China just co-created the world’s biggest trade block. So is China’s New World Order already here?

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is only the latest of many new multilateral institutions created by China. An alternative to the American-led liberal international order looks increasingly viable, suggests Matthew Stephen

Last week’s signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) brings China’s continued embrace of multilateralism into stark relief.

While the United States under President Trump has recoiled from multilateral institutions and jettisoned its much-touted Trans-Pacific Partnership, China and fourteen other Asia-Pacific countries have just created the largest preferential trading zone in history, encompassing 30% of the world’s population and around a third of global GDP.

China and fourteen other Asia-Pacific countries have just created the largest preferential trading zone in history

While the RCEP is a relatively shallow trade agreement and is less 'comprehensive' than it sounds, it is a major symbolic victory in China’s attempt to reorient the world order.

But as I discuss in a recent publication, the RCEP is only the latest milestone in China’s longstanding efforts to build a range of new multilateral agreements and institutions alongside existing ones.

From joining to building

For a long time, China was focused on joining established multilateral institutions. China observed. China learned. Many thought that by engaging with existing institutions, China would be 'socialised' into the established way of doing things.

But under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China’s foreign policy has thrown the old maxim of 'biding and hiding' overboard. In its place, the Chinese state has been instructed to push for a leadership role in global affairs, and to 'take an active part in leading the reform of the global governance system'.

China is no longer content to 'join' the existing global order but is constructing its own multilateral infrastructure

In fact, China’s efforts to create a new multilateral architecture is much more advanced than many people assume. Over the last two decades China has been involved in the creation of a series of new multilateral institutional initiatives in its region and beyond. These cover the full gamut of issues of international order, from traditional issues of trade, finance and security to newer issues such as internet governance and human rights.

This suggests that China is no longer content to 'join' the existing global order but is constructing its own multilateral infrastructure. For some observers, such initiatives suggest that 'China’s foreign policy is working systematically towards a realignment of the international order.' An overview of China’s new multilateral institutional initiatives between 1990 and 2017 suggests this is the case:

China's multilateral institutional initiatives, 1990–2017

China's role
1992 Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) Founding member
1994 Asia-Pacific Legal Metrology Forum (APLMF) Founding member
1996 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Founding member
1997 International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) Founding member
1997 ASEAN Plus Three (APT) Founding member
1999 Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Africa (CICA) Founding member
2000 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Leading role
2001 Boao Forum Leading role
2002 Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) Founding member
2004 China-Arab States Cooperation Forum Leading role
2005 China-Caribbean Economic and Trade Cooperation Forum (CCETCF) Leading role
2009 BRICS Leading role
2012 Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries (17+1, formerly 16+1) Leading role
2014 World Internet Conference Leading role
2015 Forum of China and Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (China-CELAC Forum) Leading role
2016 Lancang Mekong Cooperation Framework Leading role
2015 New Development Bank (NDB) Founding member
2016 Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) Leading role
2016 ASEAN +3 Macroeconomic Research Office (AMRO) Founding member
2017 Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation Leading role
2017 South-South Human Rights Forum Leading role

A competing world order?

While most observers see China’s new multilateral institutions as an important development in Chinese foreign policy with significant implications for international order, there is little agreement on what these implications are.

Does China’s interest in multilateralism and willingness to construct new institutions indicate support for a rules-based, institutionalised international order, or is it a sign of dissatisfaction with the institutional status quo and a revisionist agenda for global governance?

The answer is 'it depends'. Some of China’s new institutions are likely to complement existing multilateral institutions, while others will substitute or compete with them.

Although it is tempting to think of China’s new institutions as engaged in an institutional rivalry with existing ones, this need not be the case. For example, institutions like the Asia-Pacific Legal Metrology Forum and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia were created largely to fill institutional vacuums. Others, such as the New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, have a greater potential to become alternatives and rivals to established institutions such as the Asian Development Bank.

Some of China’s new institutions may also promote values that are at odds with those of established institutions, but not necessarily all. Formats such as the World Internet Conference and the South-South Human Rights Forum appear designed primarily to promote China’s preferred norms of 'internet sovereignty' and prioritising the collective 'right to development' over individual human rights. But others, such as the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization or the newly created RCEP, appear largely to reproduce the norms and practices of existing institutions in their policy fields' existing norms.

The take-away

It is important not to jump to premature conclusions about China’s new multilateral initiatives or simply to assume that they are designed to compete with and erode existing institutions. At the same time, it would be naïve to assume that they are simply new additions to an increasingly crowded landscape of international forums and institutions.

Depending on how China’s foreign policy evolves, these initiatives could become important mechanisms by which China can influence the norms and rules of global governance.

Looking ahead, China’s new multilateral institutions are likely to play an increasingly prominent role as global rivalries between the United States and China intensify. The American-led, liberal international order is not the only game in town.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Matthew Stephen
Matthew Stephen
Senior Researcher in the Global Governance Department at WZB Berlin Social Science Center

Matthew's research focuses on international power shifts, international institutions, and the politics of legitimacy.

He has published articles in leading journals such as the European Journal of International Relations, International Studies Review, and International Studies Quarterly.

Matthew was awarded a doctoral degree summa cum laude from the Free University Berlin in 2013 and has held visiting positions at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA), the Helmut Schmidt University Hamburg, the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, and the University of Sydney.

He tweets @mapfelschorle

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