China’s Strategic Shift: What are the Implications for the Evolving Global Order?


By Robbin Laird

Dr. Harald Malmgren has described what he and his colleague see as a strategic shift in China associated with the next phase of President Xi’s leadership.

The shift from an export-oriented growth economy which is deeply intertwined with the developments in the Western world to one more focused on domestic consolidation and a global shift to the rest of the non-Western world carries with it significant implications for the global competition with the West.

How can we characterize this shift?

What is the nature of the changed competition?

What are the implications for the West?

Although it is early days in providing answers to these questions, we can identify some possible key developments and questions going forward.

In this article, my objective is to raise such questions rather than providing answers, which will be determined interactively between China, its allies, its friends and its competitors.

But that is really the central point: the nature of the new global order will be determined by competition among key states and how they cooperate or don’t in shaping what has been called frequently a “rules-based order.”

There might be several “rules-based orders” rather than one as the outcome.

The kind of authoritarian regime being crafted by President Xi and his allies puts a priority on how to shape working relationships with other authoritarian powers.

The relationship with Russia is the most visible for China, but there is a global effort to come to terms with other authoritarian powers built around working relationship’s shaped by the enemy of my enemy is my friend dynamic.

We are simply not very good at analyzing how authoritarian leaders work with one another, how they think, how they act and how they are deterred from actions we fear or do not like. We need to recognize that this is a key field of study which has little to do with how liberal democracies compete and cooperate with one another.

This raises a key question when we address conflict and notably military conflict in the years ahead.

We have coined a series of concepts such as hybrid warfare and gray zone conflict which simply reflect that we don’t know how to deter let along compete in an area which is neither hard nor soft power nor in which force is used to gain objectives short of a general war. The American-led wars in Iraq in Afghanistan have demonstrated that the art of statecraft in dealing with this level of conflict is in short supply.

Authoritarian leaders clearly do not all think alike and have their own version of their national interest.

How do and will they work together?

How do and will they influence each other?

For example, when President Xi restored the former Chinese name to Vladivostok, what did Putin discern its meaning?

How in fact can Western states most effectively influence authoritarian behavior?

The track record with regard to Putin certainly is not a showcase for European or American statecraft.

What would have deterred him from the Ukraine invasion?

This is a subject worthy of analysis, not from the minds of Westerners but from the mind of Putin and his allies. This is hardly just historical analysis because it is tied up with how we would end such a war and deal with the evolving global order.

Another key area to explore are the changes in the global economy associated with the projected shift led by President Xi.

This can be seen on many levels but here I will focus on two.

The first is the need for foreign capital to fuel Chinese domestic development. The recent peace overture led by China with Saudi Arabia and Iran was largely interpreted as dealing with oil and the future energy needs of China. But it is much broader than that.

The American political process led by Biden attacked the legitimacy of the ruler of Saudi Arabia, and Biden turned his back on the Abraham Accords. President Xi could care less about the internal ethics of the Saudi leader but the global future of Saudi is important. They are building new technologies and new defense systems which China could support, China has personnel to replace the current heavy reliance on Pakistanis and the Saudis have capital to invest.

The second is the shift associated the West and China.

There is a clear shift towards innovation in terms of energy, of better use of resources which are loosely associated with dealing with the global climate change.

In dealing with this new phase or age of innovation, there is a shift towards critical minerals and other commodities of enhanced importance, somewhat reminiscent of the shift from coal to oil at the beginning of the 20th century.

Countries which have these critical minerals and commodities are in a pole position for enhanced global influence and the reshaping of the “rules-based order” to their advantage.

The visit of President Lula to China can be seen in this light. Brazil is not simply part of the South or the developing world. Brazil should be described differently with the Western world increasingly preoccupied with the “climate emergency.”

But such a shift in terms of global economic focus raises the question of how Xi will balance his calculation in terms of the use of force and for what purpose with his shift away from the Western economies.

Does an invasion of Taiwan make any sense from his point of view in terms of the global fallout from his shift away from the West?

Or does it become more desirable as a show of force which can enhance his ability to demonstrate the weakness and “moral bankruptcy” of the West?

Then I would like to raise an issue very relevant to the future direction of military conflict.

Dr. Pippa Malmgren, Hal’s daughter and a noted global analyst in her own right, has raised for some time the secular change in operational capabilities for military forces associated with the growth of AI-enabled machines.

Recently, she argued that following: “The next war for China is a digital operation run by highly responsive and obedient self-replicating robotics, informed by the best data sets and AI that exists anywhere in the world today. Humans won’t even be needed for decision-making. In conjunction with super-computing, AI is replacing Generals, especially as the warzone expands beyond a battlefield and across the entire supply chain.”

If we look at the question of what one is prepared to do in terms of machine-led destruction to support your version of statecraft, how will China led by President Xi use his machines to support gray zone operations or his global reach?

I would like to close with a sobering thought.

Will the West really rebuild their ability to defend their interests?

Will we really find ways to work supply chains in common?

Will we be able to recover the art of statecraft along with military force innovations to provide deterrence of the authoritarian powers with China being a key leader?

And will the West do so while being able to find ways to cooperate with China in those areas that are critical for global survival?

Accompanying the economic shift described by Harald Malmgren might well be a broader global shift.

China would shift from being the economic export growth engine of globalization as understand by the West.

The focus would be upon managing the economic drawdown internally but working globally with key authoritarian allies and non-Western countries in the South to create an alternative to the legacy rules-based order.

China does not have to be formally allied to other authoritarian powers but just play off what the challenges these powers pose to the West.

And with the Brazil’s of the world new resource and trade relationships can be built as alternatives to the capital-intensive belt and road approach.

The growth of China’s informal empire becomes a key priority for the Chinese leadership as opposed to the export engine to the West.

As noted in an earlier article about China’s informal empire in Latin America which was built around the thoughts of Kenneth Maxwell:

“China has focused under the regime of President Xi on building out its global informal empire.

“By trade and investment, China has become a key player in Africa and Latin America. Its practices in doing so have a number of questionable dimensions, but instead of highlighting the reality of Chinese informal empire practices, Western states have largely ignored the opportunity to do so. They have focused on issues like Taiwan and the South China Sea, both very important but not part of the informal empire geopolitical strategy.

“But the reality is that China poses a global threat to the Western order underwritten by its economic, cultural, and third world narrative efforts along with an expanding fleet of both military and commercial shipping and ports as well.

The concept of informal empire was developed by John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson in a 1953 article published in The Economic History Review, as Kenneth Maxwell has underscored in his discussions about Latin America and China. Ronald Robinson was Maxwell’s tutor at St. John’s College at Cambridge University.

“It ought to be a commonplace that Great Britain during the nineteenth century expanded overseas by means of ‘informal empire’ as much as by acquiring dominion in the strict constitutional sense. For purposes of economic analysis, it would clearly be unreal to define imperial history exclusively as the history of those colonies coloured red on the map.

“Nevertheless, almost all imperial history has been written on the assumption that the empire of formal dominium is historically comprehensive in itself and can be cut out of its context in British expansion and world politics. The conventional interpretation of the nineteenth-century empire continues to rest upon the study of the formal empire alone, which is rather like judging the size and character of icebergs solely from the parts above the water-line.”

If one looks at the world from the perspective of the Southern Hemisphere, and with the notion of informal empire in mind, one gets a different understanding of how things might play out. The featured image provides such a map.

If one looks at this map and looks from China outward towards South America and Africa, one begins to see why Australia for example becomes more important in the way ahead for China as a global power and player.

As far as military issues go, China has internal problems – significant and growing.

But in terms of defense there nuclear arms buildup makes them a territory one would not wish to strike, and with the growing domination of Russia, the internal resource trade routes are secure.

This means that their outreach with regard especially to naval power becomes more significant less in terms of directly confronting the United States and the West, then building a force that can operate globally around them.

At the same time, building a global navy of course enhances their ability directly to deter or fight the West if it comes to that. The recent exercises off of South Africa with the Russians illustrate this approach.

China shifts along with the global order.

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Defense XII: A World in Transition