This Academic Incubator column is part of an academic partnership with the Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, presenting regular expert commentary on global security-related issues by faculty, fellows, and students.
It is no longer hard to see that the rising power and the mounting pugnaciousness of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have become a comprehensive challenge for the United States. China’s Machiavellian policies and actions at home and abroad have turned an otherwise naturally complementary Sino-American economic relationship into a near zero-sum, if not already a zero-sum, competition for market, jobs, technology, and financial primacy. Beijing now openly flexes its new muscles in its neighborhood and beyond to resist, reduce, and replace American leadership and presence everywhere possible, seeking to undermine the U.S.-led international economic order and American-anchored collective security arrangements. The PRC has been burning billions, for example, hoping to replace the U.S. dollar with the over-printed Chinese Renminbi (RMB). Extraordinarily heavy extraction of its own economy, the world’s second largest, and its enormous foreign currency reserve resulting from the gross imbalance in U.S.-China trade have enabled the PRC to massively expand its military. That military is already the world’s second largest; its navy, for example, is projected to soon surpass the U.S. Navy in fleet tonnage. At the same time, massive but opaque spending sprees has allowed the PRC to actively procure power and proxies even inside the United States, positioning Beijing to reshape international opinions and norms more easily than ever.
What is less known, perhaps, is that the rising PRC state also seeks an overhaul of the very world order that has enabled the greatest advances of human civilization over the past few centuries – the Westphalian system of nation-states. This world order was codified in the 17th century, expanded to a global scale in the 20th century, and now is in its post-World War II and post-Cold War iteration — the so-called America-led Liberal International Order (LIO). The rise of Chinese power, under the autocracy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), is not just contesting U.S. national security and American global leadership but also the existing world order. Never since the heyday of the Cold War has the world seen such a full challenge to the United States and to the Westphalian system.
The CCP is leading the PRC toward a Chinese Dream of a world order in its own image, which I call the China Order. The China Order is a millennia-old political tradition and ideology that mandates a unitary, authoritarian (often totalitarian), omnipotent and omnipresent government for the whole known world. This alternative world order has had a variety of euphemisms in the long history of China: from tinaxia yitong (unification of all under heaven) and shijie datong (world’s grand harmony) in the imperial past, to Mao Zedong’s world solidarity for Communist revolution only forty years ago, to now Xi Jinping’s community of common human destiny. The China Order has powerfully revived to guide rising PRC power, under the banner of a Chinese version of globalization, ingeniously taking advantage of the various calls in our time for global governance to address transnational issues such as climate change, inequality, epidemics, and terrorism.
This China Order is normatively and practically at fundamental odds with the LIO version of the Westphalia system that enshrines comparison and competition among nations coexisting with equal sovereignty. The China Order has been widely addictive to the powerful and ambitious in history, whether they have been ethnically Han or not. It has been highly effective in practice, in great part because it became deeply legitimized and internalized in elite Chinese culture over many centuries. The China Order is now the sole acceptable model of the world under the authoritarianism known as the Qin-Han polity that the PRC now practices. But under this world order, as documented by The China Order (#ad), human civilization is socio-economically very suboptimal and hopelessly stagnant, inevitably shortchanging the lives of just about everyone, especially nonelites, as the tragic and often catastrophic history of Eastern Eurasia under the China Order before the nineteenth century amply demonstrates.
Since 1949, when the PRC restored traditional Chinese autocracy under the guise of imported Marxism-Leninism, the CCP has been ceaselessly and callously fighting its own people internally and the United States and American allies externally to preserve its monopoly over power. Only sheer exhaustion and near collapse could force the CCP to slow down and retreat, at home and abroad. External powers have influenced and facilitated the rise of PRC power, but have so far failed to transform the Qin-Han autocracy and its China Order ideal, thus remaining unable to change Beijing’s world views and global pursuits. Various, often false, rationalizations have justified the continuation of American/Western engagement with the PRC, which has greatly enriched and enabled the CCP to persist in its consolidation of power. Beijing’s push for power is nothing personal; it is a brand of authoritarianism just happens to be anchored in the remarkably persistent belief that failing to achieve control over the whole known world would spell the loss of the “mandate of heaven” and political extinction. Thus, the CCP is driven (or doomed) to methodically and opportunistically seek ever greater influence.
The rise of China, or more precisely the ever-greater power of the PRC state, represents a shift of the distribution and concentration of power in the international system (conceptually known as power transition) and an effort to reorder the units in the system and change the system’s governing norms. Chinese leaders have already openly claimed that they are now moving to the center of the world stage, leading a revolutionary change in the world order, upending the Peace of Westphalia established “four hundred years ago,” in the words of PRC leaders This points to a systemic change of world politics and a choice for all of us at the grandest possible scale: a scale that could reshape nations and redirect the path of human civilization. The PRC’s challenge is therefore greater than the struggle between the two European ideologies of Capitalism and Communism. The confrontation between the U.S.-led LIO and the PRC-dreamed China Order transcends these often vaguely defined civilizational clashes.
If the PRC challenge, the rise of an unscrupulous, ever more resourceful and determined PRC state, is not managed well and promptly, the United States will have to face a much worse choice in the not too distant future between tragic capitulation and a desperate war for its national security and world leadership and for the way in which humankind is organized worldwide. In the age of many kinds of weapons of mass destruction, this will be a harrowing decision.
Of course, one may argue that the grandiose China Dream of a China Order may be just another pretentious way for the CCP to invoke traditional, nationalist, and populist ideals to justify its autocratic governance of the Chinese people forever, similar to the splendid slogans and missions fabricated by many other dictators. Perhaps the highly insecure CCP leadership is fighting for its survival, not world domination. However, words have consequences. Propaganda and dilution often greatly mesmerize and mislead the pretenders themselves. More importantly, the CCP has been steadily following up its words with action and money for years (basically nonstop since 1949); it has just pledged over 10 times the total sum of the Marshall Plan (in today’s dollars) for its Belt and Road Initiative alone, for instance.
As the logic of the China Order dictates, the rising Chinese power will not stop short of unseating the United States and reordering the world, unless Beijing’s Qin-Han polity is transformed and/or the ever richer and more powerful PRC is checked. The alternatives, American capitulation or world war, are horrific to contemplate, but not necessarily impossible. Unlike in Hollywood, the “good” guys do not always win necessarily in the real world. A mighty autocracy that tightly controls one-fifth of humankind, willfully spends a disproportionately larger portion of the fruits of the world’s second largest economy, and vows (even if only hypocritically) to reform and reorder the world under its leadership, is and will always be a mortal challenge to the national security of the United States. America’s global position and way of life, world peace, and the overall world order all rest on how the PRC challenge is managed—soon.
Fei-Ling Wang is professor at Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His most recent book is The China Order: Centralia, World Empire, and the Nature of Chinese Power (#ad)
Associate Professor Margaret Kosal, PhD is The Cipher Brief liaison at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology