China has moved over time from a global alliance with the Soviet Union, followed by a short-lived revolutionary stance, to a path of integration with most international institutions and rules. But that course has abated as the country has gained wealth and power. With Xi Jinping’s ascent, China has set aside its long-standing reservations and defensive stance and begun to directly contest the liberal world order through the promotion of Chinese alternatives presented as “complementary,” with a strong preference for bilateral deals with other nation-states. China is more interested in hollowing out the international order than in a revisionist upheaval, and it also rides the trend of self-doubt and isolationism in several democracies. Mutual interest is the operative factor, often coinciding with the lure of financial gains for partners. China’s approach remains pragmatic, emphasizing diversified participation in multilateral institutions. What China seeks is a nonintrusive, low-cost international order built on two very contrasting pillars: national sovereignty as an absolute principle, and the free flow of goods and services for as long as China’s exceptional status as a nominal developing economy is maintained.

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Published in Strategic Asia 2019: China’s Expanding Strategic Ambitions, Ed. by Ashley J. Tellis, Alison Szalwinski, and Michael Wills, The National Bureau of Asian Research.