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Foreign Policy

Global Governance with ‘Chinese Characteristics’: Toward a new Pax Sinica?

Jan 17, 2019
  • Rene Zou

    China-focused policy analyst with a dual master’s from Sciences Po, Paris and Peking University

Pax Sinica – a euphemism for Chinese hegemony – is looming not just on the Asia-Pacific horizon but also the G-Zero world we find ourselves in today. The term G-Zero, popularized by political scientist Ian Bremmer, describes a world order in which no single power or alliance of powers can meet the challenges of global leadership. The triumph of “America First” proponents in the 2016 US elections marked the end of a 70-year Pax Americana characterized by the post-WWII liberal international order. Two years into the Trump administration, the U.S. has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Agreement, the Iran Nuclear Deal, and in the process, alienated most, if not all, its NATO and G7 allies. Without a doubt, the liberal international order is in crisis, but does Beijing’s management style offer a better alternative?

While the implications of a Beijing Consensus have been widely discussed, few have analyzed its capacity beyond a domestic or foreign policy framework. This made sense when China was following Deng’s “hide and bide” dictum, and diplomacy’s sole purpose was to serve the goal of domestic development. However, Beijing is no longer hiding its strength, nor biding its time. The Chinese economy is maturing and Chinese President Xi Jinping has now consolidated enough domestic power to redefine China's external environment and the rules within it. Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—a trillion-dollar plan to link the economies and infrastructure of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe—has been dubbed China’s Marshall Plan for the 21st Century, except seven times larger than the original (in today’s dollars).

If the BRI is successful, China will be well-placed to lead the redefinition of the international system. It is therefore worth examining what values China will be exporting and what ‘characteristics’ it will bring to global governance. In what follows, I outline three potential pillars of a new Pax Sinica.


Global governance in theory vis-à-vis China is centered around the concept of “win-win”—broadly understood as equality between partners and mutual benefit. Chinese officials actively brand the BRI as win-win cooperation, where “all parties can work together to seize the favorable opportunity and build the Belt and Road into a road of peace, prosperity, openness, innovation and civilization.” As the U.S. takes a back seat, Beijing has been eager to include more of its own language in UN resolutions and statements, including phrases such as “new developmental concept of win-win cooperation”, “community of shared future of mankind”,  and a “new security concept that goes beyond zero-sum game thinking.”

Instead of promoting the “common good”, which tends to be ideologically-driven and based on a certain set of universal values, win-win focuses more on specific goals and outcomes. It is therefore a highly pragmatic and flexible approach to global governance, which allows states to cooperate only when it is practical to do so. It neither prescribes, nor predicts Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history”, instead placing more emphasis on the need for specificity and context.

At its best, “win-win” evokes mutual respect, mutual benefit and shared destiny. However, at its worst, it could be interpreted as promoting quid-pro-quo policies, bilateralism, and self-interest. Most notably, China has faced sharp criticism for using investment and aid packages in exchange for access to natural resources, in what academics call “resources-for-infrastructure swaps” or what former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warns as “debt-trap diplomacy”.


A major pillar of China’s foreign policy, which carries onto its practice of global governance is the principle of “sovereignty”. Respect for sovereignty or non-interference dates back to Premier Zhou Enlai’s “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” (1953), which highlights “mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty” and “mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.” The importance China places on sovereignty can be seen as a legacy of the “century of national humiliation” under British and Japanese imperialism, not to mention, skepticism of U.S. interference.

Though China disapproves of America’s mission to make the world a better place, it does not lack its own feeling of exceptionalism. As Henry Kissinger points out, the main difference between American and Chinese exceptionalism is that China does not “export its ideas, but let[s] others come to seek them.” China’s story is not one of a “shining city on the hill” but rejuvenation of the “Middle Kingdom”. Hence, instead of imposing its model abroad, China prefers to let others emulate it. Indeed, Beijing often makes reference to the Five Principles when condemning interventionist Western powers at the UN Security Council and Western “strings attached” aid (usually requiring political reform).

At its best, China’s respect for sovereignty indicates its disinterest in becoming the world’s newest missionary and an emphasis on strong central government. At its worst, however, China’s fight against interference encourages human rights violations, poor governance, and declining environmental and labour standards. Though most countries still prefer the U.S. model of free markets and democracy over China’s top-down, statist system, the rising number of democratically elected authoritarian leaders has not gone unnoticed.


The third and final pillar of a Pax Sinica is Confucianism, a code of behaviour widely practiced in East Asia, originating from the teachings of the eponymous ancient Chinese philosopher. While Legalism serves as a handbook for Chinese leaders, Confucianism holds the key to understanding Chinese societal values, which strives to achieve harmony based on notions of a well-ordered family, well-ordered state, and well-ordered world. Kissinger describes Confucianism as a combination of China’s bible and constitution, with the key message of “know thy place”.

In contrast with liberalism’s focus on individual freedom and equal rights, Confucianism emphasizes collectivism and personal sacrifice for the greater good. Relationships involve a set of "defined roles and mutual obligations" through the principle of (social) rituals (li)—for instance, respect for one’s parents and loyalty to the government. Meanwhile, the social fabric is held together through benevolence (ren); in other words, love, kindness, integrity and co-humanity. As Tsinghua University professor Zhang Lihua puts it, whereas Western values of freedom and justice are based on the belief that human nature is inherently evil, Chinese Confucianists consider human nature as inherently good.

Confucianist relations are hierarchical, but they are not unfair. Under the ancient “tribute system”, the superior power had a duty to treat subordinates with kindness and wisdom and rule by virtue (wei zheng yi de). Therefore, at its best, Confucianism’s emphasis on humaneness serves as check to non-interference and dealings with regimes with poor governance; further, encouraging leaders to exercise patience, generosity and conciliation in disputes. At its worst, however, Confucianism’s push for conformity serves to reinforce authoritarianism and hierarchy.

The Way Forward

Under a Pax Americana, the U.S. has served as the sole hegemon overseeing rules and institutions of the ‘liberal’ international system, which in turn informed rules for ‘neoliberal’ globalization. The BRI is a symbol of China-based global governance, emerging at a time when U.S. global leadership is in retreat. Regardless of its shape or form, the BRI has set in motion a bid to transform China’s economic clout into political power, with wide-ranging implications not only for those in Asia, but the rest of the world.

Yet, the BRI is not as insidiously conspiratorial as some might think and it would be unwise to pass quick judgement on China’s intentions. Instead of frustrating China’s efforts, it is in the best interest of Western analysts, policymakers, and politicians to work around and learn to understand them. By remaining engaged, the world can use its influence to mitigate the risks and reap the rewards of what the BRI and China’s vision of the world order might offer.

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