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An Authoritarian World Order with Chinese Characteristics

A major transformation of American foreign policy is required to counterbalance Chinese ambitions to replace the liberal world order with an authoritarian one.

James Kurth

In consideration of The Elements of the China Challenge, Policy Planning Staff, U.S. Department of State

During the first two decades of the 21st century, China has been ruled by a strong Marxist-Leninist party; it has developed an intense Chinese nationalism; it has become a great power. Indeed, it is now becoming a superpower. Together, these elements now form the components of China’s challenge to the United States and the American way of world order.

This challenge is so formidable, now and in the long term, that it is imperative that the U.S. foreign policy leadership put its central focus upon it. Yet now is the very time that the war in Ukraine has forced the United States and its European allies to shift their full attention to the very different challenge from Russia. Since the current war clearly has the potential to escalate into an encounter between Russian and NATO military forces and even into the use of chemical or nuclear weapons, this shift of focus is urgent and necessary.

If and when the Ukraine war reaches the phase of some kind of settlement or stability, the formidable China challenge will still be there. Indeed, since the Ukraine crisis will have caused the European allies to focus upon Russia for the indefinite future, the United States will no longer have these allies to help it confront China, making that task even more formidable. It is good, then, that this symposium is engaging in a thorough examination of just how difficult and how long term this challenge is and will be.

The best analysis of China’s overall challenge is presented in the document The Elements of the China Challenge, published by the Policy Planning Staff in the last months of the Trump administration and overseen by Peter Berkowitz. The report explains that the three major elements of the China challenge are aimed at achieving the Chinese Communist Party’s overarching goal: an authoritarian new world order with distinctive Chinese characteristics.

There are a number of contending explanations for China’s hegemonic behavior, each of which posits variations on the goals of the regime.

The great-power explanation. This theory explains that China seeks to become a regional hegemon in East Asia, with a sphere of influence composed of neighboring states ruled by friendly governments (e.g., North Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia) and of littoral seas that are being turned into functional lakes (i.e., the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Yellow or North China Sea). All great powers have sought such goals as soon as their power was great enough to do so. This was certainly the case with the United States as its power grew in Latin America and the Caribbean Sea from the 1890s to the 1930s. It has been the case with Russia whenever it has been a real great power or a wannabe one, as Ukraine and Belarus know well. It was clearly the case with the successive dynasties of Imperial China—complete with their famous system of “tributary” states, including their mini-versions of the Chinese imperial court and Confucian culture. And it is obviously the case with China in the 21st century.

The superpower explanation. As China becomes a superpower, this theory, by itself, predicts that China will seek to shape or even remake the world order: to move beyond the role of an East Asian regional hegemon to the status of world hegemon, or at least hegemon of more than one region, like Eurasia. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is clear evidence of this goal. Pursuing such a goal was what the first superpower, the United States, did after its victory in World War II, when it became hegemon in both Western Europe and East Asia—together, the “Free World.” This was also what the second superpower, the Soviet Union, did after its own great World War II victory, when it became the hegemon of Eastern Europe and of several communist states around the world. Today, this is what the next superpower, China, seeks to do in Eurasia and many dependent states distributed around the world, by extending projects like Belt and Road into Africa, the island states of the South Pacific, and, recently, even Latin America.

The ideological-organizational explanation. Neither the great-power nor the superpower theory can readily explain one important feature of China’s spheres of influence, made up of neighboring states ruled by friendly governments: that is the character of these friendly regimes.

When the United States established its spheres of influence, its system was liberal-democratic; but it did not impose this system on states within its spheres of influence. Instead, it permitted liberal-democratic, social-democratic, and authoritarian regimes. In contrast, when the Soviet Union established its spheres of influence, it imposed communist—i.e., Marxist-Leninist—regimes on the states within those spheres. While both states were superpowers, the differences in their behavior can be explained by differences in the ideologies and organization of the two regimes.

What do China’s ideological and organizational expansion tell us about its policy and practices toward the states within its spheres of influence? On the one hand, it is no surprise that Marxist-Leninist China actively undermines liberal-democratic features of its client states. On the other hand, we might be surprised that it does not (at least not yet) impose Marxist-Leninist regimes on these states. Rather, it systematically works to establish regimes in those places that are authoritarian but not necessarily communist.

The national explanation. China works toward a distinctive relationship with its authoritarian client regimes. In this grand bargain, the client regime (1) assures China that its territory will not become a security threat (e.g., it will not provide any other great power a military base on its territory) and (2) gives visible deference to Chinese political practices (e.g., no criticism of China’s human rights abuses). In return, China provides the regime with (1) economic aid and (2) internal security practices that help the authoritarian regime stay in power. As it happens, this is the same bargain struck by Imperial China with its tributary states. ‌Thus, we see a concrete case of Marxism-Leninism with Chinese, i.e., national, characteristics.

Still, to adequately explain China’s drive toward hegemony in East Asia, Eurasia, and the world, we need to incorporate all three elements of the Chinese challenge—great-power status, Marxism-Leninism, and Chinese nationalism, or at least something like traditional Chinese strategic culture.

American vs. Chinese Models of World Order

We are now in a world-historical competition with China, which seeks to replace the liberal world order with an authoritarian world order. Which model is more attractive to the vast world of countries that stretch from Southeast Asia all the way to Africa?

Clearly, most of these countries have rulers who are very uncomfortable acting like liberal democrats and correspondingly happy to be helped to become even more effective authoritarians than they already are. For such leaders and their client and crony elites, the Chinese model is clearly more attractive. The Chinese realm will be a traditional system of tributary states on a global scale—a system of allied states like the American world order, but an authoritarian rather than a liberal one.

At the center of this new world order will be China itself—with a population of more than a billion productive people, more than three times that of the United States; the largest economy in the world, increasingly exceeding that of the United States; and the world’s largest military, drawing close to that of the United States in high-tech weaponry and organizational and operational capabilities, not just in East Asia but in the Indian Ocean and beyond. This China will truly be the Middle Kingdom, the central state of its new world order.

Given this challenge—indeed, given these approaching realities—how should the United States respond?

The United States will obviously be a smaller, perhaps weaker central or core state of its world order than China will be of its own. In order to compensate for this disparity, the United States will need to have a system of allied states that is stronger than the Chinese system of tributary states. That is a necessary condition for the United States to meet, though obviously not a sufficient one.

The current thinking within the American foreign policy establishment is that this objective can be achieved through something like a “league of democracies:” If we add up all the current liberal democracies—mostly in Europe, North America, the Western Pacific, and the South Pacific—we get an alliance of populations, economies, and militaries that is more or less equal to those of China itself.

However, the top security priority of most of the European allies is not China but Russia, especially because of the current Ukraine crisis. Therefore, an American alliance system focused on confronting the China challenge will also have to include the liberal democracies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and, most complicated, Taiwan. Yet all these Pacific states combined will not match the power of China itself. Other states will have to be added, yet these other states will be not liberal-democratic but authoritarian. The current thinking is that this dilemma can be solved by calling a state like India, for example, a liberal democracy; but no academic expert in Indian politics actually believes that India is a genuine liberal democracy, especially under Narendra Modi’s current Hindu nationalist regime.

In other words, in order for the United States to effectively confront the China challenge to its liberal world order of rules and norms, it will have to make some kind of major compromise of its liberal identity. In particular, it will have to give up some important features of its liberal world order. Thus, the United States, as it confronts the great China challenge, is heading into a great transformation in the world project it has pursued in the thirty years since its great victory in the Cold War, a victory that now seems increasingly long ago and far away.

This is a transformation for which the American people are totally unprepared, because the American foreign policy establishment has not prepared them. Indeed, the establishment has not even prepared itself.

James Kurth is Claude Smith Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Swarthmore College. He is author of The American Way of Empire: How America Won a World—But Lost Her Way (2019).

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