Q&A April 28, 2020

China’s Incentives to Work Within the U.S.-led International Order Remain Compelling, Argues Thomas Fingar

In a video Q&A, Fingar discusses the challenges for the U.S.-China relationship and the principles that shape China’s foreign policy and international behavior.
Ancient and modern buildings in Beijing.
Ancient buildings and modern skyline in Beijing. DuKai/ Getty Images

U.S.-China relations had deteriorated long before the coronavirus outbreak. Over the last decade, many observers have concluded that China’s actions in the foreign policy arena have become more assertive, ambitious, and worrisome to the U.S.-led international order. APARC Fellow Thomas Fingar, however, argues that China’s foreign policy has changed far less than its rhetoric and the characterization of many commentators suggest. “I don’t think China is eager to displace the United States,” he says in our recent video Q&A.

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Fingar considers how the difficult choices facing the Chinese leadership – now exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic – are poised to determine the future course of the country’s international behavior and what successful management of the relationship with China requires. “The requirement for them and us,” he emphasizes, “is to figure out how to transform the international order into something more sustainable, and the tragedy of the last three years is that we have surrendered much of the leadership role and a great deal of the confidence others have in the wisdom of the United State.” Watch:

These issues are the focus of Fingar’s chapter, “Sources and Shapers of China’s Foreign Policy,” in the new volume Fateful Decisions: Choices that Will Shape China’s Future, now out from Stanford University Press. Coedited by Fingar and APARC’s China Program Director Jean Oi, this volume is part of APARC’s monograph series with SUP.

Fingar argues that China’s foreign policy and international behavior are key components of Beijing’s overall objectives to maximize opportunities for economic growth and modernization. As economic growth slows and Beijing finds it increasingly difficult to meet its domestic challenges, incentives to continue to work with and within the U.S.-led international order remain compelling. In Fingar’s view, the realities of interdependence and the perceived need to maintain high rates of growth and ambitious developmental targets constrain Beijing to maintain more-or-less the same foreign policy practices it has followed since the dawn of the Reform and Opening era.

However, China’s decision to pursue its interests by working within the U.S.-led international order does not mean that it would remain a largely passive participant coerced (in Beijing’s view) to abide by rules and institutions that would restrain Beijing’s freedom of action, says Fingar. Beijing expects China to play a more influential role in shaping the global order, but it does not (yet) aspire to lead it.

This is the fourth installment in a series leading up to the publication of the volume Fateful Decisions. Explore the previous parts in the series via the links below.

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BEIJING, CHINA - Workers sit near a CRH (China Railway High-speed) "bullet train" at the Beijing South Railway Station under reconstruction.
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