This article explores the impact of China on the norms and institutions constituting the regional order in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). It does so by assessing the effect that China’s challenges to the global order will have on the MENA. It is argued that scholars tend to focus on Beijing’s foreign policy directly targeting the region, especially the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). But in doing so, they overlook another parallel channel through which China may have an important, even critical, impact: the consequences unfolding from China’s different challenges to the global order. The fact that China may prove successful in articulating parallel and/or alternative norms and institutions to those that currently define the global liberal order could trigger shifts in the MENA normative environment. Three cases are examined in order to assess this potential: its challenge to some elements of the Bretton Woods global economic order; China’s contestation of the Law of the Sea; and its challenge to particular liberal elements of the global order.

On 10 July 2018, the 8th Ministerial Meeting of the China–Arab Forum was held with the participation of China plus twenty-one Arab countries. At the meeting, President Xi preached the virtues of his foreign policy flagship project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and announced new loans worth US$20 billion, as well as US$106 million in new financial aid (Karam 2018). All in all, the meeting contributed to a general sense of excitement among analysts and policy-makers alike about the BRI and prospects for China’s role in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in the coming decades.

There may be good reason for such optimism. The BRI was initially announced in September 2013, aiming to improve terrestrial and maritime connectivity throughout Asia, and from it to the rest of the Eurasian continental landmass and Africa. In the process, it would contribute to economic development by means of infrastructure construction and fostering new trade relations. In 2013, when the original Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road were introduced, and later, the release of the BRI Action Plan in 2015, the scope of the initiative was greatly expanded (Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry 2015). At this stage, it encompasses sixty-five countries that represent 4.5 billion people, two-thirds of the world’s landmass, between thirty and forty percent of global gross domestic product (GDP) and close to twenty-five percent of global trade (Nye 2017). Chinese officials estimate that the BRI will mobilize US$1 trillion in investments in its first phase, and increase that amount tenfold in the next fifteen years (Cafieron and Wagner 2017; China Daily 2018). As of August 2018, China had endowed the newly created New Silk Road Fund with US$40 billion and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) with US$100 billion (Dusek and Kairouz 2017). It has also developed free trade zones with up to twelve countries participating in the BRI, signed bilateral trade agreements with fifty-six of them, tax agreements with fifty-four, standardization cooperation agreements with twenty-one, and broader agreements for cooperation with all of them (Dahlan 2018).

The dimensions of the project have fostered renewed interest in China’s impact on the regions involved with the BRI. The MENA is a clear example, especially in light of the new Chinese centrality in the regional economy. China became the second-largest trading partner of the overall Arab world between 2015 and 2016 (Liangxiang 2017, 45). This position was consolidated in 2017 with trade relations amounting to US$190 billion, an increase of 11.9 percent from the year before (Wang 2018a, 2018b; Shan 2018). It has also established itself as the largest trading partner of at least ten of the Arab states and Iran (Sun and Zoubir 2018, 229). Between 2004, when the China–Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) was created, and 2017, trade volumes increased more than fivefold, from around US$36.4 billion to US$191 billion (Abul Gheit 2018). Meanwhile, the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) saw their commerce with China multiply by a factor of seventy-two between 1993 and 2013, increasing from around US$2.3 billion worth of trade to US$165 billion (Fardella 2015, 11). In 2016, China became the largest investor in the Arab world with ventures worth nearly US$29.5 billion (Dorsey 2018).

The question that arises is the extent to which these new relations will affect how regional actors relate to each other. This article explores the impact of China on the norms and institutions, constituting the regional order in the MENA.1 It does so by assessing the effect that China’s challenges to the global order will have on the MENA. It argues that when scholars assess China’s impact on the MENA, they focus their attention on Beijing’s foreign policy directly targeting the region, especially the BRI. However, in doing so, they overlook another parallel channel through which its actions may have an important, even critical, impact on the MENA regional order: the consequences unfolding from China’s different challenges to the global order. The fact that China may prove successful in articulating parallel and/or alternative norms and institutions to those that currently define the global liberal order could trigger shifts in the MENA normative environment.

China’s Challenge to the Global Order and its Potential Effect on the Mena Regional Order

In recent years, international relations scholars have become interested in analyzing the prospects for survival of the post-1945 global liberal order. The post-Cold War paradigm of the global order as robust and resilient seemed to fade as it became apparent that “history did not end” and that the “rise of the rest” had actual consequences. Some analysts, such as Robert Kaplan, claim that we are living through a transformative process that will turn the global order upside down as the world embraces “new medievalism” (Kaplan 2018). Alternative, less cataclysmic arguments, such as those of Amitav Acharya (Acharya 2018), suggest that the liberal order has lived within a self-serving bubble that is now bursting, forcing it to face “an existential challenge.” According to Acharya, its presentation as open, rules-based, consensual, and multilateral ignored the fact that, instead, it remained highly asymmetrical, coercive and Western centric. Now, as non-Western states gain power, the old order is giving way to a “decentered and post-hegemonic multiplex world” where a plethora of parallel and regional orders are emerging. Emanating from this, postcolonialism has generally argued that current global norms and institutions might be flawed at origin (Wilkens 2019). They might suffer, in this view, from an “original sin” associated with the absence of many voices within the so-called Global South in the conceptualization and emergence of many of the original normative pillars of the contemporary global order, especially during the first half of the twentieth century. The Global South might still feel underrepresented in mostly every global normative domain (Mignolo 2015) as, Susan Strange has suggested (Strange 1996), “structural power” by traditional superpowers might enable the survival of normative asymmetries.

One of the major points of discussion is whether China will uphold the global liberal order’s norms, institutions, and values, or instead challenge them in an attempt ultimately to replace them. The starting point of this debate is, as suggested by Christian Reus-Smit, “a fear that as power shifts to the East, non-Western great powers will seek to reshape international order according to their own values and practices” (Reus-Smit 2017, 881). So far, China’s official narrative and behavior suggest that it is comfortable with the ambiguity by which Beijing “does not want to put into question the existing order, even though, as a matter of fact it is committed to reforming it” (Parenti 2018, n.p.). Authors such as Stewart M. Patrick and Farah Faisal Thaler have labelled this attitude “modestly revisionist,” according to which China recognizes it has become a beneficiary of the global order and only aims at “securing growing weight within international institutions […] and peacefully expanding its economic and political influence, particularly within Asia” (Patrick and Thaler 2010, 2). Similarly, Suisheng Zhao talks about China as a “revisionist stakeholder” that is comfortable with the fundamental rules of the international order while it longs for alternative quasi-functional global governance norms in accordance with its new power status (Zhao 2018). Other authors, such as Oliver Stuenkel, argue that a Chinese-led order will be formed to run in parallel with, rather than replacing, the old one (Stuenkel 2016). In the view of a third stream of analysts and scholars, most notably Graham Allison and his “Thucydides Trap,” we might see a violent clash between Western powers upholding the liberal order, mainly the United States, and China (Allison 2017).

This article argues that, beyond the direct impact of its foreign policy and economic activities in the region, China may additionally affect the Middle East regional order as the consequences of the aforementioned challenge to the global order play out in the region. This potential is explored by analyzing three cases in which China has concretely challenged the existing norms: that of the Bretton Woods global economic order; the Law of the Sea (LOS); and the liberal dimension of the global order. Each case features a specific domain of the international order, and if China were to articulate an effective challenge to global commitments, or even remodel them based on its own priorities and objectives, it would prompt changes in how the region approaches and puts into practice those normative elements.

China’s challenge to the Bretton Woods global economic order

The BRI might be understood as an exercise in foreign economic promotion aiming at opening up new markets for state-owned enterprises; employing China’s overcapacity in sectors such as coal, cement, and steel in massive infrastructure projects; or recycling its accumulated foreign reserves (Rolland 2017, 3; Yu 2017, 33). Alternatively, the vast scale of the project, encompassing between thirty and forty percent of global GDP and potentially one-third of global trade (Ma Zecha et al 2016) has led other authors to argue that it might be the materialization of “a coherent vision of China’s own version of globalization,” ultimately turning into the articulation of a whole alternative global economic governance system willing “to displace (eventually and in due course) Bretton Woods and the structure of international trade developed after 1945 with the US as its center” (Backer 2017, 4, 10). The BRI may set new governance standards for trade, investment, and monetary policies among its participants based on alternative objectives and values. As underlined by Shen Wei, the BRI “is deployed not merely to facilitate trade but to socialize its participants into the new and evolving framework that is to be established” around the project (Backer 2017, 11). It might foster divergences from current global hard and soft norms on intellectual property rights, private–public relations in business, or anti-corruption rules, just to name some of the traditionally contentious issues for China (Shuaihua 2014; Backer 2017, 4–6). All in all, if trade and investment of such a large magnitude is carried out on the basis of a new web of norms and standards into which all the actors involved are socialized, we will face a normative challenge to the existing global economic order.

Most importantly for the MENA region, the BRI might impact three critical elements of the Bretton Woods global economic order, namely, the post-1945 international financial institutions and their lending policies; the post-gold dollar standard of the international monetary system; and the global mechanisms for settling trade and investment disputes. In the first instance, China has long been dissatisfied with its institutional position within the decision-making mechanisms of global financial institutions, such as the distribution of voting shares at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank. Beijing’s dissatisfaction has been especially pronounced, though, in relation to some of the consequences of its World Trade Organization (WTO) membership. After the extinction of several exception clauses included in China’s WTO Protocol of Accession in 2006, between that year and 2015, China was involved as a complainant or respondent in over one-quarter of the WTO’s dispute cases. As suggested by Mark Wu, “WTO litigation has increasingly bifurcated into an ‘established power(s) versus China dynamic’” (Wu 2016, 264).

While pushing for reform of the Bretton Woods system, China has responded with the articulation of parallel global financial institutions, including the New Development Bank (NDB), the AIIB, and the New Silk Road Fund, the latter two of which are closely linked with the BRI. All three institutions have seen a significant part of their budgets and lending capacity granted by China’s purchase of voting shares. Both the NDB and the AIIB have close to US$100 billion in authorized capital; China provided one-fifth of the NDB’s capital and between one-third and one-half of the AIIB’s, despite it having eighty-four members. The Fund’s budget, in turn, is around US$40 billion, all from Chinese sources (Dusek and Kairouz 2017). These new institutions are important not only because they challenge the former quasi-monopolistic position of Bretton Woods-inspired institutions but also because they are critical as they advance alternative financial practices to those stemming from the current global economic order. Most importantly, new approaches to international aid cooperation and loans around the issue of conditionality can be anticipated. Bretton Woods institutions have used conditionality to press loan receivers to liberalize their economies in different ways, most notoriously since the late 1980s with Washington Consensus-inspired measures. Chinese-led financial institutions have already stated, and stress quite often, that, as with the AIIB, new financial institutions “will not force borrowers to adopt the kind of free-market practices favored by the IMF” (Henderson 2016/2019, n.p.). This policy follows logically from Beijing’s belief in “own path of development,” which claims that the non-interference principle prevents donors from imposing development models on aid recipients. Thus, Beijing might pose “a direct challenge to prevailing norms by ostentatiously ignoring the types of conditionality that have evolved throughout the donor community over the past quarter century. It rejects not only the social conditions (human rights, labor standards, and environmental norms) that have become prevalent but also the basic economic criteria (starting with poverty alleviation and good governance) that virtually all bilateral and multilateral aid agencies now require as a matter of course” (Bergsten et al. 2008, 20).

The second major impact is related to the yuanization of the international economy. China has long sought an improved global role for the yuan while strengthening it vis-à-vis the dollar. The objective might not be to take over the dollar’s role in the global economy but rather to articulate a competitive alternative to it. Besides the long-lasting manipulation of exchange rates for unfair competitive undervaluation (Bergsten et al. 2008, 14), a first step, in that respect, was China’s successful campaign for the yuan to become the fifth reserve currency in the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights basket in 2006.2 The challenge since then has been to translate this normative change into reality by making global markets accept and use the yuan as a reserve currency (Calamur 2015).

However, the BRI might enable a great leap forward in this process. As suggested by Swift, the global transactions company, using the yuan as the currency for all AIIB and NSRF BRI construction projects and investments abroad would contribute to increasing its impact on global markets (Hueling 2018). Becoming a last-resort lender within the AIIB framework, and thus challenging the IMF’s traditional monopoly, might contribute as well to the yuanization of a great deal of the global economy. Additionally, within the BRI framework, China has already taken some steps in this direction, including signing all bilateral trade agreements with Pakistan using the renminbi as the currency; the establishment of yuan-denominated oil futures contracts—especially important for the MENA region; and the establishment in 2016 of the Shanghai Gold Exchange where gold is transacted in yuan (Canally 2016). All this raised concerns to the point that some analysts claimed “the AIIB is one more domino fall and signals a growing anti-dollar alliance in the Eastern world” (Henderson 2016/2019, n.p.).

Finally, the third challenge is the establishment of alternative mechanisms for settling trade and investment disputes, beyond the existing ones, such as the WTO’s, as well as other investor–state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms. The BRI trade and investment prospect figures and commitments suggest that commercial, international trade, and investment disputes are likely to arise as the project materializes. China has already taken some steps to prepare for this. In July 2018, it created two different international arbitration courts for private-to-private cases, stemming from BRI-related contracts. One of these comprised of dealing with lawsuits and arbitration procedures covering signed contracts related to the BRI’s maritime dimension; the other, the terrestrial one. The dispute settlement mechanisms put into practice by these courts, as well as their jurisprudence and precedent setting, are likely to be very important since almost all the contracts signed so far under the BRI framework include a clause under which any form of litigation must be carried out by Chinese courts (Hillman and Goodman 2018). Furthermore, in 2016, China put forward the so-called “Blue Book on Dispute Resolution,” which proposes an alternative set of norms for dispute resolution and arbitration under the BRI, including “mediation as a pre-condition, along with conciliation and appeal procedures, a code of conduct and a set of transparency rules—a one-stop service” (Dahlan 2018, 90–1).

The impact that these three major challenges will have on the Middle East regional order could be significant. In broad terms, if alternative governance systems take shape and are consolidated, and especially if they become the last resort for development and sovereign lending for many states worldwide, Middle Eastern states might benefit from the competition. In any case, where currently they have no alternative but to turn to the IMF or the World Bank and accept their conditions, in the near future, they might be able to explore competing alternatives in search of the best offer. Competition might also force further internal reforms at Bretton Woods institutions (governance mechanisms, conditionality, etc.) (Backer 2017, 9–10). The yuanization of the global economy might reduce the region’s dependence on the dollar, especially if it affects oil trade relations, and consequently its dependence on the United States. The articulation of alternative mechanisms for settling trade and investment disputes also offers an alternative set of rules and norms which would allow the actors of the region to distance themselves from current governance practices if they wished to do so. This would not involve replacing old procedures with new options but rather provide alternatives that might exist, side by side, with consolidated norms and institutions, offering actors the opportunity to choose for the first time among different options. Ultimately, from a broader perspective, all three might succeed in redefining dependency relations, mainly between the states of the region and the Western powers. As new actors offer alternatives in the economic and financial spheres, the traditionally asymmetric relations between Western superpowers and the MENA actors, an idiosyncratic element of the regional order for at least the last fifty years, might be overcome.

Middle Eastern actors could respond differently to all this. On the one hand, they might see this as an opportunity and take advantage of every alternative presented to them. In this case, they might participate in China’s challenge to some of the elements of the liberal order suggested above. This could range from directly collaborating with Beijing in an effort to bring change at the global level to simply benefiting, on specific and limited occasions, from the Chinese-led global governance parallel order. Alternatively, they might act as “norm antipreneurs,” attempting to prevent change from taking place (Bloomfield and Scoot 2017). This would happen in those circumstances where regional actors felt more comfortable with the norms and institutions emanating from the global economic liberal order. For instance, among the three selected examples, attempts to modify the dollarized condition of their trade relations could well cause concern and encounter opposition, as it might be perceived as increasing uncertainty and economic insecurity. In such situations, it is more reasonable to expect a general regional alignment with the champions of the liberal order in a common endeavor to prevent change.

China’s challenge to the Law of the Sea (LOS)

The second case in point is China’s challenge to the LOS. China has repeatedly expressed extreme dissatisfaction with, and sometimes direct opposition to, different normative elements included in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other customary elements of the LOS. Many analysts assert that Chinese behavior is proof that China, among other rising powers, has decided to “openly contest, selectively reinterpret, or discreetly subvert key principles of the maritime order” (Rehman 2017, 1). This must be understood as a consequence of Beijing’s traditional claims and policy towards the South China Sea, and the strait between the mainland and Taiwan. It is also linked with China’s historical sense of victimization vis-à-vis international law (anchored in its experience with the discriminatory treaties of the nineteenth century) that “encouraged a perception that international law was primarily an instrument of political power” against China (Chesterman 2017, 946).

China’s challenge is fivefold. First, it proposes alternative interpretations of the LOS by advocating for greater oversight and control in its exclusive economic zone (Rehman 2017, 1, 4). This is especially the case when it comes to military activities: it wants to apply some limitations to the principle of freedom of navigation for military vessels in this zone, requiring foreign military vessels to provide notification and obtain authorization to sail across it (8). According to James Kraska, “in recent years, China has led a group of [challenging] states, seeking to transform exclusive economic zones from simple areas of resources rights and jurisdiction into something akin to territorial seas” (Kraska 2009, 14). Chinese maneuvers against the USNS Impeccable, 120 kilometers from Hanai, in March 2009, for example, were a reaffirmation of this interpretation, in the face of ongoing US maritime operations in the area. Second, it advocates for a tailored, self-defined, and ad-hoc interpretation of the concept of “historic rights” in the UNCLOS framework (Rehman 2017, 2). This approach is best illustrated by the Chinese application of the nine-dash “U”-shape demarcation in the South China Sea, asserting its claims against many neighboring countries (Miyoshi 2012; Sheng-Ti Gau 2012). The proposal is based on the opinion that Beijing has historically exercised special prerogatives in the zone which might be understood as, and secured by, the application of the UNCLOS norm on “historical rights.” China’s position in its litigation case against the Philippines is a normative corollary of this alternative understanding, as it proposes a broader definition to establish a precedent for the interpretation of UNCLOS (Chen 2016). Third, China has already “implemented a series of laws aimed at extending its enforcement jurisdiction deep into extraterritorial waters” (Rehman 2017, 4, 8–9). This poses a challenge to the limits of domestic sovereignty over maritime neighboring spaces and the geographical scope of action for international dispute settlement mechanisms. Fourth, on several occasions China has proposed applying straight lines in the definition of its territorial sea, contradicting what has been established by UNCLOS and is considered customary under international law (Rehman 2017, 8). Finally, as a consequence of the previous points, Beijing has expressed its reluctance to submit any sort of dispute to international courts or arbitration, favoring bilateral negotiations with the parties involved rather than multilateral judiciary mechanisms (2).

For many state actors in the Middle East, the current status of the global set of norms and customs governing maritime spaces has never been satisfactory. This might be demonstrated by the limited degree, at best, to which regional powers have signed and ratified the international treaties through which it took shape. Before the 1982 framework, only four regional states, namely Tunisia, Israel, Lebanon, and Iran, had ratified any of the major 1958 conventions (on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone; on the High Seas; on Fishing and Conservation of the High Seas; on the Continental Shelf; and the Optional Protocol concerning the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes). However, most importantly, today Algeria, Israel, Syria, and Turkey are not parties to the 1982 UNCLOS, and Libya, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have not yet ratified it. Reluctance also affects the alignment of most of the states of region with the activities of judiciary and governance mechanisms: only four regional states (Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar) have ratified the 1997 Agreement on the Privileges and Immunities of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, and only three (Egypt, Iraq, and Oman) have ratified the 1998 Protocol on the Privileges and Immunities of the International Seabed Authority. All in all, and with the risk associated with every generalization and its exceptions, this signals broader regional uneasiness with some elements of the LOS.

This has left many disputes without definitive settlement. The Israeli-Lebanese maritime border (with its impact on the exploitation of maritime natural resources along the border); the long-lasting dispute over the maritime dimension of the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border; the conflict between the UAE and Iran over the Greater Tunb and Abu Musa islands; the broadly contentious issue of Hormuz; and the Fasht Dibal dispute between Qatar and Bahrain are just some of the most disruptive maritime disputes in the MENA region. Nonetheless, despite occasional, and mostly geographically circumscribed, episodes of conflict, it seems reasonable to claim that the region has been able to establish a stable and mostly peaceful modus vivendi. Even if this does not resolve the essence of the disputes, it fosters behavioral expectations for accommodating new decisions and provides order to the overall maritime conduct in the region. Thus, the articulation by China of new interpretations and the consolidation of precedents, for all the issues mentioned above, might affect this precarious stability. Opening new potential approaches to LOS norms could provide new arguments for parties in dispute to break with the status quo and attempt to apply new norms and interpretations in their favor—especially those actors with the upper hand in the conflict.

Therefore, if China’s “goal is to renegotiate the essential bargain of the Law of the Sea Convention through a patient, persistent effort at reinterpretation” (Kraska 2009, 16), to a different degree, some MENA states might be good partners. Some Arab states have already taken important steps at supporting China’s promotion of different norms and principles of the LOS. The clearest example was the approval of the Doha Declaration in 2016, by which all the members of the Arab League manifested “their support for the Chinese attitude on the South-China Sea,” which has been interpreted by some voices as an implicit broader support of the Chinese position in its dispute against the Philippines in the South China Sea (Lons et al. 2019). In doing so, from a Chinese perspective, they gave their support to the idea that “the temporarily established (ad hoc) arbitral tribunal is neither a part of the Permanent Court of Arbitration nor the International Court of Justice; it does not have jurisdiction over the territorial disputes, which is the core of the arbitration; […and] thus, the award is not legally binding, nor representing international law” (Wen and Xiaochen 2016, n.p.). Additionally, the Doha Declaration can be interpreted as an endorsement of the Chinese position on its self-defined “historical rights,” challenging a core norm, and its mainstream interpretation, within the UNCLOS framework. In sum, providing a new basis on which to challenge the key, underpinning principles and norms of the LOS might open up space for challenging, and ultimately modifying de facto, the precarious maritime order in place in the MENA region.

China’s challenge to the global order’s liberal rights dimension

G. John Ikenberry, in his description of the five central elements of the current global order, includes the principle that states are in a “progressive move towards liberal democracy” (Ikenberry 2018, 11). This might translate into international norms and mechanisms promoting individuals’ rights in the face of any public authority (equal protection under the law, the prohibition of torture, equal access to judiciary mechanisms, habeas corpus, etc.) to equal participation in public affairs and respect for all human rights, and beyond that, to representational democratic rights. Thus, in many different, direct, and indirect forms, from soft socialization mechanisms to liberal interventionism, the post-1945 global liberal order encouraged liberal and democratic homogenization among the states.

For many decades, China has been able to articulate a low-profile foreign policy without significantly challenging the US-led liberal order (Liangxiang 2017, 45). Nowhere is this more evident than in its approach to the global regime of human rights protection and democracy promotion. The situation may have begun to change in recent years, as China’s relative position in the global power structure has enhanced its capacity to challenge some of the order’s liberal fundamentals. China’s economic power vis-à-vis the European Union, for instance, has proved strong enough to allow it to prevent human rights-related clauses from being included in bilateral trade agreements. As outlined by Erik Brattberg, China was responsible for Hungary refusing “to sign a joint letter denouncing the reported torture of detained lawyers in China, breaking EU consensus” in March 2017, as well as for Greece blocking “an EU statement at the UN Human Rights Council criticizing China’s human rights record, marking the first time the EU had failed to make a joint statement at the UN’s top human rights body” (Brattberg 2018, n.p.). This occurred despite the fact that the European Union itself, the self-proclaimed normative power par excellence, called for China to “abide by the rules-based international order” while stressing “that the EU will continue to promote human rights and rule of law in its engagement with China” in its 2016 EU Strategy on China (European Commission 2016, 4).

As Acharya argues, it seems probable that in the near future, we will continue to witness further actions confirming that “China will not support the political foundations of the liberal order, such as democracy or human rights” (Acharya 2018, n.p.). The question, then, is what would be China’s alternative to liberalism. Some might answer with a discussion about the existence of common “Asian values” and their compatibility with the normative dimension of the international regime of human rights protection, as manifested, for instance, by the 1993 Bangkok Declaration’s or the 2012 ASEAN Human Rights Declaration’s attempts to dilute their universal dimensions (Chesterman 2017, 970–3). From a theoretical perspective, though, the most elaborate and sharp response to this question has been put forward by Yan Xuetong (Yan 2018). His thesis is that Beijing’s foreign policy towards the global system will be guided by a combination of Chinese traditional values and a selection of liberal ones, resulting in what he calls “modern values of humane authority.” Yan (2018, 6–7) starts by arguing that Chinese foreign policy is shaped by an ongoing competition between Marxism,3 economic pragmatism, starting with Deng Xiaoping’s political reforms in 1978, and the currently fashionable Chinese traditionalism as the key foreign policy paradigm. Their meeting point is the idea that political leadership is based on credibility, which is only granted by benevolence in action and justice in result. From this, he claims that any prospect for a stable, universally accepted international order must necessarily be based on a new compromise between Chinese and liberal values and practices, different from liberalism, but not to the point that it makes it unacceptable to defenders of the current global liberal order (10–21).

Reaching a middle ground between the Chinese traditional value of benevolence (understood as empathizing with the ones you rule) and liberal ideas of equality among human beings might involve the new value of fairness in public affairs. Merging the traditional value of righteousness (proper behavior according to the effective production of results) with liberal democracy might turn into justice as the core objective to be achieved by decision-makers. Finally, the value of rights in Chinese tradition, as “social norms or customs formed according to given ethics” (Yan 2018, 15), might come to terms with liberal ideas on unrestricted freedom for individuals with the notion of civility (understood as the production of social goods as the ultimate target of human action). These sets of “modern values of humane authority,” in Yan’s view, are the new compromise principles on which the new post-liberal global order should be based.

In official terms, Yan’s proposal might best be seen in President Xi’s ideas on “big power relations” and his new paradigm entitled “build a community of shared future for mankind.” Initially suggested in the context of the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, this new foreign policy paradigm advocates for universal fraternity among peoples, emanating from the realization of harmony amid diversity (Ding and Cheng 2017, 2–3). This realization should be achieved by advancing global equality, mutual trust, inclusiveness, mutual learning, and mutually beneficial cooperation. Put differently, the paradigm claims that sovereign equality and non-interference must again become the cornerstones of the international order, displacing global liberalism, as this is the only way to preserve mutual respect and fair treatment (harmony) among different countries (diversity). China thus presents itself not as a potential anti-democratic illiberal hegemon, proselytizing abroad about what works for itself, but rather as a global actor advocating for a less intrusive global order that grants each actor room to conduct domestic policy as it chooses, and that does not promote further liberal objectives beyond economic prosperity and development.

The question of how the result of this normative puzzle will affect the MENA region is complex. It is true that the attitudes of China, and of many countries in the region, towards the liberal order “stem from a similar reading of the international system” where respect for others’ sovereignty and the non-interference norm are its critical cornerstones (Abul Gheit 2018, n.p.). Moreover, most of the MENA countries and China face similar challenges in how to improve the rule of law, individual liberties, and governance mechanisms to reflect better the interests and priorities of their citizens at the domestic level. In this vein, they reject the global liberal order on two fronts: that of the liberal elements granting individual rights to their citizens, which they perceive as going against broader and self-defined collective rights; and that of the normative elements of the global order pushing for the democratization of politics. Broadly speaking, China and many MENA countries have based their rejection on a common consideration that these are foreign solutions to their own problems and claim that this is only possible in a US/Western-dominated global order. The global order’s liberal prescriptions are presented as a consequence of the dominance exercised by Western powers, and any attempt to get rid of them is seen as an effort by the so-called periphery actually to democratize the global order, to regain agency, and incorporate their own opinions and stances into it.

MENA regimes may bandwagon with China when it comes to facing the effects of the liberal order. Articulating a common front with the rising superpower could trigger further reassertive approaches to the liberal dimension of the liberal order while making them more capable of challenging the domestic impact of those norms and regimes. The contestation of the liberal essence of the global order will be easier if the rising power in the system also feels uncomfortable with it and opts for challenging any of its potential effects at the domestic level. Until recently, the impossibility of challenging some of the liberal elements of the order forced many regimes in the MENA region to at least save face by performing some minor steps towards liberalizing their political and social systems. Importantly, the effects of the liberal order drove many states to assume a disclosure narrative that showed minor disagreements with its principles and goals, despite the reality on the ground. Offering alternative narratives could change this. Ultimately, the picture depicted here suggests the creation of parallel sets of narratives, existing side by side, allowing actors who are dissatisfied with the unfolding effects of the current global order to distance themselves from it. This does not mean that China will become a normative power by prompting others to join them in a global front against the application of liberal principles domestically. Instead, the way in which China itself challenges those norms and values internally, in its own social and political system, will become a valid example to be followed by illiberal states. There is no need for Chinese illiberal proselytizing: MENA regimes will find, in its example, a valid model by which to articulate narratives of rejection and to negate the domestic effects unfolding from the liberal global order.

Final Thoughts: China as Indirect Normative Power?

Scholarship has focused a great deal of attention on Chinese direct relations with the region. By focusing so much on this, part of the picture was missing. China could impact the Middle Eastern region not only by effects of its direct actions targeting the region but also, most importantly, through the consequences of its challenge to concrete elements of the global order. China’s contestation of some of the core global norms, institutions, and values might open up new paths of contestation, offering alternatives to Middle East regional actors. If Beijing is capable of setting precedents and articulating alternative norms and institutions, some MENA actors might be open to reshape some of their intersubjective agreements, setting appropriate behaviors accordingly, distancing themselves from the normative elements unfolding from the current global liberal, Western-centric order.

The arguments and cases in point presented here, therefore, give some useful hints for the discussion of China’s normative power. While recognizing its willingness to challenge what it believes to be some biased global norms and standards, China does not necessarily recognize its agency in the spreadable effect over other states’ behavior. Putting it differently, China might become an indirect normative power, not by actively proselytizing its political or economic model, but by setting an example, opening the possibility for other international actors to mimic Chinese behavior. The fact that the incoming superpower questions some of the norms and values of the global liberal order and introduces new forms of behavior, not tolerated by it, effectively opens the door for other actors to do the same. In such a way, Chinese actions might unveil widespread concerns silenced by the presumed liberal consensus, enabling other less-powerful actors to challenge elements of the global order with which they never felt fully comfortable.

Acknowledgments

This project received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme (grant agreement number 693244; MENARA Project). This article only reflects the views of the authors and the European Commission cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

1.

Following Muthiah Alagappa’s definition, this article uses the notion of regional order as “a formal or informal arrangement that sustains rune-governed interactions among sovereign states in their pursuit of individual and collective goals” (Alagappa 2002, 39). Stemming from the characterization elaborated by Barry Buzan and Ana Gonzalez-Pelaez (Buzan and Gonzalez-Pelaez 2009), this article understands the regional order of the MENA regional system to be composed of some institutions, among which it is worth highlighting sovereignty, diplomacy, territoriality, great power management, or international law.

2.

Some voices suggest there might be a link between the creation of the AIIB and the difficulties experienced by China during the IMF’s 2006 shift negotiations (Koch and Scheuer 2015).

3.

The author suggests that President Hu’s peaceful development paradigm advanced in 2004 might be stepping away from historical materialism as it neglects the unavoidable competition between socialist and capitalist states.

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