Why America is wrong about China
By Josef Gregory Mahoney  ·  2022-04-08  ·   Source: NO.15 APRIL 14, 2022
An electric vehicle gets charged via robot in Xiongan New Area, Hebei Province, on March 18 (XINHUA)

In contemporary international discourse, the "global China" concept, as it's generally used, risks imagining China in the first instance as a hegemony-seeking project. Some explain this as a reasonable position to assert within a realist international relations perspective. It's certainly guiding Washington thinking, becoming explicitly clear in a recently published summary fact sheet about America's national defense strategy, obsessing over China as a rising threat. However, a more rigorous realism, what we might call "Chinese realism," reveals compelling evidence to the contrary.

China is a global power economically, and it is growing as one culturally and militarily. We might also speak of China's impact on the global environment and public health. We can note the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, but these are multilateral, based on win-win cooperation, and at worst Chinese efforts to expand peacefully to solve domestic challenges of over-accumulation and surplus capacity.

There are 13 reasons why it's a mistake to consider China a hegemony-seeking danger to the U.S.—or anyone else:

1. Upholding the principle of opposing hegemony: China's historical experiences with hegemony have taught that it's morally wrong, destabilizing and always fails in the end. In short, given Beijing's sort of long-term strategic thinking, why deliberately choose a self-defeating path?

2. International opposition to new and old hegemonies: China is against hegemony, as are many others. The nation is not rising historically in a power vacuum or with overwhelming regional or global advantages—e.g., those enjoyed previously by the United Kingdom, the United States and the USSR. It is rising as a resistance to hegemony at the forefront of a new global culture.

3. Global aloofness within much of China: Chinese politics closely follows public opinion, and much of the domestic public wants little to do with international affairs. While many Chinese do welcome their country standing up for its rights in the global arena, foreign adventurism is widely unpopular. Projecting Chinese power abroad does not serve Chinese leaders domestically the same way it does American politicians, given America's love of hegemony and China's repulsion toward the same.

4. Cultural exceptionalism: China insists that it's different and taking a different path, rejecting universalism. By contrast, American imperialism has always been universalist and "end-of-history" oriented. You can't really rule the world if you insist that you're different, that your system is different, and that you have your own historically and culturally based objectives.

5. Political exceptionalism: China has a non-exportable political system that focuses on governance at home, unable to effectively project power abroad, i.e., ruling others directly or indirectly through proxies or puppets, both in theory and practice. Though constantly tested by itself and others, it's a system that generally has a good understanding of its own strengths and limits.

6. Currency and exchange controls: China employs heavy currency and exchange controls that make a truly hegemonic power impossible to imagine, let alone create. While it has sought to increase the yuan's global value, it is making no moves that would allow it to become a supranational currency with a leading status like the dollar.

7. A macro-control regime: China has a substantial and growing macro-control regime regulating its markets and commercial enterprises—businesses can go global but with Beijing's blessing, through approved channels and financial institutions. Many of America's hegemonic foreign policies, however, were led or pulled by unregulated/unrestrained American companies and business interests.

8. Tech and information restrictions: Substantial restrictions remain in place in China on foreign tech and information that limit its global engagement, reach and reception. But it also has accelerating domestic tech and information advances/openings, outpacing global practices. Examples thereof can be found in finance and banking, digital payments, marketing, retail, public health controls, and governance.

9. Public health restrictions: China's pandemic controls are the new normal for now and perhaps the future. This includes a high degree of self-imposed isolationism, which in turn reinforces the abovementioned

aloofness. Keep in mind: With climate change, more outbreaks are expected. Given the success of its current containment efforts and capacity building, we can expect China to meet future outbreaks with similar resolve.

10. Stability-seeking policymaking: China is often crisis-seeking at home (i.e., it runs toward problems it can solve, especially systemic issues), but stability-seeking whenever possible—especially in international affairs. While it's possible to imagine China vigorously defending its interests, it's impossible to imagine China pursuing adventurist polices overseas like the U.S. did in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places.

11. Geographical limitations: China has more immediate and near neighbors than any other country, including several nuclear armed states, and a number of contested boundaries. It must tread lightly both regionally and globally, and does so. The Diaoyu Islands and Taiwan are considered sovereign exceptions and thus neither regional nor global matters, but even here China has not shown the sort of direct aggression practiced historically by other major powers on near neighbors.

12. Climate change: Perhaps no other major country is more vulnerable to global warming than China, but all countries that are susceptible will face incredible limits at home and abroad as climate change worsens. And to be clear, it's still getting worse.

13. Prepared to go it alone in the future if necessary: China speaks of a shared future and is moving in that direction, but strategically is also positioning itself for the possibility of going it alone should global affairs make such a path more practical. Resolving key bottlenecks to ensure tech independence, reforming the economy to make it less dependent on exports, and taking a principled stand on the Ukraine issue through neutrality despite heavy international pressure are only a few examples.

It should be clear that China is not a hegemony-seeking power on the rise. While it's unsurprising that Western countries, especially the U.S., are projecting their own worst fears and sins onto China, the limits noted above, including the clear lessons of history—that hegemony-seeking is always self-defeating—are consistent with Chinese reality and consequently, Chinese realism in international affairs. 

The author is a professor of politics and international relations at East China Normal University and a senior research fellow with the Institute for the Development of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics at Southeast University

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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