China Assumes a Lead Role on the World Stage

China's President Xi Jinping, front right, gestures to Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, front left, pose with Chinese and Vietnamese youths at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 7. China Daily/Reuters

China has been causing quite a stir in the global governance game lately. For those of you who don't play this game on a daily basis, the Chinese have in recent months embarked on a series of "mini-lateral" (i.e., not global efforts, but also not just two countries) initiatives.

They have started a BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) development bank with their BRICS partners, launched a $40 billion Silk Road Fund to boost connectivity across Eurasia and signed up a host of U.S. allies for their new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, among other initiatives.

There is considerable debate about what all of this activity means, both in terms of China's ambitions and global governance. On the American side of the Atlantic, it is often portrayed as a threat to U.S. leadership.

In this view, China is seeking to side-step the current international order and create a rival system that would challenge American leadership and divide the west. My colleagues Jonathan Pollack, Philippe Le Corre and Tom Wright have all recently written on various aspects of that challenge on this blog.

But the view from the other side of the Atlantic tends to be different. In a Project Syndicate article, another Brookings colleague Javier Solana, the former EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, argues that China's moves amount to an effort to integrate into existing global governance structure. They have taken the form of new initiatives because the existing powers, particularly the United States and Japan, have refused to give China a role commensurate with its economic might.

In this view, the United States and its allies have the power to prevent the fragmentation of the international order through relatively simple accommodations to China.

The distinction across the Atlantic may reflect a distinct view of the value of American leadership more than a different understanding of the Chinese. And, of course, actual Chinese intentions are pretty hard to discern, but they matter a great deal.

Indeed, even if such global governance arrangements seem rather mundane in comparison to the war du jour in the Middle East, the question whether China can and will accept existing global governance arrangements may be the most consequential long-term issue in 21st century international relations. It will largely determine whether China's rise is peaceful or whether it upends the international order.

Jeremy Shapiro is fellow, Foreign Policy, Center on the United States and Europe, Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution. This article first appeared on the Brookings website.