Parallel Networks

China’s dual strategy to usurp the American-led order

China is a revisionist state of a hybrid sort, balanced between two webs.

Revisionists, John Ikenberry tells us, are states that challenge the global order made up of “settled rules and arrangements between states that define and guide their interactions.”[1] Powerful states create and maintain those rules and arrangements to “take advantage of their elite status and establish rules, institutions, and privileges that primarily benefit themselves.”[2] Once an order is established, the state at the top—the “status quo” power— does what it can to maintain the system it created. Great Britain, which established the system of rules and arrangements that tied together the world in the 18th and 19th centuries, was one such “status quo” state. The United States in the current day is another.

Revisionists like China, meanwhile, attempt to redraft the rules by which relations among nations function, especially as they rise through the global hierarchy. Revisionists do not have identical goals or identical methods, and most international relations scholars argue that revisionists come in two varieties: limited-aims revisionists and revolutionary revisionists.[3] Limited aims revisionists do not seek to overturn the entire established order but instead hope to alter the existing order in limited ways that improve their position in it. Revolutionary revisionists, on the other hand, challenge the system itself.[4] They do not merely attempt to revise the distribution of resources or power and prestige within the system, they try to create an entirely new order in which they author the rules and define the arrangements.

Since its inception in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has been revisionist state. It has waffled back and forth between revolutionary revision and limited-aims revision. During its first decades of existence, Red China sought to undermine the American-led, capitalist world order through revolutionary revision. It failed. Then, beginning with its Reform and Opening in the late 1970s, China shifted tack and became a limited-aims revisionist. Since, it has worked within existing international institutions to grow rich and improve its position in the global order. It has been hugely successful, rocketing up the ranks of the international hierarchy as it transformed from backwater to potential great power.

Still, China today has nowhere near enough economic or military hard power to directly challenge the American-led order.[5] It doesn’t have to. China is now both a limited-aims revisionist and a revolutionary revisionist. Rather than thinking of China as a rising red star, it is helpful to think it as a giant spider at the intersection of two webs. One of those webs, spun mostly by the United States which still sits near the center, links much of the world in a network of states and non-state actors tied together by trade and ideas. This web we call the liberal world order. The other web is newer, smaller, and weaker. It is a work in progress. China spins it parallel to the liberal world order, and it is largely tied off from American power. China—one of the few actors with strong ties to both webs—sits between these two parallel networks. It builds new ties and strengthens old ones in the liberal world order, while continuing simultaneously to build the new web of its own. In this way, China reaps the benefits of the liberal world order’s institutions and can edit the established system in ways that give it greater prestige and greater resources. At the same time, it builds an alternative, revolutionary world order, one in which it writes the rules and one with which, if the time comes, it might usurp the American-led order. By leveraging its position in two global networks, China is slowly remaking the future.

China’s Network Power

The international system is a network. Networks—the spiderwebs described above—are defined by their links (relationships) among nodes (actors).[6] In international relations, those nodes are predominantly states, but they might also include others such as corporations, militant groups, or multinational organizations. The links between actors allow the transmission of both material and nonmaterial goods, including money, guns, information, and ideas. These links “have both form and content: they include ‘real’ material transactions, such as alliances and trade transactions, as well as ideational relations, such as narratives and repertoires that define appropriate behavior, legitimate authority, and give meaning to behavior in world politics”[7] And more than just simply modes of organization, networks are “structures that can constrain and enable individual agents and influence international outcomes.” [8] In other words networks grant power.

The beliefs and actions of actors in the international system are never independent, and “structural relations are as important as, if not more important than, attributes of individual units.”[9] That is because the position of an actor in a network and the strength of its ties to other nodes can have a significant effect on both the power and prestige of an actor in an international order. Networks provide states with influence, affect their ability to mobilize alliances, augment or inhibit the resources they can muster, and provide or deny ideological and cultural capital to justify either maintaining or transforming the existing order.[10]

Network position, then, is of particular importance for would-be revisionists like China. Stacie Goddard defines two types of network position that shape a state’s revisionist tendencies: “access” positions and “brokerage” positions. Access is “the extent to which a revisionist is integrated into the dominant network. … With access, a state can leverage material and ideational ties to give it influence within the existing institutional system.”[11] Access to the dominant network provides China with social capital that allows it to demand changes to the existing order, especially through the multilateral organizations in which it participates. The greater access, the greater power a state has to frame agendas and debates and to push for edits to the rules of the international system. A brokerage position, on the other hand, allows an actor to fill gaps in the international framework or bridge divides between one network and another. A broker “might have ties with great powers in the dominant institutional order, but also hold exclusive ties with another cohesive subgroup in the international system.”[12] By sitting in a brokerage position in a Chinese-made subgroup, China can draw on significant resources that are excluded from the liberal world order, “mobilize new allies from outside dominant institutions,” and if China “faces sanctions from status quo actors, they can offset costs through closer economic ties with other states.” [13] Within its subgroups, China can also begin writing new rules, norms, and arrangements that circumvent or subvert the existing international order.

States invest in relationships that maximize their strategic interests and network positioning. Revisionists, especially, try to build ties that “increase their power and influence relative to status quo states. … They may seek alliances with other powers or attempt to wedge apart existing alliances. They may pursue economic ties that maximize wealth, and diplomatic relations that strengthen their spheres of influence.”[14] China pursues all of the above strategies from a position in the international networks that gives it both high access and brokerage. It is from this uniquely efficacious position that China seeks to both benefit from and challenge the America-led liberal world order.

China the Accessor

China’s access power has increased as it integrated into the liberal world order. It is more integrated than ever before. China holds a permanent seat on the UN security council and has been ever more involved in multilateral peacekeeping operations (especially near its investments in Africa). It ascended to the International Monetary Fund in the early 2000s and participates in the World Bank. Chinese officials increasingly fill spots in a variety of international organizations and have signed onto international pacts to deal with climate change, nuclear proliferation, laws of the sea, and more, taking a greater leadership role in setting global rules and norms.[15] From those involvements, it has gained prestige as a participant in global good governance and has reaped the benefits of its inclusion in the world’s trade and legal systems, which were built on liberal principles.

Those commitments demonstrate China’s top priority in the current world order: “a liberal economic order built on free trade.”[16] China’s rise from the 1980s on was powered by exports as Chinese manufacturing slowly climbed the value chain until its products (mobile technology, software, and artificial intelligence, especially) began to compete with the advanced industrial economies. “Now as then, these exports are the lifeblood of the Chinese economy: they ensure a consistent trade surplus, and the jobs they create are a vital engine of domestic social stability. There is no indication this will change in the coming decade.”[17]

China, then, has a critical vested interest in maintaining its access position in the international order. It has an interest in promoting multilateralism that keeps goods flowing across the world’s ocean highways. By participating in the international bodies responsible for setting the rules of trade, Beijing can ensure that it has access to the markets that make its export economy possible. Furthermore, because it “relies on a global network of trade ties,” China the limited-aims revisionist has no desire to risk confrontation with the United States, which might hamper or destroy its access to those trade networks and markets. This is also why China will continue to deepen its engagement in organizations that maintain the current order, assist in antipiracy and antiterrorism efforts, and otherwise maintaining the freedom of most global commons—whatever keeps global commerce running smoothly.

The more integrated into this system China becomes, the less likely it is to directly challenge it. “Access changes the costs and benefits of revisionist behavior … access may provide influence, but over time it can make revisionist behavior costly. Revisionists [like China] with access are likely to reap significant benefits from the existing international order. Challenging the system thus carries serious costs,” Goddard writes.[18] China, therefore, is pursuing a different strategy.

China the Broker

Instead of challenging the system, China is simply building a new, non-threatening one. Although the web of the liberal world order reaches into many corners of the world, it does not reach all of them. Some of that has been intentional, liberal states excluding certain authoritarians, sponsors of terrorism, communists, and other unsavory or illiberal regimes. Over time, the constraints of the established web have also left many of its nodes feeling used or discontented. It’s among these nodes—the alienated, the disgruntled, and the excluded—that China spins its new web.

China’s power increases when it “possesses exclusive ties to otherwise marginalized or weakly connected nodes or groups of nodes.”[19] China has many of these kinds of connections. Some of them are ideological holdovers from China’s original revolutionary days—Cuba, Cambodia, and North Korea come to mind—while others are longer term, strategic friendships like Pakistan and Myanmar. Most of them, however, are relatively new.

China came late to the globalization game and found few regions left for easy investment or resource exploitation. As a result, China at first had to turn to dangerous, unstable, or otherwise undesirable places for friendship and trade. Since the 1990s, China has been building its links to countries like Sudan, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Kazakhstan as it sought out alternative partners for development and friendship.[20] What began as a smattering of partnerships with the estranged has morphed into something new as more and more nodes joined China’s network. Chinese aid, investments, and workers have poured into these countries and materials have poured back into China. Unlike the liberal world order, Chinese money (or guns) doesn’t come with strings attached, and rather than an ideology of democracy and humanitarianism, China promises a world of mutual non-interference in internal affairs.[21] What you do in your border is your business, China says; let’s get richer together. By 2013, those partnerships and projects dotted across the world got a new brand: the One Belt, One Road project, now called the Belt and Road Initiative. Originally envisioned as a “new silk road” of railways, energy pipelines, and highways running from Southeast Asia and China, through the former Soviet Republics to Europe, BRI has grown and transformed over time. BRI now how infrastructure, trade, and investment links with 65 other countries that collectively account for 30 percent of global GDP, 65 percent of world population, and 75 percent of known energy reserves.[22] As China has demonstrated its willingness and ability to provide an alternative to the liberal world order, states, especially globalization’s “losers” in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, have eagerly wrapped themselves into China’s web.

Additionally, Beijing has begun to build parallel institutions to those in the liberal world order, including the New Development Bank (formerly the BRICS Development Bank), the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Trade Agreement, and the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, through which many of China’s BRI projects are financed.[23] It is also involved in building a series of ports linking China to East Africa and to the oil-producing Middle East. With those ports in can enhance its investments, protect its trade routes, and contest the very United States’ maritime preeminence under which China has risen to global power.[24]

The result is a growing, parallel, Chinese-dominated order from which China can mobilize resources, call upon allies, and within which it can restrict United States influence. The resources it draws from this parallel network will be even more important. If China’s bet pays off and African and Latin American countries take over from China as the next “factory of the world,”[25] they will produce cheap goods for China’s domestic consumption, provide attractive outlets for Chinese investment, and power not only China’s economy but also the economies of important partners throughout the Chinese-built international web. Everyone will get richer together, especially China. Because “brokerage positions decrease the cost of acting outside the system,” [26] if Chinese links to Africa and Latin America bear economic enough fruit, China will be able to challenge the liberal world order from both within and without.

A Bridging Revolutionary

With its unique position between the liberal world order network and its growing, parallel Chinese-led network, China is becoming what Goddard calls a “bridging revisionist,” a state with both high access power and high brokerage power. It is deeply embedded in the existing international order, while also developing strong and largely exclusive relations within its own network. As a limited-revisionist with high access power in the liberal world order, China can benefit from existing trade networks and draw on social capital to legitimate its challenges to existing international rules and arrangements. As a revolutionary revisionist, on the other hand, China can use its brokerage power in its alternative network to get “access to new allies, alternative economic ties, and diverse cultural resources, all of which the revisionist can mobilize in support of its revisionist goals.”[27]

The result will probably be a slow-moving “rule-based revolution.”[28] It will likely be decades, if not longer, before China has the hard power to directly challenge the United States in a hegemonic transition.[29] Instead, because of its bridging network position, China will be able to simultaneously edit and create global rules to pursue its revisionist aims. “Bridging positions lower the costs, and may even increase the benefits, of challenging the institutional order,” Goddard writes. “Bridging positions open up new opportunities for mobilization outside of the system.” As a bridge, China can pursue both limited-aims revisionism and revolutionary revisionism, whichever works best to achieve a given goal. The United States can no longer afford to exclude China from the world order because of its importance to the global economic system, so China’s limited-aims revisionism will continue rewrite the rules of the liberal world order to its own advantage. At the same time, the United States no longer has the power to tightly bind China to existing rules because China has a whole new network of ties to actors it can mobilize to “slip the leash” of the liberal world order. As that network grows and strengthens, it will empower China’s revolutionary revisionist aims and provide an increasingly attractive alternative—not only to marginalized states but even to key members of the liberal world order.[30] If a global calamity like the 2008 financial crisis shakes the liberal world order again, a solid, Chinese-built order might just take its place.

China is rising, to be sure. As importantly, it is branching out.


[1] John Ikenberry Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (Princeton University Press, Princeton: 2011).
[2] David Rapkin and William R. Thompson “Power Transition, Challenge, and the (Re)Emergence of China” in International Interactions, 29:4 (2003), 317.
[3] Randall Schweller “Managing the Rise of Great Powers” in Engaging China: The Management of an Emerging Power edited by Alistair Ian Johnson and Robert S. Ross (Routledge: New York, 2003)
[4] Ibid.
[5] Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in the Twenty-First Century: China’s Rise and the Fate of America’s Global Position,” International Security 40 (Winter 2015/16): 7-53
[6] Emilie M. Hafner-Burton, Miles Kahler, and Alexandra H. Montgomery, “Network Analysis for International Relations” International Organization 63 (Summer 2009), 561.
[7] Stacie Goddard, “Embedded Revisionism:  Networks, Institutions, and Challenges to World Order.”  International Organization 72 (Fall 2018):  767.
[8] Hafner-Burton, Kahler, and Montgomery, “Network Analysis for International Relations,” 574.
[9] Ibid, 561.
[10] Goddard, “Embedded Revisionism,” 768.
[11] Ibid, 769-772.
[12] Ibid, 771.
[13] Ibid, 771.
[14] Goddard, “Embedded Revisionism,” 768.
[15] John Ikenberry and Darren Lim, “China’s Emerging Institutional Statecraft: The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the prospects for counter-hegemony” (Brookings Institute, April 2017).
[16] Yan Xuetong, “The Age of Uneasy Peace: Chinese Power in a Divided World.” Foreign Affairs 98 (January/February 2019), 40-46.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Goddard, “Embedded Revisionism,” 770.
[19] Hafner-Burton, Kahler, and Montgomery, “Network Analysis for International Relations,” 574.
[20] The Diplomat, “Sudan: China’s Original Foothold in Africa,” (June 14, 2017).
[21] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “China’s Initiation of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence”, fmprc.gov.cn, (https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/ziliao_665539/3602_665543/3604_665547/t18053.shtml, accessed March 27, 2019)
[22] The World Bank, “The Belt and Road Initiative” (https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/regional-integration/brief/belt-and-road-initiative) accessed April 29, 2019.
[23] Ikenberry and Lim, “China’s Emerging Institutional Statecraft.”
[24] Li Jiachiang “Developing China’s Indian Ocean Strategy” in China Quarterly of International Strategic Studies, Vol. 3, No. 4 (2017), 481–497.
[25] Irene Yuan Sun, The Next Factory of the World: How Chinese Investment is Reshaping Africa (Harvard Business Review Press: Brighton, Massachusetts, 2017).
[26] Goddard, “Embedded Revisionism,” 771.
[27] Ibid, 773-774.
[28] Ibid, 765.
[29] Brooks and Wohlforth, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in the Twenty-First Century,” 7-53.
[30] Goddard, “Embedded Revisionism” 774.

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