Chinese Hegemony? Probably not

International order is in flux.  With the U.S. governed by the racist grifter Donald Trump and a complicit in his crimes Republican party American leadership of the liberal international order is in serious question.  So what comes next?  It’s an interesting time in that there is a space for a more virtuous and left wing foreign policy to emerge from the Trump wreckage, something that people are starting to take note of.  I hope to contribute to this discussion soon, more so than I have already.   In this post, however, I want to discuss, again, the possibility of Chinese hegemony, or the prospect of China overtaking the U.S. as the hegemonic leader of the liberal international order or a new order constructed with Chinese characteristics.

On the blog Lawfare, Timothy Heath has a post up arguing that China is preparing for an international order after U.S. leadership (one it will lead presumably).  Heath’s article argues that Chinese leaders see the liberal international order deteriorating and view China as the only plausible alternative to step into the breach left by declining U.S. and western power and legitimacy.  Heath goes on to look at how China’s diplomacy and writings by top officials provide keys to how China may try to order international politics.  Overall the picture looks like this,

“Central to China’s approach is the establishment of values and norms that prioritize the values and interests of the developing world over those of the developed world. Chinese officials have stepped up activities to co-opt international institutions, build coalitions of similarly-minded political allies, and extend influence operations to shape global discourse in China’s favor.”

Heath goes on to document how China is advancing in those areas and planning for the future.  Heath acknowledges that “fundamental to China’s conception of global governance is the establishment of new norms to guide international behavior.”  This is right, if China is going to create a new order with itself as leader it won’t be simply because it surpasses the U.S. in military or economic power but also it will have to create new norms and values that others agree with and follow.

Hegemony is not just power its also leadership which includes legitimacy which is (at least partially) determined by shared norms and values.  Can China create new norms of international politics which will help cement its leadership?  I am doubtful.  At least a China run by the CCP cannot.  In a great new article forthcoming in International Organization, Bentley Allan, Srdjan Vucetic, and Ted Hopf give credence to the idea that it will be very difficult for China to create new norms and values for a new hegemonic order.  They argue that China’s limitation in leading a counter-hegemonic challenge to the U.S. lead liberal international order is the distribution of identity across the great powers.  Any new hegemonic order will need to acquire the acquiescence of other great powers (and their publics) and the ability to do that they argue is predicated on how identity is distributed in the international system not just material power.  They sum up their findings as follows:

“Our main finding is that the distribution of identity presents a system-level barrier to a Chinese hegemonic succession. First, we find strong support for the democratic and neoliberal hegemonic ideology amongst elites and masses across the great powers. Notably, there is strong ideational support for the order outside the core states of the Western alliance. As a result, the U.S.-led order might remain stable in the face of a Chinese challenge or American decline. Second, the democratic and neoliberal hegemonic ideology effectively excludes China with its authoritarian national identity from full membership in the present order. Thus, it is unlikely to join and transform the order from within. Third, we contend that China is unlikely to be able to attract powerful followers into a counter-hegemonic coalition. Its national identity discourse is insular and propagandistic and so is unlikely to form the basis of an ideology or vision that could find support in the distribution of identity. While China may seek to cultivate a favourable distribution of identity amongst other great powers, this process is likely to take decades assuming. In short, for the foreseeable future, the distribution of identity will serve as a powerful constraint on China’s hegemonic prospects.”

In other words, the authoritarianism of the CCP will prevent China from successfully leading a counter-hegemonic coalition or constructing a new order because people around the world don’t identify with authoritarianism even if it can provide 7% GDP growth.  Absent a democratic revolution in China, I think Chinese hegemony is unlikely.

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