The Double Bypass: How the United States and China are Routing Around Each Other and Transforming the Liberal Order
Theorists of international relations have laid out two elegant scenarios for the future of Western liberal order: A positive one where rising powers such as China are welcomed into existing institutions and eventually socialized into upholding liberal norms, and a negative one where liberal powers fail to adapt and the new pretenders seek to overturn the order and develop competing institutions. But as China and the United States face off in the messy reality of the international system, it is becoming increasingly clear that neither scenario is likely to take shape.
Seen from Beijing, there was never a binary choice between joining the institutions of the Western liberal order and developing parallel ones in China’s image. The Chinese leadership has pursued a carefully calibrated strategy of joining universal institutions, seeking to minimize the constraints they would put on China and developing China-led institutions that exclude the West.
Until recently, Western states put more effort into reforming and bolstering the universal institutions that they created and only acted outside them in extremis. But faced with gridlocked global institutions, they are increasingly mirroring China’s bypass diplomacy and creating new groupings outside of the universal institutions.
Rising powers joined Western-led institutions but regard them with suspicion and work together in a series of “post-colonial friendship associations.” The established powers, on the other hand, are disconcerted by their loss of control over the universal institutions and are increasingly flocking together into new communities of similar countries. This is creating a new liberal archipelago of organizations — from the European Union to NATO and the TTIP — that enshrine the principles of the liberal order in new ways.