China’s Superpower Game: Reactions and Strategic Goals

Release Date : 2023-09-21

The world situation has seen a significant power restructuring at the impact of a series of events like US-China confrontations, centenary pandemic outbreak, Russia-Ukraine war. Generally, the world has transitioned from single superpower together with multilateral powers after the Cold War to a confrontation of polarized multilateralism. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China has changed its practice from internal growth to external expansion; that is to adjust its policy from “keeping a low profile and waiting for a chance” to an active “taking actions.” Its rising with expansion poses a military threat to the security of its neighboring regions like Northeast Asia, Taiwan Strait, South China Sea, and even India. In addition, China has tried to expand its global influences through economic, trade and culture exchanges with the development of “Belt and Road Initiative (B&R),” and the setting up of Confucius Institutes.

As the US and western countries have gradually realized the potential threats posed by China’s rise, Rusia launched an overall invasion to Ukraine in February 2022. It prompts the West to take precautions against China, ranging from security containment in Indo-Pacific regions to economically reducing risks and dependence on China. The world has gradually formed an axis cored on US-China confrontation, moving toward polarization and multilateralism.

The current world order moving toward polarization centers on the confrontation between China and the US; however, the building up of multilateralism is based on two different kinds of interests. For the US, its core interest is security that involves in strengthening and extending the existing functions of the NATO and establishing a new multilateral security mechanism in Indo-Pacific region. Examples include the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) among US, Japan, India and

Australia, the trilateral security pact among Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (AUKUS), the regular summits among US, Japan and Korea, and even an effort to connect the NATO and Indo-Pacific through Japan and Korea. In recent years, at the lead of the US, the Indo-Pacific region has gradually become a “mini-NATO” with various small-scale multilateralism which centers on security, targeting at Russia and China.

On the other hand, China has gradually replaced Russia as the head of “anti-American camp,” trying to build multilateral unions mainly including developing countries after the Russia-Ukraine war. In recent years, it has organized some regular and significant multilateral organizations like Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), China-Central Asia Summit, the BRICS, the B&R, Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and China-Arab States Cooperation Forum. All these organizations mainly focus on economic cooperation and development, and efforts are made extensively in global areas excluding the North America and Europe.

Before the US-China confrontation, there have been several high-level summits that cover various topics and attended by both the US and China, for example, the United Nations (UN) and its affiliated organizations, APEC, and G20. These existing summits used to serve as platforms for discussions of various issues with multilateral significance. Today, under the current circumstances, their importance is to provide chances for the leaders of the US and China to meet and conduct dialogue on the sideline.

Through a simple classification, it reveals a trend in the current polarized multilateralism that members of the China-led camp are mostly developing countries, many of which are non-democratic. They mainly work on the cooperation of issues related to economic development. In the camp led by the US, the newly established small multilateral organizations or dialogues, aside from NATO, are targeting at China and focusing on security issues. For the existing organizations that include both the US and China, they used to provide platforms for global leaders to promote cooperation in the context of globalization. But they now serve additional functions as sideline meetings for leaders of US and China, that has attracted more attentions than the summits themselves.

We’ve seen that the current structure of world order is shifting to polarization and developing to multilateralism. For China, its actions and strategic goals of participating summits worth special attentions. Observing from recent various high-level summits, Xi Jinping’s attendance in person or by appointed representative have implicitly revealed China’s pursuing strategic goal in a game between superpowers.

First, China intends to highlight its strategic goal to maintain and consolidate its leading position and thus expanding its political influences in specific areas through Xi Jinping’s presence at the summits. There are several characteristics of these summits: they are initiated or led by China, hosted by China, and their members are developing countries, excluding western countries. Recent cases include the BRICS Summit in South Africa, Central Asian Summit, and the upcoming B&R Forum.

Second, the summits that Xi Jinping used to attend but no longer does are those that China can’t get the leadership, often the international organizations or high-level summits both the US and China participating in. There are two possible strategic goals that make Xi change his attendance. First, his attendance to the summits participated by the US and western countries will not help China expand its political influence and might lead to a diplomatic isolation as seen in G20. Second, Xi’s non-attendance would undermine the global influence of these organizations. In fact, China chooses to “start of on a new path” to control power of discourse, and the giving up of its attendance is to dimmish the dominance of the western countries in controlling the agendas of the summits. 

Finally, there are several special points about China’s strategy toward game with superpowers. First, China has tried to maintain its dominance among developing countries through economic development (like the B&R Initiative) and political stability (upholding authoritarian rules). It also wants to created development methods and international rules that are different from the western models. Second, China intends to separate its approaches in dealing with Europe and the US. It adopts a dividing strategy of resisting against the US but not the Europe. China’s B&R still sticks to the route of eastern Europe, targeting at the links with western Europe. Economically, China needs to keep a reciprocal relationship with Europe, even though there are frictions on democratic and human rights issues between them. China does not want to get stuck in a confrontation with Europe.

Generally, China’s game with superpowers can be observed from its actions and strategic goals. Within the framework of polarized multilateralism, the US and China have tried to express their stands on national interests, draw red lines, maintain contacts, and reduce misjudgments, either in direct leader-level summits or in high-level meetings. From a structural and strategic perspective, China stresses development while the US emphasizes security with individual multilateral platforms of each side. In addition, China has worked on establishing new arenas to dimmish the dominance of the western countries. At present, the multilateralism has evolved to forms of confrontation with different functions, and it has become a fundamental pattern for global politics and economy, that will remain a stalemate and is hard to break in a certain time.  

By Shen Yu-Chung, Professor, the Department of Political Science, Tunghai University