The Return of Diplomacy?
China, Russia and the USA as Civilizations in International Relations

The process of integration in accordance with the principles of equality, mutual respect and joint establishment of the rules of engagement, promoted by Russia and China is a conceptually different approach compared to the rigid list of rules that the Westerners come with, Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov writes.

China is the world’s largest economy; it occupies a significant space in political affairs and seeks to gain greater importance in international security issues, offering the world its own ideology, which defines approaches to the harmonious interaction of countries with each other. In 2013, during a speech at MGIMO University, Xi Jinping outlined the concept of a “Community with a Shared Destiny for Humanity.” At its core is China’s philosophical understanding of its role in international relations, and the practices and approaches that states must adopt to keep their relations peaceful and stable, despite internal differences and differences in their views.

At a certain stage, China’s leaders decided that the country had accumulated sufficient gravitational weight to present to the world ideas independent of the West. If the previous Chinese vision was to remain in the shadows, save and accumulate resources, content to remain in second place until its global debut, then the new concept is truly global in nature. This is a fundamentally non-confrontational paradigm and thus differs from the Western approach.

How does the Chinese view differ from Western ideology? Following the Cold War, the West, still in its logic, relied on the thesis that there was only one liberal democratic centre in the world: around North America and Western Europe. It is united by common principles in its internal life and involves pursuing a joint foreign policy based on common values. The goal was to expand this core and gradually include other regions of the world, “grinding” them and eliminating impulses for strategic autonomy in the security sphere.

In 1992, Anthony Lake, National Security Advisor to the US President, laid out this line exhaustively in a speech at Johns Hopkins University, saying that the task of the United States is to expand the zone of liberal democracies, which will eventually include all regions of the world. Further American strategies were based on this ideological foundation: the doctrine of the “war on terror”, the “transformation of the Greater Middle East”, “the freedom agenda”, etc. At some point, the rigid concept “Russia is on the wrong path” naturally appeared, which was a consequence of the US refusal to understand the complexity of the world and the fact that different peoples understand their place in the historical process and international relations in ways that are not regulated by the West.
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In the current international crisis has created a similar situation: the United States is again acting more flexibly towards Russia than the Europeans. Washington, on the one hand, is trying to offer its own scenario, which is unacceptable for Russia; on the other hand, the American elites have neither an exaggerated emotional reaction, nor a Manichaean black-and-white picture of the world, as is now observed in Europe, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.

China, like Russia, encountered this assertive approach early on and realised that there are both valuable benefits that they gain from interacting with the West, and a significant baggage of problems and circumstances that do not allow them to feel comfortable and build relations on equal terms. In this regard, Chinese leaders considered it necessary to speak out about what the principles of this reasonable, stable mutual existence should look like.

The issue of leadership on the world stage also concerns the worldview of Western and Chinese leaders, which differ significantly. The Western tradition, which is based on the principles of competition, primacy, individualism and free markets, implies that the “global game” is long-term, consisting of several rounds, each of which must be won.

The Eastern approach is different, and Western intellectual thought in the field of psychology began to work with it professionally quite late, in the 1930s and 1940s. Carl Gustav Jung was one of the first in the West who began to interpret the Eastern way of thinking on the issue of human interaction and saw in it a significant source of creative energy, including for getting out of “spasmodic” international political situations such as the situation before the two world wars. According to his observations, the East places less emphasis on the cause-and-effect principle. He gave the following example in one of his lectures. If a Western person, finding himself in a crowd of people, asks what they are doing here and why they have gathered here, then an Eastern person will look at this and ask — what does this all mean? What does Providence want to tell me by bringing me here?
Here, it is paradigmatically impossible to achieve any solidarity — these are two fundamentally different views of the world.

Why is this important from an international policy perspective? The Eastern principle is reflected in Confucianism as the idea that noble people share an understanding with each other, despite having different views. The Chinese concept of ‘He’, peace and harmony, is quite clearly embedded in Chinese foreign policy strategy. Moreover, in the West, most experts look at this like a “winning strategy” in a football match, involving tactics and the placement of players on the field. In China itself, they look at this as the natural laws of human interaction, which are comparable to the laws of physics. This Eastern wisdom contains a worldview that must be understood when interpreting the Chinese perspective in the field of international relations.

Chinese political and economic power is the natural product of a special way of life; this is obvious to everyone. The country achieved the success it enjoys today by pursuing a path that it independently determined for itself — the Chinese are proud of this and present this path as a working structure for other states and the international community as a whole. What is important is that they do it without pressure. The West presents itself to the world as a standard that needs to be reproduced which would make all problems in relations disappear. According to this logic, until this happens, difficulties are inevitable. The Chinese model does not imply this: it recognises the uniqueness of the experience of other peoples and their civilizational paths. In this, there is significant solidarity with the Russian concept of the world order, which was developed by our researchers back in the early 1990s.

This approach was then adopted as a doctrinal idea in a series of speeches and publications by then-Foreign Minister Evgeny Primakov, and recorded in the Russian-Chinese Declaration on a New World Order and Multipolarity in 1997. This is the first bilateral doctrinal document that comprehensively describes the Russian and, to a large extent, Chinese understanding of the principles on which the world should be built: the principles of equality, non-interference, respect, mutual interests, and recognition that we are different and that our civilizational differences are not an obstacle to interaction. In 1997, the mainstream had completely different ideas, globalist and liberal views: that the world is flat, “the end of history”, that we should all be the same, and if someone focuses on their civilizational uniqueness, this inevitably leads to conflict.

Despite the comedic Western optimism in its vision of the future, this concept easily assumed that the path to the future triumph of liberal democracy could be paved through conflict. Former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave the following answer to a journalist’s question as to whether it was the American invasion of Iraq that led to the start of the civil war in the country: “Democracy will find its way.”
The Russian and Chinese approach is the opposite. It understands peace as a fragile, unstable and rare state of international relations. The responsibility of states is not just to monitor what is happening in their regions, but also to provide a structure for overall interaction.
Westerners do not have this feeling of fragility; on the contrary, offensive, largely provocative tactics predominate: let’s foment instability and see what happens. It involves thinking in terms of short political cycles.

It also probably reflects the pampering of American political elites through long periods of peace and distance from the geographic centre of major conflicts: it is safe to live across two oceans, and one can easily imagine that the rest of the world lives in the same safe environment. Of course, this approach finds no understanding either in Russia or in China.

The Russian vision can be framed as a metaphor of Atlanteans holding up the sky: there are several key states, responsible for order in their regions of the world, whose task is to maintain their portion of the sky. To understand the Chinese approach to its own place in the international arena, the Belt and Road Initiative is important; it has mainly been developed as a transport and logistics project since its announcement in 2013. Now it is beginning to move towards the soft sides of this strategy, in particular, rules that allow for the regulation of border crossings, regulations for the inspection of goods, and approaches to building joint infrastructure. This is a more complex level, which in a number of China’s bilateral relationships with different countries has different depths and dynamics.

This concept has a significant domestic dimension, since it is an important strategic guideline for Chinese state corporations, the Communist Party, and also focuses the attention of Chinese society on these goals. The government’s focus on creating a common transport, technological, and communication space uniting China with other countries, is unambiguous and allows large companies to set indicators in their strategic planning in order to get closer to achieve a common goal. For objective reasons, China is now becoming the main trading partner for most countries throughout the world, so the Belt and Road makes it possible to structure and streamline its approaches to trade, bilateral cooperation in industry, energy and other areas.

For Russia, the central fact is that China is open to integration projects. Some time ago, President Vladimir Putin, speaking in Beijing at the anniversary One Belt — One Road forum, emphasised this idea. The importance of other integration projects is recognised, and this resonates with the Russian idea of the Greater Eurasian Partnership, which should include the EAEU, ASEAN and other associations, in addition to the Belt and Road programme. The process of integration in accordance with the principles of equality, mutual respect and joint establishment of the rules of engagement is a conceptually different approach compared to the rigid list of rules that the Westerners come with.
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The United States perceives peace, security, and stability as a given that happens on its own. According to Washington, no significant efforts are required to maintain it, and when there is a need, the United States itself initiates a military conflict. This is a big difference between the US and Russia: Russia understands that in order to save the world from catastrophe, the major powers must reach a consensus and maintain order in their regions, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.