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The Asia-Pacific Region’s “Operating System” and the “Chinese Dream” of Global “Return”


This is the text of remarks Dr. Ford delivered on April 18, 2013, to a U.S.-Australia “Track II” dialogue held at the Australian Defense College in Canberra.  Professor Hugh White of the Australian National University was the other participant in this panel discussion.  (Dr. Ford’s remarks on an earlier panel at the same dialogue will be posted subsequently on NPF.)

Good afternoon, and thanks for the pleasure of speaking to you a second time.  This morning I offered a survey of key regional issues, but with your indulgence I’d like now like to drill down a bit into one particular issue: the potential regional implications of the “Chinese Dream” of national “return.”

As I see it, one of the biggest issues for the Asia-Pacific lies at a very intangible level: the degree to which the region is coming to see contestation over its most fundamental “operating system.”  With China’s rise and the PRC’s ambition to effect some kind of geopolitical “return,” the current order – the open, liberal, and broadly pluralist order that has made it possible for the states of this region (including, ironically, the PRC itself) to grow and prosper so greatly – is no longer unquestionably the “OS” of the region’s future.

The open, liberal, pluralist order of the Asia-Pacific has been a cooperative and collaborative project of many states for a long time; its success can rightly be said to have had many fathers.  This order, however, has also been underpinned in important ways by U.S. political and economic power.  Today, rightly or wrongly, many see that U.S. power as being cast increasingly in doubt, even as China’s global and regional heft continues to grow.  The potential implications are very great indeed, and some have even suggested that regional countries may at some point have to “choose” between Washington and Beijing.

For my part, I think the idea of such a “choice” is more obscuring than helpful, especially to the extent that such a phrase rests upon some distinction between the supposed alternatives of  U.S. or Chinese overlordship.  I do not think the Asia-Pacific really faces that “choice,” not least because Washington does not demand such a status.  But there may at some point be an aspect of “choice” involved nonetheless – not between overlords but between regional “operating systems.”  And to assess that, one must know more about the alternative being presented.

Particularly in what were for them the heady days of the U.S. financial crisis – and to some extent still, in our present politico-economic malaise – Chinese officials and commentators have spoken with some enthusiasm of there existing some kind of “China Model.”  So what would the competing “operating system” for the Asia-Pacific look like?   I would wager that there is unlikely to be much that is generally pluralist about it, either in theory or in practice.

A few years ago I wrote a book arguing that it is a powerful strain in Chinese political culture to assume that political authority is related to moral virtue.  Order is seen as tending to coagulate, as it were, around the virtuous ruler, all legitimate claimants to political authority must insist upon and vigorously defend their own claims to virtue, and defects in political order are assumed to be the result of defects in virtue.

Both political authority and moral virtue, moreover, are seen as things lived primarily in the vertical dimension, leading to a distinctively monist, status-hierarchic, and potentially universalist conception of order.  Just as suggestions of a lack of superlative virtue are attacks upon one’s basic political legitimacy, so also the virtue of others cannot really be granted lest they be suspected to deserve political and status-hierarchic pride of place.

This traditional Chinese conception of order claims fidelity to a morality of reciprocal obligations and right conduct, but it is sharply hierarchic and zero-sum.  Such obligations are vertical in their reciprocity, as in the archetype of the traditional family presided over by a benevolent but sternly authoritative paterfamilias, and with a clear totem pole of status-hierarchy and deference below that apex.  There is nothing of real pluralism here: as the old Chinese saying puts it, there cannot be two suns in the sky.

This system of order can be seen in ancient Confucian conceptions, though such assumptions are shared to a surprising degree even in China’s non-Confucian traditions.  I also believe that a good deal of this kind of thinking has persisted into the present day.

Such conceptions form a marked contrast to the kind of pluralistic, open order I described a moment ago as being the foundation of today’s Asia-Pacific community.  It was one of the points of my book to ask questions about the degree to which such attitudes remained of operational significance in Chinese political and strategic culture, wondering what approach Beijing would end up taking in the world if and when its size and power came to give it options beyond merely piggybacking upon derivations of an order-system pioneered by others.

I think there is room to be concerned that some these conceptual themes have become bound up in troubling ways both with modern Chinese nationalism and with the CCP regime’s own more specific modern ambitions.  It has been, for instance, all but an obsession for post-Qing Dynasty China to develop the country’s global standing not just in absolute but in relative terms – not merely to produce gains for ordinary Chinese from growth and development per se, but to seek these thing precisely in order to propel China as a whole once more back up, vis-à-vis everyone else, on the league tables of global power and status.  Revealingly, some Chinese commentators have termed this not merely China’s “rise” but instead its “return” to a position, indeed almost a birthright, of which that self-perceived civilization-state had for years been cheated.

The official Chinese narrative of “humiliation” at foreign hands reflects powerful virtuocratic elements, for China’s very weakness in the face of 19th and 20th Century European power is deeply problematic when viewed from that perspective, for through a virtuocratic lens it might suggest a lack of virtue on the part of Chinese civilization as a whole.  This adds a poignancy and desperation to modern China’s dilemma, simultaneously encouraging a propagandistic iconography of foreign malevolence – which makes China’s disability seem unfair and undeserved, and thus less tainting – and making it all the more imperative that the county climb back to the position of strength and prominence that represents the proper order of things.  This ideological emphasis upon “return,” with the volatile mix of virtuocratic arrogance and politico-cultural insecurity it entails, has been in many ways the central characteristic of Chinese national policy under both Communist and non-Communist rulers since the fall of the Qing.

The modern PRC’s desire for politico-moral status-deference from the rest of the world – as important a commodity to Chinese leaders, it sometimes seems, as concrete power – is deeply entangled with virtuocratic political theory, and the PRC’s corresponding chip-on-the-shoulder insecurity about China’s own past weakness.  The same can be said of Beijing’s fixation upon controlling how others view and describe China, its insistence that China acts with a purity of intention and a devotion to moral virtue unmatched by any other major player, its leaders’ inability to admit error or fault, their tendency to demonize all who disagree with them, and their sometimes almost adolescent sensitivity to rhetorical or symbolic slights.

All of which should, I think, indeed prompt us to ask what it would be like to live in a region – or even a world – with a China that has “returned” on the basis of such thinking, and it is here where the potential clash between international “operating systems” becomes most apparent.   Even if the PRC were not to insist upon much by way of direct dominion, a “returned” China seems likely to make considerable demands on everyone else in terms of political and status deference, and in terms of international (and even domestic) discourse control in all matters deemed to affect China in some way.  In worse scenarios, it might turn out not to be a coincidence that the PRC is today building up both regional and longer-legged power-projection capabilities even while developing an A2/AD shield behind which such tools could be exercised with relative impunity.

PRC commentators frequently allege that Confucian virtues are antimilitarist ones, and People’s Liberation Army propagandists are fond of invoking the voyages of the early Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He as a model of how a powerful China would behave with peaceably benevolent grandeur even when possessing unsurpassed global power-projection capabilities.  Confucius, however, was not shy about preaching the need for military chastisement of uppity barbarians unwilling to heed the dictates of right conduct, however, and Zheng He did not hesitate to intervene with his naval infantry in places such as Sumatra where contests emerged between pro- and anti-Chinese local leaders.  (There is thus both ancient ideological legitimation and historical precedent for gunboat diplomacy to enforce the proper Sinocentric order of things in the Indo-Pacific.)

Chinese officials have also repeatedly referred to their desire to build a “harmonious world,” but non-Chinese have rarely explored quite what that seems to mean to the PRC.  Some Chinese commentators, however, have explained that the meaning of this phrase can be seen by analogy to the “harmonious society” that the CCP regime has built within China itself, even while some have even explicitly invoked the Zhou Dynasty as a political model of how overall suzerainty and status-deference to a civilizational monopole can be squared with broad degrees of functional political autonomy within an interstate order system.  Meanwhile, CCP officials have spoken with increasing vehemence about the imperative of ideological and conceptual struggle in the international arena, articulating theories whereby it is the distinctive prerogative of the dominant state to set (and enforce) norms for the order-system – making such work, implicitly, the increasing responsibility of a rising power on the verge of effecting its own world-historical “return.”

All of this, I would suggest, should worry us a good deal.  Such hints and insights suggest that very important political and indeed ideational challenges lie ahead for the Asia-Pacific region well beyond more concrete questions of economics, diplomatic relationships, and the military-technological balance.  There is a whiff of competition in the air between organizing frameworks, which we should ignore at our peril.

The future of the Asia-Pacific region will develop in part at the level of ideas and values related to the basic political “operating system” of the region as a whole and of the states that form its constituent parts.  Acknowledging this, I posit, is especially important for our two countries – Australia and the United States – for they share so much in terms of their political values and a commitment to open and pluralist operating systems at home and abroad.  If there is “choice” involved here, we both know what we must choose.

Thank you.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford took office in January 2018 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. In October 2019, he was delegated the authorities and responsibilities of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Previously, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, nor those of the U.S. Government.
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