Image by David Saveliev
Essay by Ken Lohatepanont
World order, argues many scholars of international relations, is characterized by its very disorder — an anarchic situation where states exist in a Hobbbesian state of nature. “The strong do what they can”, said Thucydides, “and the weak suffer what they must”. It follows that when two powers have great strength, conflict is inevitable — a situation that applies now that China is challenging the US for hegemony. Graham Allison’s Thucydides trap states glumly that war results in the great majority of cases where a rising power has challenged a ruling power. John Mearsheimer, using his theory of offensive realism, argues that the US will not tolerate a peer competitor in East Asia and thus the US must work to not only contain but take down China’s growing influence.
However, East Asia has been characterized more by hierarchy than anarchy, with hierarchy in this case being defined as unequal relations between states. In the millennia before contact with the West, the East Asian order was Sinocentric; China was at its apex and surrounded by tributary states that defer to it at least through lip service. Since China’s decline at the hands of European colonial powers, the United States has stepped in to fill the gap. Indeed, American global hegemony has allowed the US to construct an American-led hierarchy that has displaced the Chinese one. The ‘San Francisco System’ of asymmetric bilateral alliances allows the US to exert control over its Asian allies, to the benefit of American security. Although overwhelming American power means that this order is unavoidably hierarchical, it is in the words of John Ikenberry also characterized by a liberal political architecture that is open and democratic.
The isolated location of the United States means that the US homeland will not yet conceivably be threatened by a rising China. Instead, the risk of conflict between the US and China in the 21st century arises from the fear that China’s resurgence will lead to the deterioration of the US-led hierarchy in East Asia and a return to the Sinocentric hierarchy of the past. Freedom of action for those under the hierarchy is more limited; true sovereignty lies mainly with those at its head, and as such risk of conflict appears when a nations seeks to climb up the hierarchy, as China is currently doing. China’s era of following Deng Xiaoping’s maxim of “hiding your capabilities and biding your time” is over. Xi Jiping is instead working towards his vision of the ‘Chinese Dream’ where China has fully attained great power status and re-constructed its imperial hegemony in East Asia after its ‘century of humiliation’. As the US National Security Strategy in 2018 stated, adversaries such as China are “contesting our geopolitical advantages and trying to change the international order in their favor”.
A renewed Chinese hierarchy is concerning to the US for three key reasons. First is the ideological challenge. A Chinese order, Naazneen Barma and Ely Ratner argues, would be characterized by China’s illiberal nature. This includes illiberal capitalism, where China’s own political model of having free markets but closed politics is emulated, and illiberal sovereignty, where non-intervention is the norm even in the face of human rights abuses due to the sanctity of state sovereignty. Second is the security challenge. Economically, with the Belt and Road program, China is constructing its own set of relationships and institutions which some have argued constitute a “grand strategy” to challenge US hegemony without provoking an overt reaction. The security of US allies is also threatened; China’s new ‘Great Wall of Sand’ in the South China Sea represents not only a symbol of China’s newfound military might but also its desire to dominate the Pacific at the expense of smaller Asian states.
Despite these threats, the fear that a Chinese hierarchy will threaten the US presence in East Asia and displace the American hierarchy should be tempered. Alexander Wendt, one of the fathers of the constructivist school of international relations, argued that “anarchy is what states make of it”; structural factors do not decide questions of war and peace. Likewise, I believe that hierarchy, or the clash between two versions of hierarchy, is not necessarily deterministic of conflict.
The overlapping nature of hierarchy means that where the security dilemma is low, nations can exist in both the Chinese and American camps simultaneously. Hierarchical orders are fluid and porous; they can overlap and states can exist to multiple hierarchies at the same time. One example historically is the Southeast Asian mandala system, where states pledged themselves as tributaries to greater empires, but often existed in multiple overlapping circles at once and paid tribute to more than one hegemon at a time. This demonstrates that two hierarchies can coexist, and that the rise of a Chinese hierarchy will not necessarily displace the American one. A modern mandala system might see Asian countries that are not conflict hotspots able to hedge and exist in both the Chinese and American orbits. Thailand, for example, continues to be hailed as America’s oldest ally in Asia while also declaring that China is “Thailand’s number one partner”. The likelihood of conflict is low if both powers can accept that their allies will belong to both camps; as the Chinese maxim goes, smaller Asian powers can attempt to “have a thousand friends and no enemies”.
If the security dilemma is high and interests cannot be compromised, triangular dynamics ensure that efforts to construct a Chinese hierarchy will be kept in check. Lowell Dittmer argues that China’s relations are governed by a strategic triangle where the US is the third actor; “behind its bilateral and multilateral relations with its Asian neighbors China always sees the United States scheming, manipulating and impeding its road to the Chinese Dream”. The flip side is that vulnerable US allies are backed by American power as the key offshore balancer. Therefore, the issues over which China is most likely to use force also paradoxically become the least likely, as no rational Chinese leader would risk war with the US over peripheral or even some core issues, especially if US intentions are clear. On Taiwan, for example, China will remain unwilling to make good on its military threats to retake what it views as a renegade province as long as the US telegraphs clearly its stance, which it continues to do. As such, the US-led hierarchy will remain intact so long as US military superiority or even parity exists.
It is inevitable that the legitimate interests of China must be acknowledged. Graham Allison writes that “the resurgence of an ancient civilization containing a billion people is not a problem to be fixed but a situation that must be managed with a depth of understanding”. If it is impossible to prevent China’s rise, a realistic perspective towards accommodating its interests will be crucial and living with the coexistence of two hierarchies is necessary. However, the US has less to fear from renewed Chinese hegemony than some may think, due to the pluralistic nature of hierarchy and continued triangular dynamics. Hierarchy is what states make of it.
Ken Lohatepanont is an undergraduate student studying political science at the University of California, Berkeley. He is interested in East Asian international relations, democratic development and domestic politics in Thailand. This essay earned an honorable mention in the 2019 John Quincy Adams Society Student Foreign Policy Essay Contest.