When Two Orders Meet

What the emergence of a China-led regional order means for its relations with the West

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China’s discontent with the Liberal International Order (LIO) is well-documented. Yet, limited order-building efforts including the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) and the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative aside, less is known about what China would consider a preferable alternative. More interestingly, the fact that China engages in order-building of its own suggests the possibility of two coexisting and overlapping orders, a development in line with predictions that the future will see not one global international order, but a “world of regions,”[1] marked by a multiplex of overlapping regional orders, or “thick bounded orders” within a “thin international order.”[2] China’s contestation of the LIO and its concurrent order-building efforts raise questions about not only the characteristics of a China-led regional order but also the management of interactions between states across the boundaries of these two orders. 

I define international order a set of institutions and rules around a collection of norms. In other words, we can think of orders having a normative and a procedural dimension. The normative content of an order captures the values held by its members and defines the range of desirable outcomes. The procedural dimension defines the proper processes through which the normative goals are to be realized. International orders influence the behavior of their members by imposing “ethical and institutional restraints on agents’ freedom of action.”[3] What makes the prospect of a Chinese regional order coexisting alongside the LIO worthy of investigation is that differences in their characteristics are likely to generate diverging behavioral expectations towards their members, raising questions about how such differences are managed. 

How would a China-led regional order in East Asia differ from the order that governs relations between the world’s liberal democracies? And how might China and the US and its European allies, each at the helm of a different regional order, engage each other? This essay sketches the relevant characteristics of the LIO and three possible models of an emerging Chinese-led regional order to assess their compatibility and incompatibility, as well as what that could mean for the future of relations between China and the West.

The LIO and its competitors 

While there is a lively and open-ended debate about the nature of the LIO, it can broadly be defined as a system of global governance “organized around economic openness, multilateral institutions, security cooperation and democratic solidarity.” Its supporters frequently point to high levels of economic prosperity and the absence of great power wars in defense of the LIO.[4] By contrast, its critics have argued that it is “neither liberal, nor international, nor very orderly,” or point out that the claimed benefits were unevenly distributed at the expense of the third world, often by violent means. 

However, among the Western liberal democracies that constitute the core of the LIO, states’ behavior is largely consistent with its normative goals and institutional framework. As voluntary members in this order, liberal democracies share a commitment to international peace and security, free trade, and liberal norms including universal human rights. Multilateral diplomacy, conducted at sector-specific international organizations, and contractual international law constitute its fundamental institutions. Regardless of the unprecedented degree of institutionalization, the LIO retains a so-called ‘Westphalian’ component by defining sovereign states as its primary constituents.

Any attempt at evaluating the future relationship between a Chinese-led regional order and the LIO quickly runs up against the problem that this order is only slowly emerging and many of its potential features are yet unknown. In fact, “The Chinese leadership has not offered an explicit description of the world order it would like to see emerge, the kinds of changes it would like to see occur, or the types of mechanisms, institutions, norms, and rules that it would like to see arise as part of a new international system under its helm.” Nevertheless, three distinct visions of how such an order may look have emerged among scholars and policy-makers.

Liberal order with Chinese characteristics

A first model of a future China-led regional order can be termed ‘liberal order with Chinese characteristics.’ In this scenario, China is seen more as a reformer than a revisionist actor. As China gains in influence vis-à-vis the US and its European allies, it seeks to re-negotiate institutional arrangements commensurate with its status. Where China finds its path blocked, it might engage in institution-building that seeks to rival and/or replace existing institutions. A liberal order with Chinese characteristics would see the preservation of the liberal economic order, but with a stronger emphasis on national sovereignty in international law and a significant dampening of multilateralism and political integration.

By preserving the institution of sovereignty and most of the institutional structure, a liberal order with Chinese characteristics would differ from the LIO mostly in terms of its normative content. A doctrine of strict noninterference would likely replace the conditional nature of sovereignty that underlies the ‘responsibility to protect’. A China-led regional order of this type would also see liberal universalist claims reversed in favor of a framework more respectful and accommodating of "civilizational differences." In international law, China might try to shape international legal norms and advance its own interpretations of international law that need not match that of the US or Europe.

Two main arguments speak for this model. First, Beijing’s ascendancy to superpower status heavily relied on its integration into the liberal economic order and economic growth continues to be a major force for domestic stability. Second, China is lacking a viable alternative because most states favor the existing liberal order, its imperfections notwithstanding. 

Illiberal hegemony 

Alternatively, China could engage in more wide-ranging efforts to build a regional hegemonic order to its liking. Like other great powers before it, China is likely to design this order in its own image, giving the order a decidedly illiberal and authoritarian character. First, this order would be illiberal in the sense that its normative content would be informed by China’s domestic political system, prioritizing stability and national unity over individual freedom, self-determination, and human rights. Instead of promoting democracy abroad, China might engage in exporting technologies that facilitate authoritarian ruleincluding facial recognition software. Second, China would likely work actively to exclude rivals from the region, seeking the withdrawal of US troops from Japan and Korea, unification with Taiwan, and the resolution of territorial conflicts in its favor. Finally, China’s current emphasis on state-sovereignty and noninterference is likely to lose out against a more active involvement in the domestic affairs of other states, with the goal of shaping their policies to China’s liking.

On the procedural dimension, China might seek leadership positions in the UN and other international organizations—not as a responsible stakeholder but as a way of furthering its hegemonic ambitions. Thus, international organizations and international law could remain part of an emerging illiberal order. However, they would largely be political tools doing China’s bidding. Multilateral diplomacy and international law might partly give way to more coercive forms of governance. Unlike in a liberal order with Chinese characteristics, China would abandon economic liberalism in favor of economic coercion and state-led development. China’s ability to govern would rest on economic dependencies that would give it leverage over other states’ policy choices. The case of the port of Sri Lanka—in possession of China after the Sri Lankan government could not service its debt—is just one example of what some have called “debt-trap diplomacy.”

The big question mark behind this model is whether it can attract much buy-in from others. As international orders built on coercion alone are rarely durable, China would have to attract at least some like-minded followers to make this model feasible.

Return of the ‘tribute system’? 

A final version of a future China-led regional order may be informed by a more distant past. From 1368-1841, China was at the center of a hierarchical political order in East Asia that has become known as the ‘tribute’ or ‘tributary’ system.[5]This order was built on Confucian values and the fundamental institutions of investiture and tribute. A most important feature of this order—as opposed to the principle of sovereign equality of states in the current international system—was its hierarchical organization, placing China in the center, with its tributary states arranged around it in concentric circles. A new version of this order could once again see China atop a hierarchical organization of relations, albeit a lot more open to accommodate non-Confucian societies. In a modern version of the tribute system, closeness to the core would thus be understood in terms of geographic distance and affinity, rather than a shared Confucian values. The normative dimension of such an order would likely be informed by cultural historical concepts such as tianxia—‘all under heaven’—which has recently experienced a resurgence among Chinese intellectuals and political elites. Envisioning a unified world with China at its center, this model would constitute a clear alternative to the sovereign territorial state at the core of the LIO.[6] Replicating the rimless hub-and-spoke configuration of its predecessor, a modern version of the tribute system would see China manage its relations with other countries primarily on a bilateral basis, though institutions such as investiture and tribute are unlikely to return in their old form. Similarly, in place of legalized international politics, this type of order could see a greater role for ritual and symbolism.

Sources of compatibility and incompatibility

While membership in an international order comes with certain behavioral expectations, they can and have to be somewhat flexible to manage diversity within them. Nevertheless, the larger these differences are, the more difficult it might be to manage them and hence the more likely conflictual relations may become. Given the above sketches, to what extent are the LIO and the different versions of a future China-led regional order compatible or incompatible with one another? That is, what can we expect from cross-order interactions? 

A liberal order with Chinese characteristics would remain largely compatible with the LIO in the sense that differences in the normative content of the respective orders could still be managed through multilateral institutions, even if ‘to be managed’ does not necessarily mean ‘to be resolved’. Moreover, smaller states would have relatively little difficulty navigating back and forth between these two orders. 

A China-led regional order characterized by illiberal hegemony carries more potential for conflict, leading some to liken the current state of US-China bilateral relations to a New Cold War, reminiscent of the last time two distinct international orders coexisted in the global international system. Others have pointed out the limits of this analogy, citing the absence of a deep ideological struggle and the strong interdependence of their economies. Should China decide to pursue this model, we should expect increasing and more forceful challenges of not only the normative content of the LIO, but also its institutions. China’s domestic political system is “at odds with key aspects of the system, particularly the emphasis on political liberalism and rules-based multilateralism.” China might engage in unilateral action and counter the interests of liberal democracies more often or prefer bilateral solutions instead.

The tributary model constitutes the starkest contrast with the LIO. In fact, the international relations literature classifies the Chinese tribute system and the modern sovereign states system as polar opposites.[7] A history of unequal treaties and the forced opening of China and Japan at the hands of the British and Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century paint a grim picture for the future of US-EU-China relations. However, even if China should succeed in reconstructing a hierarchically ordered tribute system, a violent clash is not inevitable. Prior to the ascendancy of the European powers in the nineteenth century, interactions across the two systems were characterized by a much more even distribution of power. Unlike later interactions, these initial encounters were not purely conflictual, but rather characterized by “negotiation and borrowing.”[8] While often being characterized as collisions of incompatible conceptions of order, these encounters exhibited a high degree of innovation and adaptation. Arguably, now, much like then, power is distributed more symmetrically than it was in the nineteenth century.


Given the evolving nature of this issue, this is not the place for either predictions or conclusions. However, the above analysis suggests that the most likely scenario for relations between China and Western liberal democracies is neither a seamless incorporation or socialization into one nor the other order, or a clash between completely incompatible orders. Instead, the sketches provided here suggest that there are areas of convergence as well as divergence on both process and content between the different types of order. Moreover, even where differences are large and the two worldviews seem incompatible, interactions between members of different international orders could become productive opportunities for the development of new institutions to manage their differences. To determine where things are headed, here are some elements we should pay attention to.

First, we should pay close attention to how China’s understanding of international order, its place in it, and preference for one or the other model evolves. Both China’s rhetoric and actions—especially its evolving strategy of working through international organizations and law—should offer important information allowing us to assess the likelihood of each of the models.

Second, changes in the global distribution of identity will be important determinants of the character of a future China-led order. Preferences for one type of order over another are to a large extent determined by domestic politics. As more states trend toward authoritarianism, China’s illiberal hegemony may attract more followers.

Third, what Western democracies choose to do over the next few years and decades is no less important than the development of China’s preferences. The emergence of a China-led regional order in East Asia might be inevitable. The consequences for the relationship between the US-EU-China are not. Rather than seeking to prevent a China-led regional order at all costs, efforts should be focused on buttressing multilateral diplomacy and international law.

Finally, instead of engaging in doom-forecasting, analysts should pay more attention to the mechanisms of pragmatic accommodation and adaptation through which both sides (attempt to) manage their differences. While the future of international order may be characterized by multiple regional orders, various world regions will inevitably remain connected and likely require some sort of ‘thin’ global framework to guide and govern interactions across their boundaries. What factors enable or prevent peaceful management of differences? What norms and institutional forms will accommodation and adaptation converge on? Those questions seem to be a lot more productive than asking whether conflict between the West and China is inevitable.


[1] Andrew Phillips, War, Religion and Empire: The Transformation of International Orders (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 319.

[2] John J. Mearsheimer, “Bound to Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Liberal International Order,” International Security 43, no. 4 (2019): 44.

[3] Phillips, War, Religion and Empire, 20.

[4] On July 23, 2018, 42 prominent international relations scholars published an add/open letter entitled “Why we should preserve international institutions and order” in the New York Times. “Why We Should Preserve International Institutions and Order,” New York Times, July 23, 2018.

[5] David C. Kang, East Asia before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

[6] Daniel A. Bell, “Realizing Tianxia: Traditional Values and China’s Foreign Policy,” in Chinese Visions of World Order: Tianxia, Culture, and World Politics, ed. Ban Wang (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 129–46.

[7] Kang, East Asia before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute.

[8] Timothy Brook, Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008).

About the Author

Frieder Dengler is a doctoral student in International Relations. His research interests include international orders and systems, global governance, historical international relations, and IR theory. Frieder's current research focuses on the processes and outcomes of system encounters. Specifically, his research investigates the role of system characteristics in shaping interactions between polities across system-boundaries, and to what extent system encounters serve as a site for the development of new rules and institutions. Empirically, Frieder's focus is on the encounters between different inter-state systems during the early modern period.