Journal of Chinese Political Science

, Volume 21, Issue 2, pp 177–197

China and International Order: The Limits of Integration



What does the rise of China mean for the international order, especially the liberal institutional order? Despite of the enormous scholarly attention paid to this important question, there has been no systematic effort to map out this order and how China relates to it. We examine the international institutional order using an original dataset, the Multilateral Agreements and Protocols (MAP). We further develop a new metric of a country’s embeddedness in the international institutional order. Our analysis leads us to reconsider prominent conjectures about China’s evolving relationship to the current international liberal order. We find that, relative to the global average, China is less inclined towards deep commitment to the current international institutional order. Indeed, China’s wariness about this order seems in contrast to the growing global appetite for deep commitment. Furthermore, China seems less embedded in some issue areas that are central to the international liberal order. These findings suggest that the integration of China into the current Western liberal order may not be as automatic as some have suggested and reinforce concerns over the future of global governance.


China International Order Agreements Protocols International Institutions 


China is rising in economic might, military capacity, and political power. Consequently, the world is changing. Important challenges confront policy makers on a recurring basis: what should the United States and other Western countries do? Integrate or contain China? For instance, should the US have engaged in such “historic” efforts of cooperation with China at the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit as to draw China into the folds of the US-designed regional economic order [19]? Should the US Congress have been more open to allowing a greater role of China in the International Monetary Fund as to preempt a China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank [33]? At the root of these and many other similarly thorny policy decisions lies this fundamental question: what is the relationship between China and the international order?

There have been lively debates along several lines. First, what precisely is the relationship between China and the international order? Is China largely aloof and perhaps shut out of the core of the international order? Or, has China been a key and often-willing contributor to the constructs of the international order? Second, what is the likely impact of China on the future international order? Is China rising to embrace the existing international order? Or, is China tempted to alter the current system so profoundly as to dismantle it? Third, will China adhere to the rules and norms embodied by the existing order even if it did not create them? Will China comply with aspects of international law when they hurt its national interests? These are central questions to the study of International Relations, with important policy implications on global governance.

This paper addresses the most basic questions in this debate. Simply, what is the international order? How is China related to that order? These questions are fundamental and they must precede the previous inquiries. Surprisingly, however, there has been little systematic effort to answer these basic questions.

We fill this gap through a detailed analysis of the international institutional order (IIO), as a system of rules and norms embodied in international institutions. We contribute conceptually and empirically to a better understanding of China in the IIO, by overcoming two related weaknesses in that literature. First, it has not always been clear what constitutes international order and, especially, how to empirically capture that order. Second and relatedly, scholars often lack a concrete measure of the degree to which countries are engaged in that international order. In this paper, we offer a way of conceptualizing and empirically measuring states’ engagement in the IIO. By leveraging the structure of international treaties, we are able to not only address whether states join broad framework agreements but also whether they accept specific and typically more demanding additional protocols that signify a greater level of commitment.

Our analysis leads us to reconsider prominent conjectures about China’s evolving relationship to the IIO. We find that, relative to the global average, China displays a lower level of commitment to the IIO as represented by multilateral treaties. China may willingly embrace the broad and general principles as in framework agreements, but at the same time appear to refrain from binding itself to the more concrete, expansive and demanding obligations as in additional protocols. Furthermore, China seems less embedded in some key liberal aspects of the IIO. These findings suggest that China’s integration into the Western-led liberal institutional order may not be as automatic as some have suggested.

The article proceeds as follows. In the next section, we provide the theoretical background for our inquiry. We then discuss the data and our empirical approach. The following sections map out global patterns in the IIO and focus on how China fits into that order, as compared with other similar countries. We conclude with policy implications and future research questions.

IR Theory and International Institutional Order

China’s rapid rise has arguably been the most significant and consequential development in international relations since the end of the Cold War. Naturally, it has attracted much attention from scholars, policymakers, and even the public at large. What does China’s rise mean for the World? How does China relate to, and how will it impact, the IIO1?

While the most influential theories of international relations – Realism and Institutionalism – seem to diverge in how they think of international order, the debate on China and its impact on global governance is informed and indeed influenced by both of these theories.

Scholars in the Realist tradition tend to focus on the structural elements of the international system. Much attention is given to power transition and its associated dangers [2] as well as the issue of polarity [34]. The bipolar balance of power during the Cold War gave way to unipolarity in the 1990s. Now, China’s rise seems to present a challenge to the unipolar structure. Analysts from the Realist tradition are thus concerned with whether a transition in the structure of the system can be peaceful, as the world moves from US hegemony to multipolarity or bipolarity, and potentially a Chinese hegemony in the more distant future [22, 29, 35].

While the Structural Realists tend to see the international system as reflecting the distribution of power amongst states, Realist scholars are not all of the same mind about the implications of China’s rise. Some view China’s rise as the prelude to conflict, in part because China’s growing strength may lead the US to balance against it. Others hold that China’s rise need not be competitive and dangerous, because the structural forces driving major powers into conflict are weak [7, 28].

In contrast to Realist thinking, scholars in the Institutionalist tradition see international order as the system of rules and norms that states create to manage international and transnational relations. Here the international order consists of regimes [17] and institutions [15]. States establish institutions to manage their relations and help resolve potential conflicts. The IIO also imposes constraints on states. In fact, to both the powerless and the powerful, the IIO results from bargains and compromises [8, 9]. Analysts from the neoliberal institutionalist tradition are thus concerned with the factors that promote China’s engagement in the IIO as well as the conditions under which China is likely to help maintain that institutional order.

Just as there are different versions of Realist accounts, there are also variations in the institutionalist school. Some analysts argue that, even if the architecture of the IIO remains intact, the rise of China hastens the end of American hegemonic leadership in this order. In other words, the West must gracefully give up its dominance of global institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, and even the UN Security Council [20]. Other analysts go further to claim that, the contents and the built-in values in the international institutional order will also shift from liberal to non-liberal global arrangements [12]. For instance, China may challenge values such as democracy and open markets which are at the foundation of contemporary liberal institutionalism. Countering both of the above positions, yet other scholars argue that the American-led institutional order is alive and well2 [11]. This is not because the US and the West will successfully exclude China along with its influence, but rather because China finds, and will continue to find, the international institutional order useful to protect its interests.

Despite such divergence of views – between the Realist and the Neoliberal Institutionalist as well as within each school of thought – there is a great deal of agreement in how these scholars think of international institutions. Emerging, it seems, is a Realist Institutional Theory, which takes power politics and international institutions equally seriously. Indeed, international institutions are often where battles are fought for power and redistribution. This theory embraces, explicitly or implicitly, three insights from the rationalist theories on international institutions.

First, international institutions – rules, norms as well as organizations – are constructed by states, largely for the purpose of helping them achieve objectives that they would otherwise find impossible [15]. Bargains and compromises among involved parties and tradeoffs across many crucial objectives are necessary in designing and establishing international institutions [16]. If equipped with the influence, states may shape the institutional order to their preferences [9]. If limited in resources and capacity, they may adapt to the institutional order by embracing only certain elements of that order [8]. Thus, to every state, institutions represent bundles of both benefits and costs. The precise make up of each bundle varies, depending on the rules and compositions of organizations.

Second, for international institutions to assist states with collective enterprises and help resolve potential conflicts, institutions need to have some constraining effects on the very states that give rise to these institutions [21]. Thus, institutions are not simply candies. They can be bitter pills with their constraining effects. Reasonably, states typically seek to enhance the benefits from international institutions while minimizing the constraining effects that the institutions may impose on these states. However, regardless of their strength, no state can completely bypass the constraining effect of international institutions.

Third, states follow a similar instrumental logic in deciding whether and how much to comply with international rules and norms. Often the driver for states’ compliance is international pressure or a domestic constituency,3 rather than something inherently good or evil about that state. Thus, based on Rationalist Institutionalist Theory, we expect all states, including China, to selectively embrace elements of international institutional order, as each element of this order may present different states with a different bundle of costs and benefits. In our empirical section, we shall examine just how China relates to the IIO, as compared to other similarly important states.

While these theoretical premises enjoy a great deal of agreement, it is unclear what empirically constitutes the IIO and how exactly to capture it. It is the lack of attention to these empirical challenges that have led to much of the confusion in the literature on China and the IIO. Indeed, scholars define the IIO variably. For example, it can be as general and broad as the modern state system, which features norms of state sovereignty, territorial integrity, and non-intervention. But it can also refer to the IIO led by the prevalent liberal democracies. Indeed, the United States’ political and economic system is central to this form of the international liberal order which values open trade, self-determination, international law and global organizations.

Depending on how scholars define the IIO and even which aspects they emphasize, they may draw very different conclusions about how China relates to that order. While China obviously endorses many key tenets of the modern state system, it may be reasonably wary of certain elements in the liberal international order. As prevalent IR theories expect countries to engage international institutions in order to advance their own self-interests, China should be no exception in selectively engaging the international institutional order. For example, China has come a long way in embracing free trade, but it is much less enthusiastic about promoting democracy through global organizations.4 These complications suggest the need for more systematic empirical analysis to captures the global international institutional order and how states relate to it.

We define the international institutional order (IIO) as the rules of the game that apply to all countries in the international system. Indeed, as John Ikenberry makes clear, the core of this order is openness and rule-based relations enshrined in institutions such as the United Nations and norms such as multilateralism [11]. We thus take the body of multilateral treaties negotiated and adopted in the United Nations as the basis of international institutional order. Accordingly, we describe the development of the IIO throughout the post-World War II era and examine how China, in comparison to other similar countries, relates to this order.

Data and Measurement

Despite much attention, the precise relationship between China and the IIO has been elusive. One of the challenges is the lack of good data and reliable measures of the international order and state behavior in that order. We overcome this challenge by utilizing a new, original dataset, the Multilateral Agreements and Protocols (MAP) data and developing a new metric of a country’s embeddedness in the IIO. In this section, we describe the data and procedures that we use to compile a measure for embeddedness.

To depict the IIO, we turn to the Multilateral Treaties Deposited with the Secretary General (MTDSG), part of the United Nations Treaty Collection (UNTC). Each observation in this collection is a multilateral treaty instrument that all countries could potentially sign and ratify. However, not all countries sign and ratify each treaty. As states selectively participate in these treaties, their participation patterns reveal variation in their willingness to endorse the rules codified in these treaty instruments. In particular, we leverage the distinction between framework agreements and additional protocols in order to gauge states’ proclivity to embed themselves into the IIO. A framework agreement codifies a broad set of general rules related to an issue. States sometimes go on to adopt additional protocols that codify more numerous and more demanding obligations.5 States that ratify the framework agreements demonstrate an interest in the issue; but states that ratify the additional protocols demonstrate greater commitment, further embedding themselves into this facet of the IIO.

In our analysis, we cover all additional protocols as well as the related initial framework agreements from the end of World War II to the end of 2014.6 This results a total of seventy-eight treaty instruments including twenty-eight framework agreements and fifty substantive protocols. These treaty instruments cover many issue areas including diplomatic relations, health, education, penal matters, the Law of the Sea, disarmament, human rights, and environment.7 Some framework agreements have each led to more than one substantive protocols. We define a treaty family as a group of treaty instruments including a framework agreement and any subsequent protocols to that framework agreement. These treaty families vary in size, with each framework agreement having from one to eight protocols. While new framework agreements are adopted at a steady rate throughout our data, substantive protocols are introduced at a growing rate, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

To capture how committed countries are to the IIO, we develop a measure of embeddedness in two steps. First, we code whether a country ratifies a given treaty instrument, framework agreement or additional protocol, in a given year.8 Next, we code whether a country, having ratified a framework agreement, voluntarily goes the extra mile to ratify the additional protocol(s). The country’s embeddedness score is the proportion of additional protocols that a country has joined, after having ratified the framework agreement, within a treaty family.9 This measure presents indication of a commitment to deeper, more specific legal obligations in the IIO. A state that ratifies an additional protocol is more embedded in the IIO than one that does not. Furthermore, an increased rate of ratification over time represents a deeper embeddedness in the IIO.

As an example of the coding procedure for the embeddedness variable, consider China’s ratification behavior with the set of treaty instruments related to the Rights of the Child. Table 1 illustrates our coding procedure during a truncated time frame. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (RTC) came into being in 1989. China ratified the RTC in 1992. Accordingly, China receives a ‘0’ for its membership in this treaty instrument prior to 1992 and a ‘1’ beginning in 1992, upon ratification of the RTC. There are currently three additional protocols on the Rights of the Child, two of which were adopted in 2000. With the introduction of these additional protocols in 2000, we are able to observe China’s response to opportunities to further embed itself into this treaty. For 2 years in 2001 and 2002, China joins zero of the two available additional protocols, generating an embeddedness value of ‘0’. In 2003, China joins one additional protocol, creating an embeddedness score of ‘0.5’ or the proportion of additional protocols that the country joined for which it was eligible.
Table 1

Example of coding procedure











Rights of the Child










Children in Armed Conflict










Prostitution in Sex Trade










Communications Procedure




















Our measure of embeddedness leverages the distinction and the hierarchical structure between agreements and protocols. By joining a framework agreement, countries demonstrate a baseline level of commitment to general principles. Subsequent additional protocols are opportunities for states to demonstrate a greater level of commitment and “embed” themselves into the existing international institutional order by voluntarily taking on more numerous and more demanding obligations. This provides us with a behavioral measure of embeddedness that is quantifiable and comparable across cases. The measure also reflects the evolution of the IIO; it does not simply tally the absolute number of treaty instruments a state joins, but it takes into consideration the total and ever increasing number of treaty instruments in the international system. It is thus a more faithful a measure for how much a state embeds itself into the existing IIO than a measure which only reports treaty membership or examines joining behavior in a single set of treaties, especially without differentiating between agreements and protocols.

Now that we have constructed the measure of embeddedness, we proceed to the next section to map out the global patterns of the IIO. Against the background of global patterns, we will then zoom in on China to examine how it fits into the broader IIO.

Global Patterns on Embeddedness to International Institutional Order

In this section, we examine current global patterns in embeddedness as well as historical trends. Recall that we generate embeddedness scores that are specific to a country-year within a treaty family. Thus, a country’s overall embeddedness in a given year is the average embeddedness across all treaty families for that country-year observation.10

First of all, what does global embeddedness look like over time? As Fig. 1 indicates, the global average of embeddedness across countries is quite steady and slightly increasing. The solid black line represents the average embeddedness across all countries within each given year. The error bars represent a ninety-five percent confidence interval for each year. This reflects the fact that in the earlier years during our analysis time, there are substantially fewer agreements and protocols to base our inference on. As the number of agreements and protocols increases over time, we are able to draw more reliable inference in the later years during our analysis time. Embeddedness scores from treaty families with more than one additional protocol are not weighted as such large families are not common in the data and risk skewing the averages. Using the pair-wise embeddedness measure (which weighs large treaty families more than small ones) does not change rank-order but does make differences between countries more noticeable.
Fig. 1

Global Average of Embeddedneses Over Time

Given that countries join more and more international instruments over time, how can a state’s embeddedness or the global average of embeddedness decrease? Recall that, to be faithful to the idea of embeddedness, our measure does not simply tally the absolute number of treaty instruments that a state joins, but rather it is based on the proportion of all existing treaty instruments that a state joins, including new treaty instruments as they are introduced. Here, a decrease in the average embeddedness corresponds to one of two situations: 1) when countries enter the system and ratify framework agreements but not the additional protocols, and 2) when a framework agreement spawns an additional protocol that countries do not ratify, at least not right away.

Given these two downward-pressing forces, it is remarkable that embeddedness continually rebounds as new states and treaty instruments enter that dataset. On average states have kept up with this rate of increase to embrace more demanding international rules. Global embeddedness has been increasing and actually reached a high-point in the mid to late 2000s following the introduction of the bulk of new additional protocols. Indeed, the growing legalization in the IIO as represented by these additional protocols did not turn states away.

In addition to the variations over time, embeddedness varies substantially between countries. How embedded in the IIO are certain countries compared to others? Which countries are the most embedded? Which countries are the least? Figure 2 displays average embeddedness for each state, as of 2014. Darker shades correspond to a greater level of embeddedness. We see a higher level of embeddedness in Europe and, to a lesser degree, high levels of embeddedness in the whole of the Western Hemisphere. Countries in the geographical regions of Africa and Asia appear less embedded in the IIO according to this measure.
Fig. 2

Global Embeddedness by State as of 2014

Notably, the embeddedness score for China in 2014 is 0.41, meaning that China has ratified about forty-one percent of the additional protocols in those treaty families that China has ratified the framework agreements, as of 2014. This embeddedness score is below both the global mean (0.49) and median (0.46). We now turn to a more careful examination of how exactly China is embedded in the IIO.

China in International Institutional Order

Against the backdrop of global patterns in embeddedness, where does China stand in the IIO? How does China compare with other states, especially those that are political, economically and geographically similar? Furthermore, how does the extent to which China binds itself to the IIO vary across issue areas? These are the three key questions we address in this section.

Before we address each of these questions, two methodological notes are in order. First, we use a smoothed loess line to depict embeddedness trends over time, in part to make graphical representations of the data more readable, especially when we compare multiple countries over time. While the loess line does smooth the data, this smoothing is local and the span is set so that embeddedness scores that are more than a few years apart have a minimal impact on the shape of the curve. Second, when we track a country’s embeddedness trend over time, we have more confidence in the later decades than the earlier decades. This is because there are fewer treaty instruments, agreements or protocols, in the earlier period.

So a country may enter the picture in our analysis with a very high or very low starting point, sometimes as a matter of whether it has ratified the only protocol in the treaty family where it has earlier ratified the framework agreement. Thus, throughout our analysis, we should not be distracted by the big variation in the starting points of the embeddedness trends. What is more revealing are the embeddedness scores and trends in the later decades, when a substantially larger number of agreements and protocols provide us with a more reliable measure of states’ proclivity to bind themselves to the IIO.

Focusing on China

As we recall from the previous section, the global average embeddedness has been steady and slightly rising over time. In contrast, as shown in Fig. 3, China’s embeddedness to the IIO displays a downward trend from 1972 when China was formally recognized in the United Nations to the end of 2014, China’s embeddedness score changed from 1 to 0.41. The numbers in parentheses indicate the number of framework agreements that China has ratified at different points in time. This shows that, as China joins more framework agreements – the numbers in parentheses increase over time – China has more opportunities to also join additional protocols. The decreasing line of embeddedness, however, indicates that China is on a slower pace to endorse these additional protocols than the pace at which these protocols come into being. This is in contrast to the steady but slightly rising global embeddedness score over time. This is also partially reflected in the snapshot of global embeddedness in 2014, where China lags behind the global mean as well as median of embeddedness in the IIO.
Fig. 3

China’s Embeddedness over Time

One idiosyncratic fact should be noted, although it does not affect our substantive interpretation. At the beginning of this time period as in Fig. 3, in 1972 following the People Republic of China’s diplomatic entry in the United Nations, China retrospectively adopted only two international instruments – a framework agreement and an associated additional protocol while rendering all other treaty commitments made by the Nationalist government null and void. Thus, China’s embeddedness starts out with a ‘1’, reflecting the UNTC’s record that China had recognized the previous government’s ratification of one framework agreement and its associated protocol. The embeddedness score pre-1972 is thus artificially high and we would expect it to fall. For several reasons, this does not affect our substantive findings. First, the high starting point in 1972 does not affect, theoretically or methodologically, the estimation of the curve more than 10 years later when China ratified the next framework agreement. Second, additional protocols are more numerous in recent decades and this is where our findings are more stable and reliable. These more recent decades are the focus for our substantive interpretations.

Comparing to Other Groups of States

In the previous subsection, we have found that, against the backdrop of the steady and slightly rising global embeddedness over time, China has displayed a decreasing trend of embeddedness to the IIO. However, what does this exactly mean? Is China truly unique? Or, is China on par with other similar countries? To have a better understanding of China’s relationship to the IIO, we utilize our large dataset to compare China – its embeddedness in the international institutional order – to other countries that are politically, economically, or geographically similar.

First, how does China compare to other major powers, specifically the fellow members of the United Nations Security Council? In Fig. 4, China’s embeddedness is considerably lower compared to the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. One might expect that within this group of states, embeddedness would be rather high. The P5, after all, were the architects of the IIO following the end of World War II and their position within the Security Council creates both influence and interests in global affairs. They should perhaps have a greater affinity with the rules of the game that have been established in the United Nations. For Western powers - the United States, Great Britain and France - this seems to occur. The embeddedness levels of these three countries have been similar, especially over the past 30 years. They are all substantially higher than the global average, denoted by the dotted line in Fig. 4. China’s embeddedness level as well as that of Russia, on the other hand, is much lower. For the USSR/Russia,11 a gulf forms during the early period of the Cold War, with its embeddedness substantially below the global average. Interestingly, China’s embeddedness, as compared to the global average, was higher in the 1980s and 1990s. However, in the more recent decades, in contrast to the slightly rising global average of embeddedness, China seemed less embedded.
Fig. 4

Embeddedness of UN Security Council Members

Indeed, this tread in embeddedness over time is noteworthy. China’s embeddedness in the period of time following the entry of the People’s Republic of China into the UN system, has decreased dramatically – even falling below the global average in the past decade. Embeddedness in the IIO for the United States, Great Britain and France has followed an upward trend that out-paces the global average. This can be said about Russia as well, though the rebound starts at a much lower starting point and occurs later.

Clearly, the IIO is value-laden. All five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council do not get to shape the rules of the game to the same extent and thus may not adhere to this order to the same extent. This is consistent with the rationalist institutional theories. The diverging trends in how these countries embed themselves in this order, however rationally justified, do not lend support to the optimism that China will want to embrace the Western-led, liberal, international order.

Second, how does China compare to other large and upcoming developing countries, especially the fellow BRICS countries? Although united in their status as fast-emerging economies, the BRICS are not similarly embracing the IIO. In Fig. 5, China’s embeddedness in the international institutional order is lower as compared to the other BRICS countries. This is especially the case in the recent decades, withstanding the fact that Brazil and South Africa have displayed a large variation in behavior since the 1980s. As in the previous figure, Russia joins China toward the bottom but is more in line with the global average than China is in the past decade.
Fig. 5

Embeddedness of BRICS Countries

In terms of the trend of embeddedness over time, in the recent decades as states have more opportunities to display their embeddedness to the IIO and as the global average of embeddedness rises, most of the BRICs countries are increasingly more embedded. Standing in contrast is China, displaying greater reluctance towards the IIO.

Finally, how does China compare to regional powers in East Asia? In East Asia as well as the broader Asia-Pacific region, there is a great deal of diversity in terms of size, economy and political systems. We focus on the three unambiguous regional powers. Compared to Japan and South Korean, China’s embeddedness in the IIO is not substantially different in Fig. 6.
Fig. 6

Embeddedness of East Asian Regional Powers

However, during the past two decades, China is less embedded than its fellow regional powers in East Asia to the IIO. While the other two have been either at or slightly above the global average of embeddedness, China’s embeddedness has been decreasing below the global average. Although China is not lagging by much, it is nevertheless less embedded to the IIO than the other two East Asian regional powers.

Thus, in all three sets of comparisons, China is typically less embedded to the IIO than other countries in the comparable set.12 These other countries, though varying a lot in their embeddedness score, have typically scored above the global average in recent decades. China, arguably as powerful and important as other countries in the sets above, has scored below them and the global average of embeddedness in recent decade. Furthermore, the clearly decreasing trend of China’s embeddedness over the past three decades also contrasts the increasing embeddedness of most other comparable countries. These comparisons thus provide more context for the simple fact that China’s embeddedness to the IIO is below both the mean and the median of the embeddedness scores of all countries in the world.

Together, these findings suggest that China is not as well integrated into the IIO as many have suggested. There may be many reasons for this. While future concentrated studies need to dissect these potential reasons, some are arguably more feasible than others. Because we include as the main fabric of the IIO the multilateral agreements and protocols established in the United Nations that are open to all member states, a lower level of embeddedness probably does not reflect containment of China by the existing power holders, at least not directly. Rather, China’s reluctance to ratify these additional protocols after ratifying the framework agreements reflects instead its unwillingness to commit to these additional protocols, which often represent greater sovereignty/autonomy cost. Arguably, China’s less than eager adherence to the IIO is intensified by a low level of affinity with the normative value inherent in this order.

Comparing Across Issue Areas

As we know, multilateral treaties adopted in the United Nations cover a wide range of issue areas. Accordingly, the IIO we capture is multi-dimensional. Does China’s embeddedness to this institutional order, as compared to other countries, vary across issue areas? The answer is yes. We illustrate those variations in two issue areas, the Environment and Human Rights, where numerous treaty families are included in our dataset. Recall that we generate embeddedness scores that are specific to a country-year within a treaty family. Thus, a country’s embeddedness in a given year in a particular issue area is the average embeddedness among treaty families in that specific issue area.

In the area of the Environment, China seems more willing to not only ratify framework agreements but also their associated protocols. In Fig. 7, each line represents the average embeddedness across treaty families in the area of the Environment for a given country. As we can see in Fig. 7, especially in the more recent decades when there are more numerous agreements and protocols through which we can observe more accurately states’ proclivity to embrace the IIO, China is not the least embedded country. In fact, China is either at the top or in the same neighborhood with other countries in recent years, in each of the three comparison groups. Indeed, China has joined a relatively high proportion of the additional protocols, in fact more so than the United States and Russia since the 2000s and at least as well as the other BRICS countries and peer regional powers in the same time frame.
Fig. 7

Embeddedness in Environmental Issues

In the area of Human Rights, however, the picture is drastically different. Here, China is strikingly less embedded in the IIO. In Fig. 8, each line represents the average embeddedness across treaty families in the area of the Human Rights for a given country. As shown in Fig. 8, China enters the picture later than most other countries in the three comparison groups. Although China signed one of the earliest Human Rights agreements, i.e., the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, it never ratified it. Concerning the three framework agreements that China ratified by the late 1990s – the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention Against Torture (CAT), and the Convention on the Right of the Child (RoTC) – the first additional protocol (to CEDAW) was introduced in 1999. That gives us the first observation for China’s embeddedness in the area of Human Rights. As we can see, China has ratified a small proportion of additional protocols in the area of Human Rights. Accordingly, China is among the least embedded in this area, substantially more pronounced as compared to the Security Council members but also to other comparison groups.
Fig. 8

Embeddedness in Human Rights Issues

Discussions and Conclusion

How does a rising China relate to the international institutional order (IIO)? This question has generated much scholarly attention as well as policy debate. We contribute to this literature empirically by examining the extent to which China adheres to the norms and principles codified in multilateral treaties in the United Nations. To capture the degree to which a country really embraces the IIO, we develop a metric of a country’s embeddedness by calculating the proportion of additional protocols a country ratifies given that the country has ratified the relevant framework agreements. Accordingly, we compare China’s embeddedness with countries that share a similar political role (P5 in UNSC), countries that are quickly developing (BRICs), and countries they are peer regional powers. We find that, relative to the global average, China is less inclined towards deep commitment to the current IIO. Indeed, China’s wariness about this order seems in contrast to the growing appetite globally for deep commitment to the IIO. Furthermore, China seems less embedded in some issue areas, such as Human Rights, that are central to the international liberal order.

In closing, we address some limitations of our study as well as future research questions. First, to gauge states’ engagement in the IIO, we have focused on the extent that states ratify additional protocols to the framework agreements they have ratified. Thus, our measure of embeddedness is based on different numbers of framework agreements that different countries have ratified at any particular time point. Thus, a natural question may arise: when we find that China is less embedded to the IIO, is it because China has simply ratified more framework agreements than comparable other countries? This does not seem to be the case. Instead of plotting embeddedness over time as in the previous figures, Fig. 9 in the Appendix plots embeddedness over the number of framework agreements ratified. As compared to the three groups of countries, China in fact ratifies fewer, not more, framework agreements. As countries ratify more framework agreements over time, China ratifies a decreasing proportion of additional protocols associated with these framework agreements.

Second, the policy question is not so much about how China has reacted to the international institutional building in the past, but rather how it will in the future. We can only speculate about the future, but do so by using the empirical patterns from the MAP dataset. Figure 10 in the Appendix reveals that, one of the obvious traits that seems tied to a county’s embeddedness in the IIO is its regime type. In Fig. 10, we plot the embeddedness of all countries in the dataset against the variance in embeddedness (to give an indication of the precision of our average embeddedness measure and a country’s embeddedness across treaty families). We also code countries based on their Polity scores, with square points representing democracies, circles representing authoritarian regimes and triangles representing mixed regimes. We see that China and Russia are relatively high in terms of their variance throughout the time period covered in the MAP dataset, suggesting their embeddedness in the IIO is not consistent across treaty families. Additionally, we see a separation between the democratic (square) and other (circle and triangle) regimes in the international system so that by 2010 almost all of the highly-embedded countries are democracies.

Finally, our findings about China’s limited engagement in the IIO suggest that the integration of China into the current Western-led liberal order will not be as smooth as some have suggested. The future relationship between China and the IIO depends on how China changes and how the IIO evolves. For a stronger China to voluntarily embrace the IIO and truly commit to it, it will require greater affinity between a rising China and an evolving IIO. Where such affinity is lacking, China will likely continue to engage only superficially with the IIO, possibly be joining the broad and general framework agreements but not the more specific and demanding protocols. In addition, China will likely intensify its search for alternative platforms, perhaps regional ones, to reshape the rules of the game it deems particularly consequential [5]. If it is desirable to bind a rising China more into the international institutional order, scholars and policymakers alike will need to answer a challenging question: how to make the Western-led liberal order more representative of incumbent and rising powers? Much more attention is needed to understand how shifts in power structures impact the rule-making in global governance as well as the evolution of the international order.


An almost inseparable question is, what does China’s rise mean for the United States and the West, the presumptuous creators/leaders of the international order? See Zakaria [37], Starobin [31], Mahbubani [20], Swaine [32], and Nye [24].


See also Nye [24], Bergsten [1]. Bergsten [1], Lampton [18], Ross and Feng [28], Ikenberry [10], Qin and Wei [25].


A number of scholars have discussed this at length. See Young [36], Mitchell [23], Dai [4], Simmons [30], Keck and Sikkink [13], Risse et al. [26], Ropp et al. [27].


For information regarding China’s position in global economic governance see Foot and Walter [6], Kennedy [14], Chan and Lee [3] Zeng and Liang [38].


Some follow-up treaty instruments are procedural amendments, which do not extend the obligations for participating states. Because these instruments are not informative of states adherence to global rules, we do not include them in our analysis.


Framework agreements that have not led to substantive protocols and protocols that are merely procedural in nature are not included in this analysis, because they do not present opportunities for states to voluntarily go the extra mile.


Economic treaties do not appear in our analysis for two related reasons. First, we focus on the UNTC which excludes many other types of agreements (e.g. bilateral trade agreements, regional trade agreements, and dealings within the World Trade Organization), recognizing that the international institutional order is best represented by the rules and norms set forward by the UN system and multilateral treaties, as we stated at the end of the previous section [11]. Second, the economic treaties that the UNTC does include do not produce substantive protocols which form our measure of institutional embeddedness.


This results in nearly 400,000 observations across 193 states, 78 treaty instruments, and 65 years from the end of World War II to 2014.


Because a country that does not join the initial framework agreement cannot join any subsequent additional protocols, we leave these cases out of our analysis. Additionally, our unit of analysis shifts from country-year-treaty to country-year observation specific to each treaty family. This changes our total number of observations to about 85,000 observations.


Embeddedness scores from treaty families with more than one additional protocol are not weighted as such large families are not common in the data and risk skewing the averages. Using the pair-wise embeddedness measure (which weighs large treaty families more than small ones) does not change rank-order but does make differences between countries more noticeable.


Russia inherits the treaty membership and obligations of the USSR following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Note that German treaty membership in this and all other figures is that of West Germany during the Cold War.


The average embeddedness level that we use throughout these comparisons does not explicitly account for the number of frameworks that a country joins. A country can join a framework any time after its introduction, so it would be incorrect to conflate the number of frameworks with the date (though there is a relationship). One way to take into consideration of rising number of framework agreements states join and thus make sure that our comparisons are relatively similar (states within the comparison groups are part of a similar number of agreements) is to plot this explicitly. We find that the countries that we use throughout the comparisons are joining a similar number of agreement and that China is actually joining a small proportion of protocols for each agreement that it joins compared to these other nations. This is further evidence of reluctance on the part of China to embed itself into the IIO. See the appendix for a full list of these figures.


Copyright information

© Journal of Chinese Political Science/Association of Chinese Political Studies 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignDrive UrbanaUSA

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