China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order

While the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.

—A.E. Housman, “Terence This is Stupid Stuff,” (1896)

THE WORDS of Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, delivered on the 3rd of June to the assembled leaders and representatives of the Southeast Asian nations then gathered in Singapore:

The choice for Southeast Asia in the 21st century is not between the United States and China, as some would make it out to be. Instead it is a choice between two futures—one in which the rules-based order is upheld and its benefits expanded to ever more people in Asia, or a darker future that resembles the past in this region and the world, where might makes right, and bullies set the rules and break them.

The rules-based order has not and will not enforce itself here in Southeast Asia. Nor can America, despite its great power, achieve this feat alone. It requires its stakeholders, including the nations of Southeast Asia, to uphold its principles, especially when they are challenged. America and the world are counting on the nations of Southeast Asia to recommit their power and resolve to upholding this system on which our shared security and prosperity depend.

…Like Southeast Asia, China also faces a choice. No nation has benefited more from the rules-based order than China. In just a single generation, China has become an economic superpower and a major player in international affairs. No nation in history has risen so high, so fast, and in so many different dimensions. And no nation has been a greater advocate for China’s success than America. Let me repeat: No nation has done as much to contribute to what China calls its “peaceful rise” as the United States of America.

…Regrettably, in recent years, there have been disturbing signs that China is maneuvering toward a policy of intimidation and coercion—harassing fisherman from the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia; using trade as a weapon in disputes with its neighbors; using cyber to steal intellectual property from foreign businesses to benefit its own industries; conducting dangerous intercepts of military aircraft flying in accordance with international law; and in the South China Sea, shattering the commitments it made to its neighbors in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct, as well as more recent commitments to the U.S. government, by conducting reclamation on disputed features and militarizing the South China Sea at a startling and destabilizing rate.

The choice for China is how it uses its growing power and position. China could continue to coerce and intimidate its neighbors and unilaterally enforce its territorial claims. It could pursue mercantilist economic policies. And it could engage in a zero-sum game for regional power and influence. China could do all of this, and it would harm the interests of every nation in this region, including its own.

Alternatively, China could choose a better path. It could cooperate with its neighbors and manage disputes peacefully, consistent with the same international rules that have benefited China so greatly. It could expand free and open trade with the region and the world. And it could expand cooperation with other Pacific powers on regional security challenges, from piracy to stability on the Korean Peninsula.

…In short, China can choose to disrupt the rules-based order. Or it can choose to become a vital partner in maintaining it. I fear the consequences if China chooses the path of disruption. But I am confident that if China chooses the path of partnership and cooperation, China’s growing influence will be welcomed by the international community. And the benefits of greater security and prosperity will extend to more citizens of this region than ever before, China’s included.


John McCain, “The Choice for Asia in the 21st Century,” War on the Rocks (3 June 2016).

McCain’s words echo those spoken by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter last week to the graduating midshipman at Annapolis. Read them both. Compare what they say. Behold the quickly crystallizing American narrative on China. This is a bipartisan message. It will be the starting point of a President Clinton’s policy. Whether a President Trump will endorse it is hard to say. In either case, it is a narrative whose momentum is building.

There is much that is good in this narrative. McCain proclaims that “no nation has done as much to contribute to what China calls its “peaceful rise” as the United States of America.” He is right to do so. No nation has done more to enable China’s rise than America has. No country’s citizens have done more for the general prosperity of the Chinese people than the Americans have. This is true in ways that are not widely known or immediately obvious. For example, the role American financiers and investment banks played in creating the architecture of modern Chinese financial markets and corporate structures is little realized, despite the size and importance of their interventions. Behind every great titan of Chinese industry China Mobile, the world’s largest mobile phone operator, China State Construction Engineering, whose IPO was valued at $7.3 billion, PetroChina, the most profitable company in Asia (well, before last year), to name a few of hundreds lies an American investment banker. I do not exaggerate when I say Goldman Sachs created modern China. China has much to thank America for.2

However, I cannot endorse all that is included in this emerging narrative, for part of it is deeply flawed. The flaw may be by design; if the purpose is to stir cold hearts and gain the moral admiration of others, such flaws can be excused that is how politics works. But this sort of things can only be excused if those delivering the speeches take the implications of their own words seriously when it is time to make policy. 

I speak of  China’s “choice.” The thread that runs through all of these talks is that the Chinese have yet to choose whether they aim for order or disruption, the existing regime or the chaos beyond it. The truth is that the Chinese have already chosen their path and no number of speeches on our part will convince them to abandon it. They do not want our rules based order. They have rejected it. They will continue to reject it unless compelled by overwhelming crisis to sleep on sticks and swallow gall and accept the rules we force upon them. 


Carl Walter and Fraser Howie, Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundations of China’s Extraordinary Rise (New York: Wiley, 2011), passim, but see esp p. 159.

China has made its choice. The real decision that will determine the contours of the 21st century will not be made in Beijing, but in Washington.

Observers of Chinese affairs have come to recognize two uncomfortable truths. The first is that China is a growing power whose might will continue to grow in every dimension we can measure for decades. The second is that the Chinese system of government is a fundamentally illiberal one, and the system of international relations the leaders of this system prefer reflects their illiberalism. These two things are not determined in the stars; either may change, and may change quite suddenly. But Americans will be better served if we plan as if both of these truths will remain true to the end of our lives.

This is not what we have been doing. For the most part Americans were able to accommodate themselves to the first of these realities by pretending that the second was not true. China could become more powerful, we said, because it will not be illiberal for long. After all, on this Earth the arc of history bends towards justice. Those on the ‘wrong side’ of history do not last long. How can the illiberal hope to endure? 

Last spring it finally sunk in. Chinese illiberalism not only can endure, it is enduring. The old consensus cracked apart. No new consensus on how to deal with China has yet formed to take its place.

But old habits die hard. We see this at the highest levels of policy, as in the McCain speech, where American policy is justified in terms of giving China a chance to choose the right. The same spirit is invoked further down the line. Ash Carter, for example, recently described American tactics in the South China Sea as a “long campaign of firmness, and gentle but strong pushback… [until] The internal logic of China and its society will eventually dictate a change.3 In other words, American policy is a holding action until the Chinese see the light.

What if they never do?

THE CHINESE believe that our international order is a rigged system set up by the imperial victors of the last round of bloodshed to perpetuate the power of its winners. They use the system, quite cynically, but at its base they find it and its symbols hypocritical, embarrassing, outrageous, and (according to the most strident among them), evil. In their minds it is a system of lies and half-truths. In some cases they have a point. Most of their actions in the East or South China Seas are designed to show just how large a gap exists between the grim realities of great power politics and soaring rhetoric Americans use to describe our role in the region. Murphy Taggart describes how the Chinese were able to exploit tensions over the Senkakus to manipulate the Japan and America’s relations:


Bradley Peniston, “Pentagon Playing the Long Game in the South China Sea, Carter Says,” Defense One (26 May 2016).

Beijing saw what happened in the wake of Ozawa’s comments to Hillary Clinton on her February 2009 visit to Japan, not to mention the coincidence of the ersatz “investigation” into Ozawa’s finances that destroyed his chances of becoming prime minister. Chinese leaders noted the spasms of hysteria that shook the American foreign policy establishment after Ozawa led his 600-person delegation to their country. They understood how the Hatoyama administration had been deliberately sabotaged by a de facto alliance of Pentagon functionaries, the establishment press in Japan, and Japanese spokesmen in the United States committing what amounted to treason against their own government. And they decided to call Tokyo’s— and Washington’s— bluff. 4


Murphy, R. Taggart. Japan and the Shackles of the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 352. 

 Another example was the crisis started when Beijing moved the oil rig HYSY981 into Vietnamese waters:

“The deployment of the CNOOC mega rig was a pre-planned response to President Barack Obama’s recent visit to East Asia. China was angered by Obama’s support for both Japan and the Philippines in their territorial disputes with Beijing. Therefore China manufactured the oil rig crisis to demonstrate to regional states that the United States was a “paper tiger” and there was a gap between Obama’s rhetoric and ability to act.”  

President Obama’s tour, which ended shortly before the whole HYSY-981 fiasco began, brought the President to Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Tokyo, and Seoul. One wonders if it was wise to exclude Beijing from this list—particularly seeing as the President’s agenda included signing a ten year military pact with the Philippines, declaring that the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are under U.S. military protection, and cajoling South Korean and Malaysian government officials and corporate bigwigs into joining the Trans Pacific Partnership. From the Chinese perspective it is hard to look at this trip as anything but a hostile attempt to draw tight the noose and solidify a regional alliance to contain it.

Prompting a crisis was an adroit way to show that the PRC cannot be contained. Washington will not crusade against Moscow and Beijing at the same time. Beijing has forced the Americans to choose between the two. To the chagrin of our Asian allies, Washington’s priorities are not those proclaimed in the President’s speeches last month. ASEAN’s inability to stand as a united front against China’s actions is icing on the cake. Reports from the ASEAN negotiations have been more muted than the last time China was able to sow disunion in ASEAN’s ranks, but it is a safe guess that Chinese diplomats were able to pull many of the same strings they did in 2012. One suspects that China specifically timed the crises to display ASEAN’s disunity, showing the region’s middle tier powers that attempts to use ASEAN to stifle China’s ambitions are nothing but a pipe dream. 5


Tanner Greer “A Few Comments on China, Vietnam, and the HYSY981 Oil Crisis,The Scholar’s Stage (22 May 2014).

A similar story can be told for numberless Chinese diplomatic and military initiatives, from 2012’s failed ASEAN summit to the seizure of Scarborough Shoal. This is what the Chinese do. I am convinced that the Chinese are so adept at doing this—finding the places where one small push is all that is needed to display American impotence or indifference—because they are trained from the beginning to see the entire edifice as a lie, and thus are aware in a way most Americans are not of the gap between the way we talk about our alliance system and the way Asians experience it. 

Wedded to this cynical vision of the current arrangements is an equally cynical take on the history of America’s imposed order. Beijing is well aware that if it decided to do to Tonga now what the United States did to Hawaii more than a century ago it would mean war. At the time the United States suffered nothing of the sort. Not that American wars were without their own rewards—the Americans claim island bases like Guam and Saipan as prizes won through conquest. China is not allowed to conquer its own prizes. It cannot fight wars to give its forces a new ports and bases; it is not even allowed build little artificial islands for the purpose.

Never mind that all of that strikes the Chinese’s ire happened generations ago. Anything this side of the Taiping is modern history for the Chinese. American attempts to deny that, to claim that the world should work differently now than it did when the American star first began to rise, simply prove that morality and sweet sounding words like ‘international norms’ are for the winners. All of that talk about being a responsible stakeholder is just a nicer way to say we plan on kicking down the ladder now that we have finished climbing up it.

In simpler terms, the Chinese equate “rising within a rules based order” with “halting China’s rise to power.” To live by Washington’s rules is to live under its power, and the Chinese have been telling themselves for three decades now that—after two centuries of hardship—they will not live by the dictates of outsiders ever again.

THE Chinese will never choose our rules based order. That does not necessarily mean they want to dethrone America and throw down all that she has built. What they want is a seat at the table—and they want this seat to be recognized, not earned. That’s the gist of it. Beijing is not willing to accept an order it did not have a hand in creating. Thus all that G-2 talk we heard a few years back. The Chinese would love to found a new order balancing their honor and their interests with the Americans. It is a flattering idea. What they do not want is for the Americans to give them a list of hoops to jump through to gain entry into some pre-determined good-boys club. They feel like their power, wealth, and heritage should be more than enough to qualify for  automatic entrance to any club.

The decision then, lies not with them, but with us. An illiberal China is rising. No matter how nuanced our negotiation or how righteous our indignation, the Chinese will always feel that any attempt to get them to play by rules they did not have a hand in making is 1) morally wrong and 2) damaging to the Party’s domestic power. They are interested in making a new order for the 21st century. In this the Chinese of today are not too different from the Americans of yesteryear. We forget that sometimes. There was once an era where Americans were the ones demanding that the shape of the world change to better match their values and interests.

The question before us then is whether we can compromise with the Chinese on this, and if so where those compromises can be made. What form that compromise might take—spheres of interest are the classical model here, though others exist—is still up for discussion. If this is our path then these discussions must be had with fierce urgency.

The alternative to compromise is containment. If we decide that any compromise with illiberal China would poison the international order beyond repair then we must move swiftly to contain China before its power grows further still. Our aim will not only be to restrain but also to reduce Chinese power when and where we can. This too will require spirited discussion, for containment is fraught with danger. We must ponder long and hard how we might go about limiting Chinese power without making the Party’s domestic position so vulnerable that they see no alternative but war before them.

Both paths before us require careful thought and vigorous debate if we hope to traverse them safely. These discussions are not happening. As long as we cling to the illusion that China has not made her choice they will not happen. The fruits of this foolishness are not hard to see: we do not contain yet we refuse to compromise, suffering the costs of both choices while reaping the benefits of neither.
6 The hope that the Chinese will admit their wrongs and ask to join our rules-based club is a mirage. It must be given up. We hold to it only because we fear the responsibility the truth would force upon us.  The Chinese have made their choice. The ball is in our court now. 


The way the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank hullabaloo went down is a perfect example of all this. American incoherence and tone deafness, refusal to compromise or properly contain, wishful thinking instead of clear vision–it is all there.


EDIT (7/7/2016): Please see my two follow-up posts to this piece: “Arms and Influence…. and China,” and “Costly Signaling in the South China Sea.



Leave a Comment


Great post, thanks.

"The way the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank hullabaloo went down is a perfect example of all this. American incoherence and tone deafness, refusal to compromise or properly contain, wishful thinking instead of clear vision–it is all there."
What Edward Luttwak calls the autism of great powers.

Nice work. Certainly agree that China has made its choice regarding US-centric security arrangements, and will work where possible to undermine them. I'd like to know what you made of the Fontaine & Rapp-Hooper piece a little while ago, breaking down the variation in Beijing's approach to different aspects of "the" rules-based order.

Couple of other points to bounce out. First, I agree that China has good reasons to want to demonstrate US unreliability, but how important is this really as the cause of the PRC behaviours you cite versus, say, geostrategic gains (ie control of maritime space), resource insecurity and its increased material capabilities? At Scarborough Shoal, as we know, the PRC didn't initiate the standoff, it was precipitated by a confluence of developments, including the Philippines' use of its new navy ship, and the fact that CMS ships happened to be nearby on a patrol nearby at the time – this being a function of the PHL navy having a new ship courtesy of the US Coastguard, and the PRC's shipbuilding projects initiated in 1999. As far as i'm aware, it's also not clear what level of the PRC state the authorization for "rescuing" the fishers was made – the CMS ships on patrol apparently received the distress call and asked for authorization before acting, but they evidently got it pretty quickly, so it seems plausible that it may have been authorized at the level of CMS or SOA headquarters and the Navy. So as a demonstration of US unreliability it's at most opportunistic and, as the PRC's subsequent behaviour in the area has suggested, motivated strongly by the desire to actually control the surrounding maritime space. I'm also not sure how the PRC could have been sure that the US would not have intervened more strongly – if they weren't sure, then that aspect of China's motivation may be better categorized as a probe, designed to test the US reaction (a line of thinking that i believe is important in explaining the 2090 Impeccable incident).

As for the HYSY-981 and island-building, they were both massive logistical operations with enormous financial costs and complex inter-bureaucratic coordination, so the resources and actual maritime control motivations again seem more persuasive (and in the case of the island building, a perceived need to "dig in" in the Spratlys, and perhaps make use of some excess construction capacity). If the aim was demonstrating US unreliability, there surely must be much cheaper ways of doing that?

Also, China's reasons for to demonstrating US unreliability only hold up to a point, right? For example, the point at which Japan decides it needs its own nuclear deterrent. If the PRC were to actually ruin the US's credibility, the region would likely become very unstable, and that would clearly threaten the PRC economy – and we know for sure and certain that rising living standards is an agreed-upon strategy in Beijing (a core interest, no less). I reckon the hardheads in Beijing are well aware of the benefits that current arrangements have brought, as expressed in terms like the "period of strategic opportunity" for economic growth, and a "relatively peaceful external environment" with "opportunities greater than challenges" etc language. What's your take on that?

All in all, very thought-provoking, thanks!

As one person commented, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is China's attempt to create their own rules. It is also important to frame this discussion under the umbrella of Sinocentrism. The very name of the country in Chinese (and Japanese) means "middle kingdom", but more figuratively this refers to "the kingdom that is the center of everything." Since ancient times, China has viewed itself as the central fulcrum, with the spokes of its influence spreading outward. To them, people were fortunate and lucky to be located within their sphere. When we put this thought in the back of our minds, all of this maneuvering to have their voice recognized makes sense. Of course they feel that this recognition does not have to be earned. In their eyes, they've had it all along, and they want to put things back to the way they were (in the Asian hemisphere at least).

Much of China's probing behavior seems designed to carve out the basic contours of its very own sphere without forcing the issue. If all goes according to plan, I suppose we in the U.S. could wake up one morning to a fait accompli, but that's one hell of a gamble on China's part.

For quite some time now, U.S. policy has been to keep Russia down, China out, and Japan all to itself. That's the rules based order we never speak of, but make no mistake, there is a kingpin at the head of the table, the top slot is nontransferrable, and so go the rules–good, bad, or indifferent. Were it otherwise, there would be no succession struggle. But because the rules are so paricular, the U.S. can't and won't relinquish the reins.

Until such time as we accidentally stumble upon that "stupid proof" foreign policy you're always yammering on about, I'll be in my bunker wearing my tinfoil hat.

Seriously though, very nice post!

If America does finally have the debate, it is hard to see any possible results apart from containment and a cold war with China. If, at the end of the day, Washington does believe the arc of history bends toward "justice" and they believe themselves to be "just" while Beijing does not believe the rule based order created by Washington to be just, it is hard to see any other possibilities. Russians basically have the same views (perhaps even more cynical) as Beijing regarding the current global rule based order and that ended with more or less a new cold war with Russia that is going on right now. Russia is a country that America does not mind offending, and the current result is for all to see. I don't see how China and US relations will end any differently as long as one side believes themselves to be just while the other side do not. In fact, I don't think any country (apart from Western European ones) really believe in the rule based order anyways. The Middle East certainly don't. Leftist countries in South America constantly complain about US imperialism. I doubt Vietnam, Philippines, Japan, and South Korea believe it either, they are merely cynically gaming it for their own purposes, just like China is. It just happens that China and Russia are powerful enough to make a dent in the current rule based order to cause enough shock. At the end of the day, it is hard to know if the US even believes it themselves. Does someone like Hillary really believe that the arc of history bends toward justice? From Beijing's perspective, it is hard to believe that the US actually believes in their own values given the hypocrisy that exists, and sees it as nothing more than great power politics of trying to keep upcoming powers down.

Excellent post. A fine bookend for Singapore's ambassador Bilahari Kausikan's piece last week titled, ‘Standing up to and getting along with China’.

The memory hole has swallowed the recollection that, prior to the meeting of the heads of state of ASEAN, our media informed us that they would sign a new American code of conduct for the South China Sea. When those gentlemen met with President Obama, however, they unanimously refused to sign.

Everyone in SE Asia, where I live, knows this and knows its significance. With the upcoming defection of the Philippines from Team Pivot, the game seems already lost. Further FONOPs will look sillier and sillier – an outcome that would tickle FM Wang Yi no end…

I can't see a way to limit the growth of Chinese power outside of a globally disruptive move that would break the PRC as a single entity under central control. China is still, and perhaps always will be, susceptible to fractioning, and that may be the only route to a stable reduction in the growth of Chinese power. It does not preclude the continuing growth of Chinese wealth (though the coastal south is likely to sharply diverge from the rest of China), but it ensures that the growth of political and military power will be stunted. It would shatter the global economy for quite some time, but I don't really see another way to stunt the growth of Chinese power. Even a drastic change like Japanese militarization would eventually be overwhelmed by Chinese militarization as long as China is to remain a single entity.

I am pleasantly suprised at reading this article. Let me be perfectly clear: I am Chinese and am squarely in the PRC's camp. My view is that this article suprisingly capture the gist of Chinese view quite well, it is short on retric and long on facts. So kudos to the arthor for a well written article. I actually do not have any dispute as I agree with all your points. But I do have some futher comment for your consideration:

I think most Chinese would agree that America had also already made it's choice – contaiment. Americian is already setting it up in military, political, and econmic realms; in each case I can easily find examples. We do make a distinction between setting up a containment and having a cold-war though, which explains why relations isn't any worse.

I also want to confirm and definitely reassure that the Chinese side have absolutely zero intention in becoming America's underlining. The Chinese people, the nation, and the communist government are all too proud of themselves to accept anything other than at least equality in power relation. I am sure America being the proud country that it is think exactly the same.

The Chinese really do not feel they owe the USA anything. I understand American think they 'made' China, but honestly no one in China believe this. Chinese everywhere feel that we got to where we are today through hard work and self determination, both at the personal and the state level. In fact, those that are conservative feel the US had always hindered China's rise wherever it can (I am one of them) as long as it's not too costly.

Last but not least. I agree when you said China is not seeking global hegemony like the US is today. To take it a step further, China have no intention even in breaking the current system. I don't know if you would believe this or not. But if you look at it, it make a lot of sense. Why kill the golden goose that laid the egg? Why intentionally get into conflict with the US when the US is clearly more powerful, wouldn't that be suicidal? Why would china ever want to blockade South China Sea when the majority of trade going through it is from/to China, wouldn't that be kicking yourself in the balls? You were in the right direction but you didn't really reach the end in your article: the goal of the PRC is to make the exisitng system safe for China to grow within it but without bondary. No glass sealing or black mail from the US. This is only possible if China is treated as equal.

Anywya, there are other details I would get into, but it's already a long reply so I would stop here. Very interesting read though and I would say good job on a realisitc reading of the Chinese view.

Hey all, good comments. Pressed for time at the moment though and will not be able to reply at length now; I will get back tho this thread as soon as time allows, perhaps this weekend. Keep the good comments coming in the meantime.

Could you define the terms "rules-based" and "liberal" and explain how you think they characterize the American order since World War II and especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union?

As others have said, the US manages its internal affairs according to a perverse legalism, but it happily breaks the rules whenever they are inconvenient, even the most important rules like "thou shalt not invade thy neighbour" (which is one of the pillars of the international strategy for avoiding another world war which the US helped to set up). The Chinese and US governments both seem committed to free trade, the IMF, saying polite things about GDP statistics, and so on. It is very serious that China is not democratic, and does not show obvious signs of democratization … but recent history in Turkey, the Arab world, and even Alberta show that politics is full of surprises as well as that sometimes the good guys lose.

Sovereign is he who makes the exception. The "rules based system" sounds fine in principle were it not for a certain actor who has made it a habit of being exceptional. American hegemony rests on the back of its acquiescent vassals. Chinese probing is designed to gauge and expose the limits of America's lofty rhetoric and in doing so undermine faith in the Imperial cult as it were.

Been thinking about a lot about this post. Agree with your thesis that China is not making, but has already made, their choice.

Struggling to understand your response options. What's the difference between containment and compromise? Containment alludes to Kennan style cold war containment. But China has no ideology to contain. Or are you implying that nationalistic autocratic capitalism lurking behind a communistic sheen is contagious in the 21st century like socialism/communism was in the 20th? That is to say, it looks like China is merely playing very traditional great power politics. As such, contain/compromise are both acceptable tools for the US to use for great power politics. And US should be able to do that, even if not well. China will naturally tend toward great power empire, and perhaps that's what you mean by contain.

In any case, thinking about this long term, history suggests the problem with capitalism is without a democratic cap to control it, leads to crony capitalism leads to corruption leads to decline. Or revolution. The more China embraces markets, the more likely at some point they'll also feel the up and down of markets: recession, unemployment, etc. And without a democratic release valve, they may be hard pressed to control crony capitalism's tendency to stagnation. This threat is of course a ways off. China is one of the most dynamic places in the world right now. But perhaps long term then, I think US engagement with markets, with some minor containment is the path. Markets help lift out of poverty, but place a strategic lever when they fail towards either complete authoritarianism, or else opening up. And the US being engaged at that point when markets go sideways in China may be good for everyone.

I agree with most of this article, China has already made its decision, and US should be the one decide what to do. And it looks like US is doing the containment thing half-assed way, they wish to contain China, but not willing to sacrifice its troops or its economy. So they do this off shore balance thing where they use its allies to contain China while cheer them on with words mostly, but time and time again, when push come to shove, China didn't back down.

If US's goal is to force bad reputation on China, then I don't think China cares, because China can well demonstrate US's very hypocrisy in its own policy.

But I don't agree with you is the part you said that US helped build China without going much detail except that US hoped that China would change to a liberal order.

I don't think US did it out of altruism when they helped build up China, they did it, its mostly because the corporation wants to make a buck… simple as that. You very much underestimate the control of US money have over its politics. You really think Clinton allowed China to join the WTO because he thought China would became democratic? I'm pretty such the business lobby is the crucial influence, they see China as a huge market as well as a cheap place to produce things. And I think US state department have severely underestimated China, thinking that no real consequence will come out of this, they thought as China's labor became expensive, they will just became another Brazil of Philippines or Indonesia, where they will get stuck in the middle income trap, and US should not have made such mistake, because all they had to do is look a Korea and Japan. The difference between China and Japan/Korea is that Japan/Korea is still very much a modern day US vessel, but China on the other hand… makes its own real decisions

So yes, China's today is by no doubt not possible without US and other more advanced nations, but those nations didn't do it because they cared about China…..

Also one more question I have always wondered, what is US's end goal in promoting freedom and democracy and regime change in China? Would a prosperous and democratic China be less of a challenge to US's national interest? I don't think so, lets say the KMT won the Chinese civil war, I still do see they will eventually run into strategic rival with USSR much sooner, and once the USSR collapse, they would eventually compete with US on sphere of influence, resource control etc….

Unless US know that most nation whom have little background of democratic system or a proper legal structure, when became democratic will be hopelessly bog down in its own corruption and bureaucracy, thus they would present far less challenge to US. Do you think if India today is at China's economic power, they wouldn't try to change the world order to benefit them better? And if they did try to do so, do you really think US would stand by?

And lastly, you forget a 3rd option in US deciding what to do with China besides compromise or full containment… is that… even IF China is successful contained without WW3, would it be really worth it for US's national interest? Would a humiliated defeated 1 billion + Chinese's new government less hostile to US?

Would successful containment make US stronger and secure it another century, or would it severely weaken US/China so that other challenger might arise to challenge US's world order? This is the same question that the Byzantine/Sassanian should have asked themselves before they fight each other had they know the Islamic caliphate was going to sweep one empire away, and almost destroy the other.

So the 3rd question is, is China too late to contain at this very moment?

When you speak of an "illiberal China", there is a contrast created by the implication that the USA are "liberal" (why would you use that adjective if not to highlight a difference in values between the two players?).
This article was written in 2016. Looking back at it from 2020, after episodes such as the Huawei case or the still open TikTok case, I find this presumption to be just adorable.
The USA have had the vestige of liberalism, but as a country they are equally illiberal, just in a less overt way. As a system, crony capitalism cannot be liberal, and we've seen ample proof of that.

Moreover, talking about China being "illiberal" in 2020 sounds like the pot calling the kettle black, if coming from the mouth of an american, and equally laughable is the pretense that China calling out the international order for being based on lies is a display of "cynicism", when it is in fact a proof of their cleverness and accuracy in reading the current world order and calling it for what it is.