Why America Should Beware a Resurgent China

A Chinese pilgrim waves a flag, as Pope Francis arrives to lead his Wednesday general audience, in Saint Peter's Square, at the Vatican

The world is witnessing a new, more assertive phase in China’s foreign engagement under President Xi Jinping.

As it makes its presence felt in every corner of the world and posits an alternative to the Western liberal-democratic order that has underpinned international relations since the end of World War II, China is beginning to experience some of the blowback that other global leaders before it have been met with. And judging from the indignant reactions in some Beijing circles, that backlash was not entirely expected.

With doubts over the future of U.S. global leadership rising and democracies worldwide arguably entering a period of fatigue, we are witnessing a new, more assertive phase in China’s foreign engagement under President Xi Jinping. China has seen an opportunity to displace an old international system that, in its view, is both unfair and which has outlived its usefulness, and it is now flexing its muscles to make this a reality.

The omnipresence of China in our lives, and its no-longer-hidden efforts to discredit the old system and the values that underpin it, has not been without controversy. Little by little, the ramifications of expanded trade and closer engagement with China for our liberal-democratic institutions are starting to be recognized. Recent high-profile scandals surrounding China’s undue influence on elected politicians in countries from the Czech Republic to New Zealand, the bribing of top UN officials by Chinese involved in political warfare operations against the West, or the growing censorship that threatens academic and journalistic freedom as we collectively embrace China, are causing a backlash, which is forcing people to rethink the price we are willing to pay in return for collaboration with the Asian giant.

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It comes as little surprise, then, that as the world learns more about China, which no longer can be ignored as a far-away and exotic land and people, apprehensions surrounding its role in our everyday lives would increase. Such cautiousness is natural whenever the actions of a foreign power threaten to affect how we conduct our affairs, let alone risk undermining the mores and institutions that define us. Much of the resistance to U.S. leadership since the end of World War II, and perhaps even more so in the brief unipolar moment that followed the end of the Cold War, stemmed from that ingrained will to resist imposition from the outside.

As it installs itself as a global power that seeks to rewrite the rules of the game, it is only natural that hegemonic China would face similar skepticism abroad. However, what makes China a special case is the fact that its political system and outlook are in many ways incompatible with the prevailing world order since the 1940s—a U.S.-led free-market liberal order based on respect (often observed in the breach, admittedly) for the rights of the individual and the values reflected in institutions like the UN. China is not just any other new major player on the international scene: it is a party state, led by the most successful, and certainly the most resilient, Marxist-Leninist party to have walked the earth. Furthermore, its ascendance within the international system coincides with deepening authoritarianism in China accompanied by unprecedented paranoia with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As China expands its influence, it is also exporting bits of that paranoia aboard, which often has come across as ham-fisted—threatening, browbeating, lecturing whomever dares criticize it or gives an audience to its sworn enemies, from Tibetans to Taiwanese, Uighurs to pro-localization Hong Kongers, Falun Gong practitioners to human-rights advocates.