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The rules of the game

Rising superpowers like China are “cautious opportunists” in global institutions, and the U.S. should avoid overreaction, PhD student Raymond Wang argues.
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Raymond Wang
Raymond Wang is a native of Hong Kong who witnessed firsthand the shakeup and conflict engendered by China’s takeover of the former British colony. “That type of experience makes you wonder why things are so complicated,” he says. “Why is it so hard to live with your neighbors?”
Photo: Chris Burns

At the core of Raymond Wang’s work lies a seemingly simple question: Can’t we just get along?

Wang, a fifth-year political science graduate student, is a native of Hong Kong who witnessed firsthand the shakeup and conflict engendered by China’s takeover of the former British colony. “That type of experience makes you wonder why things are so complicated,” he says. “Why is it so hard to live with your neighbors?”

Today, Wang is focused on ways of managing a rapidly intensifying U.S.-China competition, and more broadly, on identifying how China — and other emerging global powers — bend, break, or creatively accommodate international rules in trade, finance, maritime, and arms control matters to achieve their ends.

The current game for global dominance between the United States and China continually threatens to erupt into dangerous confrontation. Wang’s research aims to construct a more nuanced take on China’s behaviors in this game.

“U.S. policy towards China should be informed by a better understanding of China’s behaviors if we are to avoid the worst-case scenario,” Wang believes.

“Selective and smart”

One of Wang’s major research thrusts is the ongoing trade war between the two nations. “The U.S. views China as rewriting the rules, creating an alternative world order — and accuses China of violating World Trade Organization (WTO) rules,” says Wang. “But in fact, China has been very selective and smart about responding to these rules.”

One critical, and controversial, WTO matter involves determining whether state-owned enterprises are, in the arcane vocabulary of the group, “public bodies,” which are subject to sometimes punitive WTO rules. The United States asserts that if a government owns 51 percent of a company, it is a public body. This means that many essential Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) — manufacturers of electric vehicles, steel, or chemicals, for example — would fall under WTO provisions, and potentially face punitive discipline.

But China isn’t the only nation with SOEs. Many European countries, including stalwart U.S. partners France and Norway, subsidize companies that qualify as public bodies according to the U.S. definition. They, too, could be subject to tough WTO regulations.

“This could harm a swathe of the E.U. economy,” says Wang. “So China intelligently made the case to the international community that the U.S. position is extreme, and has pushed for a more favorable interpretation through litigation at the WTO.”

For Wang, this example highlights a key insight of his research: “Rising powers such as China exhibit cautious opportunism,” he says. “China will try to work with the existing rules as much as possible, including bending them in creative ways.”

But when it comes down to it, Wang argues, China would rather avoid the costs of building something completely new.

“If you can repurpose an old tool, why would you buy a new one?” he asks. “The vast majority of actions China is taking involves reshaping the existing order, not introducing new rules or blowing up institutions and building new ones.”

Interviewing key players

To bolster his theory of “cautious opportunism,” Wang’s doctoral project sets out a suite of rule-shaping strategies adopted by rising powers in international organizations. His analysis is driven by case studies of disputes recently concluded, or ongoing, in the WTO, the World Bank, and other bodies responsible for defining and policing rules that govern all manner of international relations and commerce.

Gathering evidence for his argument, Wang has been interviewing people critical to the disputes on all sides.

“My approach is to figure out who was in the room when certain decisions were made and talk to every single person there,” he says. “For the WTO and World Bank, I’ve interviewed close to 50 relevant personnel, including front-line lawyers, senior leadership, and former government officials.” These interviews took place in Geneva, Singapore, Tokyo, and Washington.

But writing about disputes that involve China poses a unique set of problems. “It’s difficult to talk to actively serving Chinese officials, and in general, nobody wants to go on the record because all the content is sensitive.” 

As Wang moves on to cases in maritime governance, he will be reaching out to the key players involved in managing sensitive conflicts in the South China Sea, an Indo-Pacific region dotted with shoals and offering desirable fisheries as well as oil and gas resources.

Even here, Wang suggests, China may find reason to be cautious rather than opportunistic, preferring to carve out exemptions for itself or shift interpretations, rather than overturning the existing rules wholesale.

Indeed, Wang believes China and other rising powers introduce new rules only when conditions open up a window of opportunity: “It may be worth doing so when using traditional tools doesn’t get you what you want, if your competitors are unable or unwilling to counter mobilize against you, and you see that the costs of establishing these new rules are worth it,” he says.

Beyond Wang’s dissertation, he has also been part of a research team led by M. Taylor Fravel, Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science, that has published papers on China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

From friends to enemies

Wang left Hong Kong and its political ferment behind at age 15, but the challenge of dealing with a powerful neighbor and the potential crisis it represented stayed with him. In Italy, he attended a United World College — part of a network of schools bringing together young people from different nations and cultures for the purpose of training leaders and peacemakers.

“It’s a utopian idea, where you force teenagers from all around the world to live and study together and get along for two years,” says Wang. “There were people from countries in the Balkans that were actively at war with each other, who grew up with the memory of air raid sirens and family members who fought each other, but these kids would just hang out together.”  

Coexistence was possible on the individual level, Wang realized, but he wondered, “What systemic thing happens that makes people do messed-up stuff to each other when they are in a group?”

With this question in mind, he went to the University of St. Andrews for his undergraduate and master’s degrees in international relations and modern history. As China continued its economic and military march onto the world stage, and Iran generated international tensions over its nuclear ambitions, Wang became interested in nuclear disarmament. He drilled down into the subject at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, where he earned a second master’s degree in nonproliferation and terrorism studies.

Leaning into a career revolving around policy, he applied to MIT’s security studies doctoral program, hoping to focus on the impact of emerging technologies on strategic nuclear stability. But events in the world led him to pivot. “When I started in the fall of 2019, the U.S.-China relationship was going off the rails with the trade war,” he says. “It was clear that managing the relationship would be one of the biggest foreign policy challenges for the foreseeable future, and I wanted to do research that would help ensure that the relationship wouldn’t tip into a nuclear war.”

Cooling tensions

Wang has no illusions about the difficulty of containing tensions between a superpower eager to assert its role in the world order, and one determined to hold onto its primacy. His goal is to make the competition more transparent, and if possible, less overtly threatening. He is preparing a paper, “Guns and Butter: Measuring Spillover and Implications for Technological Competition,” that outlines the different paths taken by the United States and China in developing defense-related technology that also benefits the civilian economy.

As he wades into the final phase of his thesis and contemplates his next steps, Wang hopes that his research insights might inform policymakers, especially in the United States, in their approach to China. While there is a fiercely competitive relationship, “there is still room for diplomacy,” he believes. “If you accept my theory that a rising power will try and use, or even abuse,  existing rules as much as possible, then you need non-military — State Department — boots on the ground to monitor what is going on at all the international institutions,” he says. The more information and understanding the United States has of China’s behavior, the more likely it will be able “to cool down some of the tensions,” says Wang. “We need to develop a strategic empathy.”

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