To what extent will a rising China challenge the architecture of the current world order?


By Julia Huentemann, a second year International Relations Undergraduate at King’s College London and Editor in Chief at IR Today.

Napoleon Bonaparte already warned that China was a “sleeping giant” who, once woken up, would shake the world. According to Henry Kissinger, there is little denial about China having woken up from her hibernation as she regains a stature by which she was last known in the centuries of her most far-reaching influence. In past decades, China has accumulated a significant amount of power resources including a population of over 1.3 billion, a territory that equals the size of the U.S., a military that exceeds the size of the U.S. armed forces and modern capabilities in cyberspace. Most attention is perhaps paid to China’s economic onslaught based on a current national GDP of ca 11,200 billion $ p/a and a growth rate of 6.5%. p/a.[1] At the same time, the world is witnessing the decline in global power of a strategically restraining U.S.. Given this inevitable shift in global power from “the West” towards “the East” it is reasonable to assume that China “will soon have the institutional power to promote its views in the world.”[2]

While China’s rise is inspiring a mix of awe, fear and scepticism among “western” publics, academics and policy-makers are left concerned with the question as to what extent the awakened giant will “shake the world”. This essay will connect to this discourse and assess the extent to which China will challenge the architecture of the current world order. This essay argues that China will develop her influence within the boundaries of current world order, rather than challenging “western” norms of sovereignty, statehood and rules-based institutions. Nonetheless, China will attempt to transform her power resources into influence by reversing western-led interventionism and shaping the way in which other sovereigns think and act as in a globalized world.

In doing so this essay will outline the origin and colonial distribution of the current world order, before drawing on China’s pre-modern vision of order. The following will discuss the extent to which China is willing and/or able to re-institutionalize this pre-colonial vision and thereby challenge the architecture of the current order. This investigation will follow in two analytical steps. The essay will present Tingyang Zhao’s advocation of a Sino-centric hierarchical world institution. Subsequently, the extent to which the academic discourse finds expression in Chinese political actions will be discussed.

Origin and distribution of the current world order   

According to Suisheng Zhao, world order refers to the “dominant values, rules, and norms that define the terms of global governance and give shape and substance to international society at any given time.”[3] The Peace of Westphalia, which ended thirty years of religious warfare in Europe in 1648, is often regarded to mark the onset of the modern world order as a “universe composed of sovereign states, each with exclusive authority within its own geographic boundaries.”[4] Having introduced and linked the principles of territoriality and sovereignty, the Westphalian Peace established the state – not the empire, dynasty or religion – as the singular legitimate actor within the international system.

Based on the new provision of statehood, Westphalia also enshrined the sovereign equality of states – the supreme reign over a fixed territory and population, free from outside interference regardless of power or domestic structure. With this the Westphalian Peace presents the first attempt to institutionalize an international order based on a series of procedural rules. As these structures, still serve as the foundation of the current rules-based international liberal order, it is reasonable to assert the Peace of Westphalia as “the path breaker of a new concept of international order”.[5]

Even though being treated as a globally accepted blueprint for world order today, the system of territorially sovereign states refraining from interference in each other’s domestic affairs was devised in 17th-century-Europe. However, it should be noted that when constructed in 1648, the Westphalian idea of world order was by no means designed to be exported globally. After all, the ones who crafted the Peace did not aspire to incorporate neighbouring Russia, whose Romanov Tsar Alexis (Алексе́й Миха́йлович) was reconsolidating his own vision of order fundamentally at odds with the Westphalian balance. Mutual interaction on a sustained basis was not permitted by the then prevailing technology and hence, each region considered its own concept as a unique template for a legitimate organization.

China and World Order

Among all the contemporary conceptions of world order, Asia, and China specifically, operated the “longest lasting, the most clearly defined, and the one furthest from Westphalian ideas.”[6] 4,796 miles east from the Westphalian City of Münster, Beijing constituted the centre of the pre-modern East-Asian international order in which political entities interacted with one another within a hierarchy ranked according to status. Chinese dynasties, from ca 1600 BC to 1636 AC considered themselves the peak of this hierarchy and hence the hub of the world in their own right. The emperor’s legitimacy was rooted in a set of Confucian ideas, according to which “hierarchy was not only present but essential.”[7] This Sino-centric “All Under Heaven” order (Tian-xia), in contrast to the Westphalian one, recognized the reality of the inequality among various political entities and became widely accepted throughout pre-modern Asia.

However, triggered by a series of both internal and external crises,  the 19th century saw the Qing dynasty disintegrate.[8] As European imperial powers coerced China to open to their trading demands, this intrusion sounded the death knell of the “idyllic Pax-Sinica.” While the Qing dynasty mobilized all possible resources to resist foreign invasion, Chinese governments between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th century “were never wholly in control of their territory.” Western representatives with their sense of cultural superiority were ultimately successful in globally imposing an alternative international order based on the principles enshrined in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. This is especially evident in a statement by Scottish Sinologist James Legge in 1872, according to which China’s relation with “more advanced nations” had entirely changed. China had reportedly realized that she is “only one of many independent nations in the world and that the ‘beneath the sky’ over which her emperor ruled is not all beneath sky but only a certain portion of it which can be pointed out upon the map.”[9]

With the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, “Tian-xia” vanished from public discourse, being replaced by Marxist universalism, Mao’s revolutionary spirit and finally Deng Xiaoping’s dictum that, to thrive, China will “hide [her] capabilities and bide [her] time.”[10] Given the lack of material power to reimpose the domestic/traditional vision of order, holding back seemed like a logical stance. Still, China has never forgotten her past as a colony, enforced to engage in an order utterly at odds with her tradition. According to Gray and Murphy the global financial crisis of 2007/2008 has robbed the West of the moral authority to lecture the non-West and ultimately “opened-up space for rising powers of the global south to play an increasingly active role in the reform of global economic and political governance.” They conclude that a “regime change in global governance is now at least a distinct possibility.”[11]

If these predictions about China overtaking the U.S. as the dominant superpower are true, it is essential to investigate whether China will preserve or spoil the Westphalian status quo of the current world order. Against that background, some intellectuals advocate to reinvigorate ancient Chinese traditions as a source of legitimacy.

Among those intellectuals, Tingyang Zhao is a particularly vocal one, who challenges prominent Western experts asserting China as a status-quo preserving power, unlikely to challenge the international order. In order to understand contemporary visions of world order, Zhao draws on the ancient concept of “Tian-xia” and advocates a Sino-centric, post-Westphalian hierarchy governed according to Confucian principles. In his work
“The Tian-xia System: A Philosophy for the World Institution” he highlights the need for a global political reform, wherein all challenges become regarded not as challenges to the individual state but as challenges to the entire world. For this purpose, Zhao envisions a world government not only in control of universal institutions, laws and shared resources but also with authority to grant legitimacy to various culturally and geographically determined sub-states. Extending to “all under heaven”, this Sino-centric world institution shall not only supervise the socio-political conditions in those respective sub-states, but also have the punitive power against any sub-state contravening universal order.[12]

This institution appears similar to the United Nations, as both aim at ensuring peace, providing order and guaranteeing stability. However, Zhao argues that the UN institutionalizes everlasting competition and conflict and cannot move beyond being an organization of individual nations bargaining in pursuit of their individual interests.[13] If adopted, “Tian-xia” would constitute an improvement of the anarchic and conflict-prone  Westphalian system and contribute to the long envisioned Great/Universal Harmony, a term first coined by Emperor Yao (2356-2255 BC). Despite being a utopian vision, the Tian-xia system arguably has practical applications. It has frequently been associated with current President Xi Jinping’s declaration of a “China Dream”. As an effort to rejuvenate the Chinese nation and its 5000-year-old history, the Chinese Dream is to work for a harmonious world. [14] Advocating a “shared destiny premised on blissful cooperation instead of outright competition”, President Xi’s rhetoric heavily feeds into Zhao’ vision for a world institution in the pursuit of Great/Universal Harmony.

Those China pundits who foresee the emergence of a Sino-centric world institution point towards Chinese recent military and economic expansionism to portray China as a status quo spoiling power bent on changing the existing order. As China’s economy grows exponentially, the nation has been using infrastructure development as an inducement to bring other states into trade and resource relationships. This has resulted in the Asian economy to rapidly re-configurate around China and hence implies the return/re-appearance of some elements of the pre-modern Asian hierarchical order.[15] Coupled with China’s increasing inclination to employ military capabilities in the South China Sea and the Asia-Pacific, this would adhere to those interpretations of a People’s Republic that wants to slowly reintegrate Asian nations into a Sino-centric tribute system, much like the Chinese Empire did at its peak.[16] In this respect China seeks to expand its political system “not by conquest but by osmosis.”[17]

Promoters of Tian-xia argue that the system has been made available for export with the inception of the “Confucius Institute”, designed to acquaint the world with the Chinese Communist Party’s interpretation of traditional world order. As the idea of Great Harmony appeals to a world weary of war, China’s proposal of building “a new type of international relations” advances the nation’s soft power and arguably already signifies a trend towards a post-Westphalian order.[18]

ll these trends fit Robert Kagan’s analysis of the Chinese leadership which “views the world in much the same way as Kaiser Willhelm II did a century ago.” Kagan observes the Chinese leadership to worry about “changing the rules of the international system, before the international system changes them.”[19]

Zhao’s proposition is both ambitious and ambiguous. Presenting himself as a representative of the ultimate Chinese Perspective, he was heavily criticized for conceptualizing a system that, despite seemingly desirable in theory, lacks applicability in practice.[20] Seemingly an attractive concept, the failure to provide an actual path towards the transition from a state to a world-centred order is one among the many problems. Accordingly, his Chinese critics contend that the Tian-xia system is not suitable as a model for a contemporary world order. When serving as a model for a pre-modern Asian order, China was the largest state with a civilization superior to any other, at least in the absence of a competing paradigm (alias Westphalian sovereignty). The contemporary world, in which various states claim superiority, no longer corresponds with these attributes. Today, just as in the 19th century, Westphalian sovereignty proves superior in this duel of competing paradigms, for the vision of legal equality, however fictional it may be, is more appealing than the thought of subordinating to China as a benevolent ruler.

Without any incentive for major actors in the international system to engage in the Tian-xia system, any Sino-centric hierarchical order would suffer from a lack of legitimacy. Hence, Westphalian sovereignty, despite its flaws, is likely to remain the cornerstone of world order.

This argument goes in line with John Ikenberry’s “Liberal Leviathan” in which he asserts that the current rules-based-liberal world order is easier to join and harder to overturn and hence, substantially different than past international orders that rising states faced.[21] According to Ikenberry, the international liberal order, which at its core is based on the principles and rules established in 1648, has a high integration capacity, offers vertical and horizontal movement of trade benefits, and is capable of accommodating differences.[22] Furthermore, he argues that China has found means to exploit this order for her own advancements and invested her way to a superpower position.[23] This suggests that China’s rise and especially the sustainability of this attained status depend on the current world order.

Even though China may neither be willing nor able to adopt Zhao’s Tian-xia system, China may nonetheless come to shape the future of global order. Chinese leaders still aspire their nation to become central in setting further international rules as well as revising some of the ones that still prevail.  China may indeed affect such change, “and it arguably already has but this change is unlikely to be through the voluntary acceptance of Tian-xia,” Callahan admits.[24] Against this background it seems reasonable to find continued expressions of Westphalian principles in contemporary Chinese politics, especially in the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. These principles, first promulgated with India and Burma in 1954, manifest China’s dedication to:  Mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, Mutual nonaggression, Mutual non-interference in internal affairs, Equality and mutual benefit and Peaceful coexistence.

At the celebration of the 50th anniversary of their insurance in 2004, former Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China Wen Jiaboa ensured that these five principles remain important to China.[25] Emphasizing state sovereignty and contending that interference in other’s domestic affairs is unlawful, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence elaborate on the Westphalian principle of sovereignty. Responding to contemporary forms of western-led political, economic and military interventionism, China will attempt to shape how other legally sovereigns think and act in a globalized world. In doing so, China will attempt to transform her power resources into influence in order to challenge the U.S. as the singular normative power.

Now being backed by material and political power, Chinese re-emphasis on the Five Principles will pose a serious challenge to western-led interventionism. China will be able to establish a platform of resistance to “the West’s dilution of others’ sovereignty and desire to impose their ideas and political and economic systems on other peoples.”[26]

In that sense a rising China will not challenge the basic tenants of the Westphalian world order, but reverse the recent western-led trend of breaching sovereignty, a process that Stephen Krasner coined as “Compromising Westphalia”.[27]

This process is already visible in practice and manifested in China’s initiative to build its own set of regional and international institutions. Among these are the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank launched in 2014 or the New Development Bank initiated in 2015.
Both were created with Chinese participation and have attracted a large audience since their inception. Unlike the western-led International Monetary Fund and World Bank, these institutions do not put conditions on development funds and thus offer aid irrespective of domestic political and economic structure. Appealing to a broad base of post-colonial countries, these institutions have given China agenda-setting and convening power of its own.

A further example of a foreign policy that manifests non-interventionism is China’s trajectory in terms of humanitarian intervention. When the international community opted to intervene in Libya in 2011 to end the Libyan Civil War, China as well as Russia abstained from voting upon UN Security Council Resolution 1973. One reason for China’s abstention is her tendency to rule out intervention in humanitarian crises. With the endorsement of the “Responsibility to Protect” the concept of state sovereignty was redefined in 2005. Previously considered a right, sovereignty was reinvigorated as a responsibility, contingent upon the ability and willingness to guarantee the protection of one’s citizens’ security and wellbeing.[28] Provided any respective state fails to do so, the international community has the legitimate responsibility to intervene. China has traditionally shown reluctance towards joining this trend of pushing back the boundaries of sovereignty in protection of human security.[29] The People’s Republic of China will continue to advocate the principle of state sovereignty in order to hinder the global imposition of a western human rights system.

This will have some serious consequences for the governance of threats relating to human security, such as human rights abuses and global health crises. It will be interesting how China will address this sovereignty-human rights dilemma.


The rise of China may be the most defining political phenomenon of the 21st century. This essay has attempted to cast some light on the consequences of this development for the future of world order. In doing so, this essay has critically assessed the origin and distribution of the Westphalian world order as a universal concept based on a community of equally sovereign states. Having supressed the traditional Chinese vision of order in a colonial struggle, the future fate of the Westphalian state system may be in question especially considering that post-colonial China has gathered the resources to institutionalize her vision of order.

 When determining whether a rising China will spoil the old and establish a new concept of world order (which this essay referred to as a Tian-xia system), this essay pays attention to thinkers such as Zhao, who seek inspiration from ancient Chinese political thought to guide the contemporary exercise of Chinese power. This discipline remains highly under-thought.[30]  Concluding that Chinese officials are neither willing nor able to implement Zhao’s Tian-xia system, Beijing commits to the preservation of Westphalian sovereignty. Although not being a revolutionary power – discontent with the architecture of the existing order -, China shall not be considered as a status-quo power – content to preserve the U.S.-led liberal world order. The governance of human security issues has created space for interventionist policies which are essentially post-Westphalian as they pushed back the pushback on the boundaries of sovereignty.  Based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Resistance, China will attempt to gather support among fellow post-colonial nations to counter the wester trend of breaching sovereignty. In that sense the rise of China could recalibrate the meaning of sovereignty, to the extent that a Pax-Sinica would therefore be more Westphalian that the current Pax-Americana.

[1] OECD, “Developments in individual OECD and selected non-member economies,” OECD Economic Outlook,

   Vol. 2017, No. 2 (2017), p. 121. Accessed 23rd March 2018 at: <


[2] Callahan W.A., “Chinese Visions of World Order: Post-hegemonic or New Hegemony?” International Studies

  Review, Vol. 10, (2008), p. 749.

[3] Zhao, S., “China as a Rising Power Versus the US-led World Order,” Rising Powers Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1

  (2016), p. 13.

[4] Krasner, S., “Compromising Westphalia,” International Security, Vol. 20, No. 3 (1995-1996), p. 115.

[5] Ibid., p. 256.

[6] Ibid., p. 175.

[7] Mitter, R., Modern China – A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 21.

[8] Teufler Dreyer, J., (2015), p. 1020.

[9] Legge, J., The Chinese Classics (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960), p. 52.

[10] Cited in Campbell, K.M. & Ratner, E., “The China Reckoning,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 97, No.2 (2018), p. 67.

[11] Gray, K & Murphy, C.N., “Introduction: Rising powers and the future of global governance,” Third World

    Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1, (2013), p. 187.

[12] Zhao, T., (2009), p. 8.

[13] Ibid., p. 12

[14] Editorial, “The Chinese dream infuses socialism with Chinese characteristics, with new energy”, Qiushi


[15] Jacques, M., When China rules the world: the end of the western world and the birth of a new global order (New York: Penguin, 2009), p. 175.

[16] Roy, D., “China’s Military Rise,” in Denny Roy Return of the Dragon: Rising China and Regional Security

   (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), p. 70.

[17] Kissinger, H., (2014), p. 216.

[18] Editorial, “Five years on, Xiplomacy is reshaping China’s global role for a better world,” Quishi (2018),

   Available at: <;.

[19] Kagan, R., “What China Knows That We Don’t: The Case for a New Strategy of Containment,” Carnegie –

    Endowment for International Peace, Available at: <


[20] Zhao, T., “Rethinking Empire from a Chinese Concept “All-under-Heaven” (Tian-xia),” Social Identities Vol.

    12, No. 1 (2006), p. 30.

[21] Ikenberry, J.G., Liberal Leviathan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 122.

[22] Ibid., p. 123

[23] Ikenberry, J.G., “The Rise of China: Power, Institutions, and the Western Order,” in R.S. Ross and Z. Feng,

    China’s Ascent, Power Security, and the Future of International Politics (New York: Cornell University

    Press, 2008), p. 90.

[24] Callahan W.A., (2008), p. 759.

[25] Jiaboa, W., Premier, State Council P.R.C., Carrying Forward the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence in

    the Promotion of Peace and Development, Address Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Five

    Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (June 28, 2004), Available at:

    < t14077.htm>.

[26] Chang-Fa, L., “Values to Be Added to an Eastphalia Order by the Emerging China,” Indiana Journal for

    Global Legal Studies Vol. 17, No. 1 (2010), p. 18.

[27] Krasner, S (1995-1996).

[28] International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2011).

[29] Davis, J.E., “From Ideology to Pragmatism: China’s Position on Humanitarian Intervention in the Post-Cold War Era,” Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Vol. 44, No. 2 (2011), p. 253.

[30] Xuetong, Y., Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2011), p. 245.


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