It’s easy to forget that big international bodies like the IMF and the World Bank were created by just a few nations, led by the United States. These economic organizations have global reach, but that globe used to be dominated by the American superpower, and their policies were suffused with U.S. values. When Beijing was a small-stakes player its leaders didn’t always like the setup, but they lived with it, even facing down fierce grassroots opposition to join the World Trade Organization.
But now China has more worldwide clout, and public opinion at home has taken on a combative (and sometimes downright jingoistic) tone. So with one eye on China’s national interests and the other on domestic critics accusing the regime of “coddling” the West, Beijing has begun to push harder to reshape international systems to make them more China-friendly (and, in the process, to raise the regime’s chances of survival).
Ironically, U.S. officials often complain that Beijing isn’t more involved in running the world—declining to help security efforts in Afghanistan, for instance. But in most such cases, China is being asked to take part in a system it didn’t set up—one it views as inherently biased in favor of the West. The Chinese are far more eager to participate in groups they’ve had a hand in building, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a sort of Central Asian NATO in which China (as might be guessed from the name) plays the leading role. While that alliance started out as something of a joke in 1996, it’s grown into a pillar of regional security.