Are China or Russia the biggest threat to a Western-dominated world order?

Written by Toshiki Tabata

This essay is going to discuss whether Russia or China could be a threat to the current world order that Western countries dominate. To answer this question, some further questions have to be clarified: how could those countries even be a threat to the current liberal world order? If they can be  a threat, how will they have an impact on the world order?

This essay is divided into two parts. The first part examines what sort of world order Russia and China attempt to establish. After introducing three types of views, this essay will demonstrate that Oliver Stuenkel’s view is the closest to the vision of new world order held by Russia and China, by examining political will of both countries. In the second part, based on the discussion in the first part, it will be examined whether those countries have capability to build a new world order in accordance with its vision, and whether those countries can be threat to the current world order. Through these discussion, this essay concludes that China will be a bigger threat to the current world order.

Toshiki Tabata is originally from Japan, and has a master’s degree in Geopolitics and Grand Strategy from the University of Sussex. This essay is reprinted in CAPIR with the author’s permission.

Today, Western powers such as the United States, the European Union, and Japan are faced with confrontation with Russia and China. It can be said that this rivalry is the result of misguided foreign policies. The United States has failed to correctly interpret intentions of China and Russia. Against rising China, the United States implemented a policy which aimed to promote regime change in China, in the belief that economic growth will give an incentive for this country to move towards political liberalisation. As a result of that policy, China grew richer and stronger without becoming a liberal democracy (Friedberg, 2011). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and despite Russia’s willingness to join the Western world order, the West was not able to integrate Russia into the international institutions since they adhered to conditionality which enforce Russia to reform its political and economic systems (Sakwa, 2008) In today’s volatile world where power is transitioning from the hegemon to emerging countries, foreign policy based on misconception can be quite dangerous. Thus, answering this essay’s question would be beneficial to form a basic understanding of emerging world order in order to articulate proper foreign policy for Western countries.

Views of  a new world order

Ikenberry (2011) argues that although the national power and the status of the United States in the world politics will decline, the liberal international order will be maintained by global actors. According to him, emerging states such as China and Russia do not challenge the basic rules and norms that constitute the current global order. They just seek a higher status and leadership within the system. Liberal international order, represented by rules, practices and institutions such as the WTO, enabled economic growth of today’s emerging countries, and their national interests are deeply dependent on it. As a result, although today’s liberal institutional world order needs trimming, it will be maintained and the United States will continue to play a centre role within the system.

Contrary to this idea, Barma (2009) claims that rising non-Western countries will build an alternative world order that does not share the same norms as liberal institutionalism. According him, they will attempt to replace the liberal idea that states should maintain domestic governance and an economic system based on individual rights, with their own set of rules and norms, especially rejecting the values that justify political or military intervention. (Barma et al., 2009)

On the other hand, while supporting Ikenberry’s idea that emerging powers basically accept roles and rules of existing international institutions, Stuenkel (2016) and Foot and Walter (2011) claim that emerging countries such as BRICS (Brasil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), will create and lead multilateral institutions centred on non-Western powers in order to gain their privileges of leadership as the United States have done in the existing institutions after the Second World War. They point out that there exists hierarchy in the global system, and the United States, the hegemon, can break the rules and norms that it set. What makes emerging powers dissatisfied with is behaviours of established great powers within the system, rather than the rules and norms themselves. It is the tension between the system’s liberal principles and exceptions to established powers that explains why emerging powers regard the liberal institutionalism as a form of liberal imperialism. Thus, the establishment of new non-Western institutions such as New Development Bank, the BRICS’ Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA), and China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), can be interpreted not as challenge to liberal rules and norms, but attempt to gain the same privileges and benefits the United States has enjoyed in existing institutions (Stuenkel, 2016; Foot and Walter, 2011). Furthermore, Stuenkel (2016) argues that they will provide more public goods in order to gain supports by other countries. In that world order, he continues, the United States will gradually lose its institutional centrality.

As a counterargument to Barma, Stuenkel (2016) argues that non-Western countries observe liberal rules and norms in many cases more than established Western powers. Even in the area of The Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which is believed to be a notion developed by the West, India plays a key role in the cases of UN Temporary Commission on Korea* and ethnic cleansing by the Pakistani military*. Although these actions may have been driven more by national interests rather than by humanitarian purpose, those cases shows rising countries are not necessarily consistent with the principle of national sovereignty (Stuenkel, 2016).

This essay supports Stuenkel’s worldview. The following sections examine political will of China and Russia to establish an alternative world order and demonstrate that the world order suggested by Stuenkel is the most consistent with the intention of the both countries. After those sections, it will be discussed which of China or Russia could be a bigger threat to a Western dominated world order, by comparing its capability to be a leader of non-Western world order.

China’ willingness

Up until the current Chinese President Xi Jinping assumed his position, China had adopted a ‘Keeping a Low Profile’ (KLP) strategy, a policy in which China seeks for peaceful development without challenging hegemony or undertaking global leadership (Yan, 2014). According to Yan, who analysed China’s discourse by high rank politicians and academia, China’s intention behind the KLP strategy was to avoid confrontation with other countries, especially the zero sum game with the United States because they thought China was still weak and should concentrate on its domestic problems. This policy was supported by officials and Chinese scholars (Yan, 2014). However, after Obama’s rebalance policy to Asia and intensified territorial dispute with Japan, the policy was criticised that even its moderate and cautious policy cannot change other countries’ recognition of China as a threat. Xi Jinping shifted Chinese foreign policy from the KLP to the Striving for Achievement (SFA) strategy in 2012. In that strategy, China attempts to make more friends in order to create a favourable international environment for China’s rejuvenation. It is necessary for a rising power to establish its global strategic credibility by letting others benefit from its growth. Thus, making allies and building up strategic credibility with them especially in terms of political relations are key conditions for its national rejuvenation (Yan, 2014; Zeng and Breslin, 2016). This idea is represented in Xi’s speech at the First World Peace Forum in July 2012; ‘A country which pursues its own development, security and well-being must also let other countries pursue their development, security and well-being’. 

According to Yan (2014), China’s government assumes ‘national rejuvenation’ as the top national goal. The phrase ‘national rejuvenation’ refers to resuming the national power and status as much as in the period when China was the most advanced state. Today, it implies to catch up with the United States. In other words, China has an intention to be a competitor with the United States over the international leadership. 

In 2012, Xi Jinping proposed the United States to establish a ‘new type of Great Power relations’ between the two countries. While it was partly a signal of China’s acceptance of its global role and responsibility to solve global problems with the United States, it also redefined itself as a ‘Great Power.’ (Zeng and Breslin, 2016) According to Zeng and Breslin’s article in 2016, there is a broad consensus among Chinese officers and scholars that China is a great power, and that even though the United States will keep its position as the predominant power, China should exercise its power to serve its national interests. 

Generally, such a discourse evokes conflict or a zero-sum game as power transition theory explains. However, Chinese leaders claim China’s rise must be peaceful. Xi Jinping said in the World Economic Forum in 2014 ‘We all need to work together to avoid the Thucydides trap – destructive tensions between an emerging power and established powers, or between established powers themselves’. He claimed he denied the expectation that a rising power and an existing hegemon are unlikely to come to peaceful accommodation, claiming the difference between perspectives established through Western history and Chinese one. 

To summarise, during the presidency of Xi Jinping, China set a goal to establish a favourable international environment to pursue its national interest. This so called SFA strategy is fundamentally different from the KLP strategy that used to be adopted until 2012. Today China has shifted its self-image from a country which does not have power to confront the hegemon to a Great Power that can bid to establish world order, and shows its willingness to compete with the United States over its national power.

Russia’s role

Contrary to China’s political will, Russia’s one is unclear and debatable. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian experts and government officers have debated its identity and its relationship with the West. Although its identity and worldview have not been coherent through Russian history, worldviews have affected Russia’s foreign policy and events have shaped its national identity. Nau and Ollapally (2012) categorise the leading schools of thoughts over Russia’s identity and its worldview into three groups; pro-Western Liberals, Great Power balancers, and Nationalists. 

Firstly, modern Russian pro-Western liberals have its roots within the Westernizers’ intellectual tradition, which argues Russia should learn from and be integrated into the West. They usually advocate collective security, globalization, membership in the WTO, among others. From the perspective of international relations theory, this group is identified between liberal institutional and realist thinking. Although liberal’s views are today marginalised and do not have significance influence in Russian politics, main proponents in this category claim that deeper integration into the Western economic and political institutions is a national goal, as the West is a crucial international partner.

The second school of thought is ‘Great Power Balancers’, the group whose perspective on the international system is more state-centric and focused on how to seek for Russian national interests in the context of balance of power. Proponents of this worldview can be categorised as defensive realists who claim the importance of maintaining sphere of influence on the territory of the former Soviet Union and of containing American global preeminence. This school does not reject Western experience, and attempts to learn form it. They are willing to introduce Western technology and attract direct foreign investment in order to compete with the West. They also admit that there are many universal values that Russia has in common with the West. This school’s view is well represented in Russia’s foreign policy and has the most significant influence on the government.

Nationalists, the third school, are averse to the Western interests, specifically the United States. They would like to challenge and revise the Russian national border, according to each subgroup’s claim including neo-imperialists and ethno-nationalists. (Nau and Ollapally, 2012)

Nau and Ollapally (2012) maintain that Russia’s main ideological discourses are difficult to precisely pin down certain points of view. Even the view of Vladimir Putin is not interpreted in the same way by researchers. While abundant evidences suggest that Putin is a Great Power Balancer, his realist orientation have been shifted to more pro-Western view in 2000-2002, or to more nationalists’ view in 2003 and onwards, depending on internal and external factors. They conclude that he does not adhere to any special ideological predilections, and articulates foreign policy pragmatically (Nau and Ollapally, 2012).

On the other hand, Sakwa (2008) points out that Vladimir Putin has conducted his foreign policy, along one theoretical perspective, so-called ‘new realism’. After he came to power in 2000, Putin revised Russia’s unilateral anti-Western foreign policy that alienated others, and has sought to match national ambitions to resources. In other words, he accepts the realities of the international system, in which the United States has overwhelming predominance of power, and attempts to seek for Russia’s national interests within a existing world order as a great power, rather than act as revisionist power. However, the integration into the West seemed to be unsustainable, because of the broad consensus shared among Russian that Russia acts as a champion of sovereignty. Although the move of Russia’s integration into international institutions was welcomed by all, it was difficult for the West to accept Russia’s attempt to gain an equal voice on major issues without the costs of membership, which was expected to impose Russia on some domestic reforms. This difficulty in implementing the new realist agenda led to distrust of each other between Russia and the West. Later, NATO’s enlargement and the United State’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty turned this distrust and disappointment among Russian into the view that the West exploits Russian moderate attitude and it is a competitor to Russia, rather than a partner (Karaganov, 2014; Sakwa, 2008). Although this deep-seated resentment was tempered by new realism’s rationality, as the limit of predominant power of the United States become gradually apparent in the Iraq War and as Russia’s economic and political situation stabilised, Russia began to show its self-confidence and to challenge the hierarchy in the current international system. (Sakwa, 2008)

Liberal, but non-Western world order

The political will of both countries discussed above can be a strong reason to support Stuenkel’s view of future world order. Firstly, both countries are dissatisfied with their position in today’s world order and attempt to act as a great power, which can exert its influence to others. China’s SFA strategy represents its intention to redefine its position as Great Power and to establish more favourable international environment. Stuenkel’s view that emerging countries attempt to gain privileges within institutions they build, explains well the intention behind the SFA strategy, represented in the founding of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). In the same way, his view is persuasive in the case of Russia, given Russia’s disappointment to its integration into the West and its struggle for preserving its autonomy from external pressure.

Secondly, from the analysis of discourses, leaders of both countries basically seem to accept liberal norms. As Sakwa (2008) and Nau and Ollapally (2012) argue, Putin and many of government officials do not reject the liberal values, but rather attempted to pursue national interests through existing international institutions in his early presidency. Herrison (2005) claims that Putin thinks international problems can be resolved by a multilateral framework such as the United Nations, rather than through unilateral actions. As a counterargument to this, Barma (2009) claims that emerging powers will establish international order which does not share liberal values, rejecting the idea of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). However, Mazarr (2016) points out that there is a tension in liberal value between the narrow cautious view of liberal institutionalism as guardians of sovereign equality, territorial inviolability and a limited degree of free trade, and more ambitious agenda of human rights, democratic political system and promoting economic reforms. Emerging powers seem to maintain the narrow cautious view of liberal institutionalism, and excluding the R2P will not lead to rejecting liberal ideas. Furthermore, emerging countries have obtained benefits by joining liberal international institutions such as WTO and they are expected to remain dependent on them.

In conclusion, the new world order suggested by Stuenkel can be quite similar to the vision held by China and Russia. While they will adhere to liberal norms, they will attempt to gain advantage by building international institutions by taking the initiative. Thus, those countries will seek to build a bipolar or multipolar international structure in which they have an equal or more power as the United States. Also, in that world order, while behaving in accordance with liberal norms, they will have privilege to break those norms or rules when it is inconsistent with their national interests.

Can China or Russia be a threat to the Western dominated world order?

Since the international system is created through the interaction between actors and events, it is very difficult to predict the appearance of coming world order. However, understanding the main actors’ willingness and capabilites makes it possible to infer how, and how much the global order will be influenced by those actors.

Foot and Walter (2011) raise the factors that make the United States a significant actor in the current world order; its world’s largest economy, enormous defense budget and its behaviour as a leader. Especially, its largest economy and the biggest defense budget, which is larger than that of combined spending of next seventeen countries, enables the United States to show its undoubted position as hegemon. Then, is there any other country who is qualified as hegemon, or who has power significant enough to shape a world order?

Some scholars claim China can be in such a position. Foot and Walter (2011) argue that China can be regarded as a Great Power for many aspects. It is a nuclear weapons state and has a permanent UN Security Council membership and a growing development aid budget. It is also the rapidly growing second largest economy and a key driver of the global economy. Furthermore, China’s influence is no longer merely regional; its trade, aid and foreign policies are now of considerable consequence globally, including in Africa and South America. Thus, China can be said to have condition to be a centre of the world order. 

Adding to these factors which determines China’s significance in the whole global order, shrinking power gap between the United States and China is also critical factor. According to realism theory, strength of state is determined by relative power, rather than absolute power. In other words, even if the United States’ power keeps growing, the relative power of the United States to China will decline as long as China’s economic or military power grows in higher rate than the United States (Kishner, 2012). This power gap has a significant meaning because it could determine whether the world order is unipolar, bipolar or multipolar.

Blackwill and Tellis (2015) argue that China has acquired the capacity to threaten the vital national interests. One of the United States’ national interests is to maintain the balance of power in Asia, or keeping the vital relationship between the United States and alliances in Asia. Given the SFA strategy mentioned in the previous section, it seems that China has both political will and capability to weaken the ties between the United States and its Asian alliances by providing economic and security benefits from China’s development, and exclude the American influence in that region. Additionally, Foot and Walter (2011) maintain that the global financial and economic crisis of 2008-2009, has further reduced the asymmetry in the bilateral relationship. The extraordinary spending commitments made by the US government have made it more dependent on China, to purchase ever larger amounts of US Treasury debt. This independence means the economic stability of the United States is vulnerable to China, which provides China with strategic advantage. The crisis reduced US self-confidence in the validity of its economic model.

Opposing to these opinions, Acharya (2011) points out that China cannot be an even Asian leader since it lacks its legitimacy because of its political system. He proposes three conditions which have determined whether a country can be a leader in that region since the post Second World War era; political will, resource capacity, and legitimacy. While he admits today China has both political will and resource capability, he maintains China missed the opportunity to be Asian hegemon because of its lack of legitimacy. However, China will obtain it by providing its neighbours with security protection and economic benefit, as discussed in the section of China’s willingness to bid to establish world order. For instance, in October 2016, Philippine’s President Rodrigo Duterte declared that he would realign with China, abandoning its alliance with the United States, despite the intensified territorial dispute with China. Although this case does not seem feasible, China uses its economic leverages to its neighbours with which China has territorial disputes in South China Sea (Ravindran, 2012). 

To summarise, today’s China has enough resource power to play a central role in the global order. Especially, its significant global influence make it impossible for the United States to resolve global issues without China’s cooperation. This will reduce the centrality of the United States in the global order and will cause a shift from unipolarity to bipolarity .

Compared to China, Russia’s bid for a centre of new world order seems less likely to take place. Judging from the factors discussed above which are necessary to be a centre of world order, Russia lacks many elements of them. Firstly, even though Russia is an important energy exporter, it lacks China’s economic importance. Although Russia uses energy resources and has huge military power as leverage over neighbours, its economy which supports its national power is too vulnerable to the price of oil. Secondly, Russia does not have influence power in global level as China does. Although it exerts strong influential power over the former Soviet Union, it is at most regional level and buffer against the Western influence. Therefore, there is a huge potential gap between China and Russia to be a new global hegemon, and China is a bigger threat to the Western world order as it will reduces United States’ centrality.


As Stuenkel (2016) maintains, the emerging power will challenge the existing hierarchy in the world order, by taking initiative to build new international institutions and by obtaining privileges in them. On the other hand, those emerging power do not reject the liberal norms, but embed them into their new institutions to seek for national interests. This essay demonstrated it by analysing political will of China and Russia. Then, it concluded China has a bigger potential to reduce the United States’ centrality in the global order and to make the world bipolarity. However, can it be a threat to the Western dominated world order? As a conclusion of this essay, China can be a threat to the ‘Western dominated’ world order, but it is not to the liberal world order. This competition over the status in the world order is not for values, but for national power.

Toshiki Tabata is originally from Japan, and has a master’s degree in Geopolitics and Grand Strategy from the University of Sussex. This essay is reprinted in CAPIR with the author’s permission.

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