In 2018, then secretary of defence James Mattis declared that China is ‘harbouring long-term designs to rewrite the existing global order; The Ming dynasty appears to be their model, albeit in a more muscular manner, demanding other nations become tribute states, kowtowing to Beijing.”
China has recently been making assertive efforts to reshape the existing international order. Current interpretations say that Chinese traditional thought and history are being used to inspire what an alternate, future world order could look like. Chinese efforts seems to reveal a desire for a partial hegemony over the ‘global south’, free from western influence and liberal ideas. This sphere would not be delineated by geography, but instead by the degree of deference 3rd party states are willing to offer Beijing.
These Chinese motivations imply first that their efforts to increase soft power are not for the purpose of mere propaganda, but instead aimed at altering the norms of the current international system.
Second, critiques of the existing order reveals the intensity of the Chinese objection to current values. Beyond competition with the US for dominance, there is also the risk of eroding fundamental human rights, freedom of thought, and self-government.
Third, China appears to envision a partial, rather than entire, hegemony over the world. This suggests the possibility of a dual-centred system.
This piece is split into two parts. First, we will examine the ideological underpinnings of current Chinese thought. By tracing current state directives to the intellectual elite, we will discern the current motivations of Chinese foreign policy. Second, we will explore the practical implications of said policy. The tangible actions taken by China will be matched against a cohesive foreign policy narrative.
Creating the Foundations for a New World
China’s re-ascendance to the world seems a pressing goal of Xi. Despite China’s growing hard power, which is economic and military by definition, China’s soft power has been lagging behind. This seems to be a cause of great frustration. But surprisingly, China’s current imaginations of the future are not forward-looking, but instead grievances about the existing order.
The Chinese leadership envisions a system which secures the CCPs power and rejects existential threats, such as the universality of democratic values. This means weakening the American hegemony, as well as replacing related liberal values with the CCPs own values. The ‘right for development’ supplants universal values and parallel institutions are created. The world might not need to be ruled entirely, so long as there is space for Chinese influence and western norms are minimised.
Huayuquan (话语权) roughly means ‘speaking rights’, and it is a priority of China to pursue. They want to speak and be heard, but also actively shape the discourse held on the world stage. The concept is rooted in hard power. So these concepts and ideals have been seen to be used by the West to dominate current values. But China’s time has come, and with it their right to assert authority over what the values of the day should be.
To achieve this, Chinese intellectuals have been expected to build the theoretical foundations of a new world order. An order where China is dominant. In August 2013, Xi asserted that the ‘propaganda, ideological and cultural front’ should ‘grasp the right to speak’. Later that year, the 12thpolitburo stressed the need for China to construct an externally directed ‘discourse system’. For the political science students out there, their current task is akin to creating a theoretical model that competes with democratic peace theory. But this time it will be non-western.
The West’s dominance of discourse power is both a model to emulate and an adversary to overcome. While hard power is needed to support discourse power, parallel institutions need to be built up. Even after overtaking Britain’s economy in 1894, the US established military alliances, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, Radio Free Europe, and the Peace Corps. Combine material strength with strong institutions and you get an international order around the United States. China then sees itself as lagging in the latter, with the gap between discourse power and its material strength ever widening.
Xi seems to believe that an alternate ‘system of discourse’ can be manufactured. The current order is akin to Pax Americana; and critiques of the existing order is then turned to push for China’s proposed alternative. These are first, that it is unfair because the West still has disproportionate say over the world despite China’s place as No.2. Second, there are very valid problems such as how the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011 led to a series of massive refugee crises.
The Chinese narrative is consistently supported by Chinese exceptionalism. The party styles itself as the direct heir of a long historical tradition, hoping to appeal to a sense of national pride. This affirms its role within its domestic politics, and is used to present claims of inherent peacefulness to the outside world. Chinese exceptionalism challenges the universality of certain values, values which may threaten party rule. Universal values are then downgraded to concepts that were only contextually relevant for the West.
Another pillar of Chinese ideology is the selective integration of Confucianism. Chinese culture is invoked through references to traditional heritage. In a 2014 address, Xi underscored the need to “make the past serve the present and bring forth the new from the old”; the party should “retain the essence and discard the dross”. This conveniently portrays the party’s rule as preordained and inevitable, in an uninterrupted historical continuum. Culture is then political, and appears indistinguishable from ideology to the party’s eyes.
After the Tiananmen crisis, Beijing noticed mounting anxieties about the ‘China threat’. To assuage fears, the notion of a peaceful rise has been pushed. This cultivates sympathy and support, while allowing for China to expand its power base. Suddenly, China’s claims to improve the existing international order, rather than overturn it, makes much more sense.
Re-Sinification is then the flip side of the coin that seeks to de-westernise the global system. Chinese experts the humanities and social sciences are then directed to build a vision for a new future. Narratives like that end of history, the clash of civilizations, and democratic peace are then also identified as elements of foreign strategy. Academics face penalties for not conforming. In 2019, a law professor was suspended from Tsinghua university for a public critique of the party’s policies. The national planning office of philosophy and social science is itself a direct subordinate of the central leading group for propaganda and ideological work. Theory can then also be understood as normative. It is another tool alongside cultural heritage.
There are several Chinese schools of International Relations. Of note is the concept of TianXia, which means everything under the heavens. Zhao Tingyang, a professor of philosophy at the Chinese academy of social sciences envisions it as a utopian future in contrast to the zero-sum Westphalia order. But this is a hierarchical ‘world society’. The centre protects the periphery, while the periphery is subordinated to the centre. Imagery of the historic tributary system is invoked. This speaks to the sense of superiority of the Chinese civilization over surrounding states.
TianXia then may be a euphemism for Chinese hegemony. Despite being softened by benign and humane references, it is associated with imperial expansionism. The exact definition is still confused, and even more so when trying to place its role in Chinese ideological motivations. But the concept is a helpful framework to at least begin to place Chinese foreign policy within.
Concrete Steps To Realise The Vision
In his 2015 visit to the United States, Xi Jinping indicated that China ‘does not mean starting from scratch but rather promoting its development in a more just and reasonable direction’. But China’s diplomatic practice has already transitioned from being a ‘detached spectator’ to an active participant focused on ‘development rights’.
The current failures of inequality, populism, terrorism, and climate change are used as points against the existing system. Chinese leadership presents Chinese experience as a solution – ‘every problem China has faced is a world-class problem’, they tout. Beijing then presents itself as attending to the needs of a world in crisis.
This new vision may be called the building of a community of common destiny. First referenced by Xi Jinping in a 2013 speech, the concept was included in the PRC constitution by 2018.
There are five pillars underpinning this concept. First, in politics, ‘dialogue and consultation’ and the right to choose development paths reflect the CCPs insecurity about survival. It believes it is threatened by US military power and the western promotion of democracy and universal values.
Second, in the security domain, a common security over a ‘cold war mentality’ speaks to the focus on an unconstrained rise of China. It suggests Xi’s willingness to counter the US’s regional military primacy.
Third, in the economic domain, an inclusive win-win global economy reflects China’s desire to keep foreign markets open, while simultaneously restricting access to its domestic market.
Fourth, in the cultural sphere, ‘cultural diversity’ is an allusion to socio-political models. It rejects the transformation of nondemocratic regimes, which is a threat to the CCPs survival.
Fifth, in the environmental domain, environmental protection is meant to serve economic goals, not the other way around.
To achieve this new vision, concrete steps are being taken. First, there is the Belt-Road initiative. Second, a network of partnerships have been formed. And last, institutional power has been expanded both within existing institutions and by creating new China-led platforms.
According to a PLA strategist, the BRI is ‘getting rid of the shackles of the post-war US-dominated international financial and monetary system’. It is a method for Beijing to create deeper connections beyond its immediate neighbours. Infrastructure investments are the hook, with material incentives being an appealing proposition. Once projects are accepted by countries, Chinese loans, investments, or aid packages are bundled to tighten connections. This also includes free trade negotiations, currency-swap agreements, industrial standards, digital networks, and security cooperation.
The global network of partnerships cement these connections laid down by the BRI. It builds up the previously mentioned community of common destiny on grounds of pragmatism. Notably, Beijing does not need many partners to achieve its aims. In 2017, it only took Greece to block an EU statement at the UN criticising China’s human rights record.
Cooperative democracies help legitimise the Chinese agenda. The United Front, a network of CCP groups, co-opts those that are not natural allies of the party. Proxies target individuals and groups, especially those in local media, academic, and business communities.
The developing world is fertile ground to the party. Reinforcing South-South alliances allow China to speak up on behalf of the developing world. By placing China at the centre of developing nations as a group, the cluster effect aligns said nations with China.
International institutions are the last mechanism by which China cultivates new norms. First, it reforms existing international mechanisms. For example, China’s share of voting rights within the IMF and World Bank have been increasing. Second, new organisations are created which China can influence from the beginning. This includes the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Silk Road Fund, and the China-Latin America Forum.
New domains where international law has yet to be developed are focused on. This includes the ‘strategic new frontiers’ of the deep sea, polar regions, cyberspace, and outer space. Key concepts such as ‘internet sovereignty’ have been included in UN resolutions. Since 2017, the community of destiny phrase has been incorporated in to five resolutions voted on by the UN economic and social council, the general assembly, and the security council.
Regional security arrangements are a way for China to combat US influence. The Beijing Xiangshan Forum is a counter to the Singapore-based Shangri-La Dialogue. Yet Chinese analysts have asserted that ‘foreign countries should not expect us to trade our core interests’. This means Chinese interests still take precedence over others. But this is not particularly surprising.
China is then pushing omnidirectionally to rally support among its neighbours, developing nations, and countries that lie along the BRI corridors. It aims to counter the Western-dominated liberal order. But besides declarations of what is unwanted, there is not yet a clear and positive vision for how the world should be managed. The only certainty is that the regnant power is China. If China wants to rally international support, it cannot outwardly claim that it plans to erode liberal norms. Instead, it crafts discourse power and aims to alter the framework within which dialogues are held. While the CCP does not have a clear compelling vision to sell to other nations, its focus on power is sufficient to carry it through. It seeks a world order where authoritarian regimes are not stigmatized in order to secure its own rule.
The new order then seems to be a partial, loose, and malleable hegemony. A sphere of influence instead of ambition to dominate the world entire. The vision does not seem to include complete control over foreign territories, just deference. And it is malleable since its domain does not seem to be clearly defined by geography but instead by the degrees of deference willingly offered to Beijing.
So is China’s imperial past a model for China’s future? A complete return to the historical system of TianXia seems farfetched, but it is a useful framework. It evokes imagery of harmony and virtue to project a benign image to the world. In the modern world we can imagine that the core would be the party-state and mainland China itself. The border regions would be China’s immediate neighbours along the Silk road economic belt. The outermost ring would be the great powers, such as the US, advanced liberal democracies and liberal institutions still standing. It is telling that the party’s diplomatic practices reveal a taste for decorum and rituals similar to those preferred by ancient emperors.
As China has already begun its rise as a great power, we may imagine this new hierarchical system to be increasingly pursued and eventually realised. To some extent, this new order is already underway.