Can China Legitimate Its Would-Be Hegemony in Asia?

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Can China Legitimate Its Would-Be Hegemony in Asia?

It may dominate the region, but would Chinese hegemony be something more than despotism?

Can China Legitimate Its Would-Be Hegemony in Asia?
Credit: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By now the statistics of China’s rise are well-known. It has the world’s second largest gross domestic product (GDP). It will likely overtake U.S. GDP in the next decade. It is the world’s second largest spender on defense. It aims to build a blue-water navy, including aircraft carriers. It likely already has the missile and drone ability to deny the U.S. Navy the ability to operate inside the “first island chain” (from southern Japan south through Taiwan and the Philippines to the South China Sea) without unacceptable losses. It has the world’s largest population: one in seven persons today is a Chinese national.

As Hugh White has argued, the U.S. has never faced a greater challenger in its history as a world power. The U.S. roughly emerged as a great power in the 1880s. In that time, it has faced four major challengers: German nationalism in WWI, fascism in World War II, communism in the Cold War, and millenarian jihadism in the war on terror. Only the Soviet challenger ever came close to the U.S. in terms of power resources. Hitler and bin Laden were arguably the most terrifying, but Stalinist power was much greater, and even that collapsed. China however exceeds all these in the resources it can muster. It is vastly better governed than the U.S.S.R. was, and far larger economically than Germany, Japan, and various Islamist states and groups. China is catching up, fast.

Chinese hegemony in the western Pacific is not inevitable. For one thing, it has many opponents. But for all sorts of reasons, a full-blown containment line from India east and north to Japan is increasingly unlikely. India is hesitant. Southeast Asia desperately wants to trade with China and be pulled up along with its rise, not balance against it. South Korea is as likely to align with Beijing against Japan as vice versa. That leaves Japan, Taiwan, and the U.S. This might be enough to deter Chinese ambition, but Japan has been struggling for decades, and the U.S. is overextended. White’s prediction that some kind of Sino-U.S. compromise is the best shot to avoid a disastrous Sino-U.S. conflict seems ever more likely. Chinese power in East Asia will likely have to be recognized at some point in the next two decades.

The follow-on question then for China is whether it can legitimate its incipient regional hegemony. Can it demonstrate to other local players that Chinese regional dominance does not simply mean tyranny? It is often suggested that China today seeks an updated tribute system. If so, this is not as bad as it sounds (assuming there is no alternative to Chinese hegemony). The tribute system demanded formal hierarchy but permitted informal near-equality. Specifically, it left the tributaries’ domestic politics alone (even in the closest tributary, Korea), and exerted only mild influence over foreign policy. That sounds an awful lot like what the U.S. already does in Latin America and Europe.

But American hegemony is moderated by a reasonably liberal ideology that gives participant states a say in the larger framework. States like Germany or Japan are not subjects of the United States, they are allies, and their exit option is real. If the U.S. is an “empire,” it is rather soft one. When France withdrew from NATO’s military integration in 1966, and when the Philippines voted the Americans out of their bases in 1992, the U.S. did nothing. When Soviet “allies” tried to exit the Warsaw Pact, they were crushed. In turn then, the Eastern European allies-turned-subjects gave up, slacked on their contribution to “socialist fraternity,” and became a burden for the Soviet Empire rather than an asset.

This should be a cautionary lesson for China. China is indeed powerful. That power will gain it regional fear and a grudging respect. To cross China is risky. But for power to last through the ups-and-downs of history, it must be more than just bullying. As Richard Armitage once said, “China will never be great until it stands for something more than itself.” Today, China is little more than that. Instead, as David Shambaugh put it: “China is, in essence, a very narrow-minded, self-interested, realist state, seeking only to maximize its own national interests and power. It cares little for global governance and enforcing global standards of behavior (except its much-vaunted doctrine of noninterference in the internal affairs of countries). Its economic policies are mercantilist and its diplomacy is passive. China is also a lonely strategic power, with no allies and experiencing distrust and strained relationships with much of the world.

This strategy is a recipe for short-term success (free-riding on the U.S. to continue to rise cheaply), medium-term regional discomfort (nearby states bristle at selfish “leadership”), and long-term decline (those nearby countries, upset at their poor treatment earlier, abandon China later in its time of need). As China rises dramatically over its neighbors, they will look for input into its choices, a sense of rules that give them some kind of place in a system, rather than serfdom in an extra-territorial despotism, and a language of power, a legitimating ideology that places restraints on Chinese power rather than simply exalting it. China’s current behavior in Xinxiang and Tibet, where Han nationalism and strict central control are being pushed onto a resistant periphery, are not good signs. China needs to build something more conciliatory and appealing to non-Chinese, akin to the U.S. liberal order that has netted the U.S. so many allies around the world.

This legitimating ideology must be some kind of intellectual framework, not raw ethnocentrism. Nationalism is not enough, even if it appeals to more than a billion people. Much as Putin’s aggressive Russian nationalism has alienated much of the Russian and post-Soviet periphery, so will China’s current ideology of nationalist grievance and resentment. Even North Korea and Myanmar, precisely the kind of repressive autocracies that should be comfortable with Beijing, have tacked away from it as they have increasingly realized that “alliance” with China means subordination in practice. Something more positive and supra-national is necessary.

Marxism, of course, sought to be this. It laid out an ideology of formal equality, and “socialist fraternity” might not have been a fraud if the Soviet Union had been more genuinely communist and less a cover for Russian nationalism and imperialism. But that is gone now of course. Liberalism too offers such a language of legitimated power that might re-assure others. U.S. liberalism has ensured reasonably good treatment of Canada and Mexico over the years: both have more or less stuck with the U.S. despite a huge power imbalance. But domestic liberalism is a non-starter for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

China’s own history suggests a neo-tribute system perhaps. That was indeed supra-ethnic. It was based a general willingness of peripheral states to accept the cultural superiority of Chinese Confucianism and the suzerainty of the emperor. While leaving peripheral states more or less free from intervention, it did require what would be today an unacceptable level of humiliation and groveling. Prestige-accrual was the central Chinese reward of the tribute system – the recognition and exaltation by others of China as the “Middle Kingdom” and center of civilization, even if the tributaries didn’t really believe that. But modern Asia is both highly nationalistic and post-Confucian in its international relations. China would struggle mightily to bring back such a feudal order convincingly. It would be asking Asia to swallow a lot of nationalist pride to re-introduce the old hierarchy and therefore strikes me as unlikely.

In brief, as Chinese power over Asia rises, it will increasingly need to define its position as more than just realpolitik and nationalist glory-seeking. If it cannot voluntarily win over its neighbors to cooperation, Chinese hegemony will be little more than a despotism. Perhaps that is all that Chinese leaders care for, but I doubt it. Most of us wish to be loved more than feared; China’s soft power exertions suggest that the CCP feels that too. But to date, the CCP has no real legitimating language of power for its neighborhood. Hence, for all its might, it continues to stand alone. Finding that legitimating framework, lifting China above just being a grievance-fueled regional bully, is the next large debate in Chinese foreign policy: the floor is open to suggestions…