Chinese sailors during an open day event held by the South China Sea Fleet of the PLA Navy at a naval base in Sanya city, Hainan province.
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China’s new global politics: the imperial turn

China is undergoing an “imperial turn” – domestically as well as in foreign politics. At home, Xi Jinping has reached the status of an “imperial chairman” at the apex of the CCP power pyramid. Internationally, China uses the space opened by the Trump administration to fill the void in effective global governance, but also to assert its dominance in East Asia and beyond.

The Economist refers to it as China’s “sharp power”: across the globe, starting with its neighborhood in East Asia but reaching out as far as Latin America and Western Europe, Beijing is making its weight as a “rising power” felt in new, intrusive ways. A clueless president, whose inward-looking policies represent an abdication from America’s international responsibilities, has created an opening for China’s “imperial turn” – and for China’s ambitions to shape the world in its own image.

China’s imperial turn should not be confused with imperialism. Beijing’s dubious military activities in the South China Sea and in Bhutan notwithstanding, China does not seem bent on territorial expansion and subjugation of other nations through superior military force and warfare. Instead, the imperial turn describes the shift from collective leadership to hierarchy at home and the shift from an inward-looking country to a country that pursues a global vision.

This development is a natural result of China’s growing economic and political weight. The United States underwent its own imperial turn in the aftermath of World War II. In the context of the Cold War, the superpower erected a national security state and what historian Arthur M. Schlesinger called the “Imperial Presidency” at home. The executive branch of the government grew into a massive bureaucracy, including the military with its vast network of global bases, and thirteen different intelligence services. It overshadowed the other branches of government, giving US presidents unparalleled power. In its foreign relations, Washington used this power to build a worldwide alliance system establish an “Empire of Liberty,” which would spread freedom around the world, as Founding Father Thomas Jefferson had envisioned.

China is preparing to spread its wings

Now it is China’s turn to spread its wings. The CCP has entrusted Xi Jinping with an “imperial chairmanship.” Under his leadership, the PRC is perfecting its national security state at home and extending its imperial reach abroad – enabled and encouraged by an American president who seems determined to demolish the foundations of Pax Americana. The code word for this effort to erect China’s new empire is a “community of a shared future for mankind.“

One of the characteristics of imperial politics is the blurring of distinctions between inside and outside, between domestic and foreign. Empires are ill equipped to accept the Westphalian notion of the sovereign equality of states, all protestations of China’s official language to the contrary notwithstanding. Hierarchy cannot accept equality; it knows only subordination and deference. We therefore can expect the new Chinese empire to meddle whenever it deems its supremacy insufficiently respected. Indeed, it has been doing so already, from neighboring Myanmar, which presently is drawn back firmly into the Chinese sphere of influence, to distant Europe, where China has played the imperial “divide and rule” game with its “16 + 1” process.

The same applies to the role of law: emperors may use “law-based governance,” but they will never be under the law. It is therefore entirely unsurprising that China would expect others to abide by the rules of the UN Law of the Sea Convention (as interpreted by China), but reject the authoritative interpretations of the International Court of Arbitration on the South China Sea.

Another characteristic of empires is that they are expansive. In fact, they need to be expansive to sustain and legitimate the imperial rule at home, which tends to be costly. Now, it is China’s turn to secure its raw materials and conquer world markets, with the flag following the trade. Xi Jinping’s support for an open world economy and globalization is the contemporary equivalent of the “Open Door” principle, which the United States had pronounced around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. Neither was concerned with opening its own home market; “openness” was a demand on others and reflected one’s own superiority.  Similarly, China’s notion of its own role in East Asia today and in the future resembles that of the Monroe Doctrine of the United States in 19thcentury Latin America, which rejected any interference by outside powers, such as Britain or France, in the Western hemisphere. In Asia, China now wants Asians to organize their own security; the United States has no place in that design.

Can China provide effective global governance?

China’s imperial turn did not come out of the blue: it represents a plausible response to the dire need for better, more effective governance. The CPP’s decision to entrust all its power to an “imperial chairman” reflected that need at home, as the economic and social problems of China’s successes accumulated. Yet that need also exists abroad. The American empire was designed to foster economic interdependence and thus unleashed the forces of globalization. Now, globalization needs much more effective forms of global governance, and China proposes to provide them.

This may sound promising. The realities of globalization and the demand for governance that they create are incompatible with the non-imperial principles of a Westphalian international order of sovereign nation states. How should two hundred sovereign and equal states with their vastly different interests agree on effective ways to organize cross-border trade and investment and reduce the growing inequality of wealth and income, to contain global warming and safeguard the global commons, or to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction?

The world does need strong leadership for effective global governance – in other words, it needs an empire. Will China’s new empire be what the world needs and wants, however? Beijing has established an array of new institutions to complement – and perhaps eventually replace – the existing organizational infrastructure of global governance, and it has earmarked vast amounts of money for its „Belt and Road Initiative,“ with the aim to foster investment in global networks of transportation and “connectivity.” Beijing also offers to take up the lead in the fight against climate change and in promoting an open world trading order.

To turn all of those announcements into effective global governance, however, would require qualities and skills that seem difficult to reconcile with the principles of hierarchy. China’s participation in global governance has, even at its best (such as its support for the present monetary order), been bounded by China’s own interests. More often than not, China’s regional leadership takes the form of bullying. Taiwan has been pushed into international isolation. China’s South East Asian neighbors watch helplessly as China stakes out its claims in the disputed South China Sea, and South Korea drew Beijing’s ire when it agreed to establish a US missile defense system on its soil.

Under its current “imperial turn,” China’s role in global governance seems set to become even more ambiguous. The principle of hierarchy implies that China will try to upload its own domestic arrangements of governance onto the international level, something that presently can be observed in Beijing’s insistence on every country’s right to regulate (and censor) the internet in a new international order for cyber space. As a leading global power, Beijing will demand that other countries fall in line behind the CCP’s views and those of its imperial chairman Xi Jinping.