China has been a failure at hegemony, so let’s just chill

From the foundering Belt & Road Initiative to its so-called ‘wolf warrior’ strategy, Beijing is just not the threat we make it out to be.

Many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment and elsewhere are sounding an alarm over concerns that, as China develops, it will become the dominant power in its region, a “hegemon” that will have too much “influence” there and do damage to U.S. security interests. For example, in 2017 the National Intelligence Council opined that “geopolitical competition” was on the rise and the Chinese sought “to exert more sway over their neighboring regions and promote an order in which U.S. influence does not dominate.”

Accordingly, as it is often suggested, military hardware must be deployed to somehow keep that from happening.

However, to a degree, we already know what Chinese “hegemony” looks like. Over the last decade, China has established a major military and especially economic presence, and it has tried to convert this condition into influence. These experiments in hegemony — China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which has stressed construction loans to countries across Eurasia, and its rather belligerent “wolf diplomacy” antics — have substantially foundered and have, if anything, proved to be counterproductive. The experience does not bode well for future efforts, and it does not justify alarm.

Its much-hyped Belt and Road Initiative was once deemed by some to be a key element of a plot by the Chinese to “rule the world.” However, from the beginning there were warnings from Chinese scholars and business leaders questioning the economic rationale for many of the investments. In addition, economist Barry Naughton of the University of California at San Diego notes that the idea was in part economically misguided, and Tufts University’s Michael Beckley has estimated that the scheme would “probably exacerbate China’s woes” by funding “hundreds of financially dubious projects in unstable countries, more than half of which have credit ratings below investment-grade.”

These suggestions have proved to be justified. Expenditures of hundreds of billions on the project have failed to deliver either returns for investors (including state-run banks) or political returns for China, notes Taiwan-based analyst Tanner Green. The project was there, he says, “only because it is the favored brainchild of an authoritarian leader living in an echo chamber” — for other Chinese to attack BRI is “to attack the legitimacy of the party itself.”

By 2019, BRI lending by China had fallen from a peak of $75 billion in 2016 (at a time when its promulgating author, Chinese President Xi Jinping, was touting BRI as “a project of the century”) to just $4 billion. Although some of these projects will likely succeed, there were reports by the end of 2020, like this one by James Kynge and Jonathan Wheatley at the Financial Times, that the money had often been doled out “with a combination of hubris, ambition, and naivete.” Descriptors like “unravelling,” “fallen off a cliff,” and “ill-conceived” were being applied by experts, including Matt Ferchen at Merics, a Berlin-based think-tank, who wrote that China was now “mired in debt renegotiations with a host of countries.” 

In fact, as Stanford’s Elizabeth Economy notes, there has been something of a backlash and “stories of Chinese corruption and scandals with infrastructure projects are contributing to rising Sinophobia.” China has shot back saying critics are “prejudiced” and lacking “objectivity and a fair understanding” of the initiative; others have sought to play down criticisms of Chinese labor practices or accusations of debt traps

Rising concerns have nonetheless pushed the European Union to launch a global investment project that is apparently intended to be a counter to China’s BRI, and the United States seems to want to follow suit. But, as Foreign Policy’s James Palmer noted recently, “all this feels both outdated and unnecessary,” pointing out that “the heyday of BRI hype, even in China, was at least three years ago,” while the current focus is on the “white elephant nature of projects and the relative lack of deliverables for China.”

China’s clumsy “wolf warrior” diplomacy of recent years has also failed to deliver. As Stanford’s Thomas Fingar notes, “muscular displays of Chinese military power may have been intended to dissuade neighboring countries from lending support to imputed U.S. military planning,  but they seriously undercut efforts to reassure other countries that they had no reason to fear China’s ‘peaceful rise.’”

Moreover, they have pushed countries it sought to intimidate, such as Japan, India, South Korea, and Australia, to become far more hostile. Thus, historian Arne Westad points out that the efforts “have all backfired: East Asia is much warier of Chinese aims today than it was a decade ago,” and he cites a Pew Research Center poll showing the percentage of South Koreans who viewed China’s rise favorably fell from 66 percent in 2002 to 34 percent in 2017. In Australia the percentage trusting China to act responsibly in the world dropped from 52 percent to 16 percent between 2018 and 2021.

As David Shambaugh, a China specialist at George Washington University, concludes: “If Beijing is trying to recreate a twenty-first-century version of the imperial ‘tribute system,’ it will inevitably fail, as other sovereign Asian nations do not desire to fall into such a patron-client relationship with China again.”

Fingar and Jean Oi summarize the situation: “China’s relationship with more or less all countries is more fraught today than it was before Xi launched the BRI and China began to flex its economic and military muscles in ways neighbors found worrisome.”

More broadly, these experiences suggest (as was seen as well in the Cold War) that containment is scarcely required because political “dominance” (such as it is) does not flow naturally from economic or military growth.

Since it understandably wants to expand its influence particularly in its area, China might take some advice about how to do so from Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister of Singapore. In a recent interview demonstrating that is it still possible to find politicians who sound like grown-ups, Lee suggests that a large power (or would-be hegemon), would be advised to “have some self-awareness” and to operate in a manner which “ensures acceptance and therefore a continuation of influence without resorting to brute force.”

Rather startlingly, Lee recommends the United States as a role model. He is aware of American failings. Countries in the area were mostly able to contain their enthusiasm for participating in America’s disastrous adventure in Vietnam, and today many are urging the Americans to chill out in its demonization of China. However, Lee does note wryly that, “if you take the long view, you really have to bet on America recovering from whatever things it does to itself.” And he goes on to point out that modern American involvement in the Asia Pacific spans some 70 or 80 years. Yet, they are still “welcomed in the region” and “are not just seen as an ugly American.” That, Lee concludes, “tells you something.”

Instead of finding the “self-awareness” that Lee calls for in China, Shambaugh points to a “deep insecurity” in a “profoundly paranoid Chinese party-state.” Its chief goal is not so much to dominate the world or even to develop economically, but to keep the obsolete and kleptocratic Communist Party in power. However, it can be difficult at times to take seriously a regime that, in the process, frets mightily over vegetarians who rely too much on information from the West, that passes a law making it a crime to “pick quarrels and provoke trouble,” that declares anyone on the planet who makes comments that are sufficiently offensive to China is subject to life imprisonment, and that publishes the portrait of the greatest mass murder in history on its currency.

The regime in China is unlikely to change these domestic preferences and insecurities at least as long as Xi is around. But it has clearly failed at winning influence (or “sway” as the National Intelligence Council puts it) with “hegemonic” antics like economic and military bullying. The experience might cause it to take Lee’s advice and to mellow some in the international arena. In the meantime, the United States might try to do less to feed China’s paranoia.

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