The world is undergoing a profound transition of relative power and ideas. The modern international system was shaped by the West, which prescribed its fundamental concepts, established its basic institutions and practices, and influenced all major developments. That era is now drawing to a close, as rising non-Western powers will both demand adjustments to global affairs to reflect their new status and simply by their very existence affect the normative environment in which international behavior is understood and judged.
No one knows what will replace the Western-dominated system, and no non-Western power is prospectively powerful enough to devise a master plan to determine the future; but we can at least glimpse some of the issues that must be confronted. And this is where the usual prognostications of the international cognoscenti stop being particularly useful, for conventional wisdom masks the depth and nature of the challenges. The future by definition is unknowable, but in this case we should be as interested in how the great powers come to see and redefine themselves as well as how they see each other and the broader environment. Great powers, extant and rising, will come to see themselves reflected anew in the course of engaging with culturally unfamiliar others, and they may not at first understand or like what they are seeing. The real struggles ahead will be as much internal as international, self-definitional as well as conventionally strategic, as much about mirrors and shadows as about industrial and military prowess. And those struggles will be both mutual and simultaneous.
For the past two centuries the core issue confronting Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America was how to adapt to a Western-defined modernity. Only a handful of countries, almost all in East Asia, have successfully met the challenge. These success stories have, ironically, become the lever now transforming the Western-dominated system. Japan led the way after the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century, but China is the most important contemporary example. China’s decision to abandon a dysfunctional Communist economic system, embrace the market, and integrate itself into the international economic grid has not only transformed China, but also the world.
We are all destined to live through the implications for the rest of this century. Major adjustments will be necessary, in both domestic policy in key countries and in geopolitical calculations among them. Since China has been the major catalyst for change, East Asia finds itself at the epicenter of the global transformation. Post-World War II East Asia is largely an American creation. Successive U.S. administrations provided the stability that enabled decades of sustained growth and rising prosperity. If tensions in Sino-American relations turn ugly, all East Asia will be roiled. All transitions from one type of international system to another have either emerged from conflict or resulted in conflict—or most often both. What is now being attempted is unprecedented in world history: to manage a transition between culturally dissimilar great powers without conflict.
Washington and Beijing have been groping toward a new modus vivendi for some time now, with neither notable success nor failure. Both are resigned to the reality that establishing a new equilibrium will probably take decades. Sino-U.S. relations already constitute the most important bilateral relationship for East Asia, setting the tone for the entire region. As the 21st century progresses, that relationship will influence almost every aspect of international relations, just as U.S.-Soviet relations did during the Cold War.
Rivalry is an inescapable element in any great power relationship. All rising great powers are intrinsically revisionist, not necessarily by design but simply because their rise disrupts the existing order as an existential fact. As China grows it will inevitably become even more assertive. Beijing’s slogan of China’s “peaceful development” seems at least quaint if not downright deceptive. Competition and some degree of tension between the United States and China is thus inevitable, but conflict between them is not.
Unlike U.S.-Soviet relations, there is no bitter, fundamentally irreconcilable ideological divide between the United States and a China that has now enthusiastically embraced the market. The Soviet Union was containable because it largely contained itself by pursuing autarky. The United States and the Soviet Union were linked primarily by the need to avoid mutual destruction. But China is now so vital a part of the world economy, and the interdependence between the U.S. and Chinese economies has become so profound, that the United States might as well try to contain itself as contain China, and China might as well try to exclude itself from East Asia as try to displace the United States there. These would be exercises in futility. Neither the United States nor China can achieve its basic national goals without working with the other.
This is a reality that neither elite finds particularly comfortable. Profound interdependence coexists with deep strategic distrust in U.S.-China relations. Interdependence actually heightens strategic distrust because it exposes mutual vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities are not necessarily symmetrical, however. Chinese society has had more than a century to come to terms with Western superiority, but China’s rapid and recent rise has been psychologically disquieting to many in the West. China and some other East Asian countries are widely regarded as fundamental challenges to the Western historical narrative because in East Asia and, above all, in China, the market economy flourishes without liberal democracy. This is regarded in the West as somehow unnatural. So in the thickets of inchoate Sino-American interdependence, the West is more off-balance, if not to say puzzled, by what has been happening.
The Western view that a market economy cannot flourish without political democracy ignores an inconvenient historical fact: Every Western country was capitalist long before it was either liberal or democratic. The form of democracy that eventually developed in the West was the result of highly contingent historical processes that there is no reason to expect will be replicated elsewhere. But the perceived anomaly animates deep Western anxieties because China, unlike democratic Japan and India, only wants to be China and not an honorary member of the West.
The Chinese experience thus punctures the Western Enlightenment myth of universality. This mode of thought has its more remote origins in Christian traditions, and before that, perhaps, in ancient Greek philosophy. The myth of universality is today deeply embedded in even the most secular of Western societies; the form changes but the inner logical syntax of the belief does not. It lies at the very heart of the Western sense of self.
Yet it is only a myth, at best a shadow of a truth. Of course, all societies and cultures hold some values in common, but the commonalities live at such a high level of generality that these values have little practical significance for how different societies organize themselves. In consequence, diversity is manifestly the most evident characteristic of the world in which we live. Diversity is an empirical fact that, curiously enough, is celebrated by Western liberal thought domestically but denigrated or denied internationally. A Western-defined universality could only be imposed in defiance of reality by Western power, and that power is now ebbing.
Diversity is an empirical fact even within the democratic world. Except for a handful of countries mainly in the Middle East, every polity on the planet now legitimates itself by some variant of the 18th-century Western political philosophy that holds that sovereignty derives from the will of the people rather than Divine Right or family bloodline. This is the fundamental basis of democracy. Even the “people’s democracies” of China and Vietnam share the same intellectual roots. The Chinese and Vietnamese systems may well be criticized on other grounds, but the least valid criticism is that they are not democracies on the Western model—of course they are not. Why should they be? Their economic success makes their existence disquieting to the West in a way the former Soviet Union, which was an economic failure, did not.
Even Western-style democracies differ in essentials. It is evident that Japanese democracy is not the same as American democracy, and American democracy is not the same as the different varieties of European democracy. And Japanese democracy is different from democracy as practiced in other Asian polities that it suits the United States to call “democratic”, like South Korea, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, or Taiwan. Indeed, democracy as it was practiced up to the mid-20th century in America and Europe, with all of its legal and informal limits, resembles democracy as practiced in Asia today far more than Westerners may care to admit.
These are not just abstract considerations. Since the end of the Cold War the claim of the universality of certain principles and political forms has been used to justify Western interventions to change regimes in North Africa and the Middle East. That these interventions have resulted in greater instability has not forced much change in Western rhetoric about the universality of “best practices” that just happen to coincide with Western ideals (if not always realities). That rhetoric, while often enough deployed to salve the spirits of domestic audiences or to preserve elite self-esteem, has aroused anxiety in many countries, including China. Alas, Western leaders often underestimate or simply ignore the fact that words aimed at domestic constituencies have strategic consequences.
The Chinese leadership will also need to confront a new self-image. That leadership is deeply concerned about maintaining internal stability, which it equates with preserving Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule. History has taught the Chinese leadership to fear most those historical periods such as they are now experiencing, when internal unrest coincides with external uncertainty. With communism a bankrupt ideology, the CCP emphasizes nationalism and economic growth to legitimize its rule. But rapid growth inevitably raises social tensions born of creative destruction, and nationalism, it knows, is a double-edged sword. The CCP is thus engaged in a delicate balancing act, the continuation of which depends on the success of the new stage of ambitious reforms announced in 2013.
China is unlikely to become a multi-party system, but Chinese politics is becoming more normal. The days are long past when any Chinese leader, however powerful, can simply command reality into being. The Chinese system has become more pluralist, with competing institutional and regional interests to be brokered in the context of a public opinion easily inflamed and aroused through social media. China has more than 500 million netizens. Unfortunately, in the 21st century “normal” politics is also all too often dysfunctional. The new dysfunctional normal is a global phenomenon caused in large part by the collision of the 18th-century notion of the sovereign territorial state with 21st-century communications technologies and the transterritorial behavioral shifts it has sired or accelerated. The exercise of state power in traditional ways is elusive. At the same time, the environment of expectations is changing. Internet-based social media conflate the idea of “the people” with the over-amplified views of individuals or small groups; it confuses fact with opinion, devalues expertise, and sets up an array of near-instantaneous dynamics that make governance a more difficult and a very much more thankless task. It remains to be seen how the CCP will cope.
Under these circumstances, the Chinese leadership can be forgiven for regarding Western attitudes toward universality and Western rhetoric about human rights and democracy in Hong Kong or Xinjiang or Tibet or Taiwan with grave suspicion, as ultimately intended to delegitimize their rule or at least complicate further their already complicated challenges. It is significant that respect for “core interests” is a central theme in the “new model of great power relations” that China has proposed to the United States. Preservation of CCP rule is certainly a core interest to the CCP, and who is to say that this is merely selfish? Political reform is difficult in any system, and Chinese leaders are wise to be cautious given the traumatic experience of the former Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev’s ill-considered innovations. It is not self-evident that a multi-party system is optimal for a country the size of China, and China as a failed state would destabilize not just East Asia but possibly the entire world.
If a successful peaceful transition to a new international order requires the West to abandon the pretentious myth of liberal-democratic universality and allow simplistic, stark images to be replaced by a more shaded recognition that different political systems have their own formulas for legitimacy and intellectual validity, it also requires China to resist the temptations of a narrow, triumphalist nationalism. This is particularly so because contemporary Chinese nationalism is outwardly directed, far more so than other nationalisms.
Chinese nationalism today is focused on Japan. The Chinese public is fed a steady diet of movies, TV dramas, documentaries, and publications that fan bitter memories of the atrocities Japan committed in China during World War II. It was not always so. Mao Zedong himself brushed aside apologies for Japan’s wartime record in China on at least two occasions—to a Japanese socialist group in 1964 and to then-Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka in 1972—because it was with the “help” of the Japanese invasion that the CCP was victorious. In 1972, he told President Nixon much the same thing.
In those days the CCP based its primary claim to legitimacy on class struggle. It emphasized its defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT) as representative of the old order it overthrew, rather than Japan. It was indeed the KMT rather than the CCP that bore the brunt of the fighting against Japan while the CCP largely husbanded its strength for the postwar power struggle. But once China embraced the market economy, class struggle no longer served as the basis of the CCP’s legitimacy. And once the CCP decided in 2002 to allow businessmen working in private enterprises—capitalists by any other name—to join its ranks, the class struggle rationale lost all credibility as a claim to legitimacy.
But as nominal communists the CCP cannot focus Chinese nationalism on China’s own imperial history. After all, if the imperial past was so glorious, why the need for a revolution? Meanwhile, the CCP’s attitude toward its own revolutionary history, notably such episodes as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, has become profoundly ambivalent. Even Mao casts diffuse shadows; his huge image still towers over the entrance to the Forbidden City as leader of the China that in Mao’s own words “stood up” in 1949, but his legacy divides as much as it unites contemporary China. Chinese nationalism therefore must be directed outward lest awkward questions be voiced internally about the CCP itself, questions that have no good answers.
Japan did behave with great brutality during World War II, not just in China but throughout Southeast Asia. But deploying bitter memories as a domestic political tactic circumscribes China’s own room for maneuver and complicates already tricky adjustments that need to be made with the United States, Japan’s principal ally. Virulent nationalism also casts a shadow over relations with the smaller countries around China’s periphery. The sheer disparity of size and economic weight already causes anxieties and risks polarizing the region, but some Chinese actions and words in the East and South China Seas have made things worse, leading several countries to seek a closer relationship with the United States. A more robust American military posture in the South China Sea is already manifest, even without the United States having yet redeemed its pledge of a “pivot” to the region generally.
It is entirely natural that a great power will defend what it considers its sovereign rights. It is entirely natural that such a country will want the best military force it can afford, because the ability to defend oneself is a vital attribute of sovereignty. There is nothing unusual in Chinese maritime claims in the East and South China Seas or in China’s military modernization program. What matters is how a country defends its sovereignty, and how it uses military force. Will sovereign claims be pursued within common frameworks of norms, including procedures to change norms that are regarded as obsolete or unjust, or by unilateral actions based on superior force? The record is mixed; China has not behaved consistently. Great powers have a responsibility to reassure others as well as to serve their own interests, and China has only partly fulfilled that responsibility in recent years.
Every Chinese schoolchild knows of the hundred years of humiliation that China suffered. The CCP is the latest iteration in a history of experimentation that began with the “self-strengthening” movements of the 19th century. Since the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the Chinese have tried republicanism, communism, and now the market economy in search of the wealth and power that can preserve China from foreign predations. This history has made the CCP a highly adaptive organization that, unlike the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union, is not led by leaders in denial but by competent and rigorously tested cadres with a clinical understanding of China’s challenges. But permanently adopting the mentality and pose of a victim is harmful to the interests of a true great power.
It was never realistic, then, to expect China to be a “responsible stakeholder” in a regional and global order that it had no say in establishing, and which it holds responsible for a century of humiliation. It is natural for any rising power to want to revise an order to better reflect its interests, besides which, no status quo is ever static and nothing lasts forever. At the same time, the current regional and global order has not been unfavorable to China and, at least over the past three decades, it has facilitated its rise. Certainly, China has been a fortunate free-rider on U.S. international security goods, particularly as regards East Asia and the energy-rich Middle East. So there is no compelling or urgent reason for China to kick over the table and seek radical revisions—at least as long as the U.S. provision of those common security goods continues.
Setting aside sovereignty disputes over a series of small islands, what is most problematic is not that China is revisionist; it is that China is still overall a global free-rider on a system the original creators and beneficiaries of which cannot now afford to maintain without help. Perhaps the Obama Administration lacks some degree of will to lead, but this is arguably beside the point; we have come to a moment when the means have become the problem. Hence, the key question that cannot yet be answered on the basis of any evidence is what price the West, and in particular the United States, is prepared to pay for help—not least from China.
Nor have the Chinese themselves settled on what price to ask, and for what benefits—or even how to ask. This accounts for the many uncertainties of the transition. It also accounts for the inconsistency of Chinese foreign policy, which is pulled this way and that by contradictory imperatives and by the vagaries of domestic opinion, which is no longer under firm control. The CCP elite’s promotion of a nationalism of the victim has escaped its cage, and Chinese leaders now deploy that beast while fearing it at the same time.
That said, sovereignty disputes do have a special resonance and arouse special sensitivities in China and across the region. This is partly because China is increasingly defining its claims in in terms of historical rights. China has pledged that its development will be peaceful, and it has carefully studied the experiences of Germany and Japan to avoid the mistakes that led both to disaster. The CCP elite must know, too, that in international law history has a role to play in claims over territory, but not over maritime claims—and history is in any event always subject to multiple and shifting interpretations. But Chinese leaders seem trapped by their own narratives; they see themselves as a collective national victim entitled to redress, but what their neighbors see is often something more geopolitically menacing.
The Chinese government and people are rightly proud of what they have achieved. Never before in history have so many people been lifted out of poverty in so short a time. Still, it is a dangerous mistake to try to understand the complex global and regional transitions now underway through simplistic and propagandistic slogans. Some Chinese intellectuals and even some officials occasionally come perilously close to boasting that “China is rising, the West is declining.” But the changes in the distribution of power occurring are relative, not absolute. The West and in particular the United States are not declining in absolute terms; all who have underestimated American creativity, resilience, and resolve have had cause regret it.
Worse, such a boast completely ignores the structural changes now afoot in the relative capacities of states vis à vis other elements of social, normative, and economic influence—changes that some states are better positioned to navigate successfully than others. Global patterns of trade and finance, which now involve investment and production chains that treat national boundaries as though they barely exist, cannot be characterized by now-antique, geographically defined dichotomies. It is always a mistake to believe one’s own propaganda.
The East Asia that is growing is in any case an East Asia that has been profoundly influenced by contacts with the West. The most successful East Asian countries, China included, are those that have most thoroughly adapted to a Western-defined modernity. This has enabled some, China included, to “leave Asia and join the West”, as Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835–1901), a prominent Meiji-era reformer, put it. Of course, this does not mean that non-Western societies must replicate Western institutions, uncritically adopt Western ideologies, or sacrifice core cultural identities.
Moreover, the very meaning of what we understand to be “the West” is evolving. It is changing on account of its own internal developments first and foremost. In a still tentative and inchoate manner the internal structural changes imposed by the new world economy are forcing some to ask whether liberal values, taken to extremes, have become self-subverting. It is changing, too, on account of its engagement with others, not least a dynamic and growing East Asia. Even on a superficial level, China’s rise is forcing a reappraisal of the way Western countries view issues like Tibet and Taiwan. More profoundly, however, entire civilizations as well as masses of individuals now have multiple, often unconscious, identities. We have all changed, at least in the sense that we can take ever less for granted as fixed and eternal. It is not as if some relatively hermetically sealed Western system stands in danger of being suddenly displaced by some similarly insular and protected Asian system. Neither exists in the kind of world we live in these days.
A multidimensional process of social, economic, political, and cultural metamorphosis has been underway and gathering force in East Asia since the Meiji Restoration. The road has not been smooth, and many an unpredictable twist and turn is yet to come. But the trajectory has been set, and it is now spreading beyond East Asia. Once the metamorphosis is complete, there will be a new hybrid, that is to say a new world system—for the larger political units cannot but be shaped by the human social ferment within them. How long this will take, what specific institutional forms will emerge, what collateral damage may be incurred along the way, and what the implications will be for international relations, no one can say with certainty.
But in East Asia this ferment has already made the strategic environment more complex and unpredictable. The tensions over maritime claims are mere symptoms; they are but shadows of the new strategic complexities. U.S.-China relations are at the center of the necessary adjustments and complexities, but relations between China and Japan, Japan and Korea, and China and India also require adjustments. Indeed, these intra-Asian relationships are particularly sensitive, replete with ambushes laid by their long and complexly interwoven histories. Southeast Asia, too, has its own complications that require careful management.
There are no easy answers as the self-images of all the major actors in and around Asia become unstable. Still, if there is one factor that distinguishes East Asia from all other non-Western regions, it is East Asia’s commitment to economic growth. Of course, all state elites cite economic growth as a priority, but few really place it above more parochial interests. But in East Asia (with the exception of North Korea) growth as much as any abstract political theory is the primary means by which governments legitimize their rule. This does not guarantee peace, but having strong self-interested middle classes who are unwilling to sacrifice for abstractions probably helps—as Tocqueville hypothesized in a different time and place.
The primary risk is therefore conflict by inadvertence, not war by design. This is not a risk that can be entirely discounted, and recent Chinese actions in the East and South China Seas have increased the probability of accidents. This underscores the continuing critical importance of the U.S. presence to maintain stability. Nothing can replace it. China is not ready, and even if it were it is not entirely clear that it would be in its interest to do so. Without a strong U.S. presence in East Asia and a credible alliance with the United States, Japan could well become a nuclear-weapons state. It has the capacity to become one quickly. But at the same time, there is a consensus across East Asia, including among U.S. friends and allies, that some new architecture is needed to supplement the U.S. presence to maintain stability.
This broad consensus does not in itself prescribe a solution, and the debate over a new East Asian security architecture itself reflects the stresses and rivalries it seeks to mitigate. Many of these fault lines converge in Southeast Asia, and thus the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) finds itself at the center of debate, subject to multiple pressures from major powers. Two competing visions of regional order are in play: a Sinocentric vision built around ASEAN’s relationship with China; and a broader and more open architecture built around the East Asia Summit (EAS), which is the ASEAN Plus Three with the addition of the United States, Russia, India, Australia, and New Zealand.
Given the growing centrality of East Asia in the world economy and the strategic weight of the United States and China, the outcome of this debate will be the single most important influence on the global security architecture of the 21st century. This is the strategic significance of what have been dismissed as talk shops by many Western observers, who do not really understand what they observe. China’s preference is clear. America’s seems blurry or distracted. One wonders what America’s next President will see in the mirror.