The World According to China

Susann Handke

News items beyond the war-torn headlines of Summer 2022 confirmed that China’s reach and impact are global. Its influence is felt worldwide in the politico-economic, security, and legal realms. An Afrobarometer poll showed that in many countries (e.g., Kenya, Angola, South Africa, Ethiopia, Morocco, and Nigeria), a majority of the people thought that their governments had borrowed too much from China. Meanwhile, people around the world feared that debris from an uncontrolled Chinese space rocket could strike populated areas. Understanding China’s vision for the world is undoubtedly of great import, in particular when China’s stance seems to be ambivalent or when its actions violate international norms.

Closer to home, China’s presence is bolstered by its military capacity. This is where “the world according to China” is already on display. In mid-2022, people living along the Chinese-Bhutanese border watched helplessly as China finished the construction of a village on Bhutanese territory. This land grab occurred a few kilometres east of the Doklam Plateau, where in 2017 a violent clash between Chinese and Indian troops left dozens of soldiers dead. China builds villages to legitimise territorial claims in these remote mountains, despite the fact that in the South China Sea, analogous efforts that included the transformation of reefs into artificial islands failed to legitimise China’s territorial claims, following a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

At the international level, Chinese officials bend procedural rules and re-envision the substantive nature of cooperating within intergovernmental institutions, both resembling the inconsiderate application of legal norms and the social engineering that they administer at home. By mid-2022, discontent among the members of the Food and Agriculture Organization was growing. Several member states had questioned the legitimacy of Qu Dongyu’s election to director-general in 2019. They also expressed their dissatisfaction with the delay of an inspection of the organisation’s functioning by an independent UN body. Moreover, they uttered their bafflement about the use of the organisation’s data-collection tool to track “social unrest” in the world.

As said, these examples of China’s actions are just a collection of news items that media outlets covered during the summer of 2022. To make sense of the underlying developments and China’s goals to shape global affairs, Elizabeth Economy’s book is a worthwhile and indispensable primer. She aspired for her book to accomplish a bold undertaking: explaining Chinese President Xi Jinping’s playbook to realise the country’s “rejuvenation” and the consequences thereof for the rest of the world. The result is a comprehensive and at the same time accessible study that starts with one of those setbacks that the leadership under President Xi is prone to inflict upon itself: during the most acute phase of the coronavirus pandemic, China first sought to supply countries in need with personal protective equipment, and then it allowed some wolf warrior diplomats to bark at foreign leaders who wanted an independent investigation into the pandemic’s origins.

Economy then discusses how China exerts its influence internationally, both in bilateral relations and multilateral settings (Chapter 2). The book subsequently describes the vision that China’s communist leadership embraces regarding the political and territorial aspects of the “motherland’s” rejuvenation (Chapter 3). It then proceeds to China’s efforts to reshape the international political economy, focusing on various elements of the Belt and Road Initiative and activities of Chinese officials to merge this initiative’s evolution with the rules that govern the provision of global public goods (Chapters 4-6). The book’s final chapter suggests suitable responses to China’s multi-pronged international posture. This well-researched account thus combines an analysis of the diverse forms of China’s presence abroad, the means Chinese officials deploy to realise their leadership’s ambitions, and the vision of global governance that President Xi pursues.

China’s “rejuvenation,” as President Xi advances this concept, forms the context for his country’s contemporary encounter with the world. No doubt, its realisation “by 2050” will not merely be a domestic affair, mainly because it will include the integration of the island of Taiwan, which in its history was never administered by the Chinese Communist Party. An incorporation of Taiwan into the political system of the People’s Republic of China raises multiple regional and transcontinental security concerns. Accordingly, Xi’s vision is of global interest. Moreover, the Chinese leadership’s efforts to create a conducive international environment for the rejuvenation project is currently impacting many norms of global governance.

In her assessment of China’s global presence, Economy includes recent developments that pertain to the construction of physical infrastructure, the digital sphere, and the Chinese leadership’s pursuit of obtaining a standard-setting monopoly for technologies that are expected to shape the future.

To achieve its objectives, the Chinese leadership relies on the leverage that the country has accrued after decades of vast economic growth and China’s worldwide presence. For many countries, China has emerged as the biggest trading partner. Some have borrowed billions of dollars. Under such circumstances, implying economic coercion usually suffices to secure vital votes in international forums. Hard power is involved when territorial claims are concerned. Co-opting international institutions and adding to their output Chinese communist concepts of global governance is another activity. These efforts are part of a long-term process – an endeavour that might eventually have profound consequences.

Given the book’s thorough analysis, students of China’s role in international affairs will find it an essential read. Scholars who explore the changing international system will benefit from the author’s expertise in China’s domestic political affairs and her choice not to present China’s influence on the international system as a reiteration of the usual narrative – e.g., that of a rising power versus another superpower’s decline. There is one scholarly community that needs to embrace this book as compulsory reading: people who study and practice international law. As Economy shows, more often than not, China’s global impact materialises in legal grey zones. Legal norms remain intact, but the procedural or substantive context in which they are effectuated is being changed. Informed vigilance on the part of lawyers is vital to preclude the administration and adjudication of international affairs in accordance with Chinese rules. Reading this book helps one understand China’s worldview and contemplate a meaningful response.