Democracies versus autocracies: this was the story of the G7 and NATO summits held in the past few days, according to the international media. In this regard, we have a very clear idea of what the American idea of international order is—and we have seen many applications of it as well—but very little is said about the Chinese one. China is always assumed to have a hegemonic will and to be aimed at disrupting the current network of relations between states.
It is therefore important to go beyond noting Beijing’s usual protests and examine one aspect: what idea of the future of the international order does China have? One of the cornerstones of the Chinese idea of international order is sovereignty. Emphasizing the concepts of sovereignty and respect for the sovereignty of others serves as a way for Beijing to demand that others do the same for China, i.e., not interfere in its internal affairs.
As for the international order, the Chinese position is quite clear: we have lived for years under the American hegemony—the Chinese claim—which has designed international relations in a certain manner: that is, using Western values to evaluate any state.
According to China, this “world” has changed. For example, Beijing says that each country is free to pursue “its own national path to modernity and to reject Western ideological influences. This leads to the rejection of the idea that a global order must necessarily be founded on a common normative root and on common values, such as democracy, liberalism and human rights” (as Matteo Dian excellently explains in La Cina gli Stati Uniti e il futuro dell’ordine internazionale, published by Il Mulino).
Given these premises, according to China, the new order should be based on peaceful cooperation and harmony: Beijing thinks that without trying to change the political systems of others, there would be no problems.
However, all this presupposes another concept: tianxia (literally “everything under the sky”). As Chinese jurist Liang Zhiping writes, in a very precise definition, “tianxia describes an effective universal moral order without geographical or ethnic limits.”
Obviously, this is a China-centric order, dating back to the imperial era. Underlying tianxia was the recognition of China as a superior civilization, expressed through tribute. Today, this theory is back in fashion, because Xi Jinping has connected the history of the CCP to that of ancient Chinese history, making the Party into the guardian of all Chinese history and its highest interpreter in contemporary times, and the element of continuity of Chinese greatness.
This is the foundation for the concept of “harmonious society” to be extended to international relations; here is how the “Chinese dream” becomes the dream of a “community of shared destiny.”
In practice, China’s message is twofold: that it is a benevolent power that wants to put itself in the paternalistic role of leader of a new order governed by the concept of “win-win,” of which China is the guide and guarantee. And that China is no longer a country to be “integrated” into the order wanted by the Americans and the West, because today, having reached the status of world power, it can be itself the creator of a new order based not on values considered universal (which the Chinese, and others, don’t consider to be such), but on cooperation aimed at the growth of the economies and welfare of all countries.
It may seem a somewhat naïve, or even devious, vision, and it obviously raises many questions and dilemmas, but at the moment—and this is the strength of the Chinese proposal—it does not presuppose a “model” to be exported either by high or low means. And this vision can be rejected, of course. But it cannot be disregarded or ignored.