China’s leaders don't seem to have to work particularly hard to challenge the dominance of existing powers in the global order; those existing powers seem to be doing a pretty good job of undermining their own positions without any help from China. President Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement is a relative rare case of a country deliberately abandoning leadership without others forcing them to do so (though Brexit too seems likely to be viewed by history as a self-inflicted wound). If we add the global financial crisis (and its ongoing economic consequences) and the effects of what at one point looked a bit like democratisation processes in North Africa and the Middle East, then the US led global liberal order seems rather short on recent success stories to shout about.
At least, this is how it looks from China. Despite considerable domestic challenges ahead, Xi Jinping has emphasised the confidence that China has in its own development path, political system and guiding theories and cultures. While this confidence might have its roots in what China has done at home, it has been bolstered by a perception of Western decline, and stands in stark implied contrast to uncertainty and turmoil in the West.
This juxtaposition of China with the West is also at the root of many of the new international relations concepts (or slogans at least) emanating from China in recent years. Be it the “new type of international relations”, “great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics”, or the creation of a “Community of Common Destiny”, the message is clear. China respects sovereignty, seeks peaceful resolution to conflicts, treats other countries as equals and seeks democracy and equal rights for them in global governance institutions, and will never seek hegemony or impose its views and preferences on others through force. And while on its own this might not be particularly remarkable, the second half of the message is that this makes China the total antithesis of not just other previous Great Powers, but many proponents of the current liberal global order today.
Add this Chinese self-confidence with the recognition that China has joined the ranks of global great powers. Then add the understanding of Western decline. The result is a belief that China’s experiences and growth have not only worked well for China itself, but might now provide what is often termed a “China solution” (Zhongguo fang’an) for some global problems as well. This manifests itself in a Chinese leadership that is now willing to provide some global public goods, provide selective forms of global leadership, and to push for more rigorous reform of global governance than before; not just the distribution of power within institutions, but some of the norms and principles that underpin them. The logic of its own self defined position means that China cannot and will not force others to follow Chinese pathways and accept Chinese proposals. However, there is also an understanding that there is enough of a demand for a Chinese alternative to Western prescriptions and policies for putative Chinese leadership to gain considerable international support and followership (at least in some policy areas).
To date, Chinese leadership seems to have been most welcomed by most people when it is accompanied by (or simply takes the form of) money. European support for the creation of the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank is a case in point here – though its notable that Japan and the US were not even persuaded to join this rather system conforming Chinese imitative. However, there is more to contemporary Chinese initiatives than just the distribution of material resources. There seems to be a particular appetite to not just provide developmental finance (notably, but not only, along the Belt and Road) but also to change the nature of what we mean by development itself. There is also an attempt to widen the acceptance of Chinese understandings of how Human Rights should be prioritised, defined and promoted, and also to prioritise state security and stability over the individual rights and freedoms when it comes to transnational governance of the internet.
The easy (or at least easier) days of being a Great Power might be over for China. Proactively seeking forms of leadership around clear(ish) policy and ideational preferences and objectives is somewhat different from “keeping a low profile” and/or more simply establishing what it is that you oppose. In some areas, Chinese leadership seems to be widely not only accepted but even desired. The environment might be one such example. But as the response to Chinese strategies to gain support for its positions at the Human Rights Council have shown, there are also potentially polarising consequences of a more visible and confident Chinese strategy in other policy domains. It does not seem to fanciful to suggest that while there might be considerable support for Chinese development leadership in the form of the provision of finance from a range of different international actors, there could be considerably less support if leadership is defined in terms of setting norms, definitions and other (politically related) standards. And to complicate matters even further, as at least some in Australia have discovered, wanting Chinese money whilst trying to resist Chinese political influence can prove a rather difficult circle to square.
Trying to establish the appropriate “China solution” for a range of global problems will be a key Chinese agenda for 2018. What is less clear is what this will mean in terms of concrete policy proposals (rather than more general aspirations and aims). This broad agenda will be welcomed by some people in some issue areas; but not by all in all. As leaders require followers, the biggest challenge to Chinese ambitions in the short run might well be reining in some of the potentially alienating over-confident (and even triumphalist) assertions of a sino-centric future. Perhaps focussing on building followership is a lesson that other leaders might heed as well.
Shaun Breslin is Leverhulme Major Research Fellow at the University of Warwick and co-editor of the Pacific Review
An Italian translation of this article is published in the 2017 edition of Ispi's annual Dossier "The World to come": click here to access the full publication.