China’s Maneuvering and the New Balance of Power
China is taking bold actions and creating a new paradigm on the world stage. For about a decade, Beijing has been responsible for developing new trade networks; the famous Belt and Road Initiative has been analyzed extensively. Their trade networks are growing ever deeper, with new agreements to trade in renminbi as opposed to dollars.
China is developing powerful alternative institutions to those of the West, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). They have adopted a more confident and assertive security posture in response to the Biden administration’s policies on Taiwan. However, new military measures have been far outweighed by fresh diplomatic overtures, with Beijing striking an impressive deal between Riyadh and Tehran—which, for various reasons, Washington found impossible to secure in the four decades it designated the conflict as intractable.
Washington is mentioned because all these actions taken by Beijing add up to a serious challenge of Washington’s hegemonic status. Washington is undoubtedly a hegemon; chief among the corps of evidence is a map of all its global military bases.
Figure 1: United States military bases abroad, 2015
This may change. For now, however, America has stationed troops all over the world, and the few territories where it can’t do so (Russia, China, and Iran) are surrounded and unable to project power in the same way. This is the definition of hegemonic power. The actions taken on the world stage by Washington in recent years, when compared to actions it took in previous eras, also prove its current hegemonic status.
Recent interventions in Somalia and Iraq are very different from the conflicts of yesteryear, like the American Revolution or the Mexican War. The American Revolution was fought to secure independence from Britain—the hegemon of the time—and the Mexican War was fought to secure the land and interests of American settlers in the territory adjacent to the legal boundaries of the United States at that time. The conflicts were limited in scope, with specific, tangible goals in the interests of the American population.
The interventions in Somalia and Iraq were fought purely to secure hegemonic status for Washington through the imposition of military force and ideological subversion on far-flung places. These interventions carried no material or psychological benefit for the American population, and the justifications for intervention presented to them don’t accord with reality.
Baghdad wasn’t involved in 9/11, and it would have been far less costly to purchase Iraqi oil than to invade, destroy, and attempt to rebuild the country. It would also have been far less costly to simply send the American navy to protect commerce in the Gulf of Aden (and spread the cost with other interested parties like China), while disregarding the internal politics of barren and unproductive Somalia. Any humanitarian arguments falter against the objectively worse conditions created by US intervention. Like in Iraq, the attempt to bring the political formula of liberal democracy to Somalia was a thin cover for Washington’s attempt to secure political submission from as many nations as possible.
Recent moves by Beijing will not obtain hegemonic status for itself but will take this status away from Washington and lead to a multipolar world order. Washington clearly considers recent developments to be a challenge to its hegemonic status, evidenced by its more aggressive military posture toward Taiwan. President Joe Biden has repeatedly stated that he would defend Taiwan militarily, the US Navy routinely sails through the Taiwan Strait, military aid to Taiwan has increased, and one could use polemic to say that Nancy Pelosi invaded the island last year. Beijing taking over Taiwan, peacefully or otherwise, would decisively remove Washington’s hegemonic status. Washington desperately wishes to hold Taiwan and keep China surrounded.
Other evidence that Washington considers Beijing to be a severe threat to its hegemonic status can be found in the mainstream media throughout the North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries. There is a constant stream of emotionally provocative stories directed against alleged human rights violations by Beijing found not just in America but in the United Kingdom and other “allied” countries as well. Many of these stories are false or misleading and, where true, can hardly be assailed from the moral depths of using depleted uranium bullets against the populations of Iraq and Serbia (among other injustices). Clearly the Western ruling class wants the populations it governs to be hostile to Beijing—as opposed to other less-than-perfect regimes—because Beijing is a threat to their hegemonic status.
China’s ascendancy challenges the real methods of exerting power over the world possessed by Washington. It deprives Washington of the benefits of hegemonic status in wealth, prestige, and military power.
A unipolar, or hegemonic, order has a very negative set of incentives. When one power is unmatched, it possesses total freedom of action without accountability. Regardless of the morality or wisdom of a course of action, the hegemon can enact said course and bring about disastrous consequences for itself and others.
There are no comparable powers to prevent this, and this dynamic only ends when the singular power loses its hegemonic status and a multipolar order develops. The loss of hegemonic status is usually a cataclysm, either domestically for the formerly hegemonic power or internationally in the form of a losing war waged to secure hegemonic status against its challengers.
Politics can be defined as the struggle for power, and only power can restrain power. It is corrupting for a single state to have unmatched power. Hegemony is injurious for peace and liberty even if it is frequently justified with the unrealistic claim that a unipolar world order can put an end to all wars.
However, a balance between competing powers tends toward better outcomes. Since no one power can dominate totally, it is in the interests of all major powers to agree to a set of neutral and objective rules establishing at least a degree of sovereignty and a framework for peace for all. Italian political scientist Gaetano Mosca referred to this as “juridical defense.” Major powers also have to offer benefits to smaller countries to entice them into a sphere of influence, as there are competing powers that they could ally with. War and domination are unavoidable, but a multipolar world leads to more peace and freedom.
These concepts are proven by recent history. Washington has behaved remarkably poorly on the world stage since becoming a hegemon in the early nineties. It is weak internally and will lose its hegemony by internal collapse, a losing war launched against major challengers like Russia and China, or a combination of these factors. As a multipolar world emerges, Russia and China have made deals with other countries on favorable terms as they attempt to carry their support against the competing Washington pole. Vladimir Putin and Sergey Lavrov repeatedly and explicitly reference the multipolar concept as a normative goal.
There is a lot of confusion around the concept of a collapse. A total collapse never occurs as productive human action is a permanent phenomenon. However, something like a chaotic failed countercoup against a 2024 victory for Donald Trump and the subsequent creation of a completely different political system with a different foreign policy worldview would constitute an internal collapse for present Washington.
All of this relates to the ideas of James Burnham and the “Machiavellian” school of political science, as well as the “neorealist” school of international relations. Mosca and Burnham conceived of the “juridical defense” primarily from the standpoint of domestic politics. However, if anything, the theory applies better to the international arena. By definition, if there are multiple claims for sovereign power that cannot defeat each other, there are multiple political units. This is the situation internationally, but not domestically, where one sovereign prevails.
While an international balance of power may tend toward better outcomes, one should not get carried away with a purely process-based or systems-based analysis. Institutions are not people, institutions don’t possess a personality, and they can’t act for themselves.
The most determinative factor is the composition of the ruling class and their character as individuals and as a group, as well as their identity, subculture, worldview, material interests, and moral beliefs. Thus, even a hegemonic Beijing would be better than a hegemonic Washington, as the Chinese ruling class have demonstrated far less willingness to invade countries using maximum force or interfere in other countries’ domestic culture and political affairs than have the current Western ruling class.