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China’s Status Anxiety

In early February, the United States shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina. China’s response was angry and defiant: an official spokesperson accused Washington of frequently flying its own spy balloons over Chinese territory and said the United States should “reflect on itself and change course, rather than smear and instigate a confrontation.”

This kind of tit-for-tat response is becoming increasingly commonplace as China’s power grows. In domains as diverse as international trade, human rights, maritime law, and military surveillance, Beijing has accused the United States of hypocrisy and double standards—while responding in kind to Washington’s moves. The allegation in each case is broadly the same: the United States does not adhere to the rules of its own so-called rules-based, liberal international order and therefore cannot legitimately criticize China for acting similarly.

China’s belligerence is risky for a country with a much weaker military and far fewer allies than the United States. Why then does Beijing persist in behaving this way? The answer can be found in a central yet often overlooked dynamic in great-power politics. Aside from the usual objectives of security and prosperity, rising powers value their status in the international order—the rules and institutions that regulate relations among states. The pursuit of status can motivate states to do striking things, such as pour billions into space programs, nuclear weapons, and grand sporting events.

For a rising power such as China, an intolerable sense of inequality is created when an established great power bends or breaks international rules without allowing Beijing the same privilege. China wants to be recognized as an equal of the world’s preeminent great power, the United States. Under some conditions, persistent inequality of this sort can lead a state to turn hostile toward those it sees as its oppressors.

China’s approach to the international order depends on the extent to which the order’s rules and institutions recognize its desire for status. Beijing is more likely to cooperate with institutions that place it on an equal footing with Washington and has typically challenged or sought to reform institutions that do not. The durability of the international order, therefore, depends on whether or not its core institutions—and their architect, the United States—can create sufficient status-based incentives for China to cooperate with them.


When the balance of power in geopolitics begins to shift, rising and established powers often find themselves on a collision course known colloquially as the “Thucydides trap.” By this logic, great powers rig the international order for their own benefit; rising powers seek a growing share of those benefits, which great powers are unwilling to provide. This sets the stage for large-scale conflict over the international order itself.

This view is correct, but it typically omits a key driver of conflict. If material benefits were all that mattered, a rising power would hardly challenge an order that has enabled its rise. Overturning an international order through war and conflict is extremely costly and risky—countries sometimes fail spectacularly, as Russia has recently proved in Ukraine. A state will take the risk not because an order fails to enrich it but because an order consistently denies it something more intangible: its rightful place in the sun.

The Peloponnesian War—from which the notion of the Thucydides trap is derived—shows how a rising power’s status anxiety can cause or exacerbate conflict. The standard reading of the ancient Greek historian Thucydides’s account of the war holds that Sparta’s fear of a rising Athens led to hostilities. This reading, however, overlooks the other side’s grievances: for its part, Athens resented the criticism it received from Sparta about its imperialist expansion. This was, after all, what all great powers did, and the Spartan position smacked of hypocrisy. According to the Athenians, “None of our critics enquires why this charge is not laid against other imperial powers elsewhere whose treatment of their subjects is less moderate than ours.” The rise of Athens may have provoked fear in Sparta, but Athens’s refusal to back down was driven by status anxiety and the sense of being treated unfairly.

It is true that great powers rig the international order in their favor. But their focus is as much on maintaining their privileged position as rule-makers in world politics as it is on securing material benefits. The purpose of the exclusive clubs that great powers have formed throughout history—such as the Concert of Europe, the League of Nations Executive Council, and the UN Security Council—has been to entrench their privileges while regulating the conduct of other states.

Rising states, having tasted the prestige of growing power, seek to join their era’s great-power clubs. The real tragedy of great-power politics is not that rising powers strive to overthrow a materially disadvantageous order that great powers are unwilling to change. It is that rising powers seek membership in clubs whose very exclusivity would be diluted by their admission. Status is a scarce commodity—its value declines as more states possess it. The international order, therefore, is often not positioned to accommodate the rise of new powers.

This is not to say that cooperation and peaceful change are impossible. As the shift in the late nineteenth century from British to U.S. hegemony shows, great powers can and do accommodate rising powers. After decades of contentious relations following the War of 1812 and British interference in the American Civil War, London made significant concessions in the 1871 Treaty of Washington that marked the beginning of what is known today as the “special relationship” between the two countries. Rising powers are also not fundamentally prone to conflict—they frequently cooperate with or try to reform the international order. Japan, for example, accepted significant restraints on its capabilities and interests in relation to Britain and the United States at the Washington Naval Conference in the early 1920s.

As it turns out, the factors influencing a rising power’s decision to cooperate often lie within the order itself. A wealth of social psychology research shows that social groups are more cooperative in a hierarchy that is sufficiently open to upward mobility in the ranks and whose procedures are fair and transparent. The international order operates in a similar manner. The membership rules of its core institutions determine who gets to be part of a club, and its procedures determine how institutional privileges are distributed among its members. Rising powers assess these institutions’ openness and fairness when measuring their own standing within the international order.

The openness of an institution can be understood in terms of the ease with which new aspirants can become leaders in that organization. For example, the International Monetary Fund is a more open institution than the UN Security Council because the IMF’s rules tie voting rights to economic power, and the council is closed to new permanent members. Procedurally fair institutions are likely to be more consultative in their decision-making, to not arbitrarily favor the great powers, and to not single out a rising power as being inferior to others. The UN General Assembly’s “one country, one vote” system is fairer by this measure than the Security Council’s veto system. Taken together, institutional openness and fairness signal that the existing order is able to accommodate a rising power’s status aspirations and treat it as an equal within the great-power club.


Beijing does not simply embrace or reject the current international order. It has been more cooperative in institutions it judges to be open and procedurally fair, it has challenged institutions that it judges to be closed and unfair, and it has sought to reform institutions that it deems only partially open or fair. It bases these assessments on whether an institution recognizes China’s claim to status equality with the United States and its great-power allies, such as France and the United Kingdom—or whether it does not.

The UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, the World Trade Organization, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and the G-20 are institutions that have been both open to Chinese leadership and procedurally fair with regard to Chinese participation. China is one of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council; these same five countries also constitute the club of official nuclear powers in the nuclear nonproliferation regime. China’s economic heft makes it a highly valued member of the WTO and the G-20. The Security Council’s veto provisions and the General Assembly’s voting procedures, the WTO’s dispute resolution mechanism, and the rotating leadership and consensual decision-making of the G-20 make these institutions procedurally fair from China’s perspective. Consequently, China has been mostly cooperative within them, even though it has placed its own interests above institutional goals at times. In this tendency, China resembles the United States, which has at times flouted the very rules it seeks to uphold.

At the other end of the spectrum, China has challenged the United Nations’ human rights regime—most prominently the erstwhile UN Commission on Human Rights and its successor, the UN Human Rights Council. The United States and its allies have repeatedly used this aspect of the international order to single out Beijing for its human rights record, and China has limited leadership prospects in these institutions within an order dominated by liberal democracies. Beijing views this situation as a denial of China’s rightful status, particularly given the United States’ own global human rights record. As a result, China has challenged this regime by trying to delegitimize the Western claim to universal human rights. Beijing, for example, has supported the Universal Periodic Review of the human rights practices of every member, including the United States, in the UN Human Rights Council, and China’s State Council Information Office issues annual reports on U.S. human rights violations.

In institutions that are only partially open or fair from China’s perspective, Beijing has sought reforms to enhance its status. These include the IMF and the World Bank, where China has pushed for greater openness in terms of voting rights and executive leadership positions. Beijing has been frustrated by the slow pace of reform, and in response it has created and supported new institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank, where it can be top dog. Similarly, within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, it has advocated for a fairer allocation of responsibility in tackling global warming such that advanced Western economies account for their historical contributions to the problem.


China’s approach shows that in times of power shifts in global politics, much depends on the extent to which the international order can allow rising powers to see themselves as equal to established powers. This phenomenon is neither uniquely Chinese nor uniquely contemporary. Historically, rising powers—including the United States itself in the nineteenth century—have been more cooperative in international systems that make room for them at the global high table. By contrast, exclusion and inequality have been powerful sources of conflict.

The United States should take these lessons to heart if it wants the fundamentals of the current order to endure. In institutions in which China’s status is secure, the United States should ask more of Beijing. China should be called upon to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the UN Security Council; to support the expansion of the council to include new permanent members that may be friendlier to the United States, such as Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan; to work harder to maintain its WTO commitments and avoid unfair trade practices; and to collaborate with the West to pressure North Korea into acting as a responsible nuclear power. Washington is better positioned to make these demands because China values its status within these institutions and is more likely to shoulder the burdens necessary to preserve it. Washington may also find that its requests are more likely to be successful if they are made in return for Beijing’s desired improvements in its status in the international order.

Accordingly, in institutions in which China experiences status inequality, the United States should assent to reforms. At the IMF and the World Bank, the United States could cede some control of voting rights to give China a greater say in these institutions. Washington could also work to open up top leadership positions at international financial institutions and within the UN system to Chinese nationals. On climate change, instead of causing global economic imbalances through the Inflation Reduction Act’s vast domestic subsidy regime, the United States could unilaterally play a much greater role in the global financing and implementation of climate change mitigation and adaptation. All of these actions would enhance the openness and fairness of the international order, creating incentives for China to cooperate on a wider range of issues.

The divide between China and the United States over some issues, such as human rights and Taiwan’s future, is bound to remain intractable. Overall, however, the current international order can be adjusted to mitigate bilateral frictions between the two countries.

In international politics, order sits uncomfortably alongside the violence it takes to impose it. When the global distribution of power shifts substantially, the question is not only who gets to make the rules of the road but also who gets to break them with impunity. Rule-making and hypocrisy, after all, go hand in hand when it comes to managing international conflict and cooperation. China’s quest is ultimately for the right to be as hypocritical as the United States in the international order. By accommodating China’s desire for greater status and demanding more of it as a beneficiary of international cooperation, the United States can both avoid alienating a rising power and endangering the future of international order.

Source : Foreign Affairs