China's Return to the Central Stage: Towards a New Facilitative Leadership?

Université de Paris I – Panthéon – Sorbonne, Paris, February 5th

Zhimin Chen, professeur, Center for European Studies
at Fudan University Shanghai, Chine


China is becoming a more influential actor in the world. However, China is not a new power, but rather as a reemerging power, and being a great power seems to be a matter of necessity and a natural return to its normalcy. The current Chinese leadership has displayed its stronger intention to make use of China’s growing power in its foreign policy. Does this mean China would assume a leadership role in the world? And what kind of leadership role it should and could play? The speaker attempts to develop the concept of facilitative leadership, in order to solve the conceptual problem on the issue and to ensure a sustainable and constructive leadership role for China in world affairs. The key features of a facilitative leadership are collective rather than hegemonic leadership, attractive rather than coercive leadership, win-win rather than solipsistic leadership, and empowering rather than patronal leadership.

The Fall and Re-rise of China

The arrival of the Qin dynasty (221 BC–207 AD) marked a turn in Chinese history. It finally established a vast unified empire with a population ‘in the vicinity of fifty to sixty million’ which was administered by a central authority. Since then, although there have been periods when China became divided and chaotic, as happened in the famous Three Kingdoms period (220 AD–280 AD), in general, subsequent unified Chinese dynasties maintained their status as the overwhelmingly dominant power at the center of the Asian hierarchical international system. The diplomatic institutional expression of this Pax Sinica was the tributary system that emerged in the Han dynasty (202 BC–220 AD), after the short-lived Qin dynasty. The defining feature of this tributary system was its China-centered hierarchy, self-autonomy of tributary states; larger material rewards from the Chinese emperors; and China’s obligation to safeguard the national security of the tributary states.

While this China-centered hierarchical international order in East Asia yielded substantial stability, in contrast to Europe in the same period, the very foundation of this system – the preponderance of Chinese power and the isolation of Asia from the rest of the world – disappeared in the 19th century. With the arrival in Asia of western colonial powers, strengthened with modern technology from the industrial revolution, including advanced military forces, the ailing Chinese dynasty had to cope with the gradual loss of its centrality in Asia. Starting with the first Opium War (1840–42), China experienced repeated defeats in its conflicts with western powers. It was forced to cede trading and extraterritorial rights, even territories to colonial powers, and its tributary states fell into the hands of old and new imperial states.

The fall of China from a Central Kingdom into a ‘century of humiliation’ unleashed a nationalistic movement aspiring to save the state of China, if not the empire. Eventually, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), combining its communist appeal with the nationalist agenda, became the winning force in the war against Japan and in the following civil war. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), founded in October 1949, once again built a strong central government, able to exert direct control over the vast land in the mainland of China.

The new China rebuilt the Chinese state successfully and the country remained very poor for the first three decades. Under Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leadership decided in 1978 to shift its central task to economic development through reform and opening up. As a result, Chinese diplomacy changed: national interests and economic interests in particular triumphed over geopolitical calculations. Throughout the reform era, Chinese diplomacy was tasked by the new leadership to create a peaceful international environment for economic development, to bring in foreign investment, and to secure foreign markets for an export-oriented economic development strategy. Since then, pragmatism has dominated Chinese diplomacy, with its key priority to avoid unnecessary confrontations with other countries, and to ensure a stable and conducive international environment for domestic modernization. In the post-Cold War era, in a globalized western liberal order led by the United States, Chinese foreign policy has adopted a low profile posture, and is basically defensive and reactive’ , with a role of ‘a passive recipient of the world order’ . China tried not to confront the western powers and cultivated partnership relations with them, liberalized its economy to join the WTO in 2001. It even joined many international human rights treaties, even though it still has not ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which China signed in 1998.

In 2010, after more than three decades of rapid economic development, China once again became the biggest economy in Asia, overtaking Japan. For China, it was an historical moment, particularly when the west was experiencing its worst economic crisis in decades. Twenty years after the end of Cold War, China has emerged as the second largest economy in the world, overtaking Japan in 2010. In 2014, it had a $10 trillion economy in nominal terms, almost 60% of the US or EU economy, twice the size of the Japanese economy. In terms of purchasing power parity (PPP), the IMF estimates that the Chinese economy surpassed the US economy in 2014. As a new centre of economic gravity, China can further boost its already-established political and military clouts, symbolized by its veto-wielding seat in the United Nations Security Council, to make China a comprehensive power and a new force in the shaping of world order.

However, the rise of Chinese power is so quick, especially since 2009, that Chinese scholars and Leaders in general were not well prepared and anticipated. Yan Xuetong, wrote in 2013, claimed that when he raised the issue of China’s rise as a great power in 1998, few people agreed to his prediction and believed that China’s GDP could surpass Japan 12 years later to be the second largest economy in the world.

There are several reasons which led Chinese observers and leaders in the past to be overcautious in projecting China’s economic future power. First, government used to set a GDP growth target (8% annually) lower than actual GDP growth rate (10%). Second, they usually focused on the real growth in terms of fixed price, so not taking into consideration of the faster inflation rate compared with other major economies. Third, they usually ignored the RMB appreciation aspect, which turns out to be a major factor leading to a dramatic rise of Chinese economic power in the nominal US dollar terms.

For example, in 2007, in the 17th CCP congress, the party aimed to quadruple per capita GDP from the level of 2000 by the year of 2020, which implied an increase from less than 1000 US dollars to about 3500 US dollars by 2020. However, that target was already realized in 2010, ten years ahead of the plan. However, gradually, feeling the newly gained strength and global influence, and under new leadership, in 2013, China formally embarked on a path towards great power diplomacy, officially entitled as ‘major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics’ .

International leadership Crisis and China

An increasingly challenging world needs more powerful international leadership. However, the supply of international leadership faces crisis. Before Donald Trump was elected the US president, some scholars had already pointed out that “international collective action is affected by serious international leadership deficit”. Others argued that “when international cooperation and multilateralism is badly needed, countries show up with selfishness, reluctance to cooperate, denial of responsibility, difficulty in establish new institutions and low-efficiency of current institutions”.

The international leadership deficit, on the one hand, is caused by the undersupply of international leadership. The international community has not provided sufficient solutions to regional security, counter-terrorism, economic development, climate change, sustainable development, etc. On the other hand, the international leadership deficit is also caused by the mismatch of international leadership. After the cold war, the US and western powers controlled the supply of international leadership. But the US and its western allies have brought severe problems due to their over-leadership based on the so-called western liberal order.

The US promoted neo-liberalism and asked for loose regulation, which has resulted in the most severe financial crisis in recent history. The US and its allies started several anti-terrorism wars and humanitarian interventions, which led to the appearance of several failed states and even the Islamic State, as well as the most massive refugee crisis in Europe after WWII. Another problem of US international leadership is that it does not reform the international system according to shifts of international power. Therefore, emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil have not gained their fair share in the provision of international leadership.

Overall, Trump’s winning of the presidential election worsens the situation. A more domestic-focused and egoist US moving from over-intervention to strategic contraction will solve part of the previous problem, by creating less chaos around the world through its ill-designed interventions. However, a Trump administration will shed responsibility which the US shouldered before such as its support for free trade and climate change governance, hence exacerbating the leadership problem in a number of areas of global governance.

In the early 1990s, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping proposed the diplomatic policy “keeping a low profile.” For the following 20 years, Chinese foreign policy generally followed this policy. As Chinese power and influence grows, China is embracing the “diplomacy of a major state”. In September 2016, China hosted the G20 summit in Hangzhou. Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke at the summit and emphasized that “facing a complex and challenging international economy as well as the international community’s expectation on the G20, China hopes to work together with other partners to find a solution to international economic development and make the international economy strong, sustainable and inclusive.” Xi made another speech to defend globalization, the Paris Agreement and the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2017. Amitav Acharya commented that Xi “criticized trade-protectionism and defend globalization, which shows China is going to fill in the gap of international leadership left by Trump’s administration.”

In the authors’ view, whether China should undertake more international responsibility and assume some leadership role is no longer a question. In fact, China has already shouldered some responsibility as an international leader, being one of key players in cementing the Paris Agreement on climate change, the second contributor to the UN peace-keeping budget and one of largest development assistance providers to developing countries. After Trump became the US President, the international community has raised its expectation for China’s role in international leadership. So, a more important question is how China will lead. This article reviews the literature on international leadership and proposes a new analytical framework. The key argument of this article is that China should adopt a facilitative leadership, a new type of international leadership.

A New Framework for Analyzing International Leadership

In order to have a clearer definition of international leadership, this article defines international leadership as the practice and ability of international actor(s) to foster the realization of specific shared goals in international society, through the exercise of its influence and with the support from other actors. Based on this definition, this article argues that one can understand international leadership from the number of international leaders, leadership purpose, leadership method, leadership style, leadership domain, leadership performance and the legitimacy of leadership.

1) Number of leaders: international leadership can be held by one actor or several actors collectively. After the end of the Cold War, as the sole superpower, the United States has been making every effort to ensure an American-led liberal international order. American Primacy and sole leadership have been the central priority of American foreign strategy. However, a unipolar system is an exception within the world order. As other countries develop, the international structure has to be de- centralized or multipolarized. Even when the US was at its zenith of power, it could not always command other countries according to its will. As the international system is moving from a unipolar structure towards a multipolar one, unilateral international leadership has to be replaced by plural leadership. In other words, for the major powers in today’s world, the only way to cope with common challenges is to lead with others.

Four kinds of plural international leadership could be imagined. First, concerted international leadership emphasizes institutionalized cooperative leadership, such as a concert of major powers in the G20 and other international institutions. Second, complementary international leadership, which allows leading actors to practice leadership in different issue areas or different policy aspects within a specific issue area. Third, parallel international leadership, which allows leading actors to take leadership responsibility in different regions in parallel (see Chen 2016). Fourth, race to-the-top competitive leadership allows leaders to compete in a positive way in order to promote more supply of international public goods.

2) Purpose: international leadership is to realize a specific goal. Many definitional differences about international leadership usually come from different (mis)understandings of the leadership purpose. The key question here is how this purpose is defined. In the past, leading countries usually shaped the common purpose of international society according to their own preferences and interests. But if such a purpose does not match other countries’ interests, this kind of international leadership cannot solve the world’s problems, and very often exacerbates existing problems or even creates more problems. Therefore, this article tries to differentiate two kinds of the purpose of international leadership: solipsistic international leadership and win-win international leadership. The former emphasizes self-interest in purpose setting, tries to define common goals by its own experience, values and interests while the later focuses on collective definition of the purpose of collective actions among states based on their shared experience, values and interests. Under a win-win leadership, leading actors would also use activities to influence the redefinition of perceptions and interests of other countries, to ensure wider and deeper international cooperation. However, in so doing, win-win leadership would mainly rely on the appeal of its experiences, values and norms, and the willing choice of other countries. In contrast, a solipsistic leader often uses coercion to impose its will onto others.

3) Method: international leadership is about the use of influence. Influence can be categorized into two parts, attraction and coercion. International leadership can also be divided into attractive international leadership and coercive international leadership. When the US uses the power of attraction to influence, it is more popular as a leader. The opening of a vast domestic market to its trade partners has long been a key of its attractiveness and influence in the world. On the contrary, when the US uses military and economic coercive methods, its reputation and legitimacy of leadership decline. The two methods do not need to be mutually exclusive, which means states could combine the use of the power of attraction and the power of coercion. However, if a leading country uses more coercive power, its leadership could be more questioned and less sustainable.

4) Style: an important element in international leadership is the relationship between leaders and followers. In a hierarchical domestic political system, a leader-follower relationship is normal. But in the international system where all countries are equal legally, this leader-follower dichotomy becomes very controversial. The reason that the Chinese government has been hesitant in embracing the concept of “international leadership”, in the authors’ view, is to an important extent due to the hierarchical nature of this dichotomy. Historically, international leadership mostly is built in such a hierarchical fashion, with a purpose to exercise domination in the name of leadership. But in a sovereign-state international system, real international leadership should be based on international law which defines that all sovereign states are equal. Countries should regard others as partners rather than followers. For a true leader, other countries should be equal partners to achieve a common goal.

Another issue that should be taken into consideration is how much responsibility and cost the leader should take. International leadership can be one country taking all the responsibility and cost, which is a hierarchical patronal leadership. It also can be the leader outsourcing responsibility and cost to followers, which leads to a hierarchical subcontracting leadership. Another style of international leadership is the leader forcing followers to take most of the responsibilities and costs while the leader attempts to attain its leadership position without undertaking its due responsibilities. In a way, the current Trump administration is moving towards this kind of international leadership style. There is another leadership style, a non-hierarchical empowering leadership, which the authors would argue as a better alternative. An empowering leader needs to takes as much as responsibility and cost according to its capacity, but mainly through enhancing the capacities of other international actors in their efforts to tackle the domestic and international challenges, and doing so in a mutually respectful way.

5) Domain: international leadership is needed in every specific domain. With respect to policy domains, international leadership includes leadership in security, economy, development, climate change, etc. From a geographical perspective, international leadership can be Asian leadership, European leadership or African leadership.

6) Performance: The evaluation of international leadership should be based on whether it has achieved the purpose previously defined. Only when achieving its purpose can international leadership be seen as effective. In an ever challenging world, people expect international leadership to face these challenges. The leader should find the best way to improve leadership effectiveness. The ideal type of international leadership is to fix the problem and realize sustainable development. Before a more comprehensive evaluation system appears, the performance is evaluated as high, medium and low in this paper.

7) Legitimacy: whether the leader is recognized by other members of the international society is a key question in the legitimacy of international leadership. High-level recognition can entail voluntary and strong support from other actors, resulting in higher effectiveness. Low-level recognition can lead to less cooperation from other actors, which would limit the leader’s ability to lead. In order to have legitimacy, leader must incorporate followers’ interests and aspirations when setting the purpose of leadership, adopt mainly an attractive leadership method and a non-hierarchical style.

Facilitative Leadership and China

Facing a leadership deficit situation, countries other than the US should make more contribution to international leadership. The US-led international order was supported mainly by its allies in the west especially the EU member states. However, the EU is facing challenges including geopolitical conflict with Russia, terrorism, the refugee crisis, Brexit, populism, economic recovery and the sovereign debt crisis. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, admitted that the EU is facing its three biggest challenges since the Treaty of Rome: 1) geopolitical threat from the outside, 2) anti-EU, anti-migration and anti-refugee sentiment in member states, and 3) loss of confidence in the EU among European elites. Mainstream candidates have won the Dutch and French elections, which is a positive signal for the stabilization of the EU, and in ensuring European countries and the EU could still be important leading actors in global governance.

The emerging powers have also had difficulties in economic development in recent years but key countries among them, like China and India, are still moving forward steadily. These countries have kept complaining that they did not enjoy proper status in the US-led international order. Nowadays, since the US is losing interest in international affairs, the emerging powers should take more responsibilities, not only for their own interests but also for the common interest of the international community.

After the end of the Cold War, Deng Xiaoping pointed out that China should be modest and sensitive and “do not be the leader.” At that time, China’s GDP was less than 2% of world GDP. However, after 20 years China’s GDP is the second largest in the world and accounts for 15% of world GDP. China has also become the country with largest foreign exchange reserves, international trade, greenhouse gas emissions and one of the top three in foreign direct investment. In addition, China also enjoys permanent member status in the UN Security Council. Obviously, if China does not take its due responsibility in international leadership, it is a waste of opportunity and evasion of its responsibility as a major power.

Therefore, the question for China should be how to define and play its international leadership role, rather than whether it should have a leadership role. China was the leader in East Asia for a long time in history and developed the tributary system, which is a kind of hierarchical leadership. After WWII, the US has established a global hegemonic leadership while the EU as a union of 28 states proposed “normative power” in global normative leadership. Today, it is impossible to restore the Chinese tributary system. It is also difficult for China to duplicate the US global hegemonic leadership. Since China is a supporter for pluralism and insists on national sovereignty principle, it has no intention to set the norms and standards for the world, not mentioning the EU’s normative power is shrinking due to its domestic crises and Brexit. Therefore, there is no leadership model from history for China to learn about how to take international leadership.

This article argues that China needs a new model of international leadership. This new model should provide direction for China’s involvement in the supply of international leadership. It should enable China to fulfill its capacity in international leadership and, at the same time, to avoid misunderstandings such as leadership equals domination, leadership equals selfishness, leadership equals coercion and leadership equals patronage. Some scholars have made contributions in this field. Zhao Kejin defines China’s “constructive leadership” in its three foreign policy shifts. This leadership model can be summarized as that China creates an international environment in favor of its own peaceful development in order to maintain its development trend, protect its overseas interest and to promote its international reputation and capability. John Kirton reviews the history of the G20 and its annual conferences and argues that China’s leadership can be depicted in three words: sensitive, accumulated and cooperative.

This article proposes a facilitative international leadership role for China. Facilitative international leadership means that China uses its substantial influence to advance the shared goals of the members of international society, to achieve joint development and progress, in a cooperative, win-win, attractive and empowering manner.

Facilitative international leadership emphasizes that key actors should lead collectively in a cooperative way. In the past, there were cases when one country led a country bloc. For example, during the Cold War, the two superpowers had dominance in their blocs respectively. After the end of the Cold War, the US and its allies regarded the world as a unipolar system and could pursue a US-centric international leadership. But US international leadership is losing its power base in politics and economy as well as its legitimacy. The world needs cooperative leadership. The G20 is a new institution that contrasts to unilateral leadership. Facilitative leadership demands plural leaders and tries to have collective leadership. With the rise of the emerging countries, the international system is becoming multipolarized or de-centered to such an extent that any attempt to restore unilateral leadership will be dampened, and stronger collective leadership will be demanded to address the risks and challenges in this transitional period. As a signatory state of the NonProliferation Treaty (NPT), China has made substantial contributions to nuclear nonproliferation and to dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue along with other major powers such as the US, Russia and Germany (Pang 2012, 210). In global economic governance, faced with economic stagnation, rising protectionism and a wider gap between rich and poor, China has promoted inclusive development through the G20 summit in Hangzhou in 2016.

Facilitative leadership is win-win leadership to promote common goals of the international community. In the past, international leadership usually served the leader’s own national interest, especially its pursuit of power. Even when a country tries to get recognition as leader by providing international public goods, this leadership is still a solipsistic leadership if the country’s purpose is to establish its powerful status. This kind of solipsistic leadership’s sustainability and legitimacy remain uncertain. Unlike solipsistic leadership, win-win leadership is more sustainable and legitimate, which can assist other countries’ development. Chinese President Xi Jinping said at his speech when he visited the Parliament of Mongolia in 2014 that “you can take a ride on our express train or just make a hitchhike, all are welcome” and “we will never do things that could result in 'one wins and the other loses' or 'one wins more and the other gets less.' We will take into consideration the other side's interests in some specific projects.” Under the facilitative leadership, the establishment of a leader is based on the promotion of the win-win development of the leading country and all other countries. In an ideal situation, the leader will also update international norms and each and every country’s interest. For example, the ideas of “a community of common destiny” and “inclusive growth” proposed by China focus on a higher level of cooperation in order to achieve win-win development.

Facilitative leadership mainly uses attraction to influence and lead. Economic attraction constitutes the main source of China’s global attraction. China can use its enormous domestic market to provide opportunities for others’ exports and investment via mutually beneficial cooperation. It can also use China’s capital and technology to help others develop and, at the same time, promote its own development. Based on this idea, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been welcomed by more and more countries, which shows China’s economic attractive leadership. China should also pay attention to its institutional leadership. In the past few years, China has helped to establish the New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, both of them having their headquarters in China. It has played a key role in the Paris agreement on climate change and the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. China has sent most military personnel to UN peacekeeping as a permanent member of UN Security Council, and is the third largest financial contributor to the UN regular budget and the second largest donor to the UN peacekeeping budget. Being actively involved in these institutions can strengthen China’s institutional leadership in international affairs. In addition, China should be an important leader in providing solutions. In the G20 China Summit and International Economic Forum in Davos, China has demonstrated that it could and does want to assume that role.

As for leadership style, China should be an empowering leader, not a hierarchical patronal leader. A hierarchical patronal leader not only establishes new common goals for the others, but also believes that they have the solutions to all problems. In the post-Cold War period, western countries claimed that domestic problems could be easily solved by adopting the western economic and political system. When such a system is not working, western countries propose global governance to replace national governance. In the 21st century, western interventions have brought chaos to a number of developing countries. The results prove that a hierarchical patronal leadership cannot really solve the problems. China should be an empowering leader and recognize the differences among countries. A foreign country cannot impose its solutions onto other countries, and should respect the primary role of other countries in managing their own problems. Therefore, an empowering leader respects others’ sovereignty, supports capability-building in other countries and helps other countries to develop problem-solving solutions of their own. Through empowering and providing support, such a facilitative leadership will be much easier for others to accept.

Facilitative international leadership needs legitimacy in order to ensure its effectiveness. A legitimate leader should have more or less voluntary endorsement from others. A country that aspires to lead will lose legitimacy if it only forces others to follow, since this kind of followership is forced, and does not represent a willing choice. Once the coercion is weakened, the coercive leadership can neither sustain nor achieve its goals.

Belt and Road Initiative And China’s International Leadership

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is China’s proposal to build a Silk Road Economic Belt and a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road in cooperation with related countries. It was unveiled by Chinese president Xi Jinping during his visits to Central and Southeast Asia in September and October 2013. The proposed economic belt is considered the longest overland economic corridor in the world connecting the Asia-Pacific region in the east with developed European economies in the west. The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road links China to the maritime Asia, Europe, Northeast Africa and Oceania. According to official documents, the BRI focuses on promoting policy coordination, connectivity of infrastructure and facilities, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and closer people-to-people ties through extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits, with the goal of bringing benefits to all.

Along with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), BRI is regarded as one of the major foreign policy initiatives by the new Chinese President and has been discussed globally. Although the detailed plan of BRI is still unfolding, by the end of 2016 over 100 countries and international and regional organizations had expressed an interest in participating, and more than 40 of them had signed cooperation agreements with China. There is no doubt that the BRI has become the priority of Chinese foreign policy and will maintain this status over the next five years at least.

Based on our analytical framework, in promoting the BRI, China has acquired key features of a facilitative leader. First, it is a cooperative leadership, not a unilateral one. Through the BRI, China has put forward a call for joint development in the vast Eurasian continent and its adjacent regions and is willing to support the participation of relevant countries in this joint endeavor. China’s BRI needs to be realized with the willing cooperation and participation from other countries along the two silk roads. In the Joint Communique of the Belt and Road Forum in May 2017, the leaders agreed that there are five cooperation principles: 1) consultation on an equal footing, 2) mutual benefit, 3) harmony and inclusiveness, 4) market-based operation, and 5) balance and sustainability. Second, it is a win-win leadership regarding the purpose. Promoting BRI certainly could help the development of western China and economic restructuring at home, but it also provide new resources and opportunities for other countries to achieve joint development through cooperation in the BRI. Third, advancing the BRI mainly relies on China’s attractive economic power, such as donations, concessional loans, investments and open access to the Chinese market, as well as the attractive ideas of economic development generated in China, such as a core focus on infrastructure building and connectivity. These material and ideational attractions have secured the participation in the BRI of many countries in the world. Fourth, it is an empowering leadership. China encourages all actors to be motivated in BRI projects and each of them has the opportunity and freedom to decide what kind of development and project they want. The BRI’s central guideline is to coordinate with national development strategies between China and participating countries, so that other countries’ participation in BRI could enhance their capacity to achieve domestic development. Fifth, it is a limited thematic leadership. The BRI covers the Asia-Pacific to Western Europe, with the priority on connectivity, especially on infrastructure development. It is an initiative mostly in the areas of economic cooperation and people-to-people exchange, without a direct emphasis on security cooperation.

There are at least two challenges for the BRI and China’s new role as a kind of facilitative leader. The first is the performance challenge of the BRI. Although it is too early to evaluate the performance of the BRI, one can easily raise questions regarding the implementation of BRI projects. As mentioned in the third section, international leadership is about providing solutions to the various problems around the world and realizing sustainable development. Therefore, whether the projects of BRI can be sustainable and contribute to problem-solving should be put to a performance test. Up to now there are a growing number of ongoing projects. Among them, we could also find some that are facing difficulties in implementation. China signed a memorandum of understanding with Serbia and Hungary in 2013 to jointly build and update the railway between Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, and Budapest, the Hungarian capital. The train link will cut travel time from eight hours to three and was expected to finish construction in 2018. Connectivity is one of the priorities of the BRI.

Through high-speed railway projects like this, China can help countries to better connect with each other and China resulting in faster and easier exchange of goods and people. Yet, this flagship project was investigated by the EU in February 2017. According to the EU the investigation “was assessing the financial viability of the 2.89 billion US dollars railway and looking into whether it had violated European Union laws stipulating that public tenders must be offered for large transport projects.” As China moves into a wider world, China needs to be aware of the various legal and other hurdles in project implementation and to ensure better coordination with key actors involved in BRI.

The second is the legitimacy challenge of the BRI. Since the BRI is a relatively new initiative from China, some countries may not be ready to endorse the BRI or some aspects of the BRI at present. Some scholars argue that BRI is a threat to some regions and are very critical towards its implementation. At the May 2017 BRI summit in Beijing, India did not attend the event and some EU member states refused to sign one BRI Summit document on trade because “it did not include commitments to social and environmental sustainability and transparency.” Clearly, there is still much work to be done to raise the level of acceptance in countries along the silk roads. However, many other scholars hold a more optimistic perspective. Based on the number of countries signing agreements with China on BRI and joining the AIIB, the initiative is now widely recognized and supported already. If China could demonstrate the benefits of this initiative to the world through its successful implementation of the planned projects, it is very possible that the BRI could attract more countries to join. The presence of the delegations from Japan and the United States attending the Beijing BRI summit shows that even these two countries are warming up to the BRI.


The new type of international leadership, facilitative leadership, which we propose in this article, is not the only choice for China. China, of course, can follow the path of the US and pursue a unilateral, solipsistic and coercive leadership. However, through this kind of traditional leadership, it is extremely difficult for China to realize its ambition to be a true international leader. China needs to articulate a new type of international leadership, and as we argue in this article, a facilitative leadership is the most proper type for China in the near future.

During the Munich Security Conference 2017, the host published the Munich Security Report 2017: Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order, in which it expressed deep concern regarding the maintenance of the western international order. The US-led western world has held the international leadership for a long time since the end of Cold War. This leadership is in crisis both domestically and internationally. China has many complaints with the western leadership. But this should not be a reason for China to just stay as an outsider. Nevertheless, there are valuable components in the existing international order such as an open international economy, climate change governance, UN peacekeeping and the sustainable development agenda. China and most other countries participated in the establishment of these institutions, which serve the common interests of all. When there is a leadership deficit, China should naturally take on more responsibilities. In this process, China should learn from the mistakes of the US and western countries in the past and not to pursue unilateral, egoist, coercive or monopolized international leadership. Rather, China needs to embrace a more enlightened type of international leadership, a facilitative international leadership that is collective, win-win, attractive and empowering.

The article used the contents from author’s following publications: 

1.Chen Zhimin, etal, “Facilitative Leadership and China’s New Role in the World” , Chinese Political Sciences Review(ESCI), Vol. 3, No. 1, 2018 

2.Chen Zhimin, “China, The European Union and the Fragile World Order”, Journal of Common market Studies(SSCI), 2016, Vol. 54, No. 4, pp.775-792.

3.Chen Zhimin, “ China ’ s diplomacy ” , in Costas M. Constantinou, Pauline Kerr & Paul Sharp(eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Diplomacy, 2016 

4.Chen Zhimin, “Assessing China’s Powerfrom a Chinese Perspective: Back to the Center Stage“, in Jae Ho Chun (ed.), Assessing China’s Power (Palgrave, 2015) 

5.Chen Zhimin & Chang Lulu, "The Power Strategy of Chinese foreign Policy", NFG Working Paper No. 3/2013