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Research Questions

  1. What will China's revitalization goal mean for the international order?
  2. Which institutions and rules of the order will China's leaders continue to support, and which ones will they seek to change?
  3. Which of the potential changes could threaten the interests of the United States?
  4. How has China engaged with questions of shared concern that are under active negotiation, such as climate change, information security, and counterterrorism?
  5. Relative to three or four decades ago, is the general trajectory of China's engagement positive or negative?

The question of how China's rise will affect the post–World War II international order carries considerable significance for the future of global politics. This report evaluates the character and possible future of China's engagement with the postwar order. The resulting portrait is anything but straightforward: China's engagement with the order remains a complex, often contradictory work in progress.

This report offers four major findings about the relationship of China to the international order. First, China's behavior over the past two decades does not mark it as an opponent or saboteur of the order, but rather as a conditional supporter. Since China undertook a policy of international engagement in the 1980s, the level and quality of its participation in the order rivals that of most other states. Second, looking forward, the posture China takes toward the institutions, norms, and rules of a shared order is now in significant flux; various outcomes — from continued qualified support to more-aggressive challenges — are possible. Third, partly because of this uncertainty, a strengthened and increasingly multilateral international order can provide a critical tool for the United States and other countries to shape and constrain rising Chinese power. Finally, modifications to the order on the margins in response to Chinese preferences pose less of a threat to a stable international system than a future in which China is alienated from that system. However, these modifications must be governed by strictly articulated end-points.

Key Findings

China's Support of the Order

  • China's behavior over the past two decades does not mark it as an opponent or saboteur of the postwar international order, but rather as a conditional supporter.
  • China can be expected to demand more influence in the international system as a condition for its support.

Looking Forward

  • The posture China takes toward the institutions, norms, and rules of a shared order is in significant flux; a range of outcomes — from continued qualified support to more-aggressive challenges — are possible.
  • Events, both inside and outside China, could drive its policy in many directions, and its future strategy is probably more unclear than at any time in years. U.S. policy must take into account this fundamental uncertainty.

Strengthening the Order

  • A strengthened and increasingly multilateral international order can continue to provide a critical tool for the United States and other countries to shape and constrain rising Chinese power.
  • Examples of reforms to build multilateralism and strengthen norms include measures to expand the role of China and other developing economies in the International Monetary Fund and to increase Chinese involvement in mediating international conflicts through the United Nations.

China's Rising Power

  • Modifications to the order on the margins in response to Chinese preferences will typically pose less of a threat to a stable international system than a future in which China is alienated from that system.
  • Although Chinese-led initiatives do challenge U.S. leadership and influence, they generally do not pose a threat to the fundamental integrity of the international system.

Recommendations

  • The United States should develop a comprehensive strategy to sustain and expand China's role in the international order.
  • The growth of Chinese power is not something the United States can or should oppose per se, but rather seek to steer in a direction that reinforces existing institutions and norms.
  • Rising Chinese power and self-confidence will produce an era of rising Sino-American tension and rivalry. The challenge is to manage the emerging rivalry in ways that avoid major conflict, leave open the potential for cooperation on as many issues of mutual concern as possible, and safeguard vital U.S. interests.
  • The United States should continue to dissuade China from employing various forms of violent aggression to fulfill its regional ambitions.
  • Regional states are not naive about the possible forms of Chinese muscle-flexing and continue to look to the United States to play an essential role in deterrence.
  • U.S. strategy should also ensure military readiness to exercise credible deterrence against aggressive challenges to the international order. In select cases involving core values regarding human rights and democracy, the United States should reaffirm its commitment to norms that reflect those values and resist Chinese efforts to change them — but in a measured way that builds on common values and concerns.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    China's Interests and Ambitions

  • Chapter Three

    China's Views of International Order

  • Chapter Four

    China's Behavior Toward the Order

  • Chapter Five

    The Future of China's Interaction with the International Order

  • Chapter Six

    Three Trajectories for China and the International Order

  • Chapter Seven

    Conclusions and Recommendations

This research was sponsored by the Office of Net Assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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