‘Hegemonic transition’? China stakes claim for globalism without liberalism


Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister of 32 years’ standing, has experienced the benevolent embrace of both the west and China. But there is no doubt over Mr Hun Sen’s preferred partner. China is officially hailed as the Southeast Asian nation’s “most trustworthy friend”, while the west is routinely chided for delivering haughty lectures on democracy and human rights to Cambodian officials while lavishing much of its aid on highly paid European and American consultants, The FT’s James Kynge writes:

The main difference, says author Sebastian Strangio, is that China invests in big infrastructure projects whereas the west has focused on “soft development” issues such as enhancing good governance. “[The Chinese] build bridges and roads and there are no complicated conditions,” Mr Strangio quoted the Cambodian leader as saying in his book, Hun Sen’s Cambodia.

Cambodia is one of Asia’s smallest economies. Yet its experience suggests that as the US retreats from its globalist agenda, China may offer a potent alternative. Beijing has no intention of promoting liberal democracy, but it may still displace American influence through its ability to get things done, analysts said.

In one of the more astounding and consequential developments in human history, China has transformed itself from a backward, marginal outpost of agrarian socialism of little significance into the second-largest economy in the world. And it is precisely this material transformation that is fueling discussions about the possibility of hegemonic transition, notes Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics at the University of Western Australia.

China was thought to lack the sort of soft power and institutionalized presence in the extant structures of global governance to pose much of a challenge, much less offer a different way of doing things. What no-one seems to have considered is the possibility that:

  • the US would unilaterally abandon its own leadership role and support of the institutional architecture it created; and
  • China might leap to the defense of globalization in America’s place.

And yet that is precisely what seems to be happening, Beeson contends.

The illiberal turn in Western democracies, could benefit authoritarian China, argues Yan Xuetong, the dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

“By adopting a more open policy toward immigrants — including the creation of a path to citizenship for some categories of immigrants — China could expand its economy while improving its moral standing globally,” he contends. “In doing so, Beijing could greatly reduce America’s soft-power advantage.”

Beijing is also aiming to project soft power by investing in the world’s most popular sport – globalized European soccer, a multibillion-dollar industry that attracts investors from Bangkok to Beijing, from the United Arab Emirates to the United States, adds Afshin Molavi, co-director of the emerge85 Lab and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

China’s big soccer play is of a piece with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” idea of attaining national greatness, while European soccer’s openness to foreign investors reflects an ongoing reality in our globalized world, he writes for The Washington Post. 

Beijing is also using the 57-country Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to further its efforts at soft power [detailed in a recent book from the National Endowment for Democracy], notes Gary Sands, a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat.

But China faces serious obstacles to successfully rebranding itself as an avatar of liberalism, analyst John Ford writes for The Diplomat:

When the London-based consultancy firm Portland Communications released a survey measuring the soft power of 30 countries, China came in dead last ….The primary obstacle is the obvious one: China wants to be embraced by the liberal West without actually being a very liberal country. As China scholar Bill Bishop put its “How can you win hearts and minds when you are known as a country that blocks Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter?”

“The fact is that China’s government is still an authoritarian regime, which makes it hard for China to earn soft power,” Ford adds. “Most people do not admire censorship of the press or suppression of dissent.”

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