China and the United States: Two Outlooks of World Order and their Conflict
By Yongnian Zheng

China and the United States: Two Outlooks of World Order and their Conflict

Apr. 08, 2016  |     |  0 comments

Anglo-American countries and China differ in their ways of thinking in international affairs. Both are concerned and hope to establish a world order, but they have different perspectives regarding their conceptions of world order. This has become the root cause of conflict between China and the United States in many aspects today. While China believes that it has been contributing great effort towards maintaining the international order, the West has accused China of challenging the world order. Despite living under the same world order, there is a distinctive difference in the interpretation of world order between China and the US.

Anglo-American countries believe in hard power and the world order which was established is based on hard power. While emphasizing soft power and ideological moralizing, they realize the importance of hard power as the foundation of soft power. Soft power could not function without the backup of hard power, and the spread and diffusion of a country's soft power is driven by hard power. In fact, Western values, including religion, culture, and politics, are frequently associated with their hard power influence in terms of economic, political and even military power. The world order in the Occidental countries is self-centered, be it the traditional Empire system or the sovereign state system in modern times. While the imperial system frankly exposes inequality, the sovereign state system is able to conceal de facto inequality with formal equality.

China also has its own concept of world order. China’s traditional “Tianxia” (all-under-heaven) concept reflects the core values of harmony and peace in the Chinese “Datong” world outlook.1 Institutionally, the tributary system resembles the “Tianxia” world well.2 The nature of the Sino-centric tributary system is its openness and unilateral trade system. In other words, the international order is an outward expansion of Chinese domestic system. To put it philosophically, this can be expressed in the Chinese proverb “cultivate oneself, put family in order, govern the state, and pacify the world.” This philosophy emphasizes morality; however, personal morality has never been helpful for the Chinese to establish a true “Tianxia” (world order). In fact, China’s “Tianxia” is often difficult to sustain. The size of China’s national boundaries often changes according to its national capacity. When China is strong, it has larger national borders; when China is weak, its borders shrink. In other words, China’s “Tianxia” has great uncertainty. With the advent of the modern Western concept of sovereignty which defines a clear boundary, the ancient “Tianxia” is doomed to disappear. According to the Western theory of sovereign states, a country’s territory, regardless of its size and economic power, should remain intact without the influence of the international environment. (At a practical level, the relationship between national sovereign states has never fallen in line with the theory, but the theory has been accepted by the world.)

In modern times, China has accepted the Western perception of world order and abandoned the traditional theory of “Tianxia”. Today, China has become a part of the international community. China has joined and played a positive role in the United Nations (UN), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and almost all Western-created/dominated international organizations. Then, why does the United States accuse China of challenging its international order? This is due to the different concepts of world order perceived by China and the US.

In addition, inequality in the sovereign state system is reflected in the aspect of “soft power,” which is emphasized by the US. To the United States and the West, there is no equality among countries within the UN. For example, the UN consists of democratic and non-democratic countries, and there can be no equality between the two. In the aspect of international relations, the US has the objective of changing the value systems of other countries due to its cultural concept which is based on “monotheism.” The United States considers a democratic country as taking the same side as it, and a non-democratic country as an “outsider.” Originally, the concept of democracy is considered as the internal affairs of a sovereign state. However, the United States regards it as a key concept in its international relations. As such, democracy has been viewed as a soft power by a lot of countries. Once they accept democracy, they will be categorized as siding with the US. After the Cold War, the United States and other countries have tried to promote the concept of a “Democratic Alliance” which has made the international order highly ideological. (Of course, this does not mean that “democracy” should be the basis of world order.)

From a formal point of view, the UN system is the core of the contemporary world system. However, the United States and China have very different understanding and perception about the UN system. As mentioned above, the Anglo-American countries believe in a world order built upon nations’ capacities. Contemporarily, despite the establishment of the principle of equality between sovereign states, this principle is in fact unequal. The UN system is an unequal system under the principle of equality. The UN is an international consortium of sovereign states, with all sovereign states enjoying the right of equality. Nevertheless, the UN — to the United States — is an expression of the external system of the western powers. US-led Western power is the foundation of the UN. Without the United States, the UN could never exist. Since the United States is the core of the UN, all countries within this system should help to consolidate this base, rather than weaken it. If the United States could not strengthen the world order through UN, which was built upon US capacity, the UN system would become less relevant to the United States. Beyond the United Nations, the United States has established a wide ranging alliance system. The alliance system led by the United States is the replication of the UN system at a smaller scale to strengthen its power.

Judging from the performance of China in the UN, it is in fact more conservative than the US in strengthening the current order, and does not have plans to start from scratch to set up its own world order. 

Contemporary China believes in world order, and is committed to constructing it. Following the rise of China and the change of its role in the international system, the Chinese concept of world order (which is very different from the US version) becomes increasingly important. However, both China’s and the US’ conceptions of world order are different. Take the UN system as an example, it is hard for China and the US to reach a consensus within the UN system. The Chinese recognize the world order which has the UN as the main subject. China is among the few major powers that thinks highly of the United Nations. For China, the United Nations is a commonwealth of all sovereign states and thus should reflect the principles of democracy and inclusiveness. China does not intend to change the internal system of any country, and it rarely cares about the political system practiced in a country. This may be a reflection of China's secular culture, that countries with different internal system should enjoy equal rights.

China believes in the United Nations and many of its international activities are carried out within the framework of the UN, including the UN peacekeeping forces, nuclear nonproliferation, the climate issue, environmental protection, and other major aspects. The United States, on the other hand, is different. The US perceives the UN as a tool and only pays attention to issues that are beneficial to itself. In fact, China has little cooperation with the United States within the UN. China cooperates more with other major powers, in particular, Russia. It is exactly because China could not agree with some of the Western values in the UN, that the United States in turn considers China’s participation in the UN as utilitarian, purely for its own interests without taking western “principles” and “morals” into consideration.

How would the two different world orders affect the future of world order? US interest in the United Nations and the World Trade Organization seems to be declining. Instead, it is now focusing on building its alliances, including the military strategic alliance (e.g. the US-Japan alliance) and economic strategic alliances, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). China too is constructing a Sino-centric regional order by establishing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). According to China’s point of view, such initiatives are intended not to compete with or replace the existing system, but are supplements to the existing international system. However, the United States perceives these as China challenging the existing world order, to start on a new path and to replace the US-based world system with a Sino-centric world order. This is the exact reason that the US believes China is challenging the current world order.

Both China’s and the US’ perception of the world order have created significant impacts. The future world order can be anticipated based on current development trends. Interactive platforms such as the United Nations system and other international organizations will become increasingly less important, and the force of separation — the platforms that the United States and China are building respectively — will become increasingly important. The main concern is whether this will lead to the emergence of two world orders. What will be the relationship between the two world orders? Will they enjoy peaceful coexistence or will there be military conflict? All these remain uncertain.

China and the US have reached a “consensus;” the world needs a world order. While the US is in favor of alliance-building to maximize its national interests, this does not imply that the US is planning to abandon the existing world order. The US still intends to transform or rebuild the world order, and China does not intend to break away from the existing world order. Judging from the performance of China in the UN, it is in fact more conservative than the US in strengthening the current order, and does not have plans to start from scratch to set up its own world order.

This suggests that it is possible for the two countries to co-construct a world order. Although the Chinese could understand the alliance system as a product of US history, still, it is unjustifiable for the US to harm the fundamental interests of China excessively through the alliance system. As the alliance system hurts China’s interest, and there is no possibility for the US to dissolve the system, it is difficult for China to believe that it can rely on the existing world order to protect and promote its own national interests. Just like the US, China needs some regional and international platforms to preserve and promote its own national interests.

In this respect, based on the bilateral interaction between China and the US, there can be two different paths in the future development of the world order. First, there could be a consolidation of the existing platform and order; second, there could be an establishment of a new international platform and order. In the first scenario, the US will never allow China to break off from the existing world order and neither will China leave the world order. This indicates that the two countries will continue to interact, cooperate, struggle and compromise to achieve collaboration within the system. The second scenario is for China and the US to establish new interactive platforms, to maintain the existing world order and even to build a new order. In this regard, there are already a few effective platforms in place, such as the Sino-US economic and strategic dialogue. However, these platforms have hitherto been focused on bilateral rather than global issues. In the future, as China’s role expands in international affair, the content and functions of such platforms will inevitably grow to involve major world affairs. A common goal to maintain the existing world order or to build a new world order will avoid the constant repetition of hegemonism and war, so as to realize world peace and the peaceful coexistence of China and the United States. This should be the main goal of the “New Type of Major Powers Relations,” a goal that was established by President Xi Jinping.

(Translated by Wen Xin Lim)


1. The notion of “Datong” (“Great Unity”) appeared in the “Lǐyùn” (礼运) chapter of the Book of Rites, one of the Confucian Chinese classics.

2. Zhang, F. (2010). 解构朝贡体系.  [Deconstructions of the Tributary System]. Journal of International Politics, 22(2), 33-62.

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