The limits and promises of international liberal norms on China

Robin Michael Garcia
President Duterte’s more engaging stance toward China is the way to go

Those who had hoped that the Philippines winning the arbitration case will immediately resolve this whole issue of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) will be disappointed.

China’s statements before and after the ruling give us some sense of how they will remain recalcitrant. More importantly as the prominent political scientist Graham Allison recently pointed out: not one member of the United Nations Security Council in recent history has ever obeyed an unfavorable ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). The United States, the most vocal rhetor of the “rule of law”, might be worse than China: it has not even ratified the Law of the Sea which serves as the basis for capacity of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) to adjudicate. 

But while this is a grim view, we must take it with a grain of salt: the world will remember that a poor and significantly less powerful country will not kowtow to the Goliaths of this world and that money is less important than honor, dignity and courage.

Perhaps most importantly, international politics is not just about material power as Graham Allison implicitly suggests. Ideas, values and norms have some power in shaping the behaviour of states. There is good empirical evidence to support this claim: from human rights, to environmental policy and even to the rise of bureaucratic organizations to promote scientific research. 

China and international liberal norms 

But for close to two decades now, one of the central problems being investigated by scholars of international politics who believe international norms can affect states behavior is the issue of under what circumstances and strategies can ideas, norms and values emanating from the international society affect the behaviour of states towards some desirable (liberal) end domestically and hence come back and shape their behaviour internationally. By importing perspectives from social and cognitive psychology, several prominent perspectives have emerged. 

First, international norms affect states because of the reputational costs they may incur by not following. Status and the prestige of belonging to the liberal society of states are as important as guns and money in the pursuit of power. This is what the Philippines under Benigno Aquino III, by filing a case hoped to achieve. The problem however is that not all states want to “belong” and they are perfectly happy to not be the very social friend. China’s authoritarian resilience and all the non-democratic practices it brings (human rights violations for example) suggests that it is the friend that is not very social. Moreover, evidence suggests that for international liberal norms to be imbibed by states, it must first have a strong affinity to pre-existing domestic institutions and cultures. 

A second perspective is that international institutions and advocacy networks can name and shame these states and pressure them to abide by the norms. Sometimes, they partner up with powerful domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who can insert this shaming agenda in domestic democratic processes. Here the costs become higher: the survival of their regimes is hinged precisely on whether they follow the norms and rules or not. Another strand here is much more international: institutions can withhold precious material incentives like loans, trade, FDI, military assistance etc. The oft-cited examples of the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) threat of withholding funds to developing counties if they do not accept the norms of capitalism and “good governance” are instructive. These too may have some limitations: China is neither democratic nor are they in need of western cash.

If there is any reason why China continues to be authoritarian it is that most people have accepted this as a way of life: the CCP is legitimate. On the other hand, China has loads of money which suggests not only that they do not get easily threatened by economic threats from the west (it may actually be the other way around), but also that they can indirectly influence other non-democratic states to remain non-democratic because it can give them the economic incentives without the threat of having to follow any norm when these states ask help from them. This is exactly what the whole One Belt One Road initiative can provide (OBOR). 

The logic of the two mechanisms above is aptly described by the phrase of a known psychologist, Leon Festinger: “public conformity without private acceptance”. But cost and benefit calculation seems not to apply to China. 

Sustained dialogue

So how can we make states and China privately accept international liberal norms? The answer is to persuade China so it can “learn.” 

The world has some achievements in ushering China to the international liberal world order. The rise of economic liberalism in the 1980’s that begun in the United States under Ronald Reagan and the United Kingdom under Margaret Thatcher seem to correlate with Deng Xiaoping’s decision to open up China almost at the same time. This culminated in the decision of China to join World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. Another example is when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) enshrined in its constitution in 2002 that entrepreneurs or “capitalists” can be members of the Communist Party. However maybe a limitation could be that Xi Jinping is reviving the authoritarian shades China almost once shed during the previous leadership. 

This is a hard and long mechanism for we have to reform not just China’s means-ends calculation towards its national interest but more importantly to reform China’s conception of national interest to begin with: its identity. This is done through continuous interaction and dialogue over a sustained period. Persuasion and learning can be facilitated if we use the language of China. 

Where do we go from here? 

A significant venue for persuasion and learning is the ASEAN for the reason that it had always held some of the norms that China holds dearly at least in rhetoric: consensual, cooperative dialogue and non-interventionism.

If we use its language, there may be more chances that we change the way China interacts with the rest of its neighbours and improve its receptivity to international liberal norms. Thus, President Duterte’s more engaging stance toward China is the way to go. However, it is not enough to simply engage but thorough interaction should be established as a norm. The United States should also continue to focus on its soft instead of its hard power. The arbitral tribunal is thus just the first of many steps. –


The author is a doctoral candidate in politics and  international relations at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs (SIRPA), Fudan University Shanghai, China