Zachary Keck

China Won’t Be a Different Kind of Global Power

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Zachary Keck

China Won’t Be a Different Kind of Global Power

Like the U.S. before it, the China of today will be the hegemon of tomorrow.

China Won’t Be a Different Kind of Global Power
Credit: China’s Yantai frigate image via Pres Panayotov /

The Diplomat is blessed to have a wealth of excellent regular contributors. Even among this distinguished group, however, Chen Dingding is particularly notable. Week in and week out he writes insightful, thought-provoking articles that challenge the conventional wisdom on some of today’s most important issues.

Last week was no exception as Dingding took to Flashpoints to challenge David Shambaugh’s new article in The National Interest challenging the notion that China is a global power. Much as he did in his latest book, Shambaugh claims instead that Beijing is at most a partial power and there is good reason to think it will never ascend to the ranks of great powers.

Dingding made a number of damning criticisms of Shambaugh’s arguments including that there is usually a lag between a country’s economic rise and it becoming a military, diplomatic and political power. Overall, however, the main thrust of Dingding’s criticism is that Shambaugh’s definition of global is based almost exclusively on how the U.S. behaves on the international stage. This is problematic, according to Dingding, because “the U.S. is not just a global power, it is a global hegemon in many ways.” Other great powers act differently, and “It is impossible for China to become another U.S. for a variety of historical, cultural, and social reasons.”

Similarly, as Shannon noted over at China Power yesterday, Chinese President and long-time Diplomat reader Xi Jinping used the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” to reiterate Dingding’s points. Specifically, Xi claimed that China will not be like previous great powers in the international system because “No matter how strong China gets it will never become a hegemon.” That’s because, Xi insisted, the “Chinese people do not have the gene for hegemony or militarism.”

Nonsense, says the Pacific Realist. China will absolutely strive to be like previous great powers, including the United States. This will most certainly include seeking regional hegemony, and a failure to achieve that status will say more about its lack of capabilities than a lack of intentions.

To begin with, China is, if anything, more predisposed than other countries to seek regional hegemony. China may not lack the genes for hegemony, but it certainly doesn’t wont for a history of it. Indeed, because of ancient China’s hegemon status in Eastern Asia, Beijing has more experience than other modern state as a regional hegemony.

Nor did it relinquish this status by choice. In fact, it has long lamented the fact that it lost its dominance over East Asia when the Europeans arrived. This “century of humiliation” is deeply ingrained into China’s history memory and, as Zheng Wang has convincingly outlined, this strongly impacts Chinese foreign relations to this day. Indeed, since the time of Mao the Chinese Communist Party has been hell bent on restoring China’s dominance. This is truer of President Xi than most Chinese leaders. In fact, Xi has said its government’s main objective is the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Zheng again points out that the use of the word rejuvenation instead of rise “underscores an important point: the Chinese view their fortunes as a return to greatness and not a rise from nothing.”

But even if China didn’t have such a long history of regional hegemony, it would still have a future of one assuming its impressive rise continues to outmatch the growth experienced by its neighbors and the United States. In this sense, it’s worth recalling the rise of the United States, the country Xi, Dingding and many other Chinese contrast Beijing with.

No country was less likely to become the “global hegemon” many now accuse it of being. In fact, much of what is said about China’s rise today closely mirrors what many said in the United States and outside of Europe during the late 19th and first half of the 20th century. Just as many non-Westerners now applaud China as the potential first non-Western great power of the modern era, the United States was praised for being the first non-European, former colonial state to rise to greatness in the modern world.

There were great expectations, among Americans and non-Westerners, that the United States’ past colony status would have a profound and benign impact on its actions on the world stage as a global power. In some ways, that has indeed turned out to be the case as the U.S. has rarely pursued formal colonialism and played an often underappreciated role in pressuring Europe to relinquish its colonial possessions.

While often forced to make the kind of pragmatic concessions that are necessary in the real world, the United States in both word and deed was a tireless champion for smaller, weaker and non-European powers during its rise to greatness—and for a good deal of time after it had become a great power. Perhaps one of the first examples of this was the Monroe Doctrine, which—though like in all the other examples cited below, was done to serve U.S. interests—sought to prevent Europe from re-colonializing the parts of Latin America that had recently won their independence.

Similarly, at the Paris Peace Conference following WWI, President Woodrow Wilson sought to create a norm of self-determination. In examples both large and small, America devoted considerable energies to helping colonial states realize their independence.

For example, during the first decade of the 20th century, not long after the Constitutional Revolution, Iran began trying to overcome its financial dependence on Russia and the United Kingdom. To achieve this, it sought out America’s help owing to its own history of breaking out of colonialism—both formal and financial. The U.S. first recommended William Morgan Shuster who Iran appointed as Treasurer-General to help it get its finances in order. After Shuster was forced out of Iran by Imperial Russian troops and British pressure, the U.S. sent Arthur Millspaugh [both Shuster and Millspaugh were technically hired as private citizens, but at the recommendation of the U.S.], who as Administrator-General of Finances of Iran, helped Iran finally balance its budget.

The U.S. also refused to intervene on behalf of France in Vietnam in 1954, and instead pushed for negotiations over the terms of Vietnam’s post-colonial order. Similarly, the U.S. famously forced England, France and Israel to withdraw from the Suez Canal in 1956.

In other cases, America helped to bolster nascent independent nations. For example, to the great annoyance of colonial powers like Great Britain, the U.S. signed 50-50 oil revenue sharing agreements with independent nations like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, which gave each side an equal share of the profits. This was unheard of at the time. By way of comparison, in 1950 the company that later became British Petroleum paid Tehran just 8 percent of the profits it earned from its wholly unequal oil concession in Iran. The American deal with Saudi Arabia led Iran to demand, under threat of nationalization, a re-negotiation of its oil agreement with the British. The Truman administration actually took Iran’s side in the dispute. As William Polk has observed, “The British were almost as angry at America as at Iran” for the nationalization crisis.

Still, despite this history the United States has become, as Dingding and countless others have put it, a “global hegemon.” There is thus little reason to believe that China will somehow be a different “global power” should its rise continue.