Is a Chinese-Led World Order Inevitable?
With China led by a hyper-realist CCP with the growing capacity of a superpower, the world needs to watch for a potential Chinese bid for domination.
Liberal theories suggest China has greatly benefited from economic cooperation, which in turn will have a major influence on its policies. Realists do not reject cooperation, but they believe cooperation is subordinate to security or strategic goals, especially for great powers. Certainly, China’s continuing push for globalization is explained by economic gains, though it seems to only apply to exports, not the free flow of information or a level playing field. But economics alone cannot explain why China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership were created despite its membership in the WTO and the International Monetary Fund, which China benefits greatly from. Another important explanatory factor is power. China can gain leverage and influence from investments, trade, and market power, which has already made periphery states carefully navigate between the United States and China. Even at home, China prioritizes the party’s objectives over the market by prohibiting certain foreign firms, and it is starting to restrict the financial, educational, and real estate sectors.
Liberals also point out that China has contributed to and upheld international organizations. It’s true that China benefits from such organizations, but it is more than that. For instance, China politicizes international organizations, such as by soliciting United Nations votes to block human rights resolutions and disappearing the chair of the Interpol during a visit. Despite knowing that mercantilism undermines the WTO and the economic order, China pursues its economic policies. Moreover, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s “anti-extremism” theme—resembling China’s objectives in Xinjiang— ensures liberal norms do not gain ground. Clearly, China-dominated institutions have been established to both gain leverage and get rid of constraints Beijing dislikes.
One question may arise: do leaders matter? Deng, Jiang, and Hu were, to some degree, constrained by the institutions they designed and their domestic audience. Xi, however, is not subject to these constraints. This explains why Xi’s policies are much harsher. While the personal characteristics of Chinese leaders vary, all leaders’ policies have been, to varying degrees, coherent and persistent. All recent administrations viewed liberal values as threats and progressively challenged the status quo.
A Minimalist Order?
To be clear, all this is not to say that China should never seek power and wealth. But if China is led by a Leninist and hyper-realist CCP with the growing capacity of a superpower, the world needs to watch for a potential Chinese offensive for domination. Of course, the United States did that, too. Ultra-security will be possible if the CCP can establish an order that suppresses liberal norms globally as it does at home. However, offensive policies do not necessarily mean military action. Economic (inter)dependence can make others obedient; even Germany must carefully balance the economic and security impacts of its China policy. China’s massive economy and mercantilism can essentially deindustrialize and weaken others without war or subversion. This is already happening.
Even with the current troubles, China’s economy, especially its private sector, remains vibrant. When China again doubles its economy, remains innovative, and integrates regional economies, the world's political structure will be fundamentally changed. More regional states will have no choice but to join the bandwagon, as the cost of saying “no” will be too high.
Yet a Chinese-led order is likely to be illiberal, especially for ordinary citizens. Based on hegemonic stability theory, this order likely ensures general peace. But it also needs to rely on global institutions for governance, and the Xi-Trudeau drama illustrates that these institutions will be less transparent and more coercive. China’s domestic rule has taught it that obedience can be won with carrots and sticks.
The current rules-based liberal international order, according to some, is a set of political and economic institutions, norms, and rules, all based on liberal principles. Nonetheless, some scholars criticize it as too Western-centric, exclusive, and prone to conflict. In their opinion, the liberal order is becoming insufferable and isn’t supported by economic and political realities, which means we need a minimalist order that is accepted by everyone.
Admittedly, this order needs more reform and inclusion. We live in a world of diverse interests, cultures, and norms. As an example, the global economic order is already fragile, with multinational corporations and capital disproportionately gaining from unfettered globalization and often disrupting financial stability. Moreover, there is no need for the world order to reflect U.S. economic interests or impose liberal norms coercively.
However, this imagined minimalist order with minimal liberal principles is problematic. First, the political and economic deterioration of industrial democracies is partly due to China’s unfair trade practices and growing dominance in global production, which also suppress the industrial development of developing countries. This means China actually undermines the order in the long run. Industrial democracies, however, have begun to act, and they might be able to regain competitiveness and global appeal.
Second, liberal and autocratic states might have trouble getting along within the same order, however much their leaders may try. Regime-type matters, and like-minded states may eventually form regional blocs due to deep distrust. Even if there are agreements signed or institutions built, autocratic states are less likely to honor them, especially because international organizations typically struggle to monitor compliance and lack effective enforcement mechanisms.
Third, an order with weaker liberal norms may gradually lead to fewer liberal states, and having more illiberal states may make the world more Hobbesian. Consequently, the level of trust among members will decrease, with power politics inevitably becoming a tragedy for states once again.
Fourth, for the first time since the early 1990s, an authoritarian bloc is already emerging, from Russia to Iran, China to Myanmar, and Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia. Autocrats cooperate and may build their order regardless. The more compromises liberal states make, the more autocrats encroach. China’s regional order building is real, and its long history of partnership with Russia did not just happen after Biden united the world’s democracies. If the trend continues, nothing will be able to constrain China, as everybody will be dependent on it.
Finally (and often ignored), is that while leaders of illiberal states may resist liberal norms, the people may nevertheless demand them, as they currently are in Iran, Russia, Myanmar, Afghanistan, and China. Accommodating autocratic leaders that contribute to suppression is harmful and morally wrong.
Therefore, this hypothetical model to replace the liberal order outright may be a fragile case of wishful thinking, possibly making it even more conflictual and dangerous than the current order. Under the liberal order, there was stability, prosperity, and humanity. As stabilizing forces, the world needs more liberal states standing up for liberal principles, not fewer. After all, as Alexander Wendt argues, we need to answer the question of “what values should we pursue?” Of course, pessimists may predict a world divided into regional orders, with limited inter-order cooperation and guardrails to prevent conflicts. But as with the waves of democratization during and after the Cold War, more states may join the liberal order over time.
However, there is no doubt that the United States must cooperate with China on global issues within existing institutions or new ones. Even distrustful and egoistic states can cooperate on common interests. The United States need not escalate tensions or become another China, nor should it appease for the sake of engagement—a hyper-realist China has its own agenda.
Despite the long list of issues—ranging from technology transfers to chip competition to Taiwan—trade remains perhaps the most critical. For China, the global market incentivizes distorted policies that create a wide range of structural advantages, including subsidies, currency rates, labor standards, and state-sponsored expansion.
For the United States, however, China’s unfair practices continue to undermine its grand objectives of economic prosperity, national security, and geopolitical influence. In no trade theory is “unilateral free trade” economically beneficial, not to mention its national security and geostrategic implications. But once this is addressed, the United States will rebuild domestically, minimize security risks, and thwart China’s global influence while regaining its own, ultimately supporting the order more effectively.
George Yean is attending the Department of Government at Harvard University, pursuing a Ph.D. degree. He was trained in economics, political science, and engineering, and spent years working for high-tech companies such as Cisco. He can be reached at [email protected].