Can China Remake the International System?
Xi Jinping savored the moment. Speaking before China’s annual gathering of nearly 3,000 representatives to the National People’s Congress in Beijing in March 2021, the Chinese president took a post-pandemic victory lap, proclaiming that his country had been the first to tame COVID-19, the first to resume work, and the first to regain positive economic growth. It was the result, he argued, of “self-confidence in our path, self-confidence in our theories, self-confidence in our system, self-confidence in our culture.” And he further shared his pride that “now, when our young people go abroad, they can stand tall and feel proud—unlike us when we were young.” For Xi, China’s success in controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus was yet more evidence that he was on the right track: China was reclaiming its historic position of leadership and centrality on the global stage. The brief official history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that was published the following month reinforced his assessment. It claimed that Xi had brought China “closer to the center of the world stage than it has ever been. The nation has never been closer to its own rebirth.”
China already occupies a position of centrality in the international system. It is the world’s largest trading power and greatest source of global lending, it boasts the world’s largest population and military, and it has become a global center of innovation. Most analysts predict that China’s real GDP will surpass that of the United States by 2030 to make it the largest economy in the world. Moreover, as the evolution of the pandemic has illustrated, China’s response to global challenges has profound implications for the rest of the world.
Yet even as Xi’s ambition and China’s global prominence have become indisputable, many observers continue to question whether Beijing wants to shape a new international order or merely force some adjustments to the current one, advancing discrete interests and preferences without fundamentally transforming the global system. They argue that Beijing’s orientation is overwhelmingly defensive and designed only to protect itself from criticism of its political system and to realize a limited set of sovereignty claims. That view misses the scope of Xi’s vision. His understanding of the centrality of China signifies something more than ensuring that the relative weight of the country’s voice or influence within the existing international system is adequately represented. It connotes a radically transformed international order.
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In Xi’s vision, a unified and resurgent China would be on par with or would surpass the United States. China is the preeminent power in Asia, and its maritime domain has expanded to include control over contested areas in the East China and South China Seas. The United States has retreated back across the Pacific to assume its rightful place as an Atlantic power. Moreover, the formidable network of U.S. alliances that has underpinned the international system for more than 70 years is dissolving in favor of a proposed Chinese framework of dialogue, negotiation, and cooperation. China’s influence also radiates through the world via infrastructure ranging from ports, railways, and bases to fiber-optic cables, e-payment systems, and satellites. In the same way that U.S., European, and Japanese companies led the development of the world’s twentieth-century infrastructure, Chinese companies compete to lead in the twenty-first century. Xi ably uses China’s economic power to induce and coerce compliance with his vision.
This shift in the geostrategic landscape reflects and reinforces an even more profound transformation: the rise of a China-centric order with its own norms and values. However imperfectly, the post–World War II international order was shaped primarily by liberal democracies that were committed in principle to universal human rights, the rule of law, free markets, and limited state intervention in the political and social lives of their citizens. Multilateral institutions and international law were designed to advance these values and norms, and technology was often used to bolster them. Yet Xi seeks to flip a switch and replace those values with the primacy of the state. Institutions, laws, and technology in this new order reinforce state control, limit individual freedoms, and constrain open markets. It is a world in which the state controls the flow of information and capital both within its own borders and across international boundaries, and there is no independent check on its power.
Chinese officials and scholars appear assured that the rest of the world is onboard with Xi’s vision, as they trumpet, “The East is rising, and the West is declining!” Yet many countries increasingly seem less enamored of Xi’s bold initiatives, as the full political and economic costs of embracing the Chinese model become clear. At the People’s Congress, Xi exuded the self-confidence of a leader convinced that the world is there for China’s taking. But his own certainty may be a liability, preventing him from recognizing the resistance Beijing is stoking through its actions abroad. Xi’s success depends on whether he can adjust and reckon with the blowback. Failing to do so could lead to further miscalculations that may end up reshaping the global order—just not in the way Xi imagines.
REUNIFYING THE MOTHERLAND
Xi’s path to a reordered world begins by redrawing the map of China. In an October 2021 speech, Xi asserted, “The historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland must be fulfilled and will definitely be fulfilled.” Asserting sovereignty over long-contested territories—particularly those Beijing terms its core interests: Hong Kong, the South China Sea, and Taiwan—is Xi’s number one priority.
Beijing has already dealt with Hong Kong. In 2020, China imposed a national security law on the city that effectively ended its autonomy under the “one country, two systems” governance model that was put in place in 1997 at the time of Hong Kong’s handoff from London to Beijing. In a matter of months, Beijing undermined the city’s long-standing commitment to basic human rights and the rule of law and transformed Hong Kong into just another mainland Chinese city.
Xi has also made progress in asserting Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea. He has created and militarized seven artificial features in the sea and laid claim to scores of other islands and stretches of maritime territory. He increasingly deploys China’s powerful navy, newly armed coast guard, and vast fishing fleet to intimidate the five other nations with overlapping claims—Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam—and to assert control in disputed waters. Throughout the pandemic, Xi has also taken advantage of other countries’ distraction to press additional territorial claims: for more than 100 days in a row, Chinese vessels sailed into waters off Japan and around a number of contested islands there that China calls the Diaoyu Islands and Japan calls the Senkaku Islands; a Chinese coast guard vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat; Chinese military aircraft flew over disputed waters claimed by both China and Malaysia; and China and India engaged in their first deadly border conflict in four decades.
Xi’s path to a reordered world begins by redrawing the map of China.
No map of China would be acceptable to Xi, however, if it did not reflect mainland Chinese control over Taiwan. At the 19th Party Congress, in October 2017, Xi declared that unification with Taiwan was one of 14 must-do items necessary to achieve the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” He has further underscored the importance of unification with his vivid imagery: “People on both sides of the strait are one family, with shared blood. . . . No one can ever cut the veins that connect us.”
Xi speaks about unification with Taiwan with increasing frequency and urgency. He remains convinced that Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is advancing an independence agenda, claiming that the island nation’s “independence separatism” remains the “most serious hidden danger to national rejuvenation.” Since Tsai came to power, in 2016, Xi has cut off the long-established cross-strait dialogue; dramatically reduced the number of mainland tourists permitted to travel to Taiwan, from 4.2 million in 2015 to 2.7 million in 2017, contributing to a drop in the island’s annual tourism revenue from $44.5 billion to $24.4 billion; convinced seven of the 22 remaining states that formally recognize Taiwan as the Republic of China to abandon Taipei for Beijing; and prevented Taiwan from participating in the World Health Assembly briefings in the early months of the pandemic. During Tsai’s 2020 reelection campaign, CCP hackers also allegedly spread disinformation designed to undermine her. Beijing’s increasingly threatening military exercises along Taiwan’s coast provoke frequent talk of a possible Chinese military attack.
Xi’s efforts to intimidate Taiwan have failed to convince the island nation to embrace unification. Instead, they have produced a backlash both within Taiwan and abroad. A greater percentage of Taiwanese than ever before—64 percent—favor independence, and few Taiwanese retain faith that a “one country, two systems” framework could ever work, particularly in the wake of the crackdown in Hong Kong. A growing number of countries have also stepped up to offer support to Taiwan. In an unprecedented policy shift, Japan asserted in 2021 that it had a direct stake in ensuring Taiwan’s status as a democracy. Several small European countries have also rallied to Taiwan’s diplomatic defense: the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Slovakia have all welcomed the Taiwanese foreign minister for a visit. For its part, the United States has supported a wide array of new legislation and diplomatic activity designed to strengthen the bilateral relationship and embed Taiwan in regional and international organizations.
BYE-BYE, MISS AMERICAN PIE
China is also busy trying to lay the foundation for the country to supersede the United States as the dominant force in the Asia-Pacific. Describing the Asia-Pacific as a “big family” and claiming that “the region cannot prosper without China” and “China cannot develop in isolation from the region,” China’s leaders portray the Asia-Pacific as seamlessly integrated through Chinese-powered trade, technology, infrastructure and shared cultural and civilizational ties. Xi has been particularly successful in cementing China’s position as the regional economic leader. China is the largest trading partner of virtually all the countries in Asia, and in 2021, the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations together ranked as China’s top trading partner. At the end of 2020, Xi concluded the negotiations over the Chinese-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which includes China, ten Southeast Asian countries, and Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. In a bold gambit, Xi has also advanced China for membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Japanese-led free-trade agreement. This would make China the dominant economic player in the two most important regional trade agreements in the most economically dynamic region of the world; the United States would remain sidelined.
China has been less successful in its efforts to position itself as the region’s preeminent security actor, a role long played by the United States. In 2014, Beijing proposed a new Asian security order managed by Asian countries. China’s defense minister has crisscrossed the Asia-Pacific region with the message that countries there “should adhere to the principle that regional issues should be solved by the regional countries through consultation.” Chinese officials have also tried hard to paint U.S. alliances as anachronistic relics of the Cold War and as hostile to China.
Yet Beijing’s military assertiveness in the region has directly undermined its push for leadership. A survey of Southeast Asian experts and businesspeople found that less than two percent believed that China was a benign and benevolent power, and less than 20 percent were confident or very confident that China would “do the right thing.” Nearly half of those polled believed that China was a “revisionist power” that intended to transform the region into its sphere of influence. (In contrast, over two-thirds of the interviewees were confident or very confident that Japan would “do the right thing” by contributing to global peace, security, prosperity, and governance.) China’s behavior has also reenergized the Quad partnership, which includes Australia, India, Japan, and the United States; spurred the establishment of a new trilateral security pact among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; and prompted several European countries, including France, Germany, and the Netherlands, along with NATO, to deepen their security engagement in the Asia-Pacific. Even Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who earlier threatened to end his country’s alliance with the United States and called China “a good friend,” is now upgrading the Philippines’ defense relationship with Washington as he prepares to leave office.
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