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China leadership prizes internal security over one-upping the US

China is terrified of what could happen to its central goal of CCP legitimacy in the case of ‘imperial overreach’.

Communist Party of China flag depicted in oranges and red peppers in Nanyang (Photo: VCG via Getty Images)
Communist Party of China flag depicted in oranges and red peppers in Nanyang (Photo: VCG via Getty Images)
Published 24 Mar 2017 

Since Donald Trump won the US presidential election last November there has been no shortage of speculation on how China will respond to the new Administration.

Among the wealth of commentary, we have had Professor Xiong Zhiyong from the China Foreign Affairs University saying that China and the US 'may even slide into hostility' if the Chinese side doesn’t deepen reform to reduce domestic pressure, keep a cool head, remain flexible, and make contingency plans for ‘areas of potential conflict’ with the US. Isabel Hilton, editor of, argues that Donald Trump is making China great again, in part because Trump has trashed US soft power assets which makes China’s regime look less objectionable. Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria suggests 'the Trump administration’s vision for disengagement from the world is a godsend for China'. In a similar vein, Douglas Paal, director of the Asia Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is sure that Xi will 'play the role of global leader'.

Richard Gowan, from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, has now waded in to the debate with an interesting and useful analysis that considers the possibilities of China shaping, and even leading, the international order.

Drawing on his ECFR's colleague François Godement’s paper on how China sees the global order, Gowan’s assessment seems to assume that a monolithic China under an all-powerful Xi is in a position of choosing what it wants to do without reference to domestic influences such as internal struggles and vulnerabilities, and the intense manoeuvering ahead of the 19th National Congress later this year. 

Also, there is a presumption that there are really only two options for what China may want to be: a ‘status quo power focused on regional security’ or a ‘revisionist power with aspirations to global leadership’. While both are relevant, thinking only of these two possibilities is very limiting. 

China sees the current world order as an ideological package that it had no say in creating, but, as Gowan notes, while China has a strong antipathy to certain elements, there are some aspects of the current order that it would like to continue. While China does want to make some revisions, it is not interested in overthrowing the current order. Its core focus remains its own domestic security (read: CCP legitimacy).

As Xi Xinping's address to Davos demonstrated, China isn’t going to pass up opportunities to press its leadership credentials while the world adjusts to a US president with a very different worldview from that of his immediate predecessors. Such efforts will, however, be carefully concentrated in a few specific areas and there are many others where China does not want to upset the status quo.  One example would be global environmental governance. Right now, China does not want to try to usurp the US role at the apex of this system; it doesn’t have either the interest or the capabilities, and is terrified of what could happen to its central goal of CCP legitimacy in the case of ‘imperial overreach’. 

If China is unwilling and doesn’t really have the capabilities, the next interesting question is: could China find itself in a situation where it feels it can’t not  take on a greater international leadership role, arguably like the US at various points in its history? Some say this is what happened in the South China Sea – that China wasn’t ready to take an assertive role, but domestic and external pressures made that option almost impossible to avoid.

So what might these pressures for unwilling international engagement be? There could be defensive ones, as there has been for the US, or pro-active ones, as has also happened with the US. In my view, the pro-active ones will be very limited. The defensive, however, especially this year with the Congress looming and the necessity for the CCP to demonstrate its legitimacy beyond question, might be a different story. 

It should be stated that conflict is absolutely not in the Party’s best interests: China will only go down that path if its core interests - including territorial integrity/sovereignty, economic wellbeing, and Party rule - are seriously and overtly challenged by an outsider. And the likelihood of anyone choosing to push China that hard is not high. 

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