strings to aid and trade? If the strings mean both are turned down, and the presence of generous, no-strings-attached opportunities from elsewhere means the deals are not effective in shaping the world, then what is the point? The passed-over deals would benefit China and other realist opportunists and hurt the U.S. and the EU. At some point, concern about this loss of influence, and about China's rising military and economic might, will cause a shift to more realism in foreign and economic policy.

Realists are not prescriptive. It's not that they think things should be this way, it's that they assess that they are, whether or not we like it. In such circumstances, unfortunately, sometimes looking out for one's own interests, narrowly defined, is the best anyone can do. This will likely be the future of the world in the coming decades.


  1. Looking back, I may have been too negative. It is also possible that China will begin to attach strings to aid and trade as well, in line with the sentiments in the current world order. After all, China has supported sanctions (slowly and cautiously) against Iran, North Korea, and, now, Libya's Gadaffi. These strings will often not be the type that the West would like to see, however. Specifically, being undemocratic, China will certainly not put as much weight on democracy promotion, making this more difficult in the future.

    Unless China becomes a democracy? Predicting the future is always risky. In international relations, it's neigh absurd. Still, I think I've given it a good shot.


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