By Mohan Malik

The Chinese challenge to U.S. primacy and the liberal democratic order is far more potent than that of the previous contenders, pretenders and challengers. Unlike the Soviet Union and Japan, China is not a uni-dimensional power but a multi-dimensional (economic, military, scientific and technological) superpower. Just as no great power goes quietly, no great power arrives quietly.

Rising powers are never status-quo powers. Whenever opportunity presents itself, rising powers flex their muscles and test influence. New players don’t play by the old rules. They seek to recast their region in their image. Their membership of the existing institutions changes the nature and role of the institutions themselves. In times of power transitions, rising powers seek to remake existing international systems.

China remains a non-status-quo power—in terms of territory, status and influence. Like other great powers in the past, China is also laying down new markers, drawing new lines in the land, water, sand and snow all around its periphery. Increased assertiveness signals transition from Deng Xiaoping’s strategic directive of “hiding capabilities to bide our time, and never taking the lead” to “seizing opportunities, taking the lead and showing off capabilities to shape others’ choices in China’s favor.”

China will behave as other great powers have behaved in history: it will carve out spheres of influence, establish a network of friends and allies to establish a pro-Beijing balance-of-power; secure access to natural resources, markets and bases; reform old and form new institutions; and establish a regional order that would serve Chinese interests and undermine those of its rivals. Power shifts have already created pressure for the reform of global institutions in which China, India and other emerging economies are not fully represented: the World Bank and the IMF and the UN Security Council. The exclusive G-7 has given way to the G-20. There has been a proliferation of regional and global organizations in sync with the re-configuration of power: APEC, ARF, APT, BRICS, IBSA, EAS, and ADMM+8.

China’s size, historical grievances, level of development, and nationalist aspirations dictate that Beijing only plays by Western rules when those are to its advantage. Chinese strategic writings indicate a preference for a unipolar Asia with China at the center of regional order and a multipolar world. Naturally, this makes it hard for China to accept any externally imposed barriers to its growth.

On a normative level, China’s growing global influence will empower it to lay down new rules for the post-American international order. Despite being the largest beneficiary of the existing international order, Beijing perceives it as a “tool” of the “imperialist West” that would “constrain China’s future growth.” Evidently, China appears increasingly uncomfortable with many of the laws and norms that undergird the current international system.

Most post-World War II institutions were built upon liberal-democratic norms such as respect for human rights, transparency, openness and inclusiveness. However, with wealthy authoritarian regimes now taking the lead in establishing multilateral institutions, a very different set of norms would underpin international organizations. The SCO is one example of this new type of regional multilateral institutions which lack any democratic and liberal values.

As China’s power grows, Beijing will push for a new regional and global institutional architecture. Beijing’s policies on climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, world trade and UN Security Council reform are a sign of times to come. In commenting on the failure of the Copenhagen climate negotiations, the Chinese Ambassador for Climate Change, Yu Qingtai, drew the ominous lesson that “the developed countries need to make up their minds whether they want to pursue confrontation or co-operation with China.

The financial aid and bailouts that China can offer to recession-hit countries surpass those of existing international financial institutions. China has shown willingness to use its growing financial influence in international institutions such as the ADB and the IMF to wield veto power over rescue packages for countries that do not comply with its political demands — especially over issues such as Tibet and Taiwan.

China’s diplomatic energies will remain focused on creating an alternative pole to democratic-liberal order in international institutions, eroding U.S. power, and driving a wedge between the United States and its allies. Luo Yuan, chairperson of the Strategy Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, believes that China will soon reach a stage where it will have the power to either mold or discard existing institutions and build a new political-economic international order that will ensure strategic balance and stability.

Critics suspect that this “new political-economic international order” would not be much different from the Sino-centric hierarchical order of pre-modern Asia. The Chinese certainly seem far more comfortable with multilateral forums they have constructed, like the SCO, in which China plays the leading role, than with existing global institutions that were created by the United States and its allies and reflect Western values. Given the central role that China plays in giving direction to the SCO, the manner in which the SCO has developed provides interesting clues to the direction other regional organizations, such as APT and EAS, might take should China assume a dominant position.

In many multilateral forums, Washington alone will not be able to set the agenda or shape desired outcomes on a range of traditional and transnational security issues. With growing global power, and an increasingly nationalistic public opinion at home, Beijing will seek to rewrite the rules on trade, currency, technology, intellectual property rights, navigation of the seas, water resources, and climate change to protect Chinese interests. China already operates both within and outside the international system, seeking to mold it to serve Chinese interests while at the same time, in effect, working to establish a new Sino-centric regional order. Beijing will use global norms and conventions and its growing clout in international organizations to promote China’s core interests or have its foreign policy agenda endorsed while defining limits to U.S. power and marginalizing Beijing’s Asian rivals (India and Japan).

Having said that, discord between “China and the rest” could still make the West prevail. China is a polarizing rising power. Among regional countries, China will continue to arouse unease because of its size, history, proximity, power, unresolved territorial/maritime disputes, and more importantly, because memories of the tributary state system have not dimmed. Despite its relative decline, the United States will remain the balancer of choice for most countries on China’s periphery and elsewhere.

In particular, the Sino-Indian relationship will be marked by a “positional” rivalry in multilateral forums—a concern over their relative positions in the regional and global hierarchy. With the notable exception of environment and some trade issues, there are not many issues of collaboration and cooperation between China and India. In fact, far from mitigating their power competition, regional and international organizations will become the new arenas of Sino-Indian rivalry for maximizing relative power and for gaining advantage and influence.

Mohan Malik is Professor in Asian Security at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu. His most recent book is China and India: Great Power Rivals (London and Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2011). These are his personal views.