Finally, a third school of thought contends that the international system is malleable and that China can – and should – play a central role in transforming it into a different system in the future. This view derives elements from both of the previously-discussed viewpoints: its adherents agree, with those who are suspicious of current arrangements, that the present-day international system is inadequate to meet the needs and interests of many nations including China; and they suggest, along with those in the second camp, that China is now in a position to actively shape the international system. Where they differ from both is in their assessment that the current system can be peacefully transformed into something entirely new: a non-competitive, non-conflictual model of international relations.
China has made a call for such interactions in its bilateral relations for some time. The “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence,” established in the early 1950s, and the more recent “New Security Concept” (1997), establish the importance of “dialogue, cooperation, mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, and
coordination.” Many in China have called for a broadening of these values to encompass the entire world, asserting that it is now time for all nations to move beyond the competitive international system. They argue, for instance, that zero-sum, conflictual relations between nations are disadvantageous even to those
that occupy a strong position in the system. They remark that the US‟s continued adherence to what they label a “Cold War mentality” of international competition makes it impossible to establish cooperation or lasting global peace.22 In a new international order, they assert, the world must move beyond “conventional alliance-based systems of security” and allow “states to treat each other as neither friend
In establishing this new order, they say, China is uniquely qualified to lead the way. Like their 19th-century predecessors, they assert that there are fundamental civilizational differences between China and the West that shape the vision each has of international relations, and add further that China‟s perspective is superior – both because of its inherently peaceful cultural outlook, and because China‟s experiences during the Century of Humiliation have made it more sensitive to the necessity of maintaining equitable, harmonious relations among nations. In 2009, for instance, then-PRC Ambassador to Great Britain explained in a public speech that “China has never been a country that enjoyed war. The essence of Chinese culture opposes aggression and hegemony … The Chinese people were victims of aggression and bullying, and will never agree to make their own country one of hegemony.”24 As a result, she remarked, a powerful China could act differently from all other rising powers in the past.
This position posits that as China‟s power and influence in the international system continue to grow, it is in the interest both of China and of other powers to seek peaceful transformation of the global system. If this commitment to a peaceful transition is sincere, it holds great prospects for international cooperation.
However, this position does not assume a transformation in the mindset of other great powers; most of these thinkers still assert that Western nations have a “hegemonic” mindset that will make this transformation unpalatable to them. Thus China must work hard to persuade these powers that a more harmonious international order is in all their interests.
This view holds mixed possibilities for the United States. On one hand, it places high value on peaceful, equitable interactions between nations that could be used as an aspiration for future Chinese behavior. On the other hand, it maintains that China and the West maintain fundamentally different worldviews, thus allowing for continued suspicion of Western motivations. It is also worth noting that this position, despite its seemingly revolutionary views on interstate relations, in fact retains many of the principles of the current system. Chinese elites still discuss foreign policy in terms of China‟s “national interest”; they do not question the existence of nation-states; and they remain deeply rhetorically committed to the principle of state sovereignty – thus suggesting that there remain many limits to China‟s willingness to accommodate other countries‟ interests.