The FT's Philip Stephens, in an essay published yesterday, claim that Xi & Putin are "contesting the established world order. " This is an increasingly common take on Russia and China's aggressive approach to their respective border disputes (Crimea, the South China Sea, Senkaku/Diaoyutai, etc.). But I think it's folly and the height of arrogance to portray the US's disagrements with Russia and China as one of a disagreement about the basic rules of the international system.
The first point is to note that Russia and China are acting in highly assertive ways and using coercion to press pursue their territorial interests, but that Russia is being much more aggressive than China, openly challenging and sending troops across existing international borders. Russia's annexation of Crimea and its destabiliization of a sovereign Ukranian regime differ substantially from China's brusk behavior against Philippine and Vietnamese vessels or its placing an oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam. China would not only have to clearly identify these waters as sovereign Chinese territory but patrol the waters as such and expel others to be in the same league as what Russia has done. Whether it's because they aren't strong enough or some other reason, they haven't. So we shouldn't treat China like they've already taken these steps.
Second, we need a more realistic recognition of the international system and norms. Yes, there are rules and norms on security, economics, and human rights. States have the right to self-defense, but they shouldn't invade or militarily coerce others. There is a multilateral economic system that encourages free trade and the flow of capital. And states should treat their own populations humanely.
But the actual "rules of the road," now the Obama Administration's favorite phrase, are relatively ambiguous. What constitutes military aggression, unfair trade practices, and human rights violations aren't always so obvious. In addition, the United States itself doesn't consistently abide by these norms. The US uses its military power outside its own borders far more than any other country in the world, often unilaterally and without UN approval. It is not a signator to the Law of the Sea Convention and is found in violation of WTO rules as often as any other country. And the US engages in cyberwarfare and Internet surveillence certainly as much as China, if not more. And for anyone who thinks US intelligence agencies don't help US industry as a result of these activities, I've got some property in Florida and Erdos to sell you.
Third, I can't be sure about how Russia defends its actions, but in just about every case I'm aware of, China places its acts in the context of existing rules and norms. Sure, in many instances these are self-serving interpretations, but they are consistently framed in these contexts. China cites the Law of the Sea convention when it suits its interests and cites "historical" claims when it does not. China did not invent the idea of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), but borrowed the idea from the US and others. China now uses the fair-trade rules, such as antidumping, in the same way US industry has done so for decades.
In sum, we need to stop being so naive about what the real rules of the road are, especially for large powers. Russia and China may be challenging the US's dominant position, but the US is not a synonym for "world order." If you want to pick sides in these contests, just don't be fooled that you're picking between a fair, open, and peaceful system and a hierarchical, coercive, and brutish system. There are already many aspects of the latter in our current world order. Even as Russia's revival and China's rise are leading to a realignment of the balance of power, this shift is not undermining the basic structure of the international system but reinforcing it.
All of the above does NOT mean I approve of what Russia and China are up to. Actually, quite the opposite. Just focusing on the PRC, I think China's coercion against its neighbors is deplorable. Many of its economic policies that are polluting its environment, sickening its people, and threatening the planet are shameful and should be changed. Its approach toward the Internet and willingness to put aside human rights conerns in favor of protecting the state go against what would be in the country's true interests. But most of these policies and appoaches are being taken within, not against, the current world order. And so if we want the Chinese to change, we should stop lecturing them about norms and instead actually reconsider and address weaknesses and ambiguities of the current system. The Chinese are no longer going to change their ways simply because the US or anyone else says what they're doing violates international norms. We need a new approach that is more realistic about how the world actually works and what kind of world we want.