Zhou Bo: China’s growing global links show there is no such thing as a US-led international order

  • Senior Colonel Zhou Bo (ret) is a senior fellow of the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University and a China Forum expert.

    Are China and the US on an inevitable collision course? One may wonder this when comparing the National Security Strategy issued by American President Joe Biden on October 12 with the report of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party delivered by President Xi Jinping four days later.

    President Biden asserted that China harbours the intention and, increasingly, the capacity to reshape the international order and vowed to “outcompete” China. Without naming the US, President Xi Jinping warned of “high winds, choppy waters and even dangerous storms” on the journey ahead and made it clear that China has the courage and ability to carry on its fight.

    With the US hell-bent on competition on all fronts, Washington’s offer to cooperate with Beijing on issues such as climate change appears as a tiny isle in a vast ocean. Biden is right about one thing: the next 10 years will be the decisive decade.

    But even if all signs point to competition between Beijing and Washington becoming fiercer down the road, the outcome is very much known already. China’s gross domestic product (GDP) in PPP terms overtook that of the US in 2013.

    Although slow growth has dampened expectations that the Chinese economy will be the largest by the end of the decade, the high probability is that the gap between the US and China will continue to shrink until a kind of balance is achieved, with each leading in different areas.

    Competition is more about mentality. When Biden talks about the international order, he is actually talking about what he has previously referred to as the “liberal world order”, in which America’s leadership is taken for granted. There is no such order in the world.

    True, many rules, regimes and even institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank were tailor-made by the West after World War II, but these alone do not define a system shaped by major events such as the independence movements in Africa, the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of China, to name just a few.

    Intrinsically, the international order comprises different religions, cultures, customs, national identities and social systems. Some of them may have survived over a millennium. It is also affected by globalisation, climate change, pandemics and nuclear proliferation.

    In fact, the period that looks at best like a liberal international order is the 15 years or so after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when China had yet to rise fully. This is but a blink of an eye in human history.

    If there is no liberal international order, there can be no simplistic dichotomy of “democracy vs autocracy”. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2021, just 21 territories out of a total of 167 were deemed to be full democracies, representing 6.4 per cent of the world’s population. If the liberal democratic model stands on a moral high ground, this does not explain why there is a global decline in democracy.

    It does not explain why a democracy like India is considered increasingly authoritarian. It does not explain why the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation led by China and Russia – two “authoritarian states” – is growing and has even attracted Türkiye, a Nato country. It does not explain why former American president Donald Trump instigated mobs to take over Capitol Hill, the highest seat of American democracy. It does not explain why China, while preserving its own social system, has become integrated with the rest of the world.

    The real competition between Beijing and Washington is not how to outperform each other at home, but to win the hearts and minds of people elsewhere. In the Indo-Pacific, where the US is rallying forces, Japan and Australia look like diehard American allies at first glimpse.

    But it is premature to conclude they will follow the US willy-nilly in going against their largest trading partner. In Southeast Asia, countries fear having to take sides between the two giants. Although Sino-India relations are still frosty following a border clash two years ago, bilateral trade hit a record high of US$125.6 billion in 2021.

    In Africa and Latin America, China’s fast-paced development makes it an inspiration. Public sentiment towards China’s regional economic and political influence is largely positive, in part because China has some unique lessons to teach on how it lifted 800 million people out of poverty in 40 years. These lessons should be more useful than hollow Western moralising.

    What remains uncertain is China’s relationship with Europe. But even if the EU makes China a “systemic rival”, it seems likely that, so long as China and Russia don’t form an alliance and there is no conflict in the Taiwan Strait, the China-European relationship will by and large remain stable. Moreover, the conflict in Ukraine will expedite the shift of the global centre of gravity to the Asia-Pacific. As a result, Europe will look increasingly more to the East.

    A good lesson from the Cold War is that even enemies can cooperate sometimes. China and the US are not enemies yet. And for competitors to not become enemies, they just need the common sense to know that however different we are, we must coexist. One only needs to look at a garden to know the beauty of the world lies in diversity.

    (This article was first published on South China Morning Post on Nov. 8, 2022.)

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