What makes the West particularly nervous is that China has shattered two important misconceptions: first, the expectation that as China modernized, it would become increasingly Western; second, the idea that single-party rule by the Communist Party of China would inevitably give way to demands for Western-style democracy. Many in the West thought that China would be integrated into the Western economic and political order, as Japan was after World War II.
But that's not how the story has unfolded. Moving forward, we should expect continued assertion and pursuit of its interests by China—both in its neighborhood and on the world stage.
Rather than become more Western, China's polity and society remain stubbornly Chinese. If anything, the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) grip on power in China is stronger than ever. And China has made it clear that while it is a major beneficiary of the U.S.-led era of open markets, free trade, and investment flows, it is also determined to have an independent say in the economic, political, and security order in its region and in the world.
After the 2008 global economic crisis, China doubled down on its efforts to shape its region, using its economic strength to build connectivity and institutions consolidating the Eurasian landmass. It launched the "One Belt, One Road" initiative, created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS New Development Bank, and negotiated the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP, as opposed to the U.S.-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership). China also promoted the use of the renminbi as an international currency and promoted regional trade—10 years ago, all except one of China's neighbors traded more with the United States than with China; today, China is the largest trading partner of all its neighbors. Faced with Western sanctions, Russia looks to China to buy the energy and commodity exports on which it depends. Even the United States, China's main strategic competitor, is economically tied to China in fundamental ways.