The China Race: Global Competition for Alternative World Orders

Last Updated on March 6, 2024 2:05 pm

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By Mercy A. Kuo

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Fe-Ling Wang – professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology, and author of “The China Trilogy”: “The China Order: Centralia, World Empire, and the Nature of Chinese Power” (2017); “The China Record: An Assessment of the People’s Republic” (2023); and “The China Race: Global Competition for Alternative World Orders” (2024) – is the 404th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Analyze the existential nature and scope of China-U.S. rivalry. 

Both China (the People’s Republic of China under the Chinese Communist Party) and the United States have repeatedly declared that they are in a comprehensive and existential strategic competition or great struggle.

This rivalry is a game of near-zero sum, if not yet fully zero-sum. It will determine the leadership of international community and, more fundamentally, the survival of two incompatible ways of sociopolitical governance and two alternative world orders.

The U.S. is acting to defend the American-Western polity of democratic rule of law and the post-World War II version of Westphalian world order of nation-states; the PRC strives to secure its authoritarian-totalitarian polity at the minimum and, at the maximum, to recenter and reorder the world with a political unification of either a traditional China Order-style world empire or world communism.

If the PRC lost the rivalry, the CCP political system and worldview would wither and fade, but the nationhood and the statehood of China would continue and thrive. If the U.S. lost the rivalry, however, not only its way of organizing and governing people but also its statehood and nationhood would mutate and diminish under a world political centralization.

Delineate the parameters of the China Race. 

The China Race or the PRC-U.S. rivalry is long, global, and multidimensional. The existing world order sanctions constant international competition, which powered human civilization spectacularly over the recent centuries. In this perspective, the China Race is normal and natural, with non-zero-sum and even positive-sum aspects such as the complementary economic exchange between the two, their race in R&D investment, and their competitive contribution and donation to other countries and international organizations.

The relative gain of great power competition usually entails transfer of power and leadership. The power/leadership transfer resulting from the China Race carries an unusual, ultrahigh stake. The PRC is an uncommon challenger deeply contradicting the U.S. in fundamental ways. The inherent logic of its polity drives Beijing to remake the current world order of political decentralization and sovereign plurality into political and sovereign singularity.

Examine the domestic dimension of the China Race between the CCP and the Chinese people. 

Ever since 1949, the CCP has viewed the U.S./West as mortal threat, “always wanting to annihilate us.” Beijing’s political system is genetically incompatible with that of the reigning international leaders’ and thus its lack of political legitimacy in China is constantly highlighted. Like any autocracy, the party-state necessarily feels insecure and discontent in the post-Cold War world. Possessing ever more power to control people at home and to subdue countries abroad has been the solution. For the ultimate regime security, the goal is to unify and centralize politically the whole known world, tianxia or “all under heaven,” so to simply silence and eliminate competing peers and dissenting critics.

But the Chinese people, just like any other people, have been qualitatively much better off under a structurally decentralized and nonuniform world order, de facto or de jure. This has been true in ancient times, during the 1840s-1940s, and since the 1980s.

So, it is the CCP autocracy, not the Chinese nation or the Chinese people, that is in an existential struggle against the U.S. for an alternative world order. The distance and even divorce between the CCP’s political interest and China’s national interest is striking. The CCP’s grand schemes of world revolution, rejuvenation of the past Chinese world empires, or community of common destiny are clever and necessary for the party-state to rally people, extract resources, and stay in power. But the Chinese people know – or would easily know if they could read and speak freely – that those gambits are mainly for the CCP leaders’ endless indulgence in power and luxury, not even serving the majority of the CCP members well.

The Chinese society has been profoundly Westernized-Americanized over the past three decades. Beijing’s double-down in its struggle with the U.S., relying on “internal circulation” economy that risks a cutoff from the West, shows a desperation in self-preservation and suggests a shortcut for the U.S. to win its rivalry with the PRC.

Explain the concept, components, and objectives of “contaformation” as a strategy. 

“Contaformation,” a portmanteau for containment and engagement for the transformation and incorporation of China, is a strategic concept for managing and prevailing in the China Race. It seeks to address the near zero-sum nature of the PRC-U.S. rivalry, expand the non-zero-sum aspects of the competition, and transform the China Race to be peaceful and positive-sum.

Very briefly, contaformation calls for a holistic view of the rise of China and a sustained comprehensive effort to achieve three hierarchical aims in the China Race: First, to prevent the CCP mode of polity from becoming the new leader of the international community and to stop the alternative world order of political centralization – to contain, constrain and weaken the PRC state power so it cannot lead the world into the abyss of world empire.

Second, to deter and win but try to avoid a direct war between China and the United States, to the fullest possible extent.

Third, to enable and help the Chinese people in transforming the PRC state and fully incorporate them into the international community, so China will be unwilling to alter the least-undesirable Westphalian world order.

Assess the viability and vulnerabilities of the “China Dream” and in the China Race.  

The party-state uses “China Dream” to vaguely describe its minimum and maximum objectives in the China Race, trying to capitalize on the natural and rising Chinese pride and aspiration.

Beijing’s autocratic governance and alternative world order are normatively suboptimal and undesirable, but were practically feasible and viable in history, and are still appealing to many today. The CCP has mustered great resources that it can use without much restraint and scrutiny, and already cultivated a strange group of allies in the U.S. and around the world: from greedy capitalists, ambitious autocrats, and wishful globalists to faulty Sinologists. As history has it in abundance, and contrary to the happy endings of Hollywood tales, a superior and more desirable polity does not always win, let alone automatically.

In the China Race, though, the odds are against the CCP, so long as the U.S. and its allies timely and seriously run the race to win. Beijing’s grand ploy of using market economy and modern technology, originated from the West, without the requisite Western institutions and norms is as improbable as it is dangerous.

The best and most powerful ally of the U.S. in winning the China Race is the Chinese people. Mainly of, by, and for the Chinese people, a sociopolitical transformation of the PRC would turn the China Race into a positive-sum international competition that benefits the two great nations and the whole world.

Mercy A. Kuo
Mercy Kuo is Executive Vice President at Pamir Consulting.

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