The People’s Republic of China has been nothing if not consistent about its views on hegemony. From the time of Mao Zedong to present time, Chinese leaders have repeatedly and consistently denounced hegemony in all its forms. Indeed, the word “hegemony” is little more than a synonym for countries or actions that Beijing dislikes.
But even as China continues to denounce hegemony rhetorically, it increasingly embraces it in action. This is true across a whole host of issues.
None more so than Beijing’s New Security Concept, which President Xi Jinping announced last month at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit in Shanghai. David Cohen reminds us that the New Security Concept is likely more multi-faceted than it may appear at first glance.
Nonetheless, at its core, the New Security Concept is that “security in Asia should be maintained by Asians themselves.” As the Global Times reported about Xi’s speech, it “stressed the role played by Asians themselves in building security, viewed as a rejection of interference from outside the region.” During the speech, Xi also denounced alliances in the region.
It makes good sense that China would want a U.S.-free Asia-Pacific — as China’s rise has proceeded, the U.S. has increasingly become the only viable counterbalance to Beijing in the region. China’s relative influence would therefore be greatly enhanced by America’s exit from the region. The same goes for an end to alliances to the region — not only does China lack any formal allies, but its size ensures it will dominate any bilateral interactions with Asian nations.
At the same time, the New Security Concept is transparently hegemonic. To begin with, the realization of the primary goals of the New Security Concept — namely, the exit of the U.S. from Asia and the end of alliances — would ensure China’s hegemony over the region.
Equally important, these goals are at odds with the views of the overwhelming majority of Asian nations. Specifically, China is alone in wanting the U.S. out of the strategic order in Asia. Every other Asia-Pacific nation — with the exception of North Korea — wants the U.S. to maintain a strong presence in the regional security architecture. In fact, most states want the U.S. to get its head out of the sand and play a bigger role in Asian security. Similarly, other Asian nations are strongly in favor of alliances in the region as evidenced by the fact that they are strengthening their ties to the U.S. and with each other.
A related but different manifestation of China’s growing hegemonic ambitions is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a “multilateral” development body that China is proposing as an alternative to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB). On the surface, the AIIB is even less malign than the New Security Concept and in some ways this is true.
However, a closer examination reveals that the AIIB is in many ways just the economic equivalent of the New Security Concept. To begin with, China wants to establish the AIIB to counterbalance the influence of the World Bank and ADB, which Beijing views as too dominated by the U.S. and Japan respectively. Given the U.S. Congress’s intransigence on IMF reforms, the desire to work around the World Bank can be justified. But China’s apparent need to spurn the ADB instead of simply seeking a greater role in it by raising its contributions is less defensible. Indeed, a stronger commitment to the ADB would be an important indication of China’s interest in seeking a larger role in the existing order rather than trying to upend it.
Instead, China is taking the later course with the AIIB. Much like the New Security Concept, it is doing so because Beijing is crafting the institution to ensure it dominates it completely. For example, all reports suggest that China is trying to exclude Japan, India and the United States from the AIIB. This means that the institution — while ostensibly “multilateral” — will be funded almost entirely by China.
As Oliver Rui, a professor of finance and accounting at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, puts it: “China wants to play a more pivotal role in these kinds of organizations — so the best way is to establish an organization by itself…. This is another way to think from a broad perspective in order to counterbalance Japan and the U.S.”
China’s hegemonic ambitions are also apparent from the way Beijing intends to push the AIIB. As the Financial Times quotes a participant in the AIIB discussions (whose nationality is not given) as saying: “There is a lot of interest from across Asia but China is going to go ahead with this even if nobody else joins it.”
It should also be noted that, although the mutual benefits of the projects it will fund cannot be ignored, the ultimate objective of the AIIB is hegemonic in nature. Namely, China is seeking to build up infrastructure throughout the greater Asian region to more tightly tie its smaller neighbors’ economic livelihoods to trade with China. And as China has already made clear in its territorial disputes with countries like Japan and the Philippines, Beijing is quite willing to exploit other nations’ economic dependencies on it to force them to comply with its political mandates.
Perhaps the greatest expression of China’s new hegemonic ambitions is to force foreign nations and businesses to serve the interests of China as a nation or the narrow goals of the Communist Party. At times, this includes interfering in the domestic affairs of other states. For example, China has a long history of pressuring Southeast and South Asian nations to forcibly repatriate Uyghurs back to China. In recent years, Beijing has stepped up the pressure on these kinds of issues. Most notably, China appears to be all but actually drafting Nepal’s laws for Tibetans itself.
More widespread are China’s efforts to force foreign companies to serve the ends of China and the CCP. This usually done by threatening to deny these companies access to China’s growing consumer markets. As a result, this kind of pressure has become more effective in recent years, as seen by Hollywood and international media outlets (to name just two examples) becoming increasingly subservient to Beijing. As China’s domestic market grows, so too will the frequency and success of this kind of pressure.
None of this is to demonize China. As history has shown, rising powers seem to reflexively grow more hegemonic the stronger they become. Indeed, the U.S. once led the world in denouncing European intervention in the non-Western world. During the Cold War, however, it became more involved in the affairs of the so-called third world than any of the major former colonial powers like France and Britain.
Only a fool (or town of them) would therefore expect a rising China to shy away from hegemony and instead join the existing international order. Still, China’s near constant denouncements of the supposed hegemonic tendencies of others — which, ironically, were especially prevalent in Xi’s CICA and General Wang’s Shangri-La Dialogue speeches — are becoming increasingly hypocritical.