China’s incredible rise as a global power over the past 30 years has really only been possible because of the liberal world order that America helped create, which Beijing used to its maximum advantage. China has embedded itself into the world order economically, diplomatically, technologically, in business and in so many other ways as a net beneficiary of that order. In that regard, globalization was the best thing ever to happen to China, which enabled it to become the manufacturing powerhouse of the world. Beijing may not like the fact that it did not create the postwar order, but it has certainly made the most of it.
The Coming Chinese World Order
The world’s consumers, businesses and governments have a choice to make. That choice, which is increasingly between the products, brands, influence and policies of two great nations (China and the United States), will increasingly define how the world transitions from an American-led past and present to what could very well become a Chinese-led future.
The moral high ground that had been a hallmark of American supremacy over decades has largely disappeared during the presidency of Donald Trump. That high ground can now be claimed, at least on paper, by Beijing. China has become the world leader in providing foreign aid and is the second-largest contributor to the UN’s peacekeeping budget (after the US), and it is in the process of seizing the role of global leadership on climate change. If perception matters, then China has scored well in terms of the moral high ground, while the US has been floundering on that front in recent years.
How much more can the US drop in the court of global public opinion, and can China rise before Beijing’s approach to governance may be seen as a viable alternative model? Few Americans are likely to drop America’s version of democracy and capitalism in favor of China’s authoritarian model of state-dominated socialism. But that might not sound like a bad idea to hundreds of millions of people around the world who may be benefiting from Chinese aid, jobs and infrastructure projects. A 2019 survey by Pew concluded as much.
While at least some of China’s methods of doing things in the international arena might be considered objectionable to different people for different reasons, it has been successful in getting a great many things done, in places that some Western governments (notably, the US) are either in the process of ignoring or are doing an inadequate job of supporting.
China is heavily engaged in Africa at a time when the continent really needs such engagement and existing sources of aid are grossly inefficient to meet Africa’s growing infrastructure and other needs. Beijing has a habit of actually doing things while other countries may only talk about doing so. Its tactics may be objectionable on many levels, and the net result of some of its actions may prove to be largely negative over time, but it has stepped up to the plate when action was needed. Hundreds of millions of people around the world will not forget that, and they may even say that they would like their governments to be more like China as a result.
The challenge is to differentiate between benign types of cultural and political promotion versus more direct and potentially meddlesome influence-peddling and interference. While many Western intelligence agencies are focused on Russia’s information warfare, comparatively few of them may be devoting a similar scale of resources to understand China’s influence operations and how the country is projecting its soft power abroad. One could easily argue that Beijing’s influence operations are far more important, given that this is China’s century.
If President Xi Jinping has his way, there will be no distinct center of gravity for the foreseeable future. More likely, China, India, the European Union and the US will compete for supremacy. But, as with the case in the race for artificial intelligence supremacy, there may be no single victor, and any country that may hold the top spot in politics, economics, technology or as a military power may not stay there for long. As the US continues its downward trajectory and China maintains its inexorable rise, the world order will continue to be multipolar.
Checks and Balances
Yet the coming Chinese world order is likely to be devoid of the kinds of checks and balances the world has come to take for granted in the postwar order. Rather, it is more likely to be akin to a transaction-driven landscape where the strongest party rules and the weak are considered collateral damage. The Chinese order will likely see a break with the Western model by moving decisively away from the Enlightenment ideal of transparency in exchange for the opacity of power.
This transformation has already begun and, as it is occurring, the US and many other countries are asleep at the wheel. As domestic crisis upon crisis piles up, the world’s leading Western economies continue to turn their attention inward, preoccupied with political and economic crises at home and functioning with unipolar blinders on. Many of the world’s leaders fail to appreciate the implications that a world with Chinese characteristics may have on the future.
Not since the modern liberal order was born in the 1940s has the world had to grapple with the possibility of its demise, or at the hand of a rising China. Just at a time when the world is in need of the stability and governance it has had the luxury of relying upon for decades, it must contemplate transitioning to a world order that is not of the West’s choosing. Beijing’s realization of the Chinese century is sure to be infused with precepts and applications that are uniquely Chinese.
The world has yet to fully contemplate all that this portends, but Xi wants to ensure that his vision of world order achieves, at a minimum, the perpetuation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), its continued domination over the Chinese people and a pathway that guarantees the supremacy of China throughout this century and beyond. If the Chinese government is to be encouraged to modify the manner in which it engages with the rest of the world, it is up to the world’s nations to enhance the manner in which they challenge Beijing, for the CCP is unlikely to become incentivized to do so without some externally-derived inspiration.
This is China’s century, but that does not mean it should be able to thwart the law, create its own set of rules or avoid sanction when it acts in a manner contrary to established norms and legal standards. Beijing’s vision of the future could become a force for good and generally mutual benefit. It is entirely within China’s power to make that a reality. If it were to do so, that would make choosing a side in the China-America divide a much more difficult process.
*[Daniel Wagner is the author of “The America-China Divide.”]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.