China’s Coexistence Strategy and the Consequences for World Order

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 11

China is no longer merely a passive recipient of the world order, but it has become a key factor in determining the foreign and defense policy choices that are open to other international actors. Beijing seems to have positioned the country as a global great power in a political sense. It has achieved this position by means of a strategy of coexistence that was recently reiterated in the Chinese defense white paper (Xinhua, April 16). This strategy is designed to change the context for other states’ international behavior without promoting a completely new world order. Instead, China’s version of world order is founded in a revised interpretation of the existing UN system, invoking the principles of absolute sovereignty and non-interference. It is an interest-based order designed to protect China against overseas interference and maintain international peace and stability without any obligations for extensive cooperation. Beijing seeks to influence the context more often than directly shaping the behavior of other international actors. This coexistence strategy does not require economic and military capabilities at U.S. levels to exercise this type of influence, because it relies on the persuasiveness of its version of world order as an advantage for others without promoting a China-centric model of interaction.

Coexistence highlights characteristics of China’s rise that are overlooked or dismissed in the current discussion. The debate focuses on China’s growing economic and military capabilities and to what extent these enhance China’s ability to project power in the international system at a great power level. In addition, U.S.-China relations and comparisons are a pervasive feature of the debate. As a consequence, three characteristics concerning China’s development and relative position in the international system tend to be overlooked. First, China’s economic and military development tells the story of a state that does well in the group of secondary powers, which includes states such as Russia, India and Brazil. Second, China is far from commanding economic and military power at the U.S. level. China’s GDP is only one-third the size of the U.S. GDP. The U.S. defense budget is approximately six times as large as China’s defense budget. Third, despite this relatively unfavorable position, China’s political power is much more comparable to that of the United States.

China’s position as a political great power increases the space for action of secondary and small powers. They have extraordinary influence because China offers them strategic partnerships in addition to or instead of the U.S. alliance system. Because both Washington and Beijing vie for their support, the secondary and small powers are able to align with both without choosing sides. The existence of a Chinese version of world order alongside the liberal version presented by the West engenders an international system with two different world orders in place across different issue areas and within the same regions. This type of system implies the absence of one coherent set of principles that universally defines right and wrong international conduct. As a consequence, security threats are addressed by means of ad hoc frameworks of conflict management with membership and principles defined on a trial-and-error basis.

According to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, peaceful coexistence involves mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit as well as peaceful coexistence in developing diplomatic relations and economic and cultural exchanges with other countries [1]. These principles correspond to the rules of the UN system of the Cold War, although Beijing interprets the meaning of these principles according to its post-Cold War interests and views of the world.

At a more practical level of implementation, Chinese-style coexistence involves five practices that pervade its foreign relations. The first practice is to only engage with other states on the basis of consent from all governments involved. This practice contrasts with the West’s advocacy of UN approval of intervening without regime consent in the event of grave violations of human rights that threaten to derail international peace and stability. A second practice is to discourage the use of force for purposes of conflict management in the international system. This deviates from Western efforts to allow for UN approval of sanctions and peacemaking involving the use of force when a threat to international peace and stability is identified. A third practice is to encourage countries to pursue the national development model which they find most suitable in view of their history and political set-up. By contrast, the West promotes a liberal economic and political agenda as a model for state-society relations in other states. A fourth practice is to renounce judgment of regimes, encouraging cooperation with all states as the best way to enhanced prosperity for all. The West instead demands the pursuit of basic democratic and human rights standards if a state wants to benefit from economic liberal mechanisms of trade and aid. A fifth practice is to encourage international pluralism by accepting that states act on the basis of different interpretations of right and wrong conduct. This contrasts with Western belief in the universality of liberal economic and political values.

An example of China’s practice of coexistence is its UN Security Council policy. China abstained from the UNSC’s vote on Resolution 1973 which, acting under the peacemaking provisions of Chapter VII, approved a no-fly zone over Libya and authorized all necessary measures to protect civilians. China’s abstention was determined by its preference for peaceful means of conflict management and its concern not to block measures approved by the African Union (AU), the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the League of Arab States. On this occasion, China demonstrated its commitment to the non-use of force and regime consent. Additionally, Beijing demonstrated concern for allowing those exposed to the situation in Libya—in this case the organizations encompassing Libya and its neighbors—to decide what to do about it rather than acting on the basis of preconceived value-based notions of right and wrong conduct. Beijing, however, did become more critical as the intervention expanded into an effort to oust the government (PLA Daily, April 19, 2011; Global Times, March 30, 2011).

In the case of Iran, China recognizes the International Atomic Energy Agencies’ (IAEA) conclusion that Iran has enriched uranium and carried out related activities, and that it is likely to have used non-declared plutonium. According to Beijing, however, Iran has no proven nuclear weapons capability and its nuclear program remains within the bounds of its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments. China has advocated that other countries recognize Iran’s right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy (Xinhua, November 18, 2011;, August 9, 2005). Beijing also has continued to cooperate with Iran on energy while the issue of Iran’s nuclear program has been an item on the UNSC agenda. Moreover, the Chinese approach has featured Beijing’s endorsement of ad hoc multilateral discussions to diffuse tensions, making this an exemplar of the coexistence strategy in action (Xinhua, March 7, 2012; November 18, 2011).

With regard to Syria, Beijing has aimed to decouple regime issues from the need to establish peace and security. China vetoed the UNSC resolution proposing endorsement of the peace plan of the League of Arab States. China has recognized the plan as a useful way ahead, but its requirement that President Bashar al-Assad hand over power to a deputy sets the unacceptable precedent of ignoring the consent of political authorities on how to establish domestic peace and security (China-U.S. Focus, February 29, 2012). China has endorsed non-binding UNSC presidential statements on Syria calling for the cessation of violence to restore civil and political rights (Xinhua, April 19; United Nations, May 27, 2012). By endorsing the criticism of the conduct of Assad’s government against civilians within their sovereign jurisdiction, China tries to demonstrate that it does not approve of the human rights atrocities taking place in Syria. Such atrocities, however, will be much worse in the long run if a precedent is set for UNSC approval of intervention in domestic affairs involving regime change (Foreign Affairs, May 15; Xinhua, January 14; People’s Daily, May 11, 2011). Instead, impartiality with regards to regimes should continue to determine the limits of intervention and Chinese statements surrounding its vetoes reinforce this approach (Xinhua, February 5, 2012; October 5, 2011).

The Chinese coexistence model is an interest-based version of world order with no domestic model for state-society relations comparable to the way the U.S.-led liberal international order encourages representative democracy. The Confucian notion of “harmonious society” remains a rhetorical device without much practical applicability. The idea has not been translated into essential political structures, such as feedback mechanisms from society to government, or into processes, such as wide-spread use of popular elections to facilitate political succession. The absence of a political model to complement China’s market economic transition means that the Chinese government relies on continued economic growth and improved standards of living for regime legitimacy. The lack of new thinking regarding how to design state-society relations also implies that Beijing relies on random feedback mechanisms of protest and complaint and on coercion for dealing with societal dissatisfaction. Such practices damages China’s image as a peaceful great power.

Another implication of China’s pluralist version of world order is that no one knows by which value standard to measure China’s performance. Hence, China’s objectives as a prospective great power remain unknown beyond those of maintaining national unity and restoring the Chinese motherland. This nationalist theme calls into question Beijing’s genuine commitment to its coexistence strategy, because it entails encroaching on the claimed rights of other states to sovereignty and freedom of movement in areas such as the South and East China Seas (“Soothing Tones on China’s Rise Strike Dissonance,” China Brief, January 4). Such issues hamper Beijing’s efforts to win a stable group of loyal partners that might threaten the coherence of Washington’s alliance system. Since China does not appear as an attractive dominant great power to most states, the majority continue to rely on U.S. security guarantees and probably will do so for the foreseeable future.

Despite these reservations about the success of China’s coexistence strategy, the dominant theme is that China has been able to promote coexistence as a basis for world order on a global scale and in all the world’s regions. Coexistence has developed into a steadily more effective strategic doctrine for advocating international political pluralism as an alternative to the liberal integration pursued by the United States. Coexistence allows many regimes to coordinate their national interests without jeopardizing international peace and stability. This has proven most effective in allowing China to continue with a predominantly inward-looking focus designed to concentrate on its domestic social, economic and military development so as to ensure its rise to full-blown great power status. The Chinese government’s 2013 defense white paper—like many previous white papers and foreign policy statements—lists peaceful coexistence as a central instrument in pursuing China’s principal security interests (Xinhua, April 16; September 6, 2011; People’s Daily, June 28, 2004). This continuity strongly indicates that China will continue to rely on coexistence as a principal strategy for promoting China’s interests in future.

From a Western perspective, Beijing’s alternative version of world order presents some challenges to existing state practice. China’s network of economic and political-strategic relations across all the world’s regions testifies to the emergence of a Chinese coexistence-alternative to the U.S. alliance system that pervades all regions. Secondary and small powers often welcome this alternative to Western influence. It allows them to side with one power on some issues and with another power on other issues, encouraging the continued prevalence of both orders without clear geographical dividing lines or regional spheres of influence. This development challenges Western efforts to couple demands for liberal political reform in return for economic and political-strategic cooperation. This challenge encourages Washington and its allies to focus on revitalizing their economic and financial capabilities and partnerships to try to match the fact that Chinese influence is based on a successful coupling of a domestic model of market economic reform with an authoritarian political system. Furthermore, China’s willingness to engage with developing countries pronounced pariah states by the West encourages the United States and its allies to reconsider the utility and affordability of major overseas engagements with ambitious political objectives such as nation-building.


  1. ”Preamble”, Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, December 4, 1982, available online <>.