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Hegemony Is Not Within China’s Grasp: Why China Must Wait for Its Turn
Aaron Felce

Mar 27, 2023

Is China ready to build an alternative World Order? China’s rise to the top has stunned many. Mere decades ago, China was in disarray. Internally, it was poor and plagued with issues. However, this hardly means that China is ready to take on the responsibilities that the US has borne for the past seven decades.

Right now, China benefits from not having to uphold the central tenets of the existing system, (Mearsheimer, 2019). Numerous mechanisms allow it to profiteer off the system’s positive externalities without bearing associated costs, (Gat, 2017). If China ever tries to build an alternative system, this status quo will quickly fall by the wayside, as it will have to renounce some of its present advantages in the name of system stability. Is China ready to do this? The answer is no, as China’s ability to free-ride is one of its greatest assets. Many of its current strengths lie in outsourcing costs elsewhere.

China is in a more precarious spot than the US ever was. Tensions between China and its neighbors are already at all-time highs. Maritime disputes exist between itself and its neighbors (Odgaard, 2017). Even today, the US faces little competition in its immediate vicinity, (Herring, 2011). The weakness of those in its neighborhood renders any wariness of US intentions irrelevant (Herring, 2011).

Meanwhile, China inhabits a much more prosperous neighborhood, (Zhao, 2004). Massive pushback could ensue, and if it did, China would have to grapple with a fierce onslaught. Asia is not Latin America, (Gat, 2017). Of course, China could still try to play the commerce card. While commercial linkages have deepened, commerce alone is not enough to stave off discontentment. Fears will likely deepen, and trade will not be enough.

China advocates for reunification vis-à-vis Taiwan. While the Taiwan issue is a complicated one, one thing is clear, any move against Taiwan is bound to spook China’s neighbors, (Doshi, 2021). Even if China swears that Taiwan represents a unique one-off, this will not ease fears. Counter-balancing efforts are bound to intensify if China tries much of anything, (Gat, 2017). For obvious reasons, this would not bode well for any China-led system. Being preoccupied in its backyard means most of its ventures elsewhere could falter.

Most of China's client base resides in the Global North, (Baldwin, 2011).The majority of these countries possess liberal democratic systems. Meanwhile, China possesses a system that flies in the face of these central tenets (Zhao, 2004). To assuage fears, China has embraced relativism abroad. However, this is unlikely to sedate suspicions. Alienating the West is not an option, as China's internal consumer economy is not mature enough to compensate for shortfalls, (Doshi, 2021). Also, its domestic capacities remain heavily tied to foreign sources, (Baldwin, 2011). Thus, there are red lines that China cannot cross. An alternative system based on despotism is one of those red lines. In this sense, China still has to bide its time.

As of this moment, China relies heavily on American IP for all manner of things. While Chinese ventures have gotten off the ground, they do not match American efforts. Access to know-how is crucial for China if it longs to move beyond quasi-dependence (Baldwin, 2011). Such know-how could be cut off if China infringes upon US interests.

Since WWII, the US has conceived of itself as a two-ocean power, (Herring, 2011). The Pacific realm has been in its grasp, and it is reluctant to give this up, as Washington sees its positioning along various island chains as vital. For years, policy analysts in the US have dwelled on the importance of these holdings, perhaps understandably so, as most global trade transits through here (Baldwin, 2011). If China were to build an alternative system, it would have to shore up these strategic points. Doing so would enable it to set the rules of commerce, making it wealthier. Revenue streams would be even more assured than they are today, as China would be able to ensure the continuity of its commerce.

Such a move would also ensure the continuity of the CCP, eliminating any threats in its immediate vicinity. While these would be a boon to China in many ways, any attempts at doing this would likely prompt a fierce backlash. Over the years, the US has shown a willingness to cut off China when it sees fit, (Hayashi et al., 2022). Such developments would call for such moves, leaving China unable to produce some of the most advanced chips in the world. Any gains would be quickly lost. Domestic R&D costs would ramp up, imposing high costs on China. 

In other words, China should bide its time instead of dabbling with this. Its well-being depends on it.


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