By Stephen Hoadley

A winning China would regain what the Qing Dynasty enjoyed three centuries ago: a central geo-political leadership role among its periphery of tributary states.

This essay is an exploratory thought-exercise in the form of a scenario addressing the question ‘What if China wins?’ Two follow-on questions are ‘What would be the consequences for China’s neighbours, the West, and the prevailing rules-based international order?’ and ‘What should we do about it?’

First, the meaning of a China ‘win’ should be clarified. Although hotly debated, world domination is beyond Beijing’s grasp and maybe its intent. The working definition I propose is decisive regional pre-dominance in Asia. This implies that a winning China would regain what the Qing Dynasty enjoyed three centuries ago: a central geo-political leadership role among its periphery of tributary states. In modern terms this means not European-style colonisation but rather the exercise of predominating influence by China — political, economic, and cultural — over all its 14 Central Asian, Southeast Asian, and East Asian neighbours. It implies Beijing’s control of all of the sea and air approaches to China’s borders. It means China’s military occupation of islands in the South China Sea and East China Sea. It also means political hegemony over Taiwan similar to that exercised over Hong Kong since 2020, whether by agreement, intimidation, or blockade, or invasion, proxy, and regime change.

Further implications would include the regional pervasiveness of China’s yuan currency instead of the US dollar, the Mandarin Chinese language instead of English, and China’s ideology, law and social and cultural norms instead of international law. China would sponsor, and in some cases impose by subversion or force, communist party leadership in neighbouring states. It would also oblige them to acquiesce to China’s foreign and security aims and policies. China’s diplomats, state corporations, and some military units would enjoy easy access to countries from Japan and Korea south to Indonesia, and from western Pacific islands such as Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea west to Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan. And China would demand recognition of its presence, interests, and possible claims in the Antarctic and Arctic.

The implications for states outside this hypothetical sphere of China’s domination would be either exclusion or limited and conditional access. Western diplomats and traders would have to either conform to China’s rules or stay away. Western military bases, forces and patrols would be unwelcome and obliged to fall back to Guam, Hawaii, Australia, India, or the Middle East. China’s global market share and investment footprint would grow at the expense of its competitors. China’s rules and standards, particularly in information technology but also in governance, would either prevail or compete with those set by the West. China would challenge the post-World War Two rules-based order, and replace the international institutions that manage it with their own, or marginalise them. Bifurcation of markets, finance, supply chains, and standards between the old US-led order and the new China-led order would raise transaction costs and depress the gains promised by globalization.

Analysts in America, Australia, and Europe are already considering responses to these challenges posed by China. The policy of the Biden Administration and like-minded partners is to avoid war and to out-compete China. ‘Managed Strategic Competition’ is one of several slogans summing up Western approaches. Complete decoupling from China’s manufactures and investments would be crippling and inflationary; greater self-sufficiency and diversification from China is the stated goal. More skilful diplomacy, economic reform, financial and technical adaptivity, and enhancement of renewable resources and human capital will be required by Western states.

Nevertheless, the risk of armed conflict remains high. China now has the world’s largest armed forces as measured by personnel and platforms and is approaching parity with the US in nuclear-capable missiles and potential for space and cyber warfare. Western policy is based on alliances and deterrence, both conventional and nuclear. Deterrence presumes actor rationality, accurate information, and similar values and pain thresholds. Shrinking warning times because of hypersonic orbital missiles or space-based weapons, as well as ambiguous source cyberattacks, undermine measured deterrence. Insistence on core values (‘red lines’) such as the importance of Taiwan to both China and the US (and Japan) can erode long-standing buffers and lead to naked clashes.

Further, extreme reactions to China’s rise by Japan, South Korea, or India are possible. India is nuclear armed and the former two are technically capable of acquiring nuclear weapons quickly if existentially threatened. Russian, North Korean, and several Central, South, and Southeast Asian states’ leaders would probably acquiesce to China’s economic hegemony provided they retain political autonomy. But Vietnam’s leaders might not, recalling Chinese imperialism during the Han and Tang Dynasties, and the PLA invasion of 1979. Therefore, Vietnam might seek Western help to resist, or fall back on guerrilla tactics as championed by Ho Chi Minh.

Geopolitical optimists argue that China is not expansionist beyond securing Taiwan and the East and South China Seas – the West could, and should, adapt to China’s economic hegemony in Asia. In contrast, pessimists and hawks cite the Munich fallacy, that Hitler would stop at the Sudetenland; they argue that compromise with China will only encourage further aggression, and that the current order must be defended here and now.

The emerging Western policies are somewhere between these extremes. They do not quite constitute a new cold war or a new containment strategy (as Beijing’s narratives insist) but something more nuanced that might be called ‘constrainment’. This connotes the West’s continued engagement with China’s economy, but selectively denying China access to sophisticated technology. This is most obvious in the US embargo of advanced micro-chips in the information, communications, artificial intelligence and weapons sectors. China has reacted by embargoing its rare earth metals exports to the West. Both sides are competing for access to Middle East energy resources and African minerals. It is there, by means of its Belt and Road lending initiatives in the nonaligned countries of the Third World, that China might achieve its greatest ‘win’.

Stephen Hoadley is a recently retired Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. 

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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