CHINA’S RAPID ascent to great-power status has, more than any other international development, raised concerns about the future of the liberal international order. Forged in the ashes of the Second World War, that order has enabled a seven-decade period of great-power peace, the expansion of democratic rule and a massive increase in global prosperity. Now, it seems, world order is under threat—not least from China’s rising power. While Beijing has thus far avoided active military aggression and refrained from exclusionary economic arrangements, American policymakers worry quite openly about China’s challenge to the underlying rules of the road. They hope that Beijing will embrace the existing pillars of global order and even work to support them; they fear that China will prove revisionist, seeking to undermine the rules-based order and fashion an illiberal alternative that excludes the United States.
This combination of hopes and fears has driven America’s China policy across multiple administrations. From Bush administration–era exhortations that Beijing act as a “responsible stakeholder” to Obama administration hopes that China would become a “partner in underwriting the international order,” American leaders have consistently called on China to join the prevailing global system. The question underlying the U.S. approach has not been whether the premise is correct, but rather which combination of carrots, sticks and engagement is likeliest to ensure that Beijing firmly embraces global rules and institutions. But at a moment when China is transgressing some of those rules and establishing alternative institutions, it is worth looking closely at the assumptions that have undergirded U.S. policy.