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Chinese Chess

China is subverting the rules-based order because it is the United States’s order, not just because.

The World According to China, by Elizabeth C. Economy, (Polity: October 2021), 304 pages.

More than 130 countries participated in 2017’s first Belt and Road Forum. Heads of state paid their respects to Xi Jinping and his vision of a China that would once again play an appropriately central role in the world for the Middle Kingdom. “Two years later at the second BARF, however, the tone was markedly different,” Elizabeth C. Economy writes in The World According to China. Something about the Chinese Communists’ BARF had gone sour, even before the world caught Covid-19. “In response to criticism over the financing of BRI projects, People’s Bank of China Governor Yi Gang stated that the government would develop a market-oriented financing and investment system.”

There has been a temptation in certain circles, particularly in response to the pandemic, to present China as especially competent compared to the West. But the CCP as Economy presents it over the last half decade seems no more able to anticipate the actual results of its global policies than the United States. The blind spots may be different, and the CCP indeed has a level of control over its domestic population Western regimes can only envy, but the external myopia is shared. Perhaps all expansive oligarchies are alike.

China wishes to both expand its soft power in the world and play diplomatic hardball, but the Chinese do not seem to understand other civilizations (the strategist Edward Luttwak regularly calls Xi and other Chinese leaders “autistic”), so that over and over again China has miscalculated in ways that burn through what good will it has been given, e.g. during the early days of the Covid crisis, “China reportedly told France that ample PPE would be forthcoming if the latter bought Huawei 5G equipment.”

While not employing this language explicitly, The World According to China illustrates what international relations theorists call “weaponized interdependence.” That is, as Henry Farrell and Abraham L. Newman wrote in a seminal 2019 essay on the topic for International Security, how the institutions and networks that make up the global order form their own domain of conflict, such that “focal points of cooperation have become sites of control.” Economy highlights the mixed results, if not outright failures, of China’s efforts to build a truly parallel economic network in the Belt and Road initiative, and its various successes at playing power politics within the existing institutions of global governance and trade. She concludes that Xi and the CCP’s agenda “translates into a radically transformed international system,” one where the U.S. “ is no longer the global hegemon with a powerful network of alliances that reinforces much of the current rules-based order.”

To the degree that Belt and Road projects have achieved their goal, they have been as supplements to China’s press for preeminence in the existing (read: American-made) international order, rather than as part of an independent system. Economy reports “one of a few clear successes for Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy initiative” is the heavy Chinese investment in Greece’s historic Piraeus. The port Socrates went down to before the most famous night in the history of classical political philosophy “is one of 13 ports in Europe and 97 globally in which China has a significant stake.” The CCP has leveraged this investment into soft power in Europe: “In 2017, when the European Union sought to issue a statement condemning China’s crackdown on political activists and dissidents, Greece, the civilizational cradle of democracy, blocked the resolution.” While it is not without controversy within Greece, where significant domestic factions resist expansion of Greek-Chinese cooperation, the relationship continues to grow. As Greek national security advisor Alexandros Diakopoulos told Economy, “Greece cannot afford to alienate any major power. It is small and weak. China is very far away, and Greece does not have the same threat perception of China that the United States does.”

Meanwhile, the Belt and Road Initiative has also invested heavily in developing nations, especially in the southern hemisphere. There, most of the Chinese money comes in the form of loans, and we see a predictable error from the CCP: If you do not intend to engage in out and out colonialism, actually managing the place, don’t lend to a country that can’t pay you back. As Economy reminds readers, “China is the world’s largest official creditor—larger than the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the economies of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development combined.” Unfortunately for the Chinese financial system, “more than 60 percent of BRI partner countries are rated below investment grade or not rated” by Moody’s. While Chinese loans are underreported, with “hidden debt” to be accounted for, Economy writes that “the average stock of debt owed to China jumped from less than 1 percent of debtor country GDP in 2005 to more than 15 percent in 2017. Twelve countries owe debt of at least 20 percent of their GDP.” Projects around the world sit half finished and underfinanced as Chinese creditors call for their money, and where they might be completed or paid for, China is hardly winning hearts and minds. For example, “in Ecuador, a massive BRI dam project is not only environmentally unsustainable but also requires the country to turn over 80 percent of its oil exports to China for at least five years.”

The United States had the world-historical chance to rebuild an international order almost from scratch after World War II. China has no such privilege—Covid is not quite the Eastern front—and so Xi finds himself forced to work in and fight over the existing global order, rather than building another. Economy notes that while historically the CCP emphasized the primacy of national sovereignty and political and economic self-determination, as its “political and economic priorities have changed at home, however, so too has the relative importance it places on some of these norms.

With the expansion of its military ambitions and security needs, for example, its views on UN peacekeeping transformed from outright opposition in the 1970s to limited participation in the 1980s and 1990s to its current position as the largest provider of peacekeeping troops among the permanent members of the Security Council.       

Indeed, the U.N. is now regularly both stage and tool for Chinese maneuvers. China is the second largest contributor to the organization, and it appears clear it uses that position to pressure the Human Rights Council to prevent figures the CCP considers dangerous from speaking at conferences and conventions. During a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization election in which a Chinese candidate was put forward, “some observers noted that the candidate from Cameroon dropped out of the race when China canceled $78.4 million of debt owed by his government to Beijing.”

This fight over the international order is not only conducted in the official halls of the United Nations. As suggested already, perhaps the best terms in which to understand China’s play for global preeminence are those of weaponized interdependence. Farrell and Newman apply network theory to the public-private partnerships that now characterize much of the Western U.S.-led order, to observe, “Globalization has transformed the liberal order, by moving the action away from multilateral interstate negotiations and toward networks of private actors.” By private actors, the pair mean the financial and informational components of the global economy, especially banking and the internet, which despite appearing systemic and decentralized emerge from particular institutions that tend to be concentrated geographically and jurisdictionally thanks to the history of their development.

Thus, “states with political authority over the central nodes in the international networked structures through which money, goods, and information travel are uniquely positioned to impose costs on others,” and “geographic skew effectively means that only the United States and a couple of other key states and statelike entities (most notably, the European Union [EU] and, increasingly, China) enjoy the benefits of weaponized interdependence.”

Xi understands all this quite clearly. His reforms to Chinese government and CCP structure give him the capability, Economy writes, to “mobilize and deploy political, economic, and military resources—both public and private—across multiple domains: reinforcing his strategic priorities within China, in other countries, and in global governance institutions. He also seeks to control the content and flow of information—both within China and among international actors—to align them with Beijing’s values and priorities.” Protecting where China is already a hub in control of nodes in international networks, Xi seeks to wrest control of other central points of global cooperation in order to, as the United States has long done but appears daily less competent to do, exploit them as sites of control.

The original mistake of Western elites and especially American leadership was conflating the international system they had built with the liberalism they believed legitimated it. This was to some degree an understandable error, as a “rules-based” global order of nations and a rule of law government of, by, and for people as individuals appear to be the same thing at different scales. The technological portion of those bits of modernity, however, are in fact separable from all the individual rights concocted since 1945 in the name of humanity. Nations can engage in multilateral and bilateral negotiation, trade, and information exchange without expansive human rights having anything to do with it, the same way that there really are illiberal democracies. This confusion led U.S. leadership to embrace globalization with the calculation that a productive American middle class could be traded for a liberalized China, and financialization and consumption would make up the difference. By inviting China to become a central hub or node in the international order, they would prompt it to adopt Western values and play a cooperative role in the global system. Worse than a crime, this was a blunder. Just as domestically the CCP has discovered the technology of markets can be harnessed for the ends of socialism with Chinese characteristics, so too has Xi recognized that globalism itself can be employed for Sino-centric purposes.

As an alternative global system the BRI is hardly a shining success, but as one more piece of leverage in the existing international order, China has played its hand well enough when opportunity presents itself, a new sort of Maoism pitting the developing world against U.S. leadership. And it continues to play by rules the U.S. leadership class fail to anticipate, so opposite are they. Economy observes that China is willing “to sacrifice the diplomatic soft power win of global leadership for narrower domestic political and economic gains. It also prioritizes sovereignty and social stability, as well as controlling the narrative around those core issues, above all else—even economic benefit.” These sorts of decisions express themselves both as the autism Luttwak remarks upon and as the nationalism that has enabled and protected the rapid growth of the Chinese middle class. The U.S. foreign policy establishment is both too emotionally wrapped up in narratives of freedom as self-actualization and too self-serving, a class set apart with Bethesda mortgages to pay, to imitate what is worth imitating here. 

In the end, Economy, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and senior fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a liberal theorist herself. She writes, “the central challenge China poses is a value- and norm-based one and not, as is often asserted, one defined by a rising power versus an established power.” Her conclusion is a doubling down on the rules rather than a consideration of why it might be that parts of China’s efforts work. Though the book is The World According to China she can’t help but end up writing something closer to China According to the Liberal World Order:

On many of China’s most important foreign policy priorities—such as reforming norms around human rights, realizing sovereignty over the South China Sea and Taiwan, promoting a state-centered internet governance regime, advancing the BRI, diminishing the US’s role in Asia, enhancing China’s role in the Arctic, and promoting Chinese technologies on the global stage—the United States understands China as subverting the norms of the current rules-based order.

China is subverting the rules-based order because it is the United States’s order, not just because. It was built by us for strategic ends—originally, before ideology made national interest both a dirty word and impossible for policymakers to see—and as Farrell and Newman write, “When interdependence is used by privileged states for strategic ends, other states are likely to start considering economic networks in strategic terms too.” Like much of international relations theory this probably reads as so common sense as to barely require writing, but only consider our country’s recent record and realize common sense is precisely what’s missing in Washington. Xi’s China, on the other hand, is making a bet—that as interdependence becomes increasingly weaponized, it can make the international community choose: Chinese markets and Chinese money, or liberalism. As Farrell and Newman observe, “States are locked into existing network structures only up to that point where the costs of remaining in them are lower than the benefits: should this change, one may see transitions to new arrangements.”



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