My August Diplomat Essay: Can China Legitimate its Would-Be Hegemony?


This is a re-up of an essay I wrote at the Diplomat a few weeks ago. Basically, I ask if China can find a way to pull its neighbors into a cooperative project in east Asia, or if Chinese hegemony is just going to be a regional despotism. It is increasingly likely that China will resume its place at the top of east Asian pile, as it was before the Opium Wars. This unnerves everyone, but this is probably unstoppable, unless the US and Japan wage some kind of preventive war on China, or unless China’s neighbors work closely to contain it for a lengthy period of time. Neither is likely. Japan might give China a run for its money, if Abe can get Japan moving again, but China is pulling away so fast, that this would be a tough climb (not that Japan shouldn’t try).

So if Chinese regional hegemony seems increasingly likely, how will China govern it? Will it just be an exploitative tyrant like the USSR was in Eastern Europe? Or will it try to tie in the locals to a structure where they have some rights and voice opportunities, like the Roman Empire or the old Chinese tribute system? I predict this will be the big question in Chinese foreign policy in about 20 year, and the signs so far are not encouraging:


“By now the statistics of China’s rise are well-known. It has the world’s second largest gross domestic product (GDP). It will likely over-take US GDP in the next decade. It is the world’s second largest spender on defense. It aims to build a ‘blue-water’ navy, including aircraft carriers. It likely already has the missile and drone ability to deny the US navy from operating inside the ‘first island chain’ (from southern Japan south through Taiwan and the Philippines to the South China Sea) without unacceptable losses. It has the world’s largest population; one in seven persons today is a Chinese national.

As Hugh White has argued, the US has never faced a greater challenger in its history as a world power. The US roughly emerged as a great power in the 1880s. In that time, it has faced four major challengers – German nationalism in WWI, fascism in World War II, communism in the Cold War, and millenarian jihadism in the war on terror. Only the Soviet challenger ever came close to the US in terms of power resources. Hitler and bin Laden were arguably the most terrifying, but stalinist power was much greater, and even that collapsed. China however exceeds all these in the resources it can muster. It is vastly better governed than the USSR, and far larger economically than Germany, Japan, and various Islamist states and groups. China is coming, fast.

Chinese hegemony in the western Pacific is not inevitable; it has many opponents. But for all sorts of reasons, a full-blown containment line from India east and north to Japan is increasingly unlikely. India is hesitant. Southeast Asia desperately wants to trade with China and be pulled up along with its rise, not balance against it. South Korea is as likely to align with Beijing against Japan as vice versa. That leaves Japan, Taiwan, and the US. This might be enough to deter Chinese ambition, but Japan has struggling for decades, and the US is over-extended. White’s prediction that some kind of Sino-US compromise is the best shot to avoid a disastrous Sino-US seems ever more likely. Chinese power in East Asia will likely have to be recognized at some point in the next two decades

The follow-on question then for China is whether it can legitimate its incipient regional hegemony. Can it demonstrate to other local players that Chinese regional dominance does not simply mean tyranny? It is often suggested that China today seeks an updated ‘tribute system.’ If so, this is not as bad as it sound (assuming there is no alternative to Chinese hegemony). The tribute system demanded formal hierarchy but permitted informal near-equality. Specifically, it left the tributaries’ domestic politics alone (even in the closest tributary, Korea), and exerted only mild influence over foreign policy. That sounds an awful lot like what the US already does in Latin America and Europe.

But American hegemony is moderated by a reasonably liberal ideology that gives participant states a say in the larger framework. States like Germany or Japan are not subjects of the United States, they are allies, and their exit option is real. If the US is an ‘empire,’ it is rather soft one. When France withdrew from NATO’s military integration in 1966, and when the Philippines voted the Americans out of their bases in 1992, the US did nothing. When Soviet ‘allies’ tried to exit the Warsaw Pact, they were crushed. In turn then, the Eastern European allies-turned-subjects gave up, slacked on their contribution to ‘socialist fraternity,’ and became a burden for the Soviet Empire rather than an asset.

This should be a cautionary lesson for China. China is indeed powerful. That power will gain it regional fear and a grudging respect. To cross China is risky. But for power to last through the ups-and-downs of history, it must be more than just bullying. As Richard Armitage once said, “China will never be great until it stands for something more than itself.” Today, China is little more than that. Instead, as David Shambaugh put it:

China is, in essence, a very narrow-minded, self-interested, realist state, seeking only to maximize its own national interests and power. It cares little for global governance and enforcing global standards of behavior (except its much-vaunted doctrine of noninterference in the internal affairs of countries). Its economic policies are mercantilist and its diplomacy is passive. China is also a lonely strategic power, with no allies and experiencing distrust and strained relationships with much of the world.

This strategy is a recipe for short-term success (free-riding on the US to continue to rise cheaply), medium-term regional discomfort (near-by states bristle at selfish ‘leadership’), and long-term decline (those near-by countries, upset at their poor treatment earlier, abandon China later in its time of need). As China rises dramatically over its neighbors, they will look for input on its choices, a sense of rules that give them some kind of place in a system, rather than serfdom in an extra-territorial despotism, and a language of power, a legitimating ideology that places restraints on Chinese power rather than simply exalting it. China’s current behavior in Xinxiang and Tibet, where Han nationalism and strict central control are being pushed onto a resistant periphery, are not good signs. China needs to build something more conciliatory and appealing to non-Chinese, akin to the US liberal order that has netted the US so many allies around the world.

This legitimating ideology must be some kind of intellectual framework, not raw ethnocentrism. Nationalism is not enough, even if it appeals to over a billion people. Much as Putin’s aggressive Russian nationalism has alienated much of the Russian and post-Soviet periphery, so will China’s current ideology of nationalist grievance and resentment. Even North Korea and Myanmar, precisely the kind of repressive autocracies that should be comfortable with Beijing, have tacked away from it as they have increasingly realized that ‘alliance’ with China means subordination in practice. Something more positive and supra-national is necessary.

Marxism, of course, sought to be this. It laid out an ideology of formal equality, and ‘socialist fraternity’ might not have been a fraud if the Soviet Union had been more genuinely communist and less a cover for Russian nationalism and imperialism. But that is gone now of course. Liberalism too offers such a language of legitimated power that might re-assure others. US liberalism has insured reasonably good treatment of Canada and Mexico over the years; both have more or less stuck with the US despite a huge power imbalance. But domestic liberalism is a non-starter for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

China’s own history suggests a neo-tribute system perhaps. That was indeed supra-ethnic. It was based a general willingness of peripheral states to accept the cultural superiority of Chinese Confucianism and the suzerainty of the emperor. While leaving peripheral states more or less free from intervention, it did require what would be today an unacceptable level of humiliation and groveling. Prestige-accrual was the central Chinese reward of the tribute system – the recognition and exaltation by others of China as the ‘Middle Kingdom’ and center of civilization, even if the tributaries didn’t really believe that. But modern Asia is both highly nationalistic and post-Confucian in its international relations. China would struggle mightily to bring back such a feudal order convincingly. It would be asking Asia to swallow a lot of nationalist pride to re-introduce the old hierarchy and therefore strikes me as unlikely.


In brief, as Chinese power over Asia rises, it will increasing need to define its position as more than just realpolitik and nationalist glory-seeking. If it cannot voluntarily win over its neighbors to cooperation, Chinese hegemony will be little more than a despotism. Perhaps that is all that Chinese leaders care for, but I doubt it. Most of us wish to be loved more than feared; China’s soft power exertions suggest that the CCP feels that too. But to date, the CCP has no real legitimating language of power for its neighborhood. Hence, for all its might, it continues to stand alone. Finding that legitimating framework, lifting China above just being a grievance-fueled regional bully, is the next large debate in Chinese foreign policy: the floor is open to suggestions…”

7 thoughts on “My August Diplomat Essay: Can China Legitimate its Would-Be Hegemony?

  1. This seems to actually suggest with the current set of realities that countries will be pushed away from China and seek as much as possible to maintain their distance, while gaining as many economic benefits as they can. Like you said, even North Korea and Myanmar. East Asia sees no special allegiance to China, and there are no retaliatory moves the Chinese are capable of to inflict against their supposed backyard to enforce their rule. China’s economy isn’t resilient enough to handle a sanctions campaign, and military action would simply cause the international community to cut as many ties as possible with China as they could (think Russia-Ukraine). Therefore, Chinese hegemony dries up well before it can begin.


  2. regional despotism.

    and China’s regional dominance is not assured. it looks to be a rather compromised titan. a big economy yes, but faltering (as neoliberal ecos have predicted) and with many, many internal economic and other issues that will occupy its resources. a big military yes, but still possibly one that is well balanced – indeed, balancing seems more and more likely.

    the Soviet Union was also a compromised titan but was so powerful because it conquered territory and extracted resources to compensate for structural economic problems (as you have written about). China will not be able to do that. nuclear weapons and its geopolitical land position also made the Soviet Union the other superpower. again, China will not be able to rely on these to distinguish itself.


  3. Very much enjoying your recent posts. I haven’t commented so much because I either agree and/or have been further informed by your incisive analysis.

    I find the Armitage and Shambaugh quotes particularly powerful, though at least the former could be applied to most other countries, albeit to varying degrees.

    I would slightly question the purely Sinocentric interpretation of the tribute system; the alternative is to see it as a Danegeld arrangement in which the Chinese had to pay out more than they ever received in tribute or symbolic grovelling (best described in Barfield’s book The Perilous Frontier).


  4. Interesting. I learn so much from these posts, and from the helpful links. I also often don’t comment simply because the arguments seem persuasive and comprehensive.

    Perhaps there is a term for this in statistics or logic, but I often believe that it’s unwise to look at China’s growth over the last thirty years and scale that line up in the same direction indefinitely– just like the article a few days ago stating that if current projections hold, Koreans will be extinct by 2750– well, of course current projections won’t hold. My point is that rapid Chinese expansion will not necessarily continue at the same rate it has. I feel like a tree-hugger or contrarian always raising this point, but I predict that many of the “enemies” states will face this century will be environmental ones. Unless China begins to take its pollution seriously, it may result in some calamity with demographic and economic consequences. (Equally, I was amazed when living in Las Vegas that no one took seriously the fact that the water was disappearing from the lakes).

    Nevertheless, if China is anything, it’s risk-averse in governance. I agree that probably it will try to create a situation over the next few decades where it has peace and order accompanied by trade and politics which suit its own agenda.


  5. Perhaps it is less about “legitimizing”, and more about making it “palatable”.
    Chinas big Problem with the Sinosphere is that anyone medium power joining it becomes subordinate to China, with scant Options of getting redress from Chinese overbearance.

    There are 2 routes to avoid this:
    1: Assure Chinas Asian Partners that no overbearance will happen. I think this is impossible.
    2: Recruit powers into the Sinosphere that could counterbalance China in an expanded Sinosphere which would give new joining powers Avenues for redress.
    There are 3 powers around China that could fit that bill. Japan, Russia and India. Realistically speaking, only Russia and India would be potentially willing to join China under certain circumstances, either of them joining would moderate Chinese overbearance, and make the Sinosphere considerably more attractive for medium powers like Vietnam.
    The question is if Moscow, Beijing or New Delhi want to have their own part whole, or have a more limited share of a greater sphere.


  6. Pingback: Korean unification: a rising cost for Beijing | StratRisks

  7. Pingback: Korean unification: a rising cost for Beijing | Global Geopolitics

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