China and the Economic Road to Hegemony

"It is clear that the unique circumstances of our time have opened up a new road to hegemony for ambitious countries. It is a road paved with money, not guns. Economic leverage, not military might."

I had the pleasure of attending an illuminating conference organized by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) Philippines this week, titled “Changing the World Order? China’sLong Term Global Strategy”. The two-day conference at Fairmont Makati brought together a distinguished pool of experts to speak on Chinese policy in politics, economic, informations technology, defense and security, and pretty much every other important field imaginable.

KAS Philippines Country Director Dr. Stefan Jost succinctly described the official aim of the conference during his welcoming remarks: to help participants “understand what China has been doing in the past years.” However, after the Keynote Speech by Dr. Xuewu Gu (University of Bonn, Germany) and the presentations of the two speakers after him, it became clear that the understanding of many participants was predicated upon the assumption that what China has been doing in the past years is part of an elaborate strategy to co-opt America’s position as global hegemon and establish a Chinese Empire in which the sun never sets.

The third speaker of the first session, Dr. Dingding Chen of Jinan University in China, ended up taking on the unenviable role of playing a sort of ‘devil’s advocate’ to balance out the palpable fatalistic wariness of China that was prevalent amongst his conference colleagues. One interesting assertion made by Dr. Chen was that China has no interest in becoming the global hegemon, as this would entail taking on global responsibilities that it has no desire to take on. I would suppose this refers to the United States’ current role as the self-appointed ‘policeman of theworld”, which requires it to maintain a formidable military presence in places halfway across the world from the U.S. mainland. 

I agree with Dr. Chen. I do not think China intends to establish itself as the global hegemon in the traditional sense. I do not foresee a future where China will develop unrivaled military dominance and invade countries in the Middle East for the purpose of introducing ‘Freedom’,or perhaps more aptly ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ to the people. I do not think it is China’s intention at all to hoist its flag a top capitol buildings across every time zone in the world.

The global understanding of hegemony in this traditional sense in itself is a relic of the late 20th century and the global power struggle which defined it - the Cold War. The Americans and the Soviets spent decades struggling to achieve absolute hegemony on the world stage through military superiority and proxy wars. When the Soviet Union eventually crumbled, the United States took what it feels is its rightful position as the de facto king among sovereign nations. There is a reason, after all, why the President of the United States is often referred to as the ‘Leader of the FreeWorld’ in the absence of an actual world government.

It seems to me that Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party have no interest in booting the Americans from their throne.This does not necessarily mean, however, that they do not seek to establish Chinese hegemony in some sense. It only means that the Chinese probably view the United States as an increasingly powerless ornamental figurehead, much like the kings and queens retained in name only by countries with constitutional monarchies.

We must remember that the American throne, much like the Iron Throne from the Game of Thrones universe, was built from the spoils of many wars. The United States, just like every other world leader since the beginning of human civilization, used its military might to build global power and influence. After all, this was the only possible path to hegemony when the United States ascended to its throne.

In the 21st century, however, military dominance is not the only road to hegemony. Dr. Gu mentioned two great points on the matter during his keynote address. First, he identified the increasing weight of structural power in international relations. Instead of trying to force countries to do what they want (hard power) or attracting them to do it (softpower), countries are now leveraging their hold on other countries to do what they want. This is the essence of structural power.

Second, Dr. Gu pointed out the growinggeo-politicization of globalization as the “young enforcement of capitalistic production systems around the globe”. The internet and the rapid advancement of technology during the ongoing Fourth Industrial Revolution have created infinite cords of capitalistic globalized interdependence tying countries together. Dr. Gu warned against the ongoing trend wherein this globalized interdependence is being “weaponized” by certain countries. 

From these insights, it is clear that the unique circumstances of our time have opened up a new road to hegemony for ambitious countries. It is a road paved with money, not guns. Economic leverage, notmilitary might.

Using economic structural power as a vehicle to advance national interests is a significantly more clean and efficient way of asserting a country’s interests against another. Why should a country waste time and money on a military invasion when you can simply get your way by threatening to call in the billions or even trillions of dollars it owes you in sovereign debt? Why sail an intimidating naval fleet through the waters of aquarrel some state when you can just order your powerful corporations to stop doing business with it?

Economic hegemony will define true power in the 21st Century, and China is well on its way down that road. After all, many of these cords of globalized interdependence run through China. China is well aware of this, and it is trying to build even more of these ties. The wildly ambitious Belt and Road Initiative is proof enough.

Of course, it would be remiss to conclude that military power will become obsolete in the 21st century, or that economic dominance will be the only road to hegemony moving forward. I have no intent of declaring “the end of history” through this modest commentary. All I mean to say is, as it stands now, China’s global strategy appears to indicate a strong interest in traveling down the newly opened path to hegemony through economic means. How far China will travel down this road, and what its rivals and allies will do in response, remains to be seen as history continues to unfold.

About the Author
Aureli, who currently serves as Executive Director of PUBLiCUS, is a senior political adviser and communications strategist specialising in legislative and executive public relations and brand management.
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