Much has been made of the return of great power competition. In truth, it never went away, although the great game was so one-sided for a time that almost everyone in the West tuned out, assuming the match was over in perpetuity. It was too boring to contemplate and so attention drifted to other concerns and second- and third-order problems. China’s attention did not deviate, and once again it is a great power.
Like cholesterol, great powers can be good, in that they accept the present international order, or bad, in that they do not. China does not, and seeks to overturn the contemporary order the West created. This is the source of what is already the great conflict of 21st century.
China is not a status quo great power. A partial review of the evidence is its territorial expansion in the South China Sea, the pressure against India along their common border, the use of ‘debt trap diplomacy’ to exploit less developed states, support for the suppression of protesters in Hong Kong, who call attention to the PRC’s violation of the 1984 agreement with the UK and the gross human rights abuses against its Muslim minority in Xinjiang. All of which rightfully receive attention.
But as important as these developments are, there is a greater concern. This is the intellectual framework that China is creating under the guise of ‘a community with a shared future for mankind,’ most recently expressed in the July 2019 defense white paper. Precisely what the Chinese Communist party (CCP) means by this concept is deliberately vague and nebulous. But it is clear enough from the more tangible comments defining peace, stability, and prosperity in China with the collective good of the world, as is the equation of a strong Chinese military as a force for world peace, stability and the building of a shared future for mankind.
This shared future is certain to be dystopian. Any community that the CCP creates will be totalitarian and oppressive by its nature. Any shared future that it seeks to create will be one in which the rest of the world adapts to serve the interests of Beijing. The future will be shared only because China’s power is great enough to trap states into it either by seduction or coercion. It will be like Foxconn on a global scale. Beijing’s conception of global governance is a firm hierarchy with it on top. This shared future will be less free, less diverse, and far more oppressive than the present one.
This phrase should not be dismissed as boilerplate. It matters because China is providing insight into the type of world it seeks to create in place of the liberal international order. In their struggle for power, the Bolsheviks promised ‘Peace, Land, and Bread,’ to win supporters, who lugubriously received civil war, the horrors of collectivization, and famine instead.
China’s ambition is just as revolutionary as Lenin’s. Despite the claims to the contrary, China is not a status quo great power. It is truly a revolutionary great power that seeks fundamental and permanent changes to the contemporary order in international politics. The words it chooses are designed to legitimize its position of dominance. However, Beijing’s effort to provide a palliative phrase to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the world cannot mask its form of neo-imperialism. The effort is likely to fail as more states question its ambition and encounter the truth about its behavior.
Washington needs to counter Beijing in the realm of public diplomacy and global opinion. The US may remind the world of the benefits of a world order based on equanimity and by delineating the reality of Beijing’s ideology and the empirical evidence of its actions with its public diplomacy rhetoric. If we want egalitarianism to remain the dominant ideal in international politics, rather than ceding leadership back to authoritarianism, we need to say so more frequently, forcefully, and with greater acuity.