How will China rise?

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China does not seek to overthrow today's global order, but hopes that it will turn into a "responsible stakeholder", especially with regards to "soft issues" such as human rights, are misguided. Rather, China will act as a "free-rider" as long as possible, obey global norms and regimes selectively, and continue to avoid trouble that could slow its economic growth. Three internal isues influence China's policy towards global governance: 1. An unshakable confidence in the bright future of the Chinese civilization that occasionally turns into hubris (e.g. in the face of America's troubles) 2. Insecurity due to acute internal political pressure and a "growth imperative" to uphold the legitimacy of the one-party system, and 3.Conflict of developing country identity with that of global player.

Since Franklin D. Roosevelt urged Winston Churchill to include China in the UN Security Council at the end of World War II, China's rise has been lurking behind the horizon as the major theme in international politics. Today, despite being thrown back several decades by Mao's Cultural Revolution, it seems like China is constantly breaking all-time records. Last year, more cars were sold in China than in the United States, and China overtook Germany as the world's largest exporter. This year, China's economy will become the second largest, leaving Japan behind, and it is expected to overtake the United States and become the world's leading economy in fifteen years. Considering that a mere century ago, when the United States' global reign began, China was still a poor peasant economy, this is quite a feat. It also raises some fundamental questions about the future of our global order, as China is not a fully-integrated member of today's international system. The key question international analysts are asking themselves is how China will use its newfound influence. Will it further integrate and rise within today's Western-led global order, or will it overthrow the current system and impose a new one?

Fundamental power shifts are interesting for two reasons. First, the process of power transition at the top often creates tension, and sometimes war, because the declining no.1 of the world is reluctant to cede to a more dynamic and rising no.2. Sometimes, the leader succeeds in vanquishing a challenger, as the United States did with Imperial Germany in WWI, with Nazi Germany and Japan in WWII and with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. More important, however, is the question of how the new supremo shapes the international system. Leading nations often become hegemons. Hegemony involves building institutions that other states want to join, creating extensive alliances, and, above all, providing public goods. The global order created by America after WWII, for example, is a system characterized by openness, rules, and stability, and upholding and enforcing the rules of this order is one of the United States' principal national interests.

When seeking to predict the consequences of China's rise, realists point to historic evidence. They contend that as powers rise, they inevitably seek to replace the leading nation, either alone of by creating an anti-hegemonic alliance. They call this the "tragedy of great power politics", and predict "China's unpeaceful rise." The United States, they predict, will therefore seek to contain China's rise, just as it did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Institutional liberalists, on the other hand, retort that history is not a reliable guide since China faces a different kind of international system than any other rising power before. They stress that China is unlikely to do away with a system that has allowed it to rise in the first place, and that it keeps benefiting from. Institutional liberalists firmly believe in the current system's ability to enmesh and entrap even the most powerful, making it more attractive for rising powers to join than to cause trouble and oppose the current order. They certainly have a point. As China invests all over the world, and relies more and more on raw materials from Africa and South America to fuel its growth, it has an ever greater interests in global political and economic stability, best achieved by maintaining and protecting the system.

Still, the truth is far from certain. Realists oversee that China has been, and remains, one of the principal beneficiaries of today's global order. It is the United States' principal debt holder and thus extremely interested in a strong America and a strong dollar- challenging the United States would thus be economic suicide, which would cause China's political system to implode. China's leaders need strong economic growth to uphold the legitimacy of one-party rule. Economic policies in China led to growth, but inequality is on the rise, and a concentration of power in the Communist party makes it difficult to control rampant corruption among its 45 million officials. The result are an estimated 100,000 instances of mass unrest per year, reflecting the severity of the internal challenges the Party faces, creating a formidable growth imperative and foreign policy constraint. China can ill afford any international trouble that would inevitably slow down growth. Yet, there is another reason why China is unlikely to undermine the current global order. Imposing a new vision requires, above all, a vision, yet China seems far from having developed a system of clear and coherent long-term fundamental national objectives, diplomatic philosophy and long-term or secular grand strategy. Despite its flaws, today’s system is widely accepted as it spreads prosperity.  Winning general support for a systemic change will be much harder than after WWII, when America led efforts to draft a new global architecture.

Liberal institutionalists, however, are also unlikely to have a field day. It may seem like China is set to integrate further. Its decision to become a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) is a case in point, and it was even praised by the United States for its constructive efforts to mediate during the Doha Trade Round in Cancun. The UnitedStates has long recognized that trying to contain China will be useless and—due to unprecedented economic interdependence—highly damaging. Its decision to invite China to become a “responsible stakeholder” instead is a clever move, as this would make China a status-quo within the Western system.

Yet, expectations that China will rise and lead within a Western-style framework sound nice, but they do not account for the fact that so far China has been a free-rider within the system, playing by its rules only when it seems convenient. Furthermore, the “responsible stakeholder” approach drastically overestimates the transformative power of the system, particularly with regards to human rights, democracy and free markets.

Still today, most foreign policy makers in Washington believe that China will not achieve its full potential unless it pursues economic and political liberalization. Yet, just like Russia did not democratize after being invited to join an all-democratic G7 in 1997, China’s participation in the Western system failed to westernize China, and Beijing is unlikely to change its position on human rights, market liberalization or political rights.

China's refusal to give in can be explained by an unwavering confidence that China will reclaim a position it has occupied for millennia: the centre of the world. The Western dominated world as we know it today, which led to China’s temporary insignificance, is seen in China as mere blip in the long history of the Chinese civilization.

The financial crisis in America has turned confidence into hubris. While Beijing rejoiced to see America get thrown off track,  reactions in China fell short of all-out celebration because of high economic interdependence between the China and America.
China's free-riding and reluctance to assume responsibility, which can be explained by the regime's extreme insecurity about social cohesion, make matters worse. Systems can survive a leading nation’s occasional transgressions (the UN Security Council remains relevant despite America’s decision to ignore it in 1999 and 2003). It is more complicated, however, if the systems principal player fails to uphold and enforce the rules and norms that make up the currentsystem of global governance. While America provides security by defending weaker nations (such as Kuwait) and pressuring rule-breakers such as Sudan, North Korea and Myanmar, it seems unclear whether China will assume similar responsibilities in the medium term. China's leaders are reluctant to intervene in other countries, just as they abhor foreign intervention on its own soil that could put its unification project into peril.

The outcome will probably be muddied. On the one hand, China will continue to act within today’s structures, but, after receiving yet another confidence boost since America's crisis, pick and choose which rules to follow. On the other hand, given its monumental internal challenges and the resulting insecurity, China is unlikely to assume active leadership within the current system in the short term. The combination of hubris and insecurity also explains Beijing’s outrage after America’s arms deal with Taiwan and Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, both pointing towards Chinese unity-related anxieties. Yet, there is some likelihood that economic necessity will trump qualms about sovereignty. If in, say, 2020, rebels threaten to overtake the government in Khartoum and expropriate Chinese oil firms, Beijing will be likely to intervene and restore order. The future of human rights, on the other hand, seems bleaker. For now, Western nations, principally the United States, must strengthen rules and norms, so that once America passes the baton on to China, Beijing has little choice but to continuously operate through and respect international institutions, rules and regimes.

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Photo credit: Peter Morgan from Beijing, China - Flickr