Indo-Pacific Perspective 12
Chinese Vision
of a Rules-
based Order
International Order with
Chinese Characteristics
Dr. Benjamin Tze Ern Ho
n recent years, the idea of a
“rules-based order” (RBO) has
been in vogue among scholars
and practitioners of international poli-
tics, particularly in the Asia-Pacific (or
Indo-Pacific) region amid heightened
geopolitical rivalry between the
United States and China. At first
glance, the need for “rules” to ensure
international order is stating the obvi-
ous: to have order, individuals and
states need to operate with some rules.
At the same time, however, what
these rules might be (and ought to be)
remains a vexing problem, particu-
larly given the varying opinions and
views among states regarding who
gets to set the rules and, more funda-
mentally, whose interests the rules
are meant to serve.
To be certain, countries in the
West are far from monolithic; com-
petition for global influence exists
even among states who subscribe
to the liberal tradition. However,
the idea that rules remain neces-
sary to ensure a degree of predicta-
bility and regularity in interna-
tional affairs is generally accepted
by Western powers. From this
view, only with rules can interna-
tional stabilityeven as an ideal-
ized outcomebe sustained and
safeguarded amid shifting domes-
tic-political dynamics.
The rise of China complicates the
Western-centric understanding of
RBO given that the idea of a rules-
based order is not inherently self-
evident within traditional Chinese
political philosophy. Indeed, Bei-
jing’s experience of encountering
RBO (and multilateralism more
generally) is a comparatively re-
cent phenomenon; only after its re-
form and opening-up program in
the 1980s was Beijing more ame-
nable to considering its foreign pol-
icies in such termsand even
then, mostly with an eye to the
Chinese Vision of a Rules-based Order
Indo-Pacific Perspective 13
Taiwan issue. It was only after the
200809 global financial crisis,
whereby Chinese leaders perceived
a notable decline in the West and a
reduction of Western (particularly
American) influence in global mul-
tilateral institutions that Beijing
started to court multilateral insti-
tutions with greater deliberation.
As the thinking in China goes, di-
minished American influence
would create an opportunity to
modify the rules governing the in-
ternational system. In addition,
Beijing’s realpolitik vision of inter-
national politics leads it to con-
clude that most countries who
aligned with the United States in
the past did so not because of some
higher ideational motivation (for
instance, to preserve individual hu-
man rights, or believing that de-
mocracy was the best form of gov-
ernance) but because their own na-
tional interestsoften materially
defined—were best served sub-
scribing to the American-led inter-
national order. A Chinese-led order
could therefore expect to command
similar levels of support.
China perceives the present mo-
ment, marked by US domestic dys-
function and the especially the on-
going COVID-19 pandemic, as a
golden opportunity to shape global
norms and values in accordance
with its own preferences. This does
not mean entirely dismantling the
present international structure
and replacing it with a Chinese one
(Beijing is aware that many coun-
tries would not go along with it),
but rather to continue to support a
rules-based order (jiyu guize de
guojizhixu 基于规则的国秩序)
that preserves “Chinese character-
istics” and ultimately Chinese na-
tional interests.
To be clear, the safeguarding of na-
tional interests is hardly unique to
China; most if not all countries
prefer rules that favor themselves.
What is problematic is that China’s
national interests are defined pri-
marily with respect to the preser-
vation of its one-party rule. In lib-
eral democracies, of course, politi-
cal parties vie to see who can best
articulate the national interest. As
observed by Qin Yaqing, who pre-
viously headed the China Foreign
Affairs University, “the most basic
feature of socialism with Chinese
characteristics is the leadership of
the Chinese Communist Party.”
Seen this way, it comes as no sur-
prise that many Chinese scholars
equate the pursuit of a rules-based
order as being synonymous with
the pursuit of a liberal interna-
tional order, which runs funda-
mentally at odds with the CCP’s
single-party rule. Indeed, the nar-
rative the CCP frequently touts is
that the pursuit of a liberal order
by the United States is meant to
Indo-Pacific Perspective 14
make other countries to become
more “Western,” thus fundamen-
tally threatening the CCP’s grip on
Not surprisingly, when Chinese
leaders discuss regional order, they
frequently talk about building “a
more just, equitable, fair, demo-
cratic and representative interna-
tional political and economic order”
in the future tense, a vision that
China aims to have an influential
role in helping to implement.
ilarly, there is a deeply held belief
among many Chinese scholars and
policymakers that the United
Statesas a hegemonic power
does not practice what it preaches
in terms of living up to the ideals
of the RBO. For instance, China
points to the United States as hav-
ing violated (or opted out of) core
aspects of international order
such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq
or Washington’s nonratification of
the UN Convention on the Law of
the Sea (UNCLOS)to argue that
hegemons have the privilege of hy-
Again, this suggests that
China perceives the RBO as being
conceived ultimately to preserve
American international primacy
while artificially constraining
China’s own rise.
With this in mind, I contend that
China’s approach to multilateral-
ism is one which seeks not to ac-
quiesce in existing ideas of RBO
(which posits certain universal ide-
als) but rather one which call into
question the relevance of multilat-
eralism as framed by Western
thinking and worldview. China
takes a more flexible approach to
international law by portraying
such rules as less morally (and le-
gally) binding than how the West
views them. In other words, Bei-
jing seeks to relativize the applica-
tion of international rules for rea-
sons of self-interest. Unlike the US
vision of multilateralism and RBO,
which is that international rule-
making can help to preserve inter-
national stability despite changing
domestic-political circumstances,
China’s goal for a revised RBO is
far narrower, more limited, and
conspicuously inverted: to ensure
domestic stability amid a changing
international environment. In sum,
multilateralism and the RBO
means different things to different
state actors: the United States and
the West see multilateralism as a
means of entrenching global leader-
ship and promoting a liberal vision
of world order, while China sees
multilateralism as a diplomatic
tool to preserve China’s national in-
terests and legitimize its one-party
Moving forward, it will be more
necessary than ever for countries
to demonstrate that their support
for RBO (if indeed they support
Chinese Vision of a Rules-based Order
Indo-Pacific Perspective 15
such an order) is more than just an
outgrowth of their alignment with
the United States or a product of
anti-China politics. In other words,
states will have to articulate how
and why abiding by the tenets of a
RBO is inherently good for them,
or else what the characteristics of a
better, more equitable RBO ought
to be like. Should their dispositions
depart from the preferences of
Washington and Beijing, then per-
haps it is time the international
community come together to exam-
ine what is problematic and how
best to remedy it. On the other
hand, if there are core aspects of
1 Yaqing Qin, Song Dexing, Zhang Yensheng, Zhang
Xiaotong, Zhu Feng, and Lu Chuan Ying. “Zhuan-
jiabitan: Dabianjuzhong de zhongguo yu shijie” [Ex-
perts in conversation: China and the World in the
Great Game], Shanghai Institute of International
Studies conference, 2019, DOI:
10.13851/j.cnki.gjzw.202001001 (accessed at CNKI),
see 5.
2 See Mira Rapp-Hooper, Michael Chase, Matake Ka-
miya, Shin Kawashima, and Yuichi Hosoya.Re-
sponding to China’s Complicated Views on Interna-
tional Order.” Carnegie Endowment for International
RBO that speak to broader univer-
sal concerns, than China’s framing
of international order as inherently
biased in favor of the West will be
exposed as self-interested and, in-
deed, irresponsible. ■
Dr. Benjamin Tze Ern Ho
Dr. Ho is an assistant professor in
the China Programme, S. Raja-
ratnam School of International
Studies, Nanyang Technological
University, Singapore.
Peace, October 10, 2019, https://carnegieendow-
3 Rapp-Hooper et al., Responding to China’s Compli-
cated Views on International Order.”
The views and opinions expressed or implied in
JIPA are those of the authors and should not be
construed as carrying the official sanction of the
Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education
and Training Command, Air University, or other
agencies or departments of the US government
or their international equivalents.