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China’s Great Power Aspirations Are Based on a Paradox

Ancient China was a self-contained and inward-looking economy with mostly domestic-driven prosperity, and it saw the world as a hierarchy of states with China at the centre. But today, China’s prosperity is linked to the globalisation of its economy, making such a hierarchical order difficult.

For those interested in analysing international politics in terms of a ‘world order’, this is indeed a difficult time. Much of the world seems to be in transition; it is almost as if this is a world between orders more than anything else.

In his book, World Order, Henry Kissinger points out that the Westphalian nation-state system is by its very nature multipolar and has structurally been known to invite countervailing action whenever the international system tilts towards hegemony over multipolarity. Napoleon, for instance, fell prey partly to his own ambition and partly to the intrinsically multipolar thrust of the Westphalian system. Even the great European unifier, Otto von Bismarck, feared a “cauchemar des coalitions” (nightmare of coalitions).

The post-Cold War era of U.S. hegemony could in that sense be seen to be reaching its nadir, primarily because Deng Xiaoping’s “taoguang yanghui, yousuo zuowei” policy (biding time by keeping a low profile) worked — and China became a countervailing agent on the global stage along with countries like India which benefitted from global trade liberalisation.

There is ample analysis of why the hegemon is declining and a new one is on the rise (a lot of it thanks to America’s own complacency and lack of sagacity). The enigma has been the countervailing aspiring hegemon — China. How has China consolidated its national standing to a point where it can stand alone and defend even a revanchist Russia against global outrage? What does China want and what drives its choices and behaviour?

China’s Paradox

When trying to understand what motivates Chinese behaviour, one realises that the very existence of China is not as simple as it seems. Ancient China was a self-contained and inward-looking economy with mostly domestic-driven prosperity. Today, China’s prosperity is linked to the globalisation of its economy. Strategic ‘economic decoupling’ — like the one the U.S. is attempting in a bid to prevent China’s rise — is not going to be an easy task. 

Given China’s deep trade ties in Asia, the U.S. will need more than a Vietnam, a scattered ASEAN and a deeply ruptured South Asia to counterbalance China’s influence. Globalisation is a creature of technology — that there is a very deep interconnection of the world and these links cannot be reversed in the short to medium term is a fait accompli. It is safe to say that China will also continue to thrive on the rails of globalisation for a long time to come.

Yet, China’s worldview is hierarchical — a legacy of a history of relative pre-eminence in a neighbourhood populated by smaller and, in Chinese eyes, “less civilised” countries. The Chinese world order was therefore a universal hierarchy of states, led by China at the centre, not an equilibrium of competing sovereign states. Foreign trade was a marginal component of the Chinese economy and unrest within China itself was associated with the breakdown of central authority. The tributary system arose out of this notion.

So, the interdependence that the Chinese economy thrives on today — riding on the back of globalisation — is in stark contrast to the hierarchy principle that shapes its worldview. In other words, the very foundation of China as we know it today is a paradox.

This raises many questions: How is it possible for a society to sustain itself on the foundations of a paradox — an almost oxymoronic existence? Isn’t it one day inevitably going to have an internal clash of the two contrasting foundations? Or, in China’s case, does the globalisation-driven economic growth transcend the hierarchy principle, which is in contradiction to it?

Some like Elizabeth Economy argue that China is willing to sacrifice economic gain for hierarchical hegemony in its drive to remake the world order as it would like it. Others, with a more sanguine view, think that China will ultimately be reasonable and choose its economic needs — which are today strongly linked to the rest of the world — over its drive for mastery. This could be through ‘asymmetrical interdependence’ which would ensure that the Chinese are less dependent on the world than the world is on them.

The most obvious example is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The project’s thrust to increase trade, investment and connectivity between China and countries throughout Eurasia makes these countries more dependent on the Chinese economy, increasing China’s economic leverage over them and giving China the agency to shape the rules and norms that govern the economic affairs of the region. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), for example, has given China substantial leverage over an already flailing Pakistan.

Scholars also cite Mao’s repudiation of the Confucian principle of stability to argue that, for the Chinese, disequilibrium is the norm and ‘order’ in the Westphalian connotation is the aberration.

What China Wants

But the answer to how China will deal with its paradox, however, seems to lie somewhere in between.

Consider Deng’s “bide your time” policy. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Chinese leadership presumed that China was now the main political target of the United States and seemed to regard America as the primary existential threat to the survival and perpetuation of the Communist Party of China. Henceforth, within the Party’s deepest recesses, America was apparently public enemy number one.

Yet, China also required American capital, technology and know-how for its economic development. It was this delicate balancing act between China’s economic needs and the requirements of national security which led Deng to “bide [his] time”. China gauged the relative balance of power and chose interdependence over hegemony to build its own material strength.

But last year, Yan Xuetong — one of the high priests of the Chinese strategic community — traced the shift to a more assertive paradigm for Chinese foreign policy. The policy is no more to bide the time but to mask China’s secret aspiration for a duopoly with the U.S. with its publicly stated aspiration for a multipolar order — what Yan cleverly calls “a multipolar world with U.S.-China relations at its core”. Here we see China acknowledging its strength and seeking primacy in extension to it. Notably, it is realistic in its appraisal of the U.S. as a superpower as it seeks coexistence over conflict.

Any analyst trying to then understand the Chinese challenge must focus on these two fundamental prongs of the Chinese behemoth — and how it routinely oscillates between them to make sure that it has all its bases covered.

The aftermath of the Ukraine invasion has served a very useful purpose by showing that countries beyond the U.S. and China — ‘middle powers’ like India as well as smaller countries with increasing clout in Southeast Asia — not only matter to the ruptured world order but also shape it. The fact that countries like India have been able to take an independent stand on the crisis, unburdened by obligations to the U.S. is evidence of the diplomatic space for manoeuvring enjoyed by those who might have earlier been on the sidelines. 

China will seek primacy, but it will be constrained by the pulls of the institutional framework within which it functions. At the same time, the world would do well to pay attention to how China has milked a structural paradox to its benefit. The rest of the world must keep a careful eye out for its vital interests.

Armaan Mathur is pursuing Political Science Honours at Kirori Mal College, Delhi University. He has previously written for the Student Edition of the Hindustan Times and is passionate about history, political science, literature and international relations.