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Let China Try

05.12.2016

All countries want to live in security and benefit from international cooperation. Even North Korea. But not the so-called Islamic State (banned in Russia), which is why it is not a state at all and will most likely be destroyed. International institutions and rules of the game are created by governments to ensure peace and development. Quite possibly, global affairs have entered a stage of qualitative change. The postwar institutions that survived the disintegration of the USSR, their functions and agenda have been largely exhausted even at the regional level and in their most perfect forms. A case in point is a systemic crisis of European integration that includes the secession of important members seeking better options.

A contest of ideas on how to remake the world has begun. The important thing here is to propose a vision of fairness that would be unique and suit the majority. America has seriously neglected its domestic affairs after 25 years of attempting to bring the world to heel and is likely to withdraw from the game for the time being. But we shouldn’t hope for US isolationism either, at least for the reason that its future development will hinge on an arms race and free trade. Both will inevitably require broad global involvement, even if the form it takes differs from past attempts to play the leading role everywhere or propose universal concepts.

Europe is discredited and engaged in a rearguard action, while still being the most attractive global market after the United States. But no one regards it as a leader or source of ideas. Consumed by its internal crisis, Europe will be unable to be an active global player for another 10 or 15 years. Russia is willing and able to propose to the world a new concept of co-development and regulation of international relations based on a combination of loyalty to traditional institutions and law and a creative assessment of the nature of the current global crisis. But Russia lacks material resources to promote its ideas effectively. So far their scale is totally incomparable with Russia’s contribution to the global production of material wealth. The world’s sixth largest economy contributes a mere 2.6 percent of global exports. Russia is respected for its ability to uphold its interests. But many countries are suspicious of its determination to use force.

Currently, only China seems ready to shoulder the burden of reforming global institutions and international governance or even to create a new, fairer and more effective world order. Chinese expert and political circles and media are increasingly vocal that China should take the torch from the “enfeebled West.” The country has a powerful economy and a strong government. Beijing can marshal considerable resources in support of its strategic foreign policy priorities. Even the United States – let alone economically weaker Europe or Russia, which are consumed by domestic problems – is unable to launch projects comparable in scale with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or the Silk Road Fund.

Simultaneously, the number of China-sponsored international expert and business fora has grown phenomenally, with participating Chinese academics and politicians studying in depth their foreign partners’ interests and approaches to global and regional order. Their efforts are based on examining development records and reforms in more successful economies 35-40 years ago. By all evidence, these insightful discussions should result in new initiatives by the Chinese government, such as the Russia-supported proposal to liberalize Asia Pacific trade unveiled at the latest APEC summit.

Conceptually, some Chinese approaches are so far directed at substantive rather than procedural changes in the international order. Their central idea is that the basic distinction of the new global governance system from its predecessors should come from an increase of non-Western players and power centers’ influence.

Chinese experts fairly point out that both the original Westphalian order and the Yalta-Potsdam system were created without the active involvement of countries of the East or the South and therefore by definition failed to take into account their values and interests, something that makes the old ways outmoded. There is no doubt about the fairness of this claim. It is also clear that China is able to present fully original views and values. The question is what specific rules of the game should be replaced and what could be suggested to complement the old dichotomy between states and institutions in world politics.

Meanwhile, there are certain restrictions on China’s policy to reform the world order even at the regional level. Primarily this refers to the country’s thus far minimal experience of normative expansion, which is different than the conscious and purposeful dissemination of common rules of the game or values in economics and politics. But this strategy was at the core of the West’s power in the latter half of the 20th century and the early 21st century. Generally, the ability to conceive and propose to others not just a new “game” but also a procedure and method for organizing relations is a prerequisite for success in any collective, be it a community of individuals or a community of nations. Free trade and interconnectedness have the potential to be beneficial for all. The problem is to find mechanisms capable of ensuring this relative benefit by distributing contribution-related gains more or less evenly.

So, it obviously makes sense for China to go beyond proposals on rational economic cooperation for everyone’s benefit. This means both relying on purely market mechanisms in the foreign economic relations area and, if need be, proposing international legal formats of cooperation. This will also require a bolder use of available funds to implement projects at least in One Belt, One Road countries. So far, Beijing’s grand projects are just a promise for many regional players. Even at the regional level, China is more reserved than Western countries were in enlisting partners on the basis of shared values and legal norms.

Russia’s Turn Eastward, China’s Turn Westward: Cooperation and Conflict on the New Silk Road Valdai Paper #47
This Paper presents and analyzes the various elements connected to Russia’s Asia pivot and the concurrent moves in the East. It addresses the rationale of Russia’s turn to the East: presents the record to date, assesses the problems and risks, and finally, provides the future prospects.

Another important factor in the West’s leadership is its ability to join equitable and mutually binding alliances. Historically, military alliances formed the basis of the balance of forces between sovereign states in the ancient world and later in the Christianized West. Accordingly, any world order thus generated was based on military alliances as well. Alliances of city-states were at odds with each other in Ancient Greece. Each of these was headed by a hegemon prepared to fight for its “junior” partners. Medieval European monarchies formed alliances of equals and never went to war alone. 

NATO is the most powerful alliance in human history. Europe is apprehensive that the United States may partly renounce its allied commitments or just make them reciprocal. Clearly the West will focus on alliances in the future as well.

China for its part lacks historical experience of permanent allied relations between equals as it is traditionally understood by the Europeans. China’s numerous alliances in the past were based on vertical patron-client relations. China was close to forming an alliance with the USSR after it was proclaimed a republic in 1949, but this state of affairs proved highly unstable, leading to a fierce confrontation. Right now Chinese diplomacy is quite reluctant to use the “toxic” concept of alliances.

The environment in which these important Chinese initiatives will be tested in practice will also be important, particularly in Asia Pacific, the first venue for their possible application. So far, China has good reason to think that the obvious clinical death of the Transpacific Trade Partnership may expedite the formation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). This project is seen as an alternative based on liberalizing commodity markets rather than on restricting state interference. The majority of small and medium regional players are interested in its implementation.

But we should not overestimate the potential level of US isolationism in years to come. At any rate, the United States will inevitably continue efforts to contain China both politically and economically, which will require reliable tools. To be sure, the TPP is unlikely to materialize as designed but, according to experts, it already represents a bunch of terms designed for each individual country, with implications for access to the US market. It is rather easy to break down this bunch into a system of bilateral agreements. So, the universalist experiment conceived by the outgoing US administration may degenerate into a system of bilateral alliances that is more traditional for America and the region. But now these will combine both security and economic implications. But the fundamental difference of TPP (or its reincarnation) from China-sponsored RCEP is about business terms rather than trade alone. In this regard, China will have to do its part to improve policies at the national level.

It goes without saying that these internal and external constraints should not prevent great China from making a decisive contribution to the just reordering of the world. In any case, China must be allowed to try. The qualities of its leader leave no doubt that it will succeed. An important positive role could be also played by the ability of Chinese partners to heed the opinion of others at the expert and political levels. We should support China by channeling its energy into sufficiently durable regional and global institutions and legal regimes.        

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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