China and the UN: Playing Go in international relations

The trouble with China is that it is not behaving the way either Realist or Liberal theories of international relations want it to behave. In terms of these traditional approaches to IR, China is becoming bigger and stronger and more powerful every day. China holds more than 14trillion US$ in foreign exchange reserve; it has a population of almost 1.4 billion; in absolute GDP it is the strongest economy in the world and its military is, if not the largest (that’s by far the US) big, modern and equipped with nuclear weapons. All this, so tell us realists like John Mearsheimer should push China to become extremely competitive and nasty as it grows stronger, eventually leading to a confrontation with the USA and to war. Yes, yes, that is what will happen, tells us Graham T. Allison, even if nobody wants it because becoming big and strong when there is a big and strong superpower in the world has always led to war in Europe in the past couple of hundred years.

Detail from the Jingban tianwen quantu, showing a world map derived from the Sancai tuhui (Illustrated compilation of the Three Powers; 1607). Source: The Library of Congress Map Room (online collection); taken from

Now, looking into European history for knowing what will happen with China is  an excellent way to show that Eurocentrism leads to weird ways of thinking about international politics. China has a thousand-year old history of diplomacy, war and peace of its own. Its geopolitical as well as economic position in the world is rather different than that of Spain in the 16th, France’s in the 17th, Russia’s in the 18th, Great-Britain’s in the 19th century or Germany’s in the 20th century. Its history of national unity and nationalism, its internal political structures and the way it has rather slipped than marched into the international scene over the past thirty years… these are only few of the factors that should make you think twice about using European or North-American analogies if you are seriously interested in understanding where this country is heading .

Very obviously the way the international system has been built upon diplomacy and international law, and how the discipline of international relations has come to take the European war-state paradigm as universal feature of the international do not seem to fit the bill with China. Yes, China does behave like a high school bully in the South China Sea, it does not hide its military and wants everyone , and particularly Taiwan, to see how many shiny new toys it has; yes, the Chinese government and media often display high levels of aggressive nationalistic rhetoric; and yes, they also follow rather closely the script of 20th century discourses on sovereignty, non-interference and inviolability of borders. In short, China does tend to be ‘assertive’ when it comes to its territorial integrity (notably with respect to Taiwan) and its undoubtedly traditionally defined sovereignty. These are the moments where China’s behaviour seems the most congruent to IR textbooks on international diplomacy. But as good student of international relations, China also plays the game extremely nicely to the rules and has yet not shown even the slightest signs of the hubris and destructiveness other ‘rising powers’ have displayed. If it is supposed to emulate Germany in the early 20th century, then China clearly does not play this role very well.

Indeed, China  has shied away from direct military confrontations after its ill-fated incursion into Vietnam in 1979. It has shown a pragmatically cooperative approach in the international organisations it has joined since 1949. It is seeking to build up cooperative ties with its neighbours. It has used its huge economic power wisely and cooperatively in the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing global economic crisis. And it has engaged more and more in multi-lateral international aid and United Nations security politics. And it has now declared loudly and strongly its intention to support UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s remodelling of the UN.

China is ready to work together with other countries to forge a new form of international relations featuring mutual respect, fairness, justice and win-win cooperation, to build a community with a shared future for mankind, and to build an open, inclusive, clean and beautiful world that enjoys lasting peace, universal security and common prosperity,” they write in in their recent position paper on UN reforms. These are not very original words and the further pages of the Chinese position paper carefully follow this common-talk, vague-and-nice line of UN talk.

Yet, given the current state of American UN ‘diplomacy’, China’s position paper comes as a clear eyes-on-the-prize announcement that China would be happy to take over the US role as motor of international multilateralism should the US leave that post vacant. This move is not formulated as an open challenge and the strategy rather seems to be to discretely slip into the gap that has opened between the Trump’s USA and the rest of the world. The position paper cleverly focuses on all areas the Trump ‘administration’ has decided to shun in the past year: development assistance and here particularly women’s rights and gender parity, peacekeeping and conflict prevention, humanitarian assistance, and internal management, budget and human resources reforms.

It formulates clearly three fundamentals of China’s foreign policy: the insistence sovereignty in its full territorial sense (inviolability of borders) and of states as sole subjects of international law (reflecting precisely its ‘one country, two systems’ politics towards Taiwan); and a focus on pragmatic, technocratic and managerial, hence, ‘apolitical’, approaches to challenges of international cooperation. So far, its approach corresponds to the classical liberal-institutionalist view of international politics where states understand quickly that the relative gains of cooperation are more important than the absolute gains of domination.

However, China also slips in a third principle that quite fundamentally disturbs the basic tenets of liberal institutionalism, namely a carefully but persistently formulated refutation of globally applicable UN politics. Although the position paper repeats the universal value of the UN and its Charter, its overall tone tells a different story of de-centralization, regionalisation and differentiation of cooperation. Whether in terms of conflict resolution, peacekeeping and fighting terrorism, or in terms of economic and social development, the position paper proposes each time a ‘everyone-their-own’ approach. It proposes to leave the UN as central bureaucracy to coordinate and funnel human and financial resources. But the real decisions, those on what to prioritise, what to define as security risk or development need, what to do simply, these decisions should be left to nation-states and, as far as possible, regional arrangements or arrangements between those states that are primarily concerned by such measures. The UN organs and institutions should be remodelled to allow such decentralized, case-by-case and variable geometry decision-making. For instance, decisions on peacekeeping and conflict resolution should be removed as much as possible from the UN Security Council and taken by the UN peacebuilding commission under consultation of the host country/ies and the contributing countries. Development policies equally should be more deeply anchored in specialized agencies (for instance by reviving the Economic and Social Council) and consultation mechanisms of receiving and contributing states strengthened in these, or, even better, delegated to regional sub-divisions.

The Chinese position paper shows that China clearly wants to write its own story of international cooperation but not according to the frontal confrontation rules of 19th century European-style war-and-concert diplomacy. The Europeans invented the two-dimensional, linear chess game to mimic diplomacy and war; the Chinese invented Go which thinks strategy fluidly in multiple spaces. The UN position paper shows that China today orients its foreign policy on principles of Go rather than chess and that it is time for Eurocentric IR to learn something new.

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