China: Fracturing the West and Replacing the International System

Australia’s recent defense white paper signals the beginning of a big problem for the United States and the West: China’s rapid ascent is changing how states act.  With a large and growing economy and increasingly capable military, few countries can afford to take an openly hostile approach to Beijing despite the threat China’s rise presents.  This is true even for members of the West, such as Australia, that occupy a privileged role in global affairs via their strong relations with the United States.  What this foreshadows is a day when China can fracture the West by coercing some states to its positions on various issues or during conflicts.  Not surprisingly, this would constitute a significant blow to U.S. power and the West, and represent a major threat to the current system of international organization.

Changing the prevailing international system is a common goal of any rising state, as it seeks to weaken the reigning hegemon and put in place rules and structures to protect its own power.  Currently, global governance is handled largely by the West.  Bound together by shared ideology, past triumphs in war, and high standards of living, the West dominates global affairs in almost every realm, using its military alliances and control over international organizations like the IMF to create global rules and norms that perpetuate its power. Confronted with this breadth and depth of power, Beijing’s policy has long been to bide its time while using the stability provided by the current order to focus on economic expansion.  Yet at the same time, China has not been immune to the desire for change that afflicts all rising powers; it has taken small steps to test the waters for a Chinese-designed international system.  These two waring impulses – to benefit from the stability of the status quo while simultaneously seeking ways to change it – represent one of the central conflicts within Chinese foreign policy at the moment.  While the point at which China’s concerns about control and prestige will outweigh its desire for stability and unfettered growth is hotly debated, at some point China will prioritize changing the international system and act accordingly.

When it comes to affecting change on the international system, China has two choices: it can either go to war in hopes of prevailing and redesigning the system how it would like or use its expanding power and prestige to slowly undermine the status quo by building competing international organizations, exchanging its support on issues of global concern for meaningful reforms in current institutions, and by co-opting states within the West. Since option one (going to war) is out of the question as long as China calculates it is unlikely to prevail in a confrontation with the United States, Beijing is left to pursue option two, undermining the status quo.  As I mentioned earlier, China has taken some steps toward this end.  It has launched or helped found several competing international institutions such as the Schanghai Cooperation Organisation and BRICS grouping, promoted large regional free-trade blocks in Asia, and recently leveraged its increased support for IMF bailouts to wrestle additional voting shares in a soon-to-be-implemented 2010 reform.  The effectiveness of these initiatives is still being debated, as China lacks the soft power necessary to make its version of international governance attractive globally, but the steps it has taken so far were worrisome enough for the National Intelligence Council to highlight their threat in its 2008 Global Trends Report (see pages 37-39 in particular).

While China may experience some success with building alternative international organizations and reforming existing ones, fracturing the West will be a tougher coup to pull off.  The bonds among Western countries are the product of decades of diplomacy, shared sacrifice, and cultural and ideological convergence.  Generations of Western leaders have been taught that the West is the basic building block of their countries’ foreign policy.  It will take time for Beijing to overcome this legacy, especially since any decline the United States experiences is likely to be a slow one.  Although China’s high rate of economic growth relative to the West will allow it to alter the dynamics of global governance simply by diluting the economic and military importance of the United States and Europe, decades from now a unified West will still present a formidable challenge to the emergence of a Chinese-centric international system.

However, this is not to say the cohesion of the West is a given.  The global trade in goods, services, and capital is much freer now than it was during the Cold War, and China represents a significant cog in the newly globalized economy.  It would be prohibitively costly for the world to divide itself into blocs of allies that trade primarily with one another like was done following World War II.  Every major U.S. ally today engages in robust trade with China.  This engagement, bordering on dependence via market access, provides the immediate mechanism for China to break the Western bloc by coercing or enticing specific states into a special relationship with Beijing.

Not surprisingly, the Pacific members of the West will be the most vulnerable to this type of pressure.   In many ways, these states are vulnerable because they lie at the periphery of the West; their geographic positions have long hindered their ability to partake in the West as full members.  For example, because of their distance from the North Atlantic they have never been able to join NATO.  And while Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand all have explicit military alliances with the United States, they are not bound to Europe in the same way.  This reinforces the notion of a two-tiered West, with the United States and Europe representing the core and strength and the Pacific members representing addendums located half way around the world.  As a result of this status and their geographic proximity to and growing economic reliance upon China, states such as Australia have powerful incentives to placate Beijing at the expense of ties with Washington.

As such, it is likely China will focus on co-opting the Pacific members of the West before moving on to fracture Europe’s unity and strain U.S.-European ties.  This is why the recent Australian defense paper is so troubling – it indicates the shift in priorities has already begun in Asia, even amongst long-standing U.S. allies.  And once one country makes such a move it becomes easier for other countries to follow suit.  It breaks the status quo inertia. The potential long-term consequences of this are huge.  If the West splinters, the current system of international governance, and all the benefits that its provides that we take for granted, will be easily undermined and replaced either by anarchy or a different system that shares neither our interests nor our values.  Washington recognizes this, which is why the U.S. pivot to Asia has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in diplomatic attention given to the region as well as a renewed focus on free trade among Western allies in Europe and the Pacific.  Washington is trying to hold the West together.  We better hope it succeeds.