China and Global Governance: Breaking Away or Pushing In?
By Fengshi Wu

China and Global Governance: Breaking Away or Pushing In?

Mar. 21, 2016  |     |  0 comments

Talk of a “rising China” as a candidate of “global power” and challenger of the existing neoliberal order has emerged in media and policy advocacy circles since the 2008 global financial crisis. However, it is Xi Jinping’s leadership and launching of a number of multilateral cooperation plans such as the New Development Bank (aka the BRICS Bank), the One Belt One Road initiative, the Free Trade Area of Asia Pacific Framework, and finally the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), that have definitively inflamed more serious debate over whether China will establish a set of new institutions and rules that will depart from the Bretton Woods system.

Evidence of a mentality shift among the top Chinese policy makers from Deng Xiaoping’s doctrine of “hiding brightness” (韬光养晦) to Xi’s own “striving with vigor” (奋发有为) and “great renaissance” (伟大复兴) is mounting, which suggests that China has the political will to do more in global affairs. However, before jumping into the tempting thought that China will do global governance a “make-over”, one needs to take a step back and examine the current status of China’s involvement in global governing institutions. One reason is that the realm of global governance since the end of World War II has been substantiated with dense networks of institutions, and the sunk cost for the world to entirely give it up is extremely high. The delayed and unremarkable reform of the United Nations (particularly the Security Council) is a case in point. The talk of China entirely leaving the existing system and “opening up a new house” (另起炉灶) with regard to global governance remains mostly Chinese domestic rhetoric rather than a feasible blueprint. Therefore, to better understand the evolving roles China will and can play in global governance in the coming decades, it is necessary to review China’s enhanced yet uneven participation in global and multilateral institutions, and to recognize that China has not been fully included in a few, though not many, important arenas of multilateral cooperation and governing regime building such as energy (oil and gas).

Active engagement with multilateral regulatory institutions has not always been China’s most favored approach in its foreign affairs. For example, China’s contribution to United Nations institutions (both monetary and personnel) is the least impressive among all middle range powers in world politics including India, Japan, Germany and Brazil up until the 2000s.

Since Beijing obtained its UN seat in 1971, the People’s Republic has joined almost all broad based inter-governmental organizations (IGO) and treaties, and many important Asian regional organizations such as the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer in 1984, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in 1989, the G20 in 1999 and the World Trade Organization in 2001. Starting with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China has expanded its efforts in building regional inter-governmental cooperation channels including but not limited to the China-Africa Development Fund, China-Arab Forum and ASEAN-China Free Trade Area.

Nevertheless, behind the bustling scenes of China attending and hosting international meetings and signing international agreements are ample cases of rejection, hesitation and power contestation. On the one hand, as a latecomer in the contemporary international system, China’s participation in global governance involves complicated processes of membership acquirement and institutional adjustment due to unresolved geopolitical, technical, and ideological factors. On the other hand, China, given her own political and historical backgrounds, has viewed global governance with caution and, to a degree, “ambivalence and distrust” (Shambaugh, 2013, p. 155). Although China has become a formal member of more than 130 multilateral institutions and 300 multilateral treaties, the country is home to less than a handful of global governance IGOs with the rare exception of the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan. By the end of Hu Jingtao’s rule, China’s overall participation in multilateral institutions was “still an on-going process of integration” into the neo-liberal international regime (Shambaugh, 2013, p. 155).

Whether China will launch new global governing institutions, or innovate (or even “revolutionize”) global governance, is a far bigger question than whether there is corresponding political stimulus from top-down. As a matter of fact, China faces many obstacles in enhancing its status in global governance. To begin with, China’s participation in major international institutions is incomplete and highly uneven, measured by both membership and the level of international criticism (Table 1). Since the 2000s, China has been an active participant and, relatively speaking, a compliant member of international trade, finance and development institutions; a moderate complier of major international environmental treaties; yet also a reluctant member, a bystander, or even a staunch resistor to a few other international regimes governing nuclear nonproliferation, arms control, human rights, and transboundary water resource management, areas where China faces high levels of international criticism and scrutiny.

Table 1. China’s Participation in Global Governance

Juxtaposed against each other, various issues areas of global governance show evidently uneven trends of China’s presence and involvement. While China’s integration into global markets and the Bretton Woods system is the most evident, the field of human rights displays China as one of the most reluctant signatories of the relevant UN treaties and a staunch resistor to the Rome Statute and the establishment of the International Criminal Court. In comparison, the field of international arms control and security cooperation displays a wider range of variations in China’s relationship and interaction with IGOs and treaties within an issue area. In less politicized and more functional-technical policy fields such as environmental protection and natural resource management, the uneven patterns of China’s interactions with IGOs are also observable. Despite sufficient evidence of compliance with global environmental conventions, there exist puzzling exceptions in this field where China shows the world the “red card” and abstains from regime building. For example, the UN Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourse and International Lakes (the UN Water Convention) opened for signature in 1997 and won broad support among UN members, but China and several upstream countries are determined not to take part in it.

The most surprising finding after reviewing China’s current status with global governing institutions is that China is almost entirely excluded from core global agencies in the field of energy, in spite of the fact that China is now world’s second largest consumer and biggest importer of fossil fuels. China is a member of neither the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) nor the International Energy Agency (IEA), two leading agencies in world oil governance that represent the selling and buying blocs, respectively. Only very recently have these two IGOs added China as a partner state. The political clubs of the economically most powerful states in the world – the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the G8 (or, G7, after the Ukraine/Crimea Crisis since 2013) – have been critical in stabilizing global energy markets and governance, yet China is absent from both of these groups. Even in the activities of international negotiation and cooperation over civilian nuclear energy and natural gas, China’s formal involvement is practically nonexistent. China is a party of neither the Gas Exporting Countries Forum – a less formal global cartel compared with OPEC, nor the Nuclear Energy Agency – a specialized agency established within the framework of OECD. The only major exception in the energy field is China’s formal participation in the UN based International Energy Forum (IEF) – a much broader and general mechanism to facilitate communications among all member states related to world energy markets. Yet, China’s IEF status was only recently changed from “dialogue partner” to “full member,” which again indicates the nascent beginning of China’s involvement in global governance.

There are few real signs that China will breach or revolt against the existing frameworks for managing global public affairs and replace them with completely new ones.

Beneath seemingly similar assertive actions by China in relation to multilateral institutions, there is diversity due to the highly uneven levels of participation as explained above. It is mistaken to view all of such actions as evidence for China to break away from its existing arrangements. Contrary to common projections, the priority for China in the coming years with regard to IGOs and global governance is to push in rather to break away. In the fields where China has achieved most in adopting and internalizing global principles and practices, it is true that Beijing has taken bold steps in pursuing leading roles in relevant global governing bodies. For example, China’s successful lobbying within the International Monetary Fund, in spite of strong pressure from the United States, to include the RMB in the basket of global reserve currencies. However, it is important to note that even in these cases, there are few real signs that China will breach or revolt against the existing frameworks for managing global public affairs and replace them with completely new ones. Although it is still too early to have any comprehensive assessment of the newly born AIIB, many commentators have pointed out that it will mostly be modelled after the current international financial institutions.

What China will be more concerned with in the near future is rather to get a foot in the door in some important global policy areas where its legitimate participation has not yet been granted. It is crucial to highlight here that one will not find China breaking away from those existing dominant IGOs which have consistently denied its applications for membership, such as the Missile Technology Control Regime and the International Energy Agency. The reason for China to stick to these existing global regimes lies not only in the high costs of building new institutions, but the mere fact that without any experience of participating in the management of global policies in specific fields, China is not prepared to offer the world an alternative plan. For example, China’s very preliminary effort to build up its own network countering the existing global governance over the internet such as hosting the World Internet Conference has met with limited, if not rare, responses.

What may be the main trend is that China will explore all possibilities to pursue her own interests via the venues offered by IGOs and global institutions. For the Chinese state, the essential goal is to elevate its international standing and improve its national interests, and such goals are better served by pushing into more of the existing global institutions than establishing new ones. China may seem rebellious or even antagonistic towards global institutions, but the state has not gained sufficient experience in managing global affairs to start a post-Bretton Woods system yet. For China, as well as all other rising powers, to transform from an ordinary member to a leader in global governance is a jagged and probably very long journey.


Shambaugh, D.L. (2013). China Goes Global: The Partial Power. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

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