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The U.S. and China are playing a dangerous game. What comes next?

It was a close call for the USS Decatur this week, when a Chinese naval vessel came within yards of the guided-missile destroyer. The Decatur, shown on Oct. 21, 2016, was passing the Spratly Islands, a chain claimed by China. The Pentagon told the Agence France-Presse news agency Sunday that the Decatur “conducted a freedom of navigation operation,” sailing within 12 nautical miles of the Gaven and Johnson reefs in the Spratly Islands.  (Petty Officer 2nd Class Diana Quinlan/U.S. Navy/AFP)

U.S. and Chinese warships played a dangerous game of chicken in the South China Sea this week, adding to the rising tensions over trade issues and allegations of Chinese meddling in U.S. elections. U.S.-China relations appear to be on shaky ground — but how will these tensions play out?

For political scientists, a big question in recent years is whether China will remain a firm partner in the “liberal international order” or become a “revisionist power,” one that will overturn existing institutions in pursuit of its global agenda. Many scholars believe that China’s membership in key security, economic and political institutions will limit its ambitions.

Others disagree. Earlier this year, the U.S. National Defense Strategy spelled out the growing concern “that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model.” True, Beijing has challenged established security institutions in the Asia-Pacific, contested territorial norms in the South China Sea and crafted alternative economic institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Belt and Road Initiative.

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My research suggests that China’s membership in existing institutions is unlikely to put a brake on Beijing’s ambitions. Here’s why: 

1. International institutions provide resources for revisionism

Most scholarship emphasizes how institutions keep countries in line with the global order. When nations join institutions, their membership increases the cost of challenging the status quo, binds the country to these institutions and even “socializes” them into global norms.

Yet in 14 potential scenarios from 1815 onward, in only three cases — early-19th-century Russia, and Cold War Japan and Germany — did revisionist regimes accept the existing institutional order. Membership in the League of Nations did not stop Japan from invading Manchuria in 1931, or Germany and Italy from launching their expansionist ambitions.

Why is revisionism — an attempt by countries to overturn the institutional order — so pervasive? First, joining institutions actually gives countries resources to challenge the status quo. Nations that join security institutions may increase their ability to mobilize allies, for instance. Countries that join economic institutions secure leverage over their trading partners. Nations that are members of political institutions like the United Nations can gain legitimacy for their demands.

Second, potential revisionists maintain ties with institutions outside the dominant order, which provide additional resources to undermine the status quo. In the mid-19th century, for example, Prussia used its economic and social ties outside the Concert of Europe to challenge the European order. The Soviet Union relied on institutions outside the U.S.-led Western order to pursue revolutionary strategies. 

2. Institutions can decrease the cost of revisionist strategies

Many scholars equate revisionism with costly violence — pointing to the hegemonic wars fought by Napoleonic France, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. From this perspective, it’s hard to imagine China challenging the current status quo. War is simply too costly.

But revolutionary challengers to existing orders can adopt a number of strategies and can even use the channels of existing institutions to pursue their aims. When 19th-century Russia expanded into the Ottoman Empire, for example, it relied on the Concert of Europe’s diplomatic and alliance institutions. Indeed, outright military attacks on institutional orders are strategies of last resort. It was only when Imperial Japan lost the institutional resources to challenge the status quo peacefully that it turned to military force.

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3. International institutions create “master opportunities”

A final point is that scholars often see revisionism as driven by “master plans,” global ambitions that vary because of a state’s ideology, government type or security fears. If a state has revolutionary aims, it will strive to overturn the institutional order, even at the cost of war. If a state’s ambitions are more limited, then it might push for minor reforms — increased voting shares in institutions, for example — but wide-ranging institutional change is unlikely.

In fact, master opportunities may be the driving force in many cases. This means that even nations with modest aims pursue revolutionary projects when the institutional order appears ripe for change.

Here’s an example. There is no evidence that Imperial Japan had a revolutionary plan when it began expanding into the Asia-Pacific in the early 20th century. When Japan’s leaders claimed colonies and annexed Korea, they were responding opportunistically to cracks in the Western imperial order in the Asia-Pacific. Opportunities within the institutional order, not just aims, drive revisionist projects.

China and the institutional order

What do these findings mean for China and current global institutions? To begin with, China’s membership in institutions like the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the U.N. Security Council has increased its ability to demand reform within these institutions.

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China also has developed its own institutional resources, such as the AIIB and Belt and Road plans, which of course put Beijing’s goals first and potentially diminish the reach of Western-led multilateral development banks. China has also gained increasing leverage in Belt and Road countries, which probably gives it new partners in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

And there is other evidence of China’s aims becoming more expansive in the face of emerging opportunities. The U.S. focus on counterterrorism rather than development in South Asia created opportunities for China’s Belt and Road economic projects in the region. China is likely to expand its ambitions in reaction to these types of new opportunities, particularly if the United States continues to retrench from the global order.

All of this suggests that China could pursue far-ranging changes to the international status quo in the not-so-distant future. Ironically, this could be because, and not in spite of, China’s membership in international institutions.

Stacie E. Goddard is a professor of political science at Wellesley College and the author of “When Right Makes Might: Rising Powers and World Order (Cornell University Press, forthcoming, 2018).