So much focus is given to the Olympics and China's economy these days that it's easy to overlook the deeper shifts occurring in Beijing's foreign policy. But concealed behind the anodyne comments of China's leaders, who generally try to underplay their country's power, a fierce debate over China's international approach is underway. The argument, waged in government-run think tanks and universities, pits liberal internationalists against China's neocons—who aim for nothing short of remaking the entire international order in China's image.
For now the liberal internationalists have the upper hand. They include thinkers like Zheng Bijian, a former deputy to President Hu Jintao at the Communist Party's Central School and the man who coined the term "China's peaceful rise." They maintain that China should respect the traditional rules of the international system, avoid conflict and sell others on the idea that China is not a threat. Zheng has argued that China needs to exploit Washington's unpopularity by projecting its own "soft power," or cultural and political appeal. He wants Beijing to answer the "American Dream" of individual success by promoting a "Chinese Dream" based on economic development (to help the poor) and respect for sovereignty and international law (to defend national independence). Although the term has been discarded, China's peaceful rise now defines the foreign policy of President Hu, who is crisscrossing the world offering Chinese friendship and aid to all takers, and easing tensions with the West by softening Beijing's stand on touchy international issues like Darfur, Iran and North Korea.
By contrast, the neocons—or "neocomms," as they should be known, since they represent a new twist on the Mao-era policy of challenging Western hegemony—are men like Yan Xuetong, an academic with close links to the Ministry of State Security, and Rear Adm. Yang Yi, one of the brightest thinkers in the Chinese military. The neocomms argue that China should be less focused on appeasing Washington and more concerned with Beijing's own priorities. These include resisting democracy promotion and humanitarian intervention abroad, in order to protect China and its allies from external interference.
The neocomms have taken up the idea of multilateralism— associated in the West with the dilution of national sovereignty by member states agreeing to be bound by the rules of supranational institutions (like the European Union or the World Trade Organization). Thinkers like Yan have transformed the concept into a tool of power projection that would reinforce China's independence while helping it develop links with other Asian countries, in arrangements that would exclude China's great rival, the United States.
Since the mid-1990s, Yan has worked tirelessly to sell this concept to the Chinese Foreign Ministry—which has traditionally been suspicious of international institutions—arguing that regional integration will bring all kinds of practical benefits to China. And Beijing has slowly come around; for example, it now supports the idea of an "East Asian Community" that would be modeled on the European Union. Yan argues that such a community would be an effective means of promoting Chinese power and sidelining Japan, since Tokyo, as America's most powerful Asian ally, would likely be a reluctant partner in any such project. In this new scheme, China would play a central role like that of France or Germany in Europe, while Japan would be the outsider, like Britain in the EU context.
Over time, the more aggressive neocomms may come to dominate. In recent history, China has followed a pattern of making changes on a minor scale before expanding them outward. Domestically, for example, it first introduced the free market in special economic zones, waiting years before expanding them to the country at large. Expect something similar in the international sphere. Already Beijing has started taking baby steps toward building a new system in its image, spearheading the creation of regional groups such as the East Asian Community and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. These groups, which are underpinned by Chinese values and norms rather than Western ones, represent the thin edge of a wedge that Beijing is likely to expand in the future.
China's own emancipation from the West is also creating an illiberal path, characterized by high levels of state control in the economic, social and political spheres. Other developing countries—in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Latin America—may seek to follow that road. The richer and more powerful China grows, the more attractive the "Chinese model" is likely to become—and the more real the threat it will pose to the liberal democratic example that's dominated international affairs since the end of the cold war.