(Art design: Jean-Dominique Lavoix-Carli)
The whole world is caught in a battle of giants with the U.S. on the one hand and China on the other. This confrontation takes place at different levels and through all forms and dimensions of power. The escalation towards war is at work. War is not inevitable, it is however likely. To best survive the escalation and possibly the war, we must understand its multiple aspects. State actors, for their part, should act according to their own national interest considering the forces at work.
Even though this may appear as unthinkable to many, the aim of the major actors may not be to avoid war. As we saw in the American National Interest, peace and avoidance of war are nowhere part of the objectives of America. Indeed, the U.S. very precisely write that the American defense has as priorities “Deterring aggression, while being prepared to prevail in conflict when necessary, prioritizing the PRC challenge in the Indo-Pacific, then the Russia challenge in Europe” (U.S. National Defense Strategy 2022 – Factsheet). This means that war is an option. Thus we must all be ready for the possibility of war between China and the U.S.. It is also with this strategic framework in mind that we must understand the war in Ukraine, the relationships with Russia and NATO’s expansion.
In this article we focus on the systemic and normative dimension of the conflict between China and the U.S..
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First, we briefly explain the dimensions of the confrontation, systemic and interstate. We look then at two interrelated approaches for the systemic dimension: the evolution of the relative power of states and the struggle for norms and international order and consequences on war. Finally, we examine examples of Chinese global strategic communication (aka “propaganda“) at normative level, looking at seven short videos published on official Chinese Youtube channels dealing with various issues, from the ecology to NATO’s expansion through the U.S. essential wrongdoing.
Dimensions of a confrontation
At systemic level, the third level of analysis(1), we witness the rise of China as new dominating power and the struggle of the U.S. to remain the sole superpower ruling the world. In the meantime there is a war at work between the two corresponding orders: an emerging order linked to China and a still preponderant but declining order led by the US.
Even though there is not yet a real war, stricto sensu, between China and the U.S., the war between the two orders has started in Ukraine, while escalation towards a war involving China is taking place. For example, the June 2022 NATO summit not only included Asian allies of the U.S. but the new key document that resulted, 2022 NATO Strategic Concept highlights “the systemic challenges posed by the PRC to Euro-Atlantic security” (pp. 5 & 10). For example:
It [China] strives to subvert the rules-based international order, including in the space, cyber and maritime domains. The deepening strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order run counter to our values and interests.2022 NATO Strategic Concept, 29 June 2022, p.5
At the second level of analysis, interstate relations, the various actors on the world stage enact the systemic battle through a combat between the U.S. on the one hand, China on the other. This level or more precisely the result of the actions of the states will, in turn influence the systemic battle.
A good representation for this ongoing “battle of giants” is a kind of 3D board, where each level of the board also interacts with other levels. Using a 2D board as representation cannot yield a proper understanding of the confrontation.
As a result, the strategy, policy and, more generally, all actions of actors must be understood, planned, and evaluated according to their impact within each level across all domains, and on each level.
A global battle of norms
Thus, at systemic level, the rise of China threatens the dominant American position.
The Americans perceive it as such, as expressed in their many national threats assessments (see Helene Lavoix, “The American National Interest“). American scholars condone also this understanding of world politics, as exemplified by the Harvard publication on Thucydides’s Trap (from the research and book by Allison, Graham. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). According to Allison, the rise of a new world power threatens the existing power and, as a result, over the last 500 years, war ensued in 12 out of 16 cases. Fear is a critical element in the triggering of the trap (Ibid.)
Joseph Nye criticism of Thucydides’s trap, the Kindleberger Trap questions Allison’s number of cases and argues that bad policy choices rather than systemic inevitability were at work to trigger wars. However, Nye does not discard the existence of Thucydides’s trap. He adds a new explanatory component, following Kindleberger, the architect of the Marshall plan, according to which one cause of war when a new power rises is its inability to provide global public goods. Thus, the world in general, and the United States in particular, must also worry about the strength, capacity and willingness of China to deliver global public goods.
However, in the case of China and the U.S. we may wonder if the Kindleberger trap theory would not need to be refined. Indeed, as the interactions of forces push China in increasingly playing an important role at normative level, ideally, this should lower the risk to see the Kindleberger trap being triggered. However, of course, from the American perspective, Chinese normative actions and related communications are perceived as a threat to the American international supremacy and national interest. Hence, the U.S. and the actors benefiting from the Pax Americana order are bound to attack this evolution.
To summarise we are between the anvil and the hammer: a strengthening China, including at systemic level, is very likely to increase the perception of threat of the U.S. and thus to generate a war with America and its allies, while a China that would not be strong enough would in any case favour war because it cannot provide global public goods.
Furthermore, the question remains on the nature of the global public goods provided. Indeed, it is very likely that the vision and understanding of global public goods differ for China and the United States.
This leads us to the question of global norms.
A battle of norms and perceptions
As Thucydides’s trap is triggered, the U.S., through their actions at both interstate and systemic levels, further force China to also act at normative and international order level.
An order is ruled by norms, i.e. “a standard of appropriate behaviour for actors with a given identity” (Martha Finnemore, Kathryn Sikkink “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change” International Organization, Vol. 52, No. 4, International Organization at Fifty: Exploration and Contestation in the Study of World Politics, Autumn, 1998). As a result, international norms “make clear what behaviour is considered appropriate and when a line has been crossed” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Priority #2: International Norms, November 2020).
Thus, in our case, we have an order ruled according to American standards of appropriate behaviour, alongside what we tend to currently perceive as universal principles, as enshrined, for example, in the UN charter. This American order is declining (Thucydides’s trap). The challenging and rising order is ruled according to Chinese standards of appropriate behaviour, alongside also universal principles that may or may not be enshrined in the UN charter, and may only be partially perceived as universal. Possibly also, some of the principles enshrined in the UN charter are perceived differently according to order.
The perception and interpretation of international norms are also part of the normative battles taking place at the systemic level of analysis. For example, the norm of territoriality for sovereign states is a fundamental and universal principle for the modern state system. We understand it as universal. However, before that norm spread throughout states and space, from the 17th century until the end of the 19th century – start of the 20th century, we could find other types of norms and organisations. The “galactic polities”(2) in the Southeast Asian Buddhist system constitutes a case of a different type of order (see note (2) below and also Thongchai, Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation, Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1994). Hence the so-called universality of norms is actually contingent to space and time and thus not universal at all. The Caliphate promoted by the Islamic State is another case of order totally different from the current system (see, for example, Hélène Lavoix, The Islamic State Psyops – Worlds War, The Red Team Analysis Society, 19 January 2015).
When the U.S. act to uphold the norms of their order according to their own standard of behaviour and protest against or combat China’s standard of behaviour, they truly perceive Chinese norms as threatening and often “wrong”, according to their own norms, which they genuinely believe to be universal. For example, as we spelled out, 2022 NATO Strategic Concept stresses what NATO perceives as attacks on its rules-based international order. During the June 22 NATO Summit, according to a South Korean official, “South Korea’s president warned… of the threat to universal values at a time of new conflict and competition, a reference to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and China’s engagement with Russia” (Hyonhee Shin, Reuters, 30 June 2022).
Of course, China, does not perceive itself as “wrong” or “malevolent”. Thus, it will want to counter any strategic communication of the U.S. and its allies that would spread the perception of a China that is dangerous and negative for the world. China is therefore enticed into first increasingly having an international strategy that promotes global public goods as it defines it – and not as the U.S. sees it – and into a related global communication that will explain why the Chinese vision of the norms and the very norms China’s upholds are right, good and universal. In the same time, the Chinese will portray the wrong doing of the U.S..
In terms of strategic communication the two messages – promoting one’s norms and fighting against the other’s norms – may be grouped together or presented separately, as we shall see with the examples below.
Meanwhile, the differences between the two normative visions of the world is emphasised. At the end of the process, if China triumphs, a new global order built on Chinese norms, including Chinese perceptions of universal norms will have emerged.
In other words, the very battle for normative supremacy co-constructs the type of global order that emerges, its content and its capability to rule globally.
Chinese global normative communication
Chinese communication goes global and normative
As expected, China “is increasingly targeting a wider audience than just its diasporas, as demonstrated by the growing number of Chinese propaganda outlets published in a number of foreign languages (Global Times, China Daily, CGTN, Xinhua, etc.)” (Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer and Paul Charon, “Russia as a Hurricane, China as Climate Change: Different Ways of Information Warfare”, War on The Rocks, 21 January 2020). In so doing, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is only catching up with what the U.S. and other world nations have been doing since World War II through the use of international broadcasting services as supporting capabilities for their information operations (see Helene Lavoix, Information Warfare and the War in Ukraine, The Red Team Analysis Society, 24 May 2022).
This is the Chinese strategic communication element of what we explained earlier: China being pushed into fighting at normative level through delivering global public goods and through battles over perception and understanding of norms.
Interestingly, the very way the American and allied doctrine labels “adversary strategic communication” as “propaganda”, as we saw (Information Warfare), is already a preemptive strike against all Chinese international broadcasting services’ production and thus against emerging Chinese norms. It is an effort to make sure these normes do not spread and settle. For example, Jeangène Vilmer and Charon belittle Chinese media as “propaganda outlets” in their analytical paper (see above), when these media are merely international broadcasting services, and thus supporting China’s strategic communication. Many Western analysts and officials, similarly would immediately cast any Chinese media production as “propaganda”.
Yet, what is produced by the PRC media will be priceless indications regarding the content of Chinese norms. It will indicate which future norms may become preponderant, the norms around which battles are and will be fought, etc. We shall now turn to such examples.
Cases of Chinese normative strategic communication through videos
We examine here some of the videos produced by Global Times and CGTN as indications of the Chinese global strategic communications at normative level. We only look at examples posted on Youtube, thus aimed at a non-Chinese audience.
At first glance, we can note a flourish of series that could reveal an effort at finding something that works in addressing a global audience. The second observation is that China seems to have difficulties to truly captivate Youtube’s audience and get traffic as expressed in number of views. However, considering the number of Chinese TV channels available in many countries, the relatively small number of views on Youtube should be taken with a pinch of salt. Further research would be needed to measure the real impact of China’s normative actions and of its related global communication in the world.
Whatever their impacts, as we explained, these videos will be useful to us as they will indicate Chinese efforts in terms of norms. We should expect to find videos highlighting the good brought about by Chinese actions with their normative underpinnings, videos stressing more simply Chinese norms and finally videos highlighting American wrongdoing, either singularly or by comparison with Chinese behaviour. Actually, we could identify other interesting videos according to China’s perception of itself and of the world (see Hélène Lavoix, “China’s Perception of U.S. International Politics“, The Red Team Analysis Society, 27 September 2021), but this will be for another article.
Video highlighting the good brought about by Chinese actions with their normative underpinnings
Ecology and ecological actions are increasingly featured in Chinese videos. This let us expect that a normative battle will take place at this level.
With this video, “China launches first megaton-capable offshore carbon storage project”, China highlights technological capabilities and the importance of ecological concern and restoration as norm.
The example below, where Chinese President “Xi Jinping encourages green development modeled on the Kekeya project” not only features efficient Chinese actions regarding the restoration of ecological systems, but also the benefit of Chinese political system as headed by President Xi Jinping (by opposition to Western vision of China as an autocratic system) and the benevolence and positivity of China’s actions in Xinjiang (by opposition to Western attacks regarding human rights in Xinjiang).
Videos stressing Chinese norms
We have here videos showing, for example, the promotion of Chinese culture and tradition. Cultural influence and outreach is fully part of the normative level. Examples of the U.S. influence in that matter go from Hollywood to MacDonald and Coca-Cola.
The video below from a CGTN series on martial arts is a classical instance of this genre.
Videos highlighting American wrongdoing
One of the longest series (651 videos by 27 June 2022) on Global Times is “Hu Says” where Mr Hu makes brief analyses and comments on international affairs. He not only gives China’s perspective and position on various topics but also often highlights American or Western negative or questionable behaviour.
For example, regarding the June 2022 G7, “Hu says” highlights that the G7 has become subservient to American aims. As a result, from a Chinese perspective, this shows that the G7 cannot be seen as a global institution interested in global public goods.
A more violent example of these types of videos was broadcast on 22 April 2022 and is named “Unmasking the superpower”. It aims at “unmasking the true evil nature of the U.S.”
Videos highlighting American wrongdoing by comparison with Chinese behaviour.
In this category, we have as example two videos of the series “Mr Hu”.
The first is an answer to the 2022 European enlargement of NATO and compares a war torn Europe under American influence to a peaceful Asia thanks to benevolent and peace-loving China.
The second example highlights Chinese incomprehension when seeing Americans accepting an extremely bad management of the COVID-19 pandemic by the U.S. political authorities. In so doing, Mr Hu highlights a weakness of America in terms of organisation when compared with China alongside the fact that the U.S. does not truly puts first the lives of its citizens. The audience is meant to contrast this American policy with the Chinese one, which is truly concerned with human lives. From there follows an interrogation regarding the true value of democracy and legitimacy in America, which is an answer to American’s denunciations of the Chinese autocratic system. We are truly in a normative battle for the best type of belief-based socio-political system.
Those examples are only some cases among myriads being regularly broadcast by China.
We are in the midst of a total belief-based war pitting an emerging world against a declining one. Which order will prevail is not yet clear. What is certain, however, is that no order is ready to yield, on the contrary. As a result, escalation may only continue, possibly until a fully fledged war.
(1) We use here the classical model of analysis of international relations according to three levels, as identified and established in Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis by Kenneth N. Waltz (New York, Columbia University: 1959) – Readers in a hurry may also read the review by David. J Singer, “International Conflict: Three Levels of Analysis.” World Politics, vol. 12, no. 3, 1960, pp. 453–61. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2009401.
There is also a first level of analysis, the individual actors, but we shall not consider it here.
(2) Extract from Helene Lavoix, ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Genocide’: the construction of nation-ness, authority, and opposition – the case of Cambodia (1861-1979) – PhD Thesis – School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), 2005. Access and download through the British Library Ethos.: “In the Southeast Asian Buddhist political system characterised as “Galactic polities,”… various centres’ relative importance and power fluidly increased (waxed) or decreased (waned) (for this paragraph Stanley Tambiah, World Conqueror and World Renouncer: a Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), pp.121-127). A waxing centre attracted into its orbit centres of lesser strength. The loose control of main centres over the others decreased with distance and entailed shifting alliances and tributary relations. Impermanence was the rule.
However, the development of such factors as maritime trade, firearms, and interstate competition brought a slow evolution to the galactic polities.Victor Lieberman, “Local Integration and Eurasian Analogies: Structuring Southeast Asian History, c.1350-c.1830;” Modern Asian Studies 27, 3 (1993), pp.475-572. and Strange Parallels, Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830, Vol.1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). The system progressively lost its fluidity and tended towards an increasing and irrevocable “political integration” of the lesser tributary centres by the major centres (Ibid. p.485).”