China’s successful economic and geopolitical rise has positioned Beijing to push an agenda that is antithetical to America’s political and economic liberal order. China is no longer a rising power, but rather a peer competitor with the United States fighting to maximize security and global clout. Meanwhile, the United States remains distracted by domestic political polarization and protracted foreign wars. What does this lack of American engagement and increasing Chinese ambition mean for the global order?
This is not another piece on America’s “lost hegemony.” Instead, it is representative of aggressive Chinese ambition and coercive economic diplomacy. Perhaps a more relevant scenario to explore would be: if China rolled tanks into Hong Kong tomorrow to quell the persisting pro-democracy demonstrations, how would the international community react? Would the United States be able to draw a red line for China?
The delayed response from Washington about the Hong Kong protests shows a willingness to sit on the sidelines while China changes the norms of international politics. Washington’s distraction and apathy regarding world affairs have allowed China and others to pursue illiberal policies on the global stage. Moreover, Beijing has already achieved a critical mass of strategic partners necessary to enact change within the international system through a set of policies put in place over the last two decades. Along with these states, Sinocentric initiatives like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are pushing forward a new playbook for the conduct of world affairs through the accumulation of Chinese structural power.
The Pursuit of Chinese Structural Power
China has long aimed to be a global-rule shaper and sought to influence the international system. In order to achieve this grand ambition, Chinese president Xi Jinping has promoted an agenda of national rejuvenation at home that emphasizes Chinese leadership and has pushed BRI as China’s “crown jewel” to espouse a strategy of Chinese paternalism abroad. When BRI was first introduced in 2013, it was marketed as a benign infrastructure connectivity project. However, this was never meant to be an altruistic endeavor. Government officials working on the Belt and Road project privately admitted that they expected to lose 80 percent of their investments in Pakistan, 50 percent in Myanmar, and 30 percent in Central Asia. Beijing’s inauspicious economic endeavor of investing in struggling economies illustrates that BRI represents something larger than munificent infrastructure investments. The short-term goal of BRI is to ensure China’s access to trade routes and raw materials; however, in the long-term, Beijing aims to gain a bargaining position. As states join BRI, they contribute to a growing global network of satellites that are economically dependent on China. Thus, they enable its hegemonic ascent in international politics.
Additionally, BRI has played a major role in increasing China’s structural power. What we mean by structural power in the twenty-first century is the capacity to control political and economic institutions in major hubs around the world as well as maintain command over technological knowledge and means of communication. Hegemony, thus, is not just simply shaping rules; it is actually possessing enough structural power to mold the system in any direction.
While the United States retains much of its structural power—particularly its control of the international credit and finance regime and its influence over technological dissemination— growing Chinese influence threatens to overtake America’s leadership position. We can see this clearly in the ongoing trade war or Huawei’s expanding ambitions to develop 5G technologies in Europe. The pursuit of structural power and the ability to shape the rules is emblematic of new great power competition. While the United States continues to develop a counterproductive artificial intelligence (AI) strategy focused entirely on military security, China aggressively pursues an AI program through the civil sector. Beijing has committed to being a global technological leader by 2030, countering Washington militarily as well as economically in East Asia and beyond. Currently, the United States has not adopted an optimum course of action to defend its global position.
American apathy in world affairs may be the silver bullet that hands-off systemic leadership to the Chinese. With growing structural capacities, China is able to propagate a new means of conducting world politics, one of a distinctly authoritarian variant.
The Rise of an Authoritarian Global Order?
The United States upholds distinct ideas of freedom and justice based on liberalism. When America emerged as the strongest power in 1945, President Harry S. Truman was determined to establish a liberal, rules-based order. However, China’s trajectory today is distinctly different.
What might be at the core of this nascent authoritarian global order? While Xi claims to run a “benevolent authoritarian regime,” an international system with China at the helm would diffuse political illiberalism, trading pre-established democratic values for geopolitical gain.
We can already see these transgressions surfacing within China’s own sphere of influence. Beijing openly discards tenets of the liberal-rules based order. The democracy protests in Hong Kong, internment camps for Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, and general mass censorship through the emerging social credit system demonstrate that China is more interested in protecting its iron-fist control of its territory and beyond, rather than its international perception.
On the international front, China’s strategy of debt-trap diplomacy has actually led to the destabilization of weaker states. Furthermore, when faced with the possibility of greater gains, China transgresses its own rules. In September 2019, Beijing signed a comprehensive agreement with Tehran, directly challenging the U.S. strategic objectives in the region by dismissing the sanctions against Iran. Under the new deal, Beijing agreed to invest $280 billion in developing Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemical sectors. In this way, Beijing’s economic initiatives are categorically China’s way of gaining strategic predominance and increasing structural power.
Any major systemic change by design takes a considerable period of time to occur. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is not set to be “complete” until 2049: China’s bid to achieve supremacy and structural primacy is still evolving and is part of a protracted process. The project’s true impact has yet to be fully determined. However, we can clearly see that the initiative’s ambition is positioning Beijing toward gaining further leverage. As American foreign policy remains mired in domestic political polarization and gesture politics, fumbling without a clear strategy, the Chinese are emerging to take up the mantle of global leadership. To save the United States from its own retrenchment policies, we need a coherent agenda that prioritizes American primacy rather than the pursuit of counterproductive wars and recalibrates our competitive edge. Washington must adopt a strategic middle ground in dealing with Beijing that lies between engagement and containment.
Farah N. Jan is a lecturer on international relations at the University of Pennsylvania.
Justin Melnick is affiliated with the International Relations Program and CSCC fellow at the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania.