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.