By 2018, billions of dollars of Chinese investment had transformed Sihanoukville, and parts of the country at large, into a dangerous playground. In June 2019, an illegal Chinese-owned construction site in Sihanoukville collapsed, killing at least 28 Cambodian workers and setting off already simmering anti-Chinese sentiment. Murderous disputes among Chinese criminal syndicates festered, with perpetrators dumping victims’ bodies in the middle of town. The wave of Chinese investment in the country has stayed largely in the Chinese expatriate community, drowning many Cambodians struggling to stay afloat on roughly $3 a day. “The problem of Sihanoukville indicates that China is more concerned about its own benefits than the benefits of the local people,” says Sovinda Po, a senior fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace and PhD candidate at Australia’s Griffith University.

Indeed, despite promising mutually beneficial “win-win” relations with countries like Cambodia, China has explicitly illiberal and Sinocentric designs for global leadership, promoting its own interests to the detriment of others. Hun Sen keeps both Sihanoukville and Cambodia as a whole bound to China because Beijing bolsters his dictatorship economically, politically, and militarily. With China’s backing, he has tightened his grip on power by banning the opposition party, charging its leader with treason, muzzling what was left of the independent media, securing all 125 parliamentary seats in rigged elections, and even arresting social media critics.

Beijing’s ambitious dreams of global influence have crept into reality because of the decline of the liberal world order — the system of international political and economic cooperation that the United States built after World War II. President Trump has accelerated that decline; he considers the liberal order a naive dream that has failed Americans by globalizing the world economy, a view shared by more than a few mainstream and otherwise Trump-skeptical scholars. But one must also compare this system with the chaos that came before or the illiberalism that China hopes will come next. The liberal order may be imperfect, but for humanity’s benefit, the United States must nonetheless salvage it.

The damage of ‘America First’

In the ashes of World War II, American policymakers created the foundation of the liberal order — the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and NATO. They also pursued key alliances in Asia and eventually backed the formation of the European Union, which for all its flaws has prevented European nationalism from fomenting war, as it did in both 1914 and 1939.

As the Cold War intensified, the United States took command of this system. What Washington had intended to be a truly global order quickly became US-led and Western-centric. Yet despite America’s hegemonic status within this order, it produced extraordinary progress. Liberalism’s benefits — economic growth and improved human rights — spread across the globe. Although they did so imperfectly, they brought unprecedented peace among the great powers and lifted billions of people out of poverty. Global domestic product per capita has nearly tripled since the 1960s, according to the World Bank.

The liberal order is no “myth,” nor is it a cover for American “imperialism.” To be sure, the United States, despite all its communicated concern for human rights, has repeatedly fallen short of those ideals and exempted countries from the liberal order’s bounds. From Indonesia to Vietnam to Chile to Iraq to Afghanistan, “liberal” American interventions have left millions of dead civilians in their wake.

But that was the fault of American decision-making; it is not an inherent feature of the liberal order. And none of the order’s members sought to leave. Instead, more countries wanted in. It took Vietnam, for instance, only 20 years after the fall of Saigon to normalize ties with the United States.

Indeed, much of the world has for decades correctly understood the American-led order to be better than any known alternative, recognizing that it provides them with the tools for economic and political advancement in a way that no other system can.

South Vietnamese civilians scaled the 14-foot wall of the US embassy in Saigon, trying to reach evacuation helicopters as the last Americans departed from Vietnam on April 29, 1975.
South Vietnamese civilians scaled the 14-foot wall of the US embassy in Saigon, trying to reach evacuation helicopters as the last Americans departed from Vietnam on April 29, 1975.AP

Trump, however, is blind to this.

In putting “America first” he has weakened the liberal order by withdrawing from the world — from the Paris climate agreement, the World Health Organization, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and even the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The Trump doctrine of “We’re America, bitch” is incompatible with the liberal order.

But his administration incoherently wants to have it both ways, to retreat from much of the world while also somehow countering China’s power within it. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently railed against China and in favor of the “free world’s future,” all while ignoring the fact that his boss has spent four years undermining the institutions responsible for that free world’s existence.

Trump does not understand that without a vigorous yet liberal American global presence, an illiberal China will fill the vacuum we leave behind. Though his White House was correct to declare in May that China’s “expanding use of economic, political, and military power to compel acquiescence from nation states harms vital American interests,” the administration’s approach to the world only exacerbates this problem.

The liberal world order drew its strength from American power and restraint — from the United States’ willingness to lead while including less powerful countries in the conversation, thereby legitimizing both the order and American hegemony. Trump’s diplomatic distance, demands of deference, and alienation of allies tarnishes the whole package.

Now that his attempt to build a global coalition of China skeptics while retrenching from the world has, unsurprisingly, been largely unsuccessful, an emboldened Beijing is wielding its greater clout to export illiberalism by enticing or coercing countries into bolstering a China-centric economic and political order.

Cambodia, for instance, is a Chinese client state, if not a full-on vassal.

Over the last decade or so, Hun Sen has increasingly served Beijing’s interests. In 2009, ahead of a state visit by Xi Jinping, then China’s vice president, Cambodia deported 20 Uighur Muslims to China, knowing that they would be executed. Thanks to the Cambodian government’s veto, meanwhile, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been unable to censure China for its militarization of the South China Sea. Hun Sen’s regime has even refashioned Cambodian history to favor China, omitting Beijing’s backing of the Maoist Khmer Rouge and blaming the United States for Cambodia’s genocide. American carpet-bombing of the Cambodian countryside certainly aided the Khmer Rouge’s rise, but, as the historian Andrew Mertha put it, “without China’s assistance, the Khmer Rouge regime would not have lasted a week.”

Not even widespread Cambodian anti-Chinese sentiment has prompted Hun Sen to reevaluate what he calls an “unbreakable friendship.”

Pakistan offers another example.

Over the last several years, China has substantially strengthened its influence in Pakistan by establishing the Pakistan China Economic Corridor, through which it financed and took control of the Gwadar Port, a key port en route to the vital Hormuz Straits oil shipping lane.

As China’s presence has grown, however, Pakistanis, once among the world’s most pro-China peoples, have become China-skeptical at best. Some, particularly minorities in areas where China is most active and disruptive of traditional ways of life, have become more aggressive in their opposition. Baloch insurgents, for their part, have even targeted and killed Chinese nationals.

“CPEC is a colonial project which benefits only China and the Pakistani military,” Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur, a prominent Pakistani writer and veteran of the Baloch rights movement, told me. “People justifiably fear militarization of Gwadar and the adverse demographic changes it will prompt.”

A pedestrian walked past a sign for China Communications Construction Co. outside the headquarters of a project in Maai Mahiu, Kenya.
A pedestrian walked past a sign for China Communications Construction Co. outside the headquarters of a project in Maai Mahiu, Kenya.Luis Tato/Bloomberg

Other Pakistanis, already wary of China because of its antagonism toward religion, have been disturbed by China’s persecution of the Uighurs and by Chinese interference in Pakistani politics: Beijing bypassed Islamabad and directly reached out to the Baloch separatists to guarantee the safety of Chinese working on projects like the Gwadar Port.

Similar stories abound in other places where China has wielded its economic and political largesse, from Zambia to Nigeria to Chile to Laos to the Solomon Islands and beyond.

While Chinese capital and benevolence are attractive — particularly to autocratic leaders put off by the democratic strings attached to Western aid — Beijing’s heavy-handedness is not necessarily appealing to its neighbors. “China can’t be a political model or hegemon here,” Aun Chhengpor, a Cambodian journalist based in Phnom Penh, told me. “Though many Southeast Asian states are not much [sic] democratic, seeing China’s political model [will] make them think twice whether to accept [it].”

Getting real

China, with its economic brawn and inclusion in the global system, poses a much more daunting challenge than did the Soviet Union during the Cold War, when it was economically failing and isolated from the West. Whereas the United States has for decades promised, if inconsistently delivered, liberal cooperation, Chinese leaders, espousing their own form of realpolitik and considering themselves guardians of a superior civilization, seek an illiberal world governed only by Chinese interests. The country’s top cadres are committed to “socialism with Chinese characteristics” — effectively, authoritarian capitalism — which they consider superior to “Western social systems and values,” as President Xi has written.

Behind Xi’s proposed Chinese-led global “community of shared future” is an “anti-” ideology — anti-West, anti-status quo, anti-liberal. His world order is organized not around freedom or any other values but around brute power, of which China will be the greatest holder.

The Chinese Communist Party’s order-building efforts are intimately associated with Xi’s vast international development program, known as the Belt and Road Initiative. A China-serving “community” is Beijing’s goal; the Belt and Road ties it together by spreading Chinese capital, advancing both Chinese notions of superiority and the party’s values, and trapping countries in debt so that they have no choice but to defer to Beijing, preempting any kind of meaningful liberal political advancement.

The strength of this tide is already disturbingly evident.

In July 2019, 22 democratic countries wrote to the United Nations Human Rights Council condemning China’s mass internment of the Uighur Muslims. The response from 50 countries that have become Chinese partners, including more than a few Muslim countries, was a letter commending China’s human rights “achievements.” A year later, a similar set of 53 countries wrote to the same body defending China’s brutal crackdown on Hong Kong. Cambodia and Pakistan signed both letters.

All these countries’ ruling classes are happy to accept Chinese investment in turn for compliance, but the ruled increasingly find life in China’s orbit less agreeable for reasons both prosaic, like rising costs, and personal, like anger at China’s persecution of the Uighurs.

Although Trump’s American critics often embrace a form of reverse American exceptionalism, in which the United States is a “failed state” responsible for all the world’s ills, this is not how the world views us. Rather, the United States continues to capture the world’s imagination, with people from Manila to Bratislava urging us to live up to our founding ideals of equality and freedom for all. It is indeed telling that the Trump-era absence of US global leadership has prompted not glee but expressions of sadness and calls for more US leadership.

Paradoxically, China’s rise offers an opportunity for the United States to evolve and galvanize the world so that some form of the liberal order prospers for humanity’s benefit. By casting off its former utopian naivety about liberalism’s inevitability, the United States, likely only with a new president, can salvage the liberal order and remain its leader.

But Washington has for decades talked a big game about rules and norms while disregarding them when they threaten American trade, currency, and other priorities — and when Americans face human rights charges. These vices of US hegemony are now increasingly considered inherent to the liberal order, thereby weakening both America’s and liberalism’s standing.

Trump, for his part, earned widespread repudiation for recently setting sanctions against the International Criminal Court, but the problem long predates him. The United States played a central role in establishing the court, the primary institution of international criminal justice, but numerous American presidents refused to make the United States party to it. Therein lies the misguided US approach: We describe ourselves as ardent supporters of liberalism while frequently refusing to play by its rules — the rules enshrined in imperfect institutions of our creation. Why should anybody else play by the liberal rules if we won’t?

In a bygone era of American hegemony, Washington could implicitly force other nations into liberal compliance. But China’s rise has done away with notions of unquestioned American power. The United States, accordingly, must do away with its hegemonic hubris.

For the US-led liberal order to not only survive but thrive, we have to better live up to its ideals. Doing so will legitimate both the order itself and American power within it. The United States must, therefore, double down on its commitment to liberal ideas and services like common security and free trade. It must reinvest in diplomacy rather than allowing the military to drive our foreign policy. And it must increase financial aid to and investment in developing countries, so that they are less reliant on China. If we take those steps and resist the urge to make unnecessary war, we can keep our friends and recruit more, increasing the power, influence, and cachet of both liberalism and the United States.

And so, it is up to Americans, at this moment of crisis, to stitch up the fraying order that we created after an earlier moment of catastrophe. The question is not whether the liberal order deserves to be saved, but whether Americans, burdened now by all kinds of domestic discontent, are up to the task of saving it.

Charles Dunst is an associate at LSE IDEAS, the London School of Economics’ foreign policy think tank, where he researches Chinese foreign policy, Southeast Asia, and authoritarian politics. He has written for outlets including The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesDunst.

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