The Chinese Threat to the Global Order Reconsidered
This article is a response to the first article in David Stoffey’s series on China’s Rise.
David Stoffey recently wrote in Charged Affairs that President Donald Trump’s foreign policy “opens the door for radical changes in the global order” and suggests this global retrenchment accelerates China’s plan to “overshadow the United States as champion of the global order and stability.” While Stoffey does not articulate what it means that China will “strike,” his argument follows foreign policy conventional wisdom: much has been written describing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as an emergent global power and candidate to displace the United States as hegemon atop the global order. While American decline benefits China, narratives entertaining an American-Sino hegemonic transition ignore altogether the Chinese identity and the policy pursuits thereof. Current economic and political trends favor long-term PRC growth, perhaps enough to rival the United States within decades, certainly. But hegemonic force has no role in any global order China would lead. Moreover, the PRC’s governing institutions remain so fragile that reform is an existential imperative: until the decades-long reform programs branded as the Chinese Dream is realized in 2049, a combative security environment, including open conflict with the United States, would introduce intolerable, possibly fatal risk to Chinese economic and security interests.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a single priority from which all else flows: persist. Atop any list of CCP national priorities is the imperative that it remain in power in a manner that is quintessentially Chinese. It asserts that Chinese identity, subjected to a century of humiliation by imperializing powers, must not be lost now that the Chinese state has begun amassing wealth and power (fuguoqiangbing 富国强兵). Central to this identity is the nature of rule, that governing authority is conferred by Confucian virtue alone, and neither military strength nor consent of the governed are authoritative. CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping draws upon this concept when describing the Chinese Dream, arguing “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” when China regains international influence and prestige (zunzhong 尊重) will come by magnifying Chinese virtues rather than supplanting them with Western values. Even non-Chinese methods, be they industrialization or socialism, can only empower China if they are employed to further Chinese virtues (zhongtixiyong 中体西用). As Lee Kuan Yew explains, “China wants to be China and accepted as such, not as an honorary member of the West.”
The Chinese conception of virtue as governance is crystallized in the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence between states: respecting territorial integrity, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, mutually beneficial cooperation, and peaceful coexistence. The PRC has consistently used American violations of each principle as a foil to demonstrate the virtues of Chinese leadership over what they cast as the coercive, interventionist U.S. foreign policy. Such juxtaposition mirrors China’s traditional contrast between Confucian virtue, which governs by prudence, and the hegemon (baquan 霸权), which rules by force. Chinese tradition confers legitimacy only to the former.
This criticism of American leadership is not meant to propose a Chinese hegemony in place of the American order. During the century of humiliation, for example, China did not renounce its core identity of ruling by virtue and not force. Similarly, the PRC idealizes a world order maintained without hegemonic coercion. Rather, it envisions a multipolar community facilitated by the Five Principles, which in turn underpins endless soft power enabling the PRC to lead the global order. The weapons Beijing sees as most potent aren’t aircraft carriers or ballistic missiles; they are soft power outlets such as Confucius Institutes or announcements aligning Chinese power against the aggressor in a potential U.S.-North Korea confrontation. The PRC has no interest in accepting the burden of maintaining a hegemonic global order. Instead, they argue, the multipolar world will come about when other nations defer to the PRC as befits their self-assigned virtue.
Stoffey is correct that a Chinese challenge to the American-led order is coming, but his interpretation misunderstands the global order China envisions and the decades of work necessary before such can be realized. The Chinese Dream has two goals: making China a moderately prosperous nation by 2021 and making China a “fully developed nation” recognized as a global leader by 2049. These timelines are deliberate and cannot be truncated by American incompetence; if the two goals are not achieved and if associated reforms are not implemented at deliberate pace, the CCP worries it may suffer the same fate as the Soviet Union. Relative to its regular media censorship, the PRC has been remarkably transparent in their stature as a still-reforming state; while their exact numbers cannot be trusted, Chinese reports corroborate independent findings that economic inequality remains high, and the still-modernizing People’s Liberation Army (PLA) lacks the technology and operational capabilities to ensure Chinese territorial integrity. Moreover, persistent poverty and the formation of a Chinese underclass call into question the CCP leadership’s virtue, on which depends their socially accepted right to rule.
These challenges pose an existential threat to the PRC, and their proposed resolutions have temporal horizons measured in decades. It is accurate to say Beijing profits from an America in decline; however, this is because an interventionist hegemon occupying itself with protracted wars elsewhere may lack sufficient capacity to intervene in a vulnerable PRC attempting to revitalize itself. Achieving the Chinese Dream requires an internal focus unperturbed by a volatile security environment. CCP leadership understands a United States otherwise occupied presents a strategic window of opportunity for China to enact its reforms and achieve its dreams unimpeded.
The Chinese vision of global order is underpinned by soft power, not hard. As such, soft power will be the decisive factor in future US-Sino conflicts regarding the global order. Hard power still matters for a coming confrontation: China’s military modernization and growing capabilities to push American military forces ever further from its shores undermine the United States’ regional hegemony in the Asia-Pacific and provide an improved security environment for the CCP to complete its reforms. Yet Chinese hard power is relevant regionally, not globally. The Chinese identity asserts that Confucian virtue, not British imperialist or American hegemonic power, has the right to rule, and whether other nations agree will define the struggle for global leadership. Achieving the Chinese Dream will be the PRC’s opening statement in this struggle. Until such time, the United States also has a strategic window of opportunity to define its leadership within the Indo-Pacific and the global order. 2049 fast approaches.