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Canary in the coal mine? China, the UNGA, and the changing world order

  • Samuel Brazys (a1) and Alexander Dukalskis (a1)

How China assumes its position of superpower is one of the most important questions regarding global order in the twenty-first century. While considerable and sustained attention has been paid to China’s growing economic and military might, work examining how China is attempting, if at all, to influence the ecosystem of global norms is in its earlier stages. In this article we examine China’s actions in an important venue for the development of global norms, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Using a unique dataset that captures how other countries move into or out of alignment with China on UNGA resolutions that are repeated over time, we find statistical evidence that China used diplomatic and economic means in an attempt to subtly alter international norms. We further illustrate these findings by examining four states that made substantive moves toward China on resolutions concerning national sovereignty, democracy, international order, non-interference, and human rights.

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* Correspondence to: (both authors) University College Dublin, School of Politics and International Relations, Newman Building G310, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland. Authors’ email:;
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1 See Flores-Macías Gustavo A. and Kreps Sarah E., ‘The foreign policy consequences of trade: China’s commercial relations with Africa and Latin America, 1992–2006’, The Journal of Politics, 75:2 (2013), pp. 357371 ; Strüver Georg, ‘What friends are made of: Bilateral linkages and domestic drivers of foreign policy alignment with China’, Foreign Policy Analysis, 12:2 (2016), pp. 170191 ; Strüver Georg, ‘“Bereft of friends”? China’s rise and search for political partners in South America’, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 7:1 (2014), pp. 117151 ; others focus on China’s activity in the UN Security Council, for example, Suzanne Xiao Yang, China in UN Security Council Decision-Making on Iraq: Conflicting Understandings, Competing Preferences (London: Routledge, 2013).

2 Geographically restricted studies include Strüver, ‘“Bereft of friends”’ and Flores-Macia and Kreps, ‘The foreign policy consequences of trade’; Strüver, ‘What friends are made of’ includes all countries but does not have a qualitative dimension.

3 Strüver, ‘What friends are made of’; Flores-Macia and Kreps, ‘The foreign policy consequences of trade’.

4 Lieberman Evan S., ‘Nested analysis as a mixed-method strategy for comparative research’, American Political Science Review, 99:3 (2005), pp. 435452 .

5 Ikenberry G. John, ‘The rise of China and the future of the West: Can the liberal system survive?’, Foreign Affairs, 87:1 (2008), pp. 2337 .

6 Clark Ian, ‘International society and China: the power of norms and the norms of power’, Chinese Journal of International Politics, 7:3 (2014), pp. 315340 ; Pu Xiaoyu, ‘Socialisation as a two-way process: Emerging powers and the diffusion of international norms’, Chinese Journal of International Politics, 5:4 (2012), pp. 341367 .

7 Finnemore Martha and Sikkink Kathryn, ‘Taking stock: the constructivist research program in international relations and comparative politics’, Annual Review of Political Science, 4:1 (2001), pp. 391416 ; Panke Diana and Petersohn Ulrich, ‘Why international norms disappear sometimes’, European Journal of International Relations, 18:4 (2012), pp. 719742 .

8 See Goodman Ryan and Jinks Derek, Socializing States: Promoting Human Rights through International Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Dukalskis Alexander and Johansen Robert C., ‘Measuring acceptance of international enforcement of human rights: the United States, Asia, and the International Criminal Court’, Human Rights Quarterly, 35:3 (2013), pp. 569597 .

9 See Schweller Randall L. and Pu Xiaoyu, ‘After unipolarity: China’s visions of international order in an era of U.S. decline’, International Security, 36:1 (2011), pp. 4172 ; Ikenberry G. John, Mastanduno Michael, and William C. Wohlforth, ‘Unipolarity, state behavior, and systemic consequences’, World Politics, 61:1 (2009), pp. 127 .

10 Schweller and Pu, ‘After unipolarity’, p. 56 specifically note that China’s role in influencing the evolution of international norms is not sufficiently understood, which is something this article attempts to remedy.

11 Alastair Iain Johnston, ‘What (if anything) does East Asia tell us about International Relations theory?’, Annual Review of Political Science, 15 (2012), p. 59.

12 Zhang Jian, ‘China’s new foreign policy under Xi Jinping: Towards “Peaceful Rise 2.0”?’, Global Change, Peace & Security, 27:1 (2015), pp. 519 .

13 Stefan Halper, Beijing Consensus: How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the 21 st Century (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

14 For a corrective, see Kennedy Scott, ‘The myth of the Beijing Consensus’, Journal of Contemporary China, 19:65 (2010), pp. 461477 .

15 See Nathan Andrew J., ‘China’s challenge’, Journal of Democracy, 26:1 (2015), pp. 156170 .

16 Bader Julia, ‘China, autocratic patron? An empirical investigation of China as a factor in autocratic survival’, International Studies Quarterly, 59:1 (2015), pp. 2333 .

17 On democracy norms in the UNGA, see Hecht Catherine, ‘The shifting salience of democratic governance: Evidence from the United Nations General Assembly General Debates’, Review of International Studies, 42:5 (2016), pp. 915938 .

18 Heilmann Sebastian and Schmidt Dirk H., China’s Foreign and Economic Relations: An Unconventional Global Power (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014); see also Buzan Barry, ‘The logic and contradictions of “Peaceful Rise/Development” as China’s grand strategy’, Chinese Journal of International Politics, 7:4 (2014), pp. 381420 .

19 Nathan Andrew J. and Scobell Andrew, China’s Search for Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

20 Shambaugh David, China Goes Global: The Partial Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 1344 .

21 Ibid.

22 Buzan, ‘The logic and contradictions’.

23 Johnston Alastair Iain, Social States: China in International Institutions, 1980–2000 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

24 Prantl Jochen, ‘Taming hegemony: Information institutions and the challenge to Western liberal order’, Chinese Journal of International Politics, 7:4 (2014), pp. 449482 ; Schweller and Pu, ‘After unipolarity’.

25 Nathan and Scobell, China’s Search for Security, p. 28.

26 Shambaugh, China Goes Global, pp. 136–7.

27 Nathan and Scobell, China’s Search for Security, p. 7.

28 Foot Rosemary, ‘“Doing some things” in the Xi Jinping era: the United Nations as China’s venue of choice’, International Affairs, 90:5 (2014), pp. 10851100 .

29 Ibid., pp. 1090–2; for an earlier analysis, see Chai Trong R., ‘Chinese policy toward the Third World and the superpowers in the UN General Assembly 1971–1977’, International Organization, 33:3 (1979), pp. 391403 .

30 See Voeten Eric, ‘Clashes in the Assembly’, International Organization, 54:2 (2000), pp. 185215 ; Soo Yeon Kim and Bruce Russett, ‘The new politics of voting alignments in the United Nations General Assembly’, International Organization, 50:4 (1996), pp. 629–52; Rai Kul B., ‘Foreign policy and voting in the UN General Assembly’, International Organization, 26:3 (1972), pp. 589594 ; see also discussions in works cited in fn. 1.

31 Nathan and Scobell, China’s Search for Security.

32 Ibid., pp. 183–4.

33 Information Office of the State Council, ‘China’s Peaceful Development’ (2011), white paper available at: {}, see section 5.

34 People’s Republic of China (2005), Position Paper of the People’s Republic of China on the United Nations Reforms, available at: {}.

35 Chai, ‘Chinese policy toward the Third World and the superpowers’.

36 On human rights, see Elkins Zachary, Ginsburg Tom, and Simmons Beth, ‘Getting to rights: Treaty ratification, constitutional convergence, and human rights practice’, Harvard International Law Journal, 54:1 (2013), pp. 6195 ; on election monitoring, see Hyde Susan D., ‘Catch us if you can: Election monitoring and international norm diffusion’, American Journal of Political Science, 55:2 (2011), pp. 356369 ; and Kelley Judith, ‘Assessing the complex evolution of norms: the rise of international election monitoring’, International Organization, 62:2 (2008), pp. 221255 .

37 Nathan and Scobell, China’s Search for Security, pp. 27–31; Foot, ‘“Doing some things”’.

38 Shambaugh, China Goes Global.

39 Voeten, ‘Clashes in the Assembly’, p. 186.

40 Keohane Robert O., ‘The study of political influence in the General Assembly’, International Organization, 21:2 (1967), pp. 221237 .

41 Voeten Erik, ‘Resisting the lonely superpower: Responses of states in the United Nations to US dominance’, Journal of Politics, 66:3 (2004), pp. 729754 ; Lai Brian and Morey Daniel S., ‘Impact of regime type on the influence of US foreign aid’, Foreign Policy Analysis, 2:4 (2006), pp. 385404 ; Dreher Axel, Nunnenkamp Peter, and Thiele Rainer, ‘Does US aid buy UN General Assembly votes? A disaggregated analysis’, Public Choice, 136:1–2 (2008), pp. 139164 ; Carter David B. and Stone Randall W., ‘Democracy and multilateralism: the case of vote buying in the UN General Assembly’, International Organization, 69:1 (2015), pp. 133 .

42 Panke Diana, ‘The UNGA – a talking shop? Exploring rationales for the repetition of resolutions in subsequent negotiations’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 27:3 (2014), pp. 442458 .

43 Flores-Macia and Kreps, ‘The foreign policy consequences of trade’.

44 Strüver, ‘What friends are made of’.

45 There is little data on Chinese foreign aid. The most notable exception is AidData’s ‘China in Africa’ database. We ran models including an indicator of Chinese foreign aid on the African sub-sample but found no significant relationship with UNGA voting. These results are not reported but available on request.

46 Strüver, ‘“Bereft of friends”’; Flores-Macia and Kreps, ‘The foreign policy consequences of trade’; Strüver, ‘What friends are made of’; Kastner Scott L., ‘Buying influence? Assessing the political effects of China’s international trade’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 60:6 (2016), pp. 9801007 .

47 De Bièvre Dirk and Dür Andreas, ‘Constituency interests and delegation in European and American trade policy’, Comparative Political Studies, 38:10 (2007), pp. 12711296 .

48 Dür Andreas, ‘Bringing economic interests back into the study of EU trade policymaking’, The British Journal of Politics & International Relations, 10:1 (2008), pp. 2745 .

49 We also consider that access to Chinese exports may be most politically salient for those supplying mineral fuels to China. We test this in Appendix I, Table I.3, model V and indeed find that results on imports and exports of mineral fuels, which includes various types of oil, substantively match those of general trade, which we present in Table 1 below, when we only consider trade in these goods. However, when we include trade in mineral products as a control alongside all trade, the relationships between mineral fuel trade and alignment are no longer significant, while the general trade results remain robust, as shown in Appendix I, Table I.3, model VI.

50 Bader, ‘China, autocratic patron?’.

51 We use the Polity IV score in the regressions in Table 1. These results are also robust when using Freedom House scores, with results available upon request.

52 Following Strüver, ‘What friends are made of’, we also run models using exports as share to total exports and of GDP. Like Strüver we find no significant relationship between export dependence and alignment with China’s UNGA position. These results are presented in Appendix I, Table I.2, models I (share of exports) and II (share of GDP).

54 Samuel Brazys and Diana Panke, ‘Why do states change positions in the United Nations General Assembly?’, International Political Science Review, Advance Online Print (2015), doi: 10.1177/0192512115616540.

55 Ibid.

56 Panke, ‘The UNGA – a talking shop?’.

57 James Reilly and Wu Na, ‘China’s corporate engagement in Africa’, in Marcel Kitissou (ed.), Africa in China Global Strategy (London: Adonis & Abbey Publishers Ltd.), pp. 132–55.

58 Ibid.; see also Nathan and Scobell, China’s Search for Security, p. 184.

59 Panke, ‘The UNGA – a talking shop?’.

60 Data are from Diana Panke, ‘Getting ready to negotiate in international organizations? On the importance of the domestic construction of national positions’, Journal of International Organizations Studies, 4:2 (2013), pp. 25–38. These data are only for the year 2008. However, as we expect the size of UN diplomatic missions to be relatively time-invariant we consider the 2008 count a reasonable proxy for all years in our study.

61 Keohane Robert O. and Nye Joseph S., ‘Power and interdependence revisited’, International Organization, 41:4 (1987), pp. 725753 .

62 Schirm Stefan. A., ‘Leaders in need of followers: Emerging powers in global governance’, European Journal of International Relations, 16:2 (2010), p. 197 .

63 This proportion is roughly identical to what Brazys and Panke (2015) find (154 repeated out of 311 total) when analysing all UNGA votes over this same time period.

64 A full list of the resolutions considered in this analysis can be found in Appendix II.

65 Treatment of absences and alignment are discussed in Appendix I.

66 A two-tailed, two proportion Z-test indicates this (higher) proportion of states moving into alignment with China is statistically significant at the 99.9 per cent level (Z=6.2819, p=0.0000).

67 Johan. A. Elkink, ‘Spatial, temporal and spatio-temporal clustering of democracy and autocracy’, APSA 2013 Annual Meeting Paper, APSA Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL, 29 August–1 September 2013.

68 Cameron A. Colin, Gelbach Jonah B., and Miller Douglas L., ‘Robust inference with multiway clustering’, Journal of Business and Economic Statistics, 29:2 (2011), pp. 238249 .

69 Katherine Barbieri and Omar Keshk, Correlates of War Project Trade Data Set Codebook, Version 3.0 (2012), available at: {}.

70 Bader, ‘China, autocratic patron?’.

71 The ‘alignment’ coefficients are coefficients explaining the probability of remaining aligned with China. However as the dependent variable is dichotomous, the opposite sign on the ‘alignment’ coefficients are the coefficients explaining the probability of transitioning from alignments in t-1 to non-alignment in t, while the opposite sign on the ‘non-alignment’ coefficients are the coefficients explaining the probability of remaining non-alignment with China.

72 Flores-Macia and Kreps, ‘The foreign policy consequences of trade’.

73 Strüver, ‘What friends are made of’.

74 Although the time-invariant measure of ‘Diplomats’ become statistically insignificant.

75 Where Z=2.5122 and p=0.01208 for the proportion of total shifts.

76 Lieberman, ‘Nested analysis as a mixed-method strategy’.

77 Ibid., p. 437.

78 Seawright Jason and Gerring John, ‘Case study research: a menu of qualitative and quantitative options’, Political Research Quarterly, 61:2 (2008), pp. 294308 .

79 Ibid., p. 297.

80 Lieberman, ‘Nested analysis as a mixed-method strategy’.

81 Seawright and Gerring, ‘Case study research’.

82 Ibid., p. 297.

83 Ibid.

84 Weitz Richard, ‘Uzbekistan’s growing role in Beijing’s Central Asian strategy’, China Brief, 11:1 (2011).

85 PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘Joint Communiqué Between The Government of the People’s Republic of China And The Government of the Republic of Uzbekistan’ (2007), available at: {}.

86 Ibid.

87 United Nations, A/RES/60/174, ‘Situation of Human Rights in Uzbekistan’, United Nations General Assembly, 60th Session, Agenda Item 71(c), 14 March 2006.

88 UN General Assembly, ‘Address by H. E. Mr. Sodyq Safaev, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan’ (2003), available at: {}.

89 Weitz, ‘Uzbekistan’s growing role’, p. 13.

90 Spechler Dina Rome and Spechler Martin C., ‘The foreign policy of Uzbekistan: Sources, objectives and outcomes: 1991–2009’, Central Asian Survey, 29:2 (2010), pp. 159170 .

91 Weitz, ‘Uzbekistan’s growing role’.

92 PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘Xi Jinping Holds Talks with President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan Further Develop and Deepen China-Uzbekistan Strategic Partnership’ (2013), available at: {}.

93 Chris Alden and Yu-Shan Wu, ‘South Africa and China: the making of a partnership’, South African Institute of International Affairs, Occasional Paper Series, no. 199 (2014).

94 Ibid.

95 Ibid.

96 People’s Daily, ‘Full Text of Declaration on Partnership Between China and South Africa’ (25 April 2000), available at: {}.

97 Chris Alden, ‘China in Africa’, Survival, 47:3 (2005), p. 156.

98 Shambaugh, China Goes Global.

99 Erikson Daniel P. and Chen Janice, ‘China, Taiwan, and the battle for Latin America’, Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, 31:2 (2007), pp. 6989 .

100 Pew Research Center, Global Indicators Database, Nicaragua (2014), available at: {}. Nicaraguans in 2014 (the only year for which data is available) had more positive views of the US than many of their neighbours, such as Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina. They also had more positive views of China than many of their neighbours, but did not view China as favourably as Chile or Venezuela.

101 See, Geospatial Dashboard (2015), available at: {,10.498809814453125,9}.

102 US Department of State, ‘U.S. Relations with Equatorial Guinea’, Bureau of African Affairs Fact Sheet (2014), available at: {}.

103 Johnston, ‘What (if anything) does East Asia tell us?’.

104 Goodman and Jinks, Socializing States.

105 Finnemore Martha, ‘Legitimacy, hypocrisy, and the social structure of unipolarity’, World Politics, 61:1 (2009), pp. 5885 .

106 Schweller and Pu, ‘After unipolarity’.

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