China Should Push for American-Style Hegemony

U.S. and Chinese flags at China’s CDC. Flickr/CDC Global

Bullying won’t get Beijing to the top. Taking over responsibility will.

On July 12, China lost the UNCLOS decision regarding its territorial claims in the South China Sea. These were categorically rejected, as could well have been anticipated years ago. For example, China’s base at Fiery Cross Reef is 630 miles from Hainan Island and nearly at the southern tip of Vietnam. In addition, China’s mooted base at Scarborough Shoal is a mere 150 miles from Manila, while it is 530 miles from China proper. That China would lose this ruling could be foreseen from a very long distance.

Now China faces the question of how to respond.

Beijing has indicated that it will continue with its island building program and reject the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. Over time, this would provide China will increased leverage to institute an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. This implies that China would challenge—and by extension, engage with force—any foreign military aircraft or vessel encroaching on this space that fails to identify itself to Chinese authorities. It also implies the material annexation of the South China Sea.

Nevertheless, with the UNCLOS ruling, the United States and other major powers will not honor any China ADIZ in the area. Thus, the declaration of an ADIZ in the South China Sea would be tantamount to a decision to go to war with the United States, and possibly other countries as well. The appeal of this option is rapidly fading, as India and France have also committed to freedom of navigation exercises in the SCS. Does China really want to take on the combined navies of the advanced nations? It hardly seems plausible, and any decent analysis even two years ago would have suggested China would eventually face such an unappetizing option.

China’s South China Sea initiative was misbegotten from the start. China runs a trade surplus of nearly half a trillion dollars with Japan, the EU and the United States, with the United States alone running at a $360 billion annual pace. The U.S. trade surplus by itself amounts to more than 3 percent of China’s GDP. Clearly, starting a war with the United States would see the surplus collapse and throw China into recession.

Further, like it or not, the United States Navy effectively controls both the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Malacca near Singapore. Half of China’s daily oil needs pass through these two choke points. In a war, these flows may be subject to embargo, which would bring the Chinese economy to its knees in a month, if historical precedent holds. All these realities were true two years ago as well, and that they were not properly anticipated suggests not only poor policy analysis by the Xi government, but its virtual absence.

So where does China go from here? First, let us acknowledge a few important tenets. China is a Great Power deserving respect. The Chinese people have achieved incredible gains, and that deserves respect, too. China needs a promotion from the rank of Ordinary Powers to Great Power, just as the Chinese leadership and people feel. All of these must be acknowledged. The question is how to achieve them.

For China to back down now in the South China Sea would represent a return to the Century of Humiliation. True, the cause of this is China’s over-reach. The base at Fiery Cross, south of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), was never going to be accepted by the international community, and China was poorly advised to even try. But China’s humiliation is in no one’s interest, and that includes the United States. China is going to be around for a long time, and an angry and frustrated China represents a bad, long-term risk. Even if China loses now, it will try again in ten or twenty years when conditions are more favorable, and meanwhile the Chinese will develop a dislike of foreigners in general and Americans in particular. No one benefits from such a scenario.

On the other hand, declaring an ADIZ and going to war would be destructive to all involved, including China, the United States, and much of the global economy. Humiliation would be far better than outright war, and indeed is looking all the more probable.

Is that it, then? Will it be simple humiliation, with a consortium of foreign powers forcing China to capitulate? Is this an updated version of the United States’ Open Door Policy of the late 1800s, which aimed to keep China open to foreign trading partners? Has China once again started a cycle of serial humiliation?

It seems so. But there is a better path, one which can deliver to China both the respect and hegemony it desires.

At the core of the dispute between the United States and China is the concept of hegemon. Foreign policy can be complex, but the notion is easy enough to understand with a children’s analogy. For China, “hegemon” means that it is now bigger than the other kids in the neighborhood and can take over the playground. In essence, China and the Chinese still think of themselves as an Ordinary Power—just a bigger Vietnam, for example. As just a bigger version of its neighbors, China can leverage its size to get what it wants. It is the first among equals. “We’re big now and we deserve respect, and respect means it’s our playground and you can only play here when we say so. Remember, we can beat you up.”

The United States, by contrast, sees hegemon as “system operator.” In this view, the biggest kid on the block is by definition the adult. The adult has both opportunities and obligations, but these do not include beating up the little kids on the playground and taking their candy. Therefore, the United States sees China in the South China Sea as an irresponsible teenager, preying on weaker countries, rather than living up to its systemic obligations.