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China: The Accidental World Leader?

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China Power

China: The Accidental World Leader?

If the U.S. under Trump leaves a vacuum, will China be the one to fill it?

China: The Accidental World Leader?
Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The outlier president of the United States evokes outlier responses. His calls for isolationism and protectionism have led a large number of foreign policy mavens and media talking heads to look for a new source of world order. They have been quick to nominate China as willing and able to become the new world leader and source of world order.

This is a rather dramatic turn of perception. Until the American elections on November 8, China was considered by the same gurus to be a major threat to world order, right behind Russia and North Korea, and ahead of Iran. It was said to usurp large parts of the South China Sea, and was seen as a threat to freedom of navigation, and a hurdle to free trade (excluded from the negotiations for a Trans-Pacific free trade zone). Now the New York Times finds that “With both countries [the U.S. and Britain] pursuing nationalist aspirations and multilateral institutions seemingly endangered, the world suddenly seems short of responsible supervision. China is working to assume the mantle.” The Wall Street Journal informs us that “China says it is ready to take the lead role.” The paper reports that Zhang Jun, head of the Chinese foreign ministry’s office of international economic affairs, stated that “If people want to say China has taken a position of leadership, it’s not because China suddenly thrust itself forward as a leader. It’s because the original front-runners suddenly fell back and pushed China to the front.”

The New York Times adds that “Some allies are shifting focus to other potential partners for new sources of trade and investment, relationships that could influence political, diplomatic, and military ties. Many are looking to China, which has adroitly capitalized on a leadership vacuum in world affairs by offering itself – ironies notwithstanding – as a champion for global engagement.”

Not so fast. The existing world order was fashioned by the U.S. after the end of WWII, when it was the only major power. Japan and Germany were defeated and devastated. The USSR, U.K., and France were greatly weakened by the Nazis. If anyone now sought to form a new world order, reflecting their values and interests, that power would have to contend with Russia, Japan, Iran, India and the U.S. – among others.

The U.S. had (and to significant extent still has) a messianic Wilsonian complex. It believes that it is called upon to bring to the nations of the world the kind of liberal democracy it has. True, this belief was never purely idealistic. It often served to provide legitimacy to the U.S. pursuing its interests, and was used for domestic political purposes, to stratify liberal and neoconservative constituencies. Nevertheless, it led the U.S. to send in troops to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and to stop atrocities in Libya, and to spend half a trillion dollars on trying to build liberal democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq. It also led the U.S. to support nascent liberal political groups and NGOs in scores of authoritarian countries.

China used to have a messianic complex of its own in its Communist days. In those days it too was willing to make considerable sacrifices in order to bring to other nations (especially on its borders) what it considers the regime to be valued (and to benefit its interests). However, ever since China shifted to authoritarian capitalism, it has lost such ambitions and has focused on building up its economy and gaining influence in its region, mainly by economic means. It has shown very little appetite for playing a global role. Indeed, it was often been chastised for not stepping up to the plate, for not providing more humanitarian aid, peace keeping forces, and not acting as a “responsible” stakeholder. Privately, Chinese officials often express amazement at America’s willingness to risk the lives of its young, and billions of dollars, to play a global role.

There are very few signs that suddenly China is willing to invest significantly in forming and undergirding a world order. For instance, a major element of the existing order is freedom of navigation, which the U.S. has worked hard to ensure by engaging in hundreds of freedom of navigation enforcements acts (called “assertions”) against friend and foe alike. China does not have the navy or the inclination to play such a role. It objects to armed humanitarian intervention; no one should expect it to send troops to stop genocide. Above all, it is very unlikely that China will be willing to send its troops to push out the troops of a nation that invaded another, as the U.S. did in 1991 when Saddam’s troops invaded Kuwait. That is, to uphold the most fundamental principle of the international order, the Westphalian norm.

If China is to be called upon to serve as the new champion of the world order, it will be rather different and one of a much lower profile than the one the U.S. forged and led. Indeed, the major element of world order China has expressed a keen interest in recently is trade. “No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war,” President Xi Jinping told the world’s economic elite, assembled in Davos. China has very strong reasons to ensure that world trade will be as free as possible. It badly needs to be able to buy raw materials and energy sources and to sell its products overseas. Indeed, China started negotiations to form its own free trade zone, albeit it a regional one. The Chinese president also declared support for the protection of the environment because it is “a responsibility we must assume for future generations.” But this is about as far as it goes.

It is too early to predict whether Trump will succeed in largely curtailing U.S. global commitments or if his cabinet, comprising more leveled-headed people, and Congress will get the U.S. to follow a different track. However, one can safely assume that just because Trump may engender some vacuum, does not mean that China – or any other nation – will step in to fill it. The prevailing order was formed under the special conditions that prevailed at the end of WWII. Under current conditions, a more multi-polar and less ordered world is much more likely to follow.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. His latest book, Foreign Policy: Thinking Outside the Box, was recently published by Routledge for Chatham House’s series “Insights.”