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Are we talking about the same global order?

China’s role in the international system was the topic of a MERICS panel at this year’s Munich Security Conference. Participants in the debate titled “Doubling Down? China and the International Order(s)” showed sympathy for China’s creation of new international economic institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). At the same time, the Western panellists demanded a bigger Chinese effort in resolving the nuclear crisis with North Korea within the UN system.

In his introductory words, MERICS President Sebastian Heilmann described China’s growing role in global affairs as illustrating “the hopes and limitations” of the search for a new international framework that can guarantee stability and prosperity. “China is often perceived as intentionally upsetting the post-Cold War global order,” he said, citing the country’s “novel and ambitious” foreign policy initiatives, from the establishment of the AIIB to the One Belt, One Road project, also known as the New Silk Road, with which China hopes to build a new trading corridor through Central Asia.

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China’s delegation leader Fu Ying, Chairwoman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the National People's Congress, challenged this perception and framed the ensuing debate by asking: “Are we talking about the same global order?”

Answering to Western concerns about China creating parallel or even competing international institutions, Fu defended these initiatives as “new public goods that China is offering” and as fixes to a broken international system.

Australia’s former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pointed out China’s frustration over the stalled reform of the quota system in the Western-dominated Bretton Woods institutions, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. “If they fear that the doors are locked on them, they go outside,” said Rudd who now heads the Asia Society’s Policy Institute. Speaking from a US perspective, Robert Corker, the Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed regret over the fact that the US had fought the establishment of the AIIB even when European governments were signing on. “We probably should have played a more positive role in the AIIB,” he said.

Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen expressed his support for China’s economic initiatives in the region, and warned that the Transpacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), which his government just signed with the U.S. and ten other Pacific-rim states, should not be perceived as an anti-China trade law but should remain open to China.

“China’s leadership role in international affairs is a given,” Ng commented on China’s overall role in global affairs. “China’s role in setting norms and new rules is critical.” Yet, he also had a demand for the leadership in Beijing: “China must now articulate its vision for the new global order.” Fu addressed these concerns in her opening remarks: ”As our capability improves, we will be able to do more to the region and the world. In the meantime, China needs to learn and also to better communicate with the world.”

Her extensive prepared statement was an attempt to do just that. Fu described the current US-led world order as based on three pillars: the promotion of Western values, the system of military alignments, and international institutions such as the United Nations. She described China as firmly rooted within the latter, and she cited the success of last year’s climate conference in Paris as a result of China and the US working together through the UN.

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“At the UN, we are seeing an increasingly activist China,” Rudd agreed, quoting China’s President Xi Jinping as saying that China did not want to sit in the back of the bus, but to ride the bus. Yet, there were doubts as to whether China was willing to climb into the driver’s seat when it comes to solving the North Korean nuclear crisis, the global crisis closest to its own borders, and a topic which could evolve “from one big issue to the big issue in the US-China relationship,” as Rudd predicted.

US Senator Corker accused China of blocking a UN resolution to impose tougher sanctions on North Korea, which recently claimed it had successfully conducted a test of a miniaturized hydrogen nuclear device. North Korea would be the best place for China to prove that it is ready to take on more global responsibilities, he said, referring to China’s leverage over North Korea, which depends on China’s economic support.

Fu countered that China was still interested in working out a compromise for a new UN resolution, pointing to a meeting between Foreign Minister Wang Yi and US Secretary of State John Kerry that had taken place in Munich the previous day.

But she also echoed Wang’s opposition to US plans to deploy a THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) missile defence system in South Korea. China views these plans as a threat to its own security in the region.

The dispute between Fu and Corker continued into the question session with the audience and was a reminder of how differently China’s international role is interpreted in Washington and in Beijing. After several rounds of back and forth, Rudd offered his vision of a grand bargain on North Korea: China would have to apply pressure on its neighbour by threatening to withdraw energy support and aid to North Korea’s military. At the same time, the US would have to reassess its military posture in South Korea.

But by then the heated debate had made it amply clear that such a bargain will only be possible once China and the US mean the same thing when they talk about global order.

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