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Confronting disorder – Who is better prepared, the US or China?

Great power competition is well and truly the flavour of the month, but as the world holds its breath around competition between the US and China, broader international disruption presents major challenges for the global order and the two superpowers.

Great power competition is well and truly the flavour of the month, but as the world holds its breath around competition between the US and China, broader international disruption presents major challenges for the global order and the two superpowers.

Across much of human history, the geopolitical environment has been the story of disruption and multipolar rivalry between great empires and great powers. Whether it was the intense competition between Rome and Carthage, Britain’s struggle with Napoleonic France, and in lived memory, the economic, political and strategic competition between the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War.

By far, the most central characteristic of this history is the utter dominance of a small number of nations, empires or kingdoms over others, which created what is often described as a lopsided approach to the geopolitical concept of polarity, making the world a tricky environment in which to operate, particularly for middle and emerging powers.


The reality of our modern world is no different, this is despite the post-Second World War dominance of the United States over the global leavers of power, institutions, and commons.

Indeed the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, in particular, established the world as a “multipolar” environment in spite of the widely-held belief that the United States was the global hegemon, particularly following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, which required considered and measured diplomacy by all parties involved, particularly the global hegemon.

However in recent years, the post-Second World War global order has come under assault both directly and indirectly as emerging powers like China and India, backed by established powers, including a resurgent and increasingly belligerent Russia, are all combining to begin building a parallel network of economic, political and strategic organisations and arrangements to challenge the post-war global order, while equally seeking to directly undermine the legitimacy and reputation of the United States and the post-war order.

Leading the charge for this new, increasingly contested multipolar world is Mao and now Xi’s China, seeking to leverage its now immense economic, political, and strategic might to right the wrongs of the past, namely the “century of humiliation” at the hands of colonial empires, with its eyes firmly set on usurping the global status quo.

In contrast for the United States, the incumbent global hegemon, the last three decades of unrivalled dominance and optimism post-Cold War have equally seen a hollowing out of the once-unrivalled US economic and industrial base, disastrous forays in military adventurism in the Middle East and Central Asia, all the while the world’s emerging powers rapidly develop their own immense economies and strategic capabilities to reshape the world in their image.

The evolving nature of this new and deteriorating global paradigm ultimately results in one thing: an increasingly disrupted and contested global environment that will directly impact global economic, political, and strategic security and for nations like Australia, which now finds itself at the epicentre of global competition and disruption, our prosperity, security, and stability in a new, multipolar world.

Confronting this new reality is a fundamentally different proposition for the United States, allies like Australia or the United Kingdom or even US-adjacent partners like France or Germany, who have been spoiled with a position of global pre-eminence for much of the preceding century, something highlighted by Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, in a piece titled, China Is Ready for a World of Disorder: America is not.

Changes unseen in a century

By now we all have come to terms with the rapidly evolving state of international relations and the competition that exists between the world’s established and emerging orders, spearheaded by the United States and the People’s Republic of China, respectively.

As a nation that has been dependent on the enduring commitment, benevolence, and capacity of the United States to maintain peace and stability across the globe, this has been a particularly bitter pill for nation’s like Australia to swallow as we grapple with the remaking of the world before our eyes, something Leonard explains, saying, “‘Changes unseen in a century’ has become one of Xi’s favorite slogans since he coined it in December 2017. Although it might seem generic, it neatly encapsulates the contemporary Chinese way of thinking about the emerging global order – or, rather, disorder. As China’s power has grown, Western policymakers and analysts have tried to determine what kind of world China wants and what kind of global order Beijing aims to build with its power. But it is becoming clear that rather than trying to comprehensively revise the existing order or replace it with something else, Chinese strategists have set about making the best of the world as it is – or as it soon will be.”

Typifying this paradigm defining shift is organisations like the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) economic and political bloc, which is itself rapidly evolving into an anti-post-Second World War bloc, alongside other emerging multilateral organisations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) that are actively engaging in the undermining of the post-Second World War economic order and the US-dollar-centric international order in particular.

This reality is further complicated by policies and programs, namely the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as we have seen across our own region, Beijing extending its influence and reach through the South Pacific, across the Indian Ocean, in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and across much of sub-Saharan Africa. Beijing now effectively controls much of the critical infrastructure, resource deposits, and political leadership through its Belt and Road Initiative and other forms of foreign direct investment, which like the old adage of “all roads lead to Rome”, seeks to establish Beijing as the 21st century’s imperial centre.

However, for Beijing, it isn’t these organisations, policies, and mechanisms that are responsible for the collapse of the post-Second World War order, more broadly, the blame can be laid at our own feet as a result of our own insistence and reversion to a “Cold War” mentality.

Something Leonard explains, stating, “In Washington, the return of great-power competition is thought to require revamping the alliances and institutions at the heart of the post–World War II order that helped the United States win the Cold War against the Soviet Union. This updated global order is meant to incorporate much of the world, leaving China and several of its most important partners – including Iran, North Korea, and Russia – isolated on the outside.

“In the eyes of Chinese strategists, other countries’ search for sovereignty and identity is incompatible with the formation of Cold War–style blocs and will instead result in a more fragmented, multipolar world in which China can take its place as a great power,” Leonard explains further.

Unpacking the impacts of this shift in greater detail, Leonard articulates a dramatically different picture of the new world order, “Ultimately, Beijing’s understanding may well be more accurate than Washington’s and more closely attuned to the aspirations of the world’s most populous countries. The US strategy won’t work if it amounts to little more than a futile quest to update a vanishing order, driven by a nostalgic desire for the symmetry and stability of a bygone era. China, by contrast, is readying itself for a world defined by disorder, asymmetry, and fragmentation – a world that, in many ways, has already arrived.”

This reality has only become more poignant as the world grapples with Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the coup in Niger, general unrest across sub-Saharan Africa, the potential collapse of South Africa, renewed Iranian aggression in the Middle East, and Beijing’s own malignant and repeated incursions into Taiwanese airspace and territorial waters.

Highlighting this, Leonard states, “The very different responses of China and the United States to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine revealed the divergence in Beijing’s and Washington’s thinking. In Washington, the dominant view is that Russia’s actions are a challenge to the rules-based order, which must be strengthened in response. In Beijing, the dominant opinion is that the conflict shows the world is entering a period of disorder, which countries will need to take steps to withstand.

Cyclical history

While it is easy to dismiss the rising disruption as separate and isolated issues in geographically disparate locations, that would truly be a disastrous outcome for the United States and partners, including Australia, particularly as much of the global south are among the fastest-growing economies and largest populations in this newly emerging global order.

Whether India, Indonesia or South Africa, Brazil or developing nations across the former Soviet Bloc, or even NATO members like Erdogan’s Turkey, the global south is rapidly developing and seeking to shape their spheres of influence according to their ambitions, designs, and often ancient rivalries and ethnic tensions in accordance with their own, transactional vision of the world, often where might makes right.

Something Beijing is seemingly playing on through its organisations like the BRICS and SCO and through foreign aid and foreign direct investment initiatives like the BRI to exacerbate tensions over apparent double standards of the West and historic grievances, often dating back decades, if not hundreds of years, a key point highlighted by Leonard who explains, “The Chinese perspective is shared by many countries, especially in the global south, where Western claims to be upholding a rules-based order lack credibility. It is not simply that many governments had no say in creating these rules and therefore see them as illegitimate. The problem is deeper: these countries also believe that the West has applied its norms selectively and revised them frequently to suit its own interests or, as the United States did when it invaded Iraq in 2003, simply ignored them. For many outside the West, the talk of a rules-based order has long been a fig leaf for Western power.”

At the core of Xi’s thesis is the cyclical nature of history and the rise and fall of great empires and a sense that is increasingly prominent among Beijing’s elite and now increasingly across much of the global south is that the US and the Western world is now in a period of decline as a result of technological, demographic, societal, economic and cultural malaise, conflict and disorder.

Further underpinning this thesis is the works of Charles Darwin and the “survival of the fittest” along with the belief of struggle that figures prominently in Darwin’s work, and, critically for a revolutionary nation like Communist China, in the works of Marx, Lenin, and Mao.

Leonard highlights this stating, “This notion of survival in a dangerous world necessitates the development of what Xi describes as ‘a holistic approach to national security’. In contrast to the traditional concept of ‘military security’, which was limited to countering threats from land, air, sea, and space, the holistic approach to security aims to counter all challenges, whether technical, cultural, or biological. In an age of sanctions, economic decoupling, and cyber threats, Xi believes that everything can be weaponised. As a result, security cannot be guaranteed by alliances or multilateral institutions. Countries must therefore do all that they can to safeguard their own people.

Central to Beijing’s growing influence is Xi’s active campaign across the global south as part of ongoing publicity and public relations campaigns with upcoming visits to Vietnam, following on from recent trips to Russia, India, Indonesia, Thailand, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and the former central Asian Soviet Republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, each of whom play pivotal roles in China’s ascendency and the rapidly developing parallel world order.

Is the West stuck in the past?

Sticking with the cyclical nature of history, an increasingly prominent pillar of Beijing’s “value proposition to the developing, global south is a narrative that the West is stuck in the past, with sanctions and US-led military actions viewed and often portrayed by propaganda arms in Beijing and Moscow in particular as an attempt to cling to the glory days of the 19th and 20th century, when Western hegemony was undisputed across the globe.

This same thought process applies to the repeated rhetoric, typically out of the United States about a new “Cold War and the connotations that includes, namely, the division of the world into distinct camps of economic, political (although thinly defined) and strategic partners forming competing blocs vying for supremacy on the global stage, something Leonard highlights stating, “China is confident that the United States is mistaken in its assumption that a new cold war has broken out. Accordingly, it is seeking to move beyond Cold War–style divides.

While from China’s perspective, this isn’t the reality, rather, the United States and the broader Western collective of nations is seeking to throw around economic, political, strategic, and in some cases, moral weight that it simply no longer has as the world’s ancient powers have begun to arise from their period of slumber.

Unpacking this thesis further, Wang Honggang, senior official at a think tank affiliated with China’s Ministry of State Security, explains, “a center-periphery structure for the global economy and security and towards a period of polycentric competition and cooperation”.

This is further explained by Leonard, who adds, “Wang and like-minded scholars do not deny that China is also trying to become a centre of its own, but they argue that because the world is emerging from a period of Western hegemony, the establishment of a new Chinese centre will actually lead to a greater pluralism of ideas rather than a Chinese world order. Many Chinese thinkers link this belief with the promise of a future of ‘multiple modernity’.”

Ironically, another pillar of Beijing’s offer is a message, we in the West have traditionally offered and championed, that is respect for national sovereignty, individual and national self-determination, economic development and cultural sensitivities, yet, for Leonard, China’s attempts in recent years have increasingly been seen, almost as counter-revolutionary, where he states, “This attempt to create an alternative theory of modernity, in contrast to the post–Cold War formulation of liberal democracy and free markets as the epitome of modern development, is at the core of Xi’s Global Civilization Initiative. This high-profile project is intended to signal that unlike the United States and European countries, which lecture others on subjects such as climate change and LGBTQ rights, China respects the sovereignty and civilisation of other powers.”

Final thoughts

Only by recognising the relative decline of the United States (not a popular opinion to state out loud) and accepting that the United States has limitations can Australia truly begin to take stock of the challenges of operating in this increasingly multipolar world.

However, it is critical for us to understand that Australia’s security, prosperity, and stability will not be determined by events in Europe, nor will they be determined by circumstances in the Middle East, while they may influence circumstance, our national future will not be determined by these areas.

It is important to highlight that in the coming era of multipolarity, Australia will face an increasingly competitive Indo-Pacific. Indeed, separate to the People’s Republic of China, our immediate region is home to some of the world’s largest populations with its fastest growing economies with their own unique designs and economic, political, and strategic ambitions for the region.

Rather, we have to accept that while the world is increasingly becoming “multipolar”, the Indo-Pacific, in particular, is rapidly becoming the most hotly contested region in the world. Underpinned by the emerging economic, political, and strategic might of powers like China, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the established and re-emerging capability of both South Korea and Japan, in particular, are serving to create a hotbed of competition on our doorstep.

Recognising this array of challenges and opportunities, both the Australian public and its policymakers need to look beyond the myopic lens that has traditionally dominated our diplomatic, strategic, and economic policy making since Federation.

Ultimately, we need to see Australia begin to play the long game to fully capitalise on the opportunities transforming the Indo-Pacific. The most important question now becomes, when will we see a more detailed analysis and response to the challenges and opportunities facing Australia and when will we see a narrative that better helps industry and the Australian public understand the challenges faced and opportunities we have presented before us?

As events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political, and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power, or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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