Most of us have never known a world where the United States was not the preeminent power. Now things are starting to look rather different. Not only is much of the global economy stuck in an underperforming rut, but there is also an alternative, seemingly more successful, model of economic development on offer in the so-called ‘Beijing consensus’. It is precisely this reality, and the hitherto impressive performance of the Chinese economy, that has led some to conclude that, as Martin Jacques puts it, China will ultimately ‘rule the world’.
Of course, Chinese hegemony is not unprecedented. For hundreds if not thousands of years, China exercised a form of hegemonic influence over its region in relative isolation from outside powers. The tribute system, in which neighbours of China ritualistically acknowledged Chinese dominance, was necessarily a comparatively local affair in an era before international integration. US hegemony, by contrast, has been increasingly global, a reality that has been entrenched by technological innovation and its own Cold War triumph. If China is ever to match or eclipse the United States as the dominant power, it will also have to exercise power on a hitherto unprecedented scale and scope.
The first obstacle to any hegemonic ambitions that China may harbour is institutional. There is a certain inertia in international affairs that makes institutions hard to change or remove, even when it is evident that they no longer serve the purpose they once did. Institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO have endured at least in part because many people wanted them to, especially in the absence of real or effective alternatives.
China is beginning to develop a rival or parallel set of international institutions Such as the Shanghai Co-operation Organization and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). China’s efforts have clear, if largely unacknowledged, parallels with the US’s highly successful Marshall Plan.
Is this, therefore, an unambiguous manifestation of China’s increased influence and growing hegemonic power? Up to a point, it is. Clearly, China’s economic weight means that it is already too important to gratuitously snub or offend. And yet, it is also obvious that some countries are taking an entirely instrumental and pragmatic attitude toward China: they may not like it terribly much, but they still recognise the importance of maintaining good relations.
This highlights two glaring weaknesses of China’s hegemonic challenge that are unlikely to be easily overcome. First, China has no friends. True, there is always North Korea. But as the saying goes: with friends like that, who needs enemies? The reality for China is that its quasi-allies such as North Korea, Pakistan, Laos and Cambodia, are weak, unreliable and opportunistic.
By contrast, the United States has a series of bilateral security alliances that have endured long after the Cold War ended. In East Asia in particular, alliances with Japan and South Korea have proved durable and, from a Chinese perspective, too close for comfort. Allies such as Australia have been willing to fight for the United States in conflicts with little bearing on their own security. China has no such friends or allies.
Recent Chinese strategic and foreign policy moves mean that this relative isolation is unlikely to change any time soon. On the contrary, China has alarmed its perennially nervous neighbours in much of Southeast Asia with its assertive, even aggressive, territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. The United States was not the only beneficiary of the open international economic order it led, even if it benefited from it more than most. By contrast, the predominantly national — and increasingly nationalistic — focus of Chinese policy is what strikes many observers most these days.
Hegemony can be achieved by persuasion or coercion. While there is no doubt that the US has done a good deal of the latter at times — including in East Asia — part of the reason its influence has endured is because it has enjoyed the freely given support of other states. Equally important, if rather more difficult to quantify, the US has undoubtedly benefited from a form of ‘soft power’ that has reduced the transaction costs associated with maintaining international primacy. At this stage, China has no such attributes.
Despite a good deal of talk within China about the unfairness of the existing order, historically it has taken few concrete steps to present an alternative vision — which is what makes the AIIB so interesting and potentially significant. But even if the AIIB proves to be successful as a way to underpin massive investment in the region, there will still be significant constraints on Chinese influence. Not only has China promised to abide by essentially Western standards of good governance and transparency in the way the AIIB operates, it will be difficult for China to use its economic weight unilaterally.
As China faces the prospect of its first full-blown crisis of capitalism, the fate of more than its economy is at stake. China’s rather brittle-looking authoritarian regime has staked its reputation and legitimacy on its capacity to deliver continuing economic development. Unless it can continue to do so and simultaneously manage the internal contradictions of inequality and instability that are endemic to capitalism, debates about its possible hegemonic influence and the viability of a Chinese alternative model of development will not even be of academic interest.
Mark Beeson is Professor of International Politics, Political Science and International Relations at the University of Western Australia.
An extended version of this article originally appeared at Global Asia.