China’s foreign policy under Xi Jinping has become increasingly ambitious and consequential. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Renminbi internationalization and island building in the South China Sea (SCS), all represent explicit or implicit challenges to the extant American-led international order. Indeed, China is positioning itself as a surprising champion of ‘globalization’ in place of a Trump administration that is preoccupied with ‘American first’. This paper explores the prospects for Chinese leadership in the context of an international order that is characterized by a form of residual, institutionalized hegemony on the one hand, and important internal ‘contradictions’ of Chinese style authoritarian capitalism, on the other. We suggest that one consequence of the rivalry between the US and China may be not so much a change of international leadership, but its absence – especially when measured as effective, nationally-based foreign policy.