China’s End Run around the World Order

Dr. Kori Schake has written an important essay about problematic assumptions and the challenges the United States faces if it is to take up the National Security Strategy mantle of the “great power competition” with China.

Unfortunately, the situation is more dire and more difficult, with fewer good options, than Schake lays out, for two main reasons.

China Will Only Grow Stronger

Schake admits that the hope that China would become more politically liberal as it grew richer was ill-founded. Her essay, however, still bears traces of optimism that political and economic weaknesses will ensure that China never reaches a level of power at which it can challenge the United States regionally, if not globally.

While she adeptly weighs all possibilities, I would argue that the United States is much more likely to be dealing with a strong China, with a stable Party that has the support of its people for its actions on the world stage. Even hypothesizing otherwise delays a good U.S. strategy response. Ever since Jiang Zemin made the bold decision to allow businessmen and entrepreneurs into the Party, a change of system has become less desirable for those benefiting the most from economic reforms. Coupled with the fact that the majority of Chinese citizens are still poor (500 million still live on less than $5.50 a day), live in rural areas, or make up an urban underclass of migrants, the “haves” are not particularly interested in giving the “have nots” power to determine China’s economic policies.

A more dominant theme in Schake’s essay is the idea that a democratic China would be easier for the United States to manage – and therefore that a democratic China is desirable from a strategic perspective. This is a problematic assumption. First, China’s national interests are not derived from its authoritarianism. A democratic China would also want to reduce its vulnerability to the United States and to have regional powers primarily accommodate its positions. This would necessitate a strategy of pushing out the U.S. military as much as possible, undermining U.S. alliances, and leveraging its economic power to coerce. Nationalism is more organic than many outside observers realize – often it is driven by netizens calling for the use of force while the government censors those calls, rather than the other way around. In short, a democratizing China would be a poster child for Mansfield and Snyder’s argument that democracies in transition can be the most dangerous nations.

Additionally, it seems that much of Schake’s view that things would be easier if China were a democracy is based on her interpretation of the power transition between the United States and Great Britain. While this area is beyond my expertise, I’ll just note that there are alternative explanations for why the transition was peaceful that rely more on realpolitik than on the countries’ similar democratic political systems. For example, Great Britain saw a closer, more immediate threat in Germany in the 1940s and therefore chose to join forces with the United States, and the United States did not have the desire to weaken Great Britain further for the same reason. Alternatively, it is possible that Great Britain realized that it was too weak to succeed in a conflict with the United States, and therefore chose accommodation. Either way, these explanations suggest that maintaining peace between China and the United States means the latter will concede its prime position in the international system without a fight, something at least this author hopes is not currently on the table.

Lack of Clarity about the Nature of the Threat and U.S. Strategic Objectives

Second, Schake’s piece seems to project a confidence that the U.S.-led world order is all-encompassing and creates constraints that makes it durable. Additionally, it implies that China has the choice either to overthrow the order or concede to it – and that it will be clear to U.S. policymakers which path China is choosing.

But one of the reasons historical analogies are not always useful is that every great power sets up a different type of world order – and therefore the rising power’s optimal strategy for challenging it changes as well. As John Ikenberry argues, the United States has set up an institutionally based international order in which its power is constrained in exchange for the consensus of the weaker powers. This is the ideal system for promoting a country’s rise for two reasons. First, the system itself has created the possibility of a degree of economic and political power that has never existed before. This provided an alternative means through which China could accumulate power without triggering heightened threat perceptions in the United States – think about how differently the United States would have responded to a Chinese NATO compared to OBOR. Second, while the declining hegemon used to have the option of launching a preventive war against a challenger, norms and institutional constraints have made this option no longer viable. In short, the U.S.-led world order created opportunities for China to rise and to delay any negative U.S. response to that rise.

The term “U.S.-led world order” is also a bit misleading, as it creates the impression that the world falls within one system and all to the same degree. But what China discovered was that some parts of the world were largely outside the system, and consequently were not benefiting from it. These included unsavory regimes that the United States had chosen to abandon, so China could court relationships to increase political power without threatening the United States. They also include parts of the world that the United States had neglected – China did not supplant the United States in Central Asia or in many African countries; the United States was simply not there. In short, China’s leadership has not decided, as Schake argues, that the time is nigh to challenge the U.S.-led international order. Beijing has decided, however, that it is time to challenge the United States.

Another implicit assumption that Schake does not address directly is the supposition that if China were integrated into the international system, China would come to realize that it was better off with the United States in charge. The U.S. position was that it would support the rise of China as long as Beijing did not resort to military force to get its way. China has largely upheld its end of the bargain – but what the United States did not expect was that China could challenge U.S. hegemony with largely political and economic means, with use of coercion below the threshold of force.

Schake’s complaints about Chinese behavior are understandable – using its economic power to accumulate and exercise power at the expense of the United States, coercing smaller actors to accommodate Chinese interests, and not allowing for the peaceful passage of U.S. military vessels and aircraft within its Exclusive Economic Zone. But it seems now that any Chinese attempts to accumulate or exercise power are labelled as undermining the international order or revisionist. It has become unclear in the policy debate what types of Chinese behavior are indeed threatening to the United States. Is it about process or outcome? If China succeeds through political means in getting the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea revised to take into account its interpretation of what constitutes peaceful passage, and this restricts the U.S. Navy’s access to the South China Sea, is the United States okay with it? My sense is that while many people point to process being the issue, including Schake, the real problem is the outcome – that is, China’s success at strengthening its position vis-à-vis the United States.

The bottom line is that while we can learn from history, we find ourselves in a situation never experienced before – a rising power that is primarily accumulating and exercising political and economic power (for now), within an institutionalized and integrated system such as we have never had, facing a hegemon more constrained than previous ones, in a region that is also rising on the whole. We need completely new thinking, a more innovative strategy.

The Path Forward

So, what are we to do? Schake argues that U.S. strategy has moved toward efforts to contain China. If containment is being used here in the Cold War sense, then I see little evidence or hope for this strategy, given the integrated nature of the international system. Moreover, we forget that the United States did concede the Soviet Union a sphere of influence, something we are not willing to do for China.

What about deterrence? The shift I see in U.S. strategy is the recognition that deterrence is no longer enough – if all we wanted was to deter the Chinese use of force, then we’ve succeeded. Instead, I think U.S. strategic objectives need to be twofold: first, to deter and prevent China from using any form of coercion – economic, political, military – to achieve its goals and gain advantage, and second, to maintain its dominant position vis-à-vis China. Achieving these goals requires a strategy that prevents China from accumulating and exercising power in a way that reduces U.S. influence. It also means that the United States needs to make sure the security and economic benefits states derive from their relationship with the United States are greater than the pure economic benefits they get from China.

These are difficult goals to reach. They require a willingness to escalate tensions and risk greater conflict (potentially upsetting other countries that just want stability) to counter Chinese coercion, even when China is operating in the grey zone or using alternative methods. And they require that the United States bring more to the table – in terms of both security and economic benefits. This administration seems to have no interest in the latter. The former involves the greater risks associated with more combined military operations. For example, the United States could put together a coalition of the willing to implement a Gulf of Aden-type task force in the South China Sea that would protect all vessels, regardless of flag, from dangerous, illegal, or harassing behaviors. A great power competition means every country is a battleground – the support of our allies is not enough (although, especially in the case of European countries, the United States needs to demand greater political support in its competition with China). It may also require the United States to get closer to some countries with unsavory domestic practices, even as we maintain our norms and values.

In sum, Dr. Schake has highlighted many of the difficulties involved in avoiding conflict with China while simultaneously protecting U.S. interests. Coupled with the fact, as I argue, that China is likely to be operating from a position of increasing strength on the international stage, there is still confusion about what types of behaviors are threatening and which are not, and how to define U.S. strategic objectives vis-à-vis China. As a result, we are still a long way from devising a feasible and effective strategy to preserve U.S. interests at an acceptable cost. In the meantime, China continues to advance along its path to achieving “national rejuvenation” and great power status, potentially at the expense of U.S. power, influence, and interests.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Kori Schake is skeptical about the idea that rising prosperity inclines modern polities toward democracy and peaceful international relations. China, though, will be the essential test of the theory in our time. Many things could still stop China’s rise, but if they don’t, then she argues we must prepare for a new policy of containment - or, if that fails, we must eventually learn to live under China’s rules.

Response Essays

  • Graham Allison expresses broad agreement with Kori Schake and admiration for her work. He notes three areas of potential discussion, however: First, he notes that strategic realities particular to the nineteenth century shaped the transfer of hegemony from the UK to the United States; second, he suggests we need to be clearer on what is meant by “contesting” China’s rise; and third, he argues that each country’s domestic challenges are likely to be more important than we may know.

  • Oriana Skylar Mastro is pessimistic about the rise of China to great power status and the effects it will have on the achievement of U.S. strategic objectives. China faces few significant obstacles to its continued rise, and the Communist Party has been largely successful in securing domestic loyalty. It has made a successful end run around the U.S.-sponsored world order largely through economic and soft power methods. The United States has been slow to rise to this challenge.

  • Jude Blanchette urges us to remember contingency and chance: Nothing that America did necessarily “lost” China; many factors beyond American control, and beyond most Americans’ knowledge, were also at work in China’s recent return toward greater authoritarianism. This may seem a counsel of despair, but it isn’t necessarily the case. The lack of inevitability in China’s recent political life means that further changes in direction may be on the horizon. Pendulum swings have been the norm in China’s modern history, not the exception.