China’s increased global involvement: a double edged sword?

10 Mar

Since the late 1970s China has increased its involvement in the international community, and whole-heartedly embraced globalisation. This has been the premise that building closer relationships within the international community will enable China to achieve its goal of modernizing and becoming a strong global economic power.

According to the CIA World Factbook, as of July 2012, China was either involved with or a member of 73 international institutions; including the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, the G-20, APEC and ASEAN. Moreover, the list of institutions does not take into account the various trade relationships that China has established with individual states since 1978 – a notable example being the United States.

Such a high level of international involvement was unheard of for China before its economic reform programme. Yet globalisation has provided China with a vast global market to facilitate rapid export-led growth, aswell as substantial FDI inflows.

In the last three decades, China’s economy averaged 9.6% GDP growth per year. Such a figure is unprecedented for a country which is categorised as “developing,” as China still is. Through international involvement, China has managed to lift 300 million people out of poverty, (albeit with a questionable poverty line.) China is now the World’s second largest economy, and it is projected to overtake the United States in the not-so distant future if it continues on its current growth path.

A rapid economic expansion has also provided China with an extraordinary level of influence in international affairs. Prior to the institutional reforms, China was a small and relatively insignificant player in the international arena. Yet today, a discussion of international relations would be incomplete without a mention of China. In the United Nations Security Council, China has become a permanent member with the power to Veto. This has furthered China’s international leverage. China’s global economic rise has enabled China not only to become more economically powerful, but also, by extension, politically powerful. Some realist scholars even question whether the rise of China will lead to the demise of the United States in coming years.

However, despite the considerable benefits from involvement in the international community, China has repeatedly come up against the notion of sovereignty.

Many of the international organisations that China has become a part of, such as the United Nations, contain conventions which aim to bestow Western liberal human right values on the Chinese. These include the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Chinese leaders are concerned that, whilst international involvement is fundamental to China’s economic stability, the incorporated rights and regulations can inhibit China’s development potential.

Furthermore, actors such as the United States have attempted to condition trade relations on China abiding to Western human rights standards in the past. Yet for China this is an intervention in its domestic sovereignty, and it has rigorously rejected any conditionality. China sees the imposition of Western values as an extension of imperialism.

For developing countries, argues China, the most important thing is to ensure a continued rise in GDP per capita and living standards; the “luxury” of human rights comes second. Yet this conflicts with the Western values held by many of the actors than China has become integrated with. Thus China is currently in a position where it agrees with the human rights resolutions set out by international organisations in abstract, in order to maintain trading co-operation, yet it rejects the applicability of Western human right standards to China in practice on the basis of the “developmentalist” arguments. It is questionable how long China will be able to continue this contradictory practice.

Ultimately unless China is able to reshape the Western norms of the international arena towards non-intervention in domestic affairs, the closer China’s involvement within Western dominated institutions and actors (for economic purposes), the greater the potential threat on China’s sovereignty in its domestic affairs.


A. Kent (1993) Between Freedom and Subsistence, Oxford University Press: New York

A. Kent (1999) China, the United Nations and Human Rights: The Limits of Compliance, University of Pennsylvania: Philadelphia

J. Ikenberry (2008) Rise of China and the Future of the West-Can the Liberal System Survive,  Foreign Affairs  87 (23)

A. Nathan (1994) Human rights in Chinese foreign policy The China Quarterly 139(1)  pp.622-643.

Y. Deng, and T. Moore . (2004) China views globalization: Toward a new great‐power politics?  Washington Quarterly 27(3)  pp.115-136.

R. Keith (2004) China as a Rising World Power and its Response to Globalization The Review of International Affairs 3(4)  pp.507-523.


One Response to “China’s increased global involvement: a double edged sword?”

  1. de1g11 March 11, 2013 at 9:36 am #

    If China is involving itself more and more in the international community then its role must be questioned. The article raises the point of sovereignty but what about responsibility. Even if China is still a developing nation but has the worlds second largest economy then surely it will become involved in issues abroad as part of the institutions it has signed itself up to. As part of UNCLOS, (united nations convention on the law of the sea) which China has signed, maritime nations must combat piracy where it can. So as China’s navy grows its capability and role in fighting piracy should become more prominent.

    However this is dependant on the Chinese adopting a western approach to interventionalism based upon ideology. It is more likely that the Chinese will take on roles in the global community that directly affect its standing, thus international action would be based upon their needs.


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