Against all odds, threats and challenges, the world is moving steadily into a Pacific era powered by China’s large economy and consumer market, writes Nelson Wong, Vice Chairman of the Shanghai Centre for RimPac Strategic and International Studies. Yet it is wrong to just believe that the world’s agenda will thus be set by the Asians from now on and that the West will soon be marginalised or left out of the game. A better tomorrow for the world will not be achieved by a few countries’ attempt to contain China’s development, nor will it be determined by the outcome of confrontation between the US and China, or by splitting the world into two competing camps, as recent developments of world politics have shown. A worldwide call for rational dialogues among global leaders must therefore be placed on top of the agenda for all stakeholders to reach a consensus in order to protect and to safeguard the continued peace and development of mankind, particularly in a post-pandemic world.
Before discussing where the world is heading, let us set the geopolitical stage by turning back the clock to before the pandemic.
In October 2019, with Donald Trump well into the second half of his presidency, busy trying to bring American businesses back to the US whilst waging a trade war against China, the EU and a great number of countries on other continents were rapidly building up their trade with China.
In the same month, French President Emmanuel Macron openly remarked that “Russia is not an enemy of Europe” in the wake of Jacques Chirac’s funeral in Paris which Russian President Vladimir Putin attended. Shortly thereafter in Sochi, at the 16th Annual Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club, the Russian President voiced his aspiration to harness Greater Eurasian peace and prosperity by calling for a joint effort of the countries from the two connecting continents.
A few months later in February 2020, just at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Macron appeared at the Munich Security Conference to push for an ambitious European reform agenda, stressing that Europe must become more independent from Washington when it comes to its foreign and security policy.
That was a moment when the world saw a developing trend of Europe and Asia coming closer together, against the backdrop of the US announcing its “America First” policy and backing out of its engagement in global governance. A further signal was sent out by the then Trump administration by declaring its reluctance to continue its commitment to NATO, suggesting that the US was truly weary of being the only and often unwanted policeman of the world and was ready to finally “mind its own business”.
This was also a time when, realising that the threat of Russia was far more exaggerated and self-deceiving, the European Union, under the strong leadership of France and Germany, began to hold its 27 member states tightly together with a few more countries in the Western Balkans wanting to join despite Brexit, and people were hopeful.
In the months that followed, while the whole world was busy trying to fight the spread of the deadly virus and save lives, business activities around the world continued. Figures do not lie, and China, having effectively tackled the virus outbreak within its national borders, continued to function well as the world’s economic powerhouse.
This led to China being one of few countries that still managed to achieve positive GDP growth in 2020. It became the largest trading partner of ASEAN countries (4.74 trillion RMB, an increase of 7%) as well as the EU (4.5 trillion RMB, an increase of 5.3%). China’s trade with Japan also reached 2.2 trillion RMB (an increase of 1.2%) whilst its trade with Korea reached 1.97 trillion RMB (an increase of 0.7%).
It is important to note that, even in the middle of a trade war between China and the US, bilateral trade between the two countries still recorded an increase of 8.8% in 2020 at 4.06 trillion RMB, ranking the US as the third largest trading partner of China, according to the statistics published by China.
China has benefited from economic globalisation since its accession to the WTO, and its people have worked tirelessly over the last four decades to arrive at where the country is right now, notably lifting hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty.
In an effort to further expand its economic development, China launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 and has since been active with its outbound investments across the world. Rather than receiving compliments for what this BRI has brought to many of the developing countries to enhance global connectivity, China feels wronged by criticisms from the West, particularly about the country’s investments in Africa. As a victim of nineteenth century Western imperialism, China is understandably sensitive towards being accused of economic aggression or oppression, especially considering that the accusers are the ones with the chequered colonial past.
The recent turn of events in world politics is becoming even more worrisome as to where the world is heading towards. In less than two months since Joe Biden became the new president, the US continues to blame China for everything that goes wrong for America and with its free will to take unilateral measures whenever the US feels like it. But this time, when the US endeavoured to rally up its allies to accuse China of human rights violation in the country’s autonomous region of Xinjiang, based on questionable facts and evidence, China has decided not to stay silent.
Parallel to its attacks on China, the US went further to mess with the affairs in Europe by threatening to sanction Germany when Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has solidly stood behind the Nord Stream 2 project which, once completed, will double the amount of natural gas exported from Russia to Germany. Critics of the US position say that Washington is forcing Europe to buy its sea-borne liquefied natural gas.
Although Biden’s assurance of America’s return to global leadership has won some applause during his recent address to the Munich Security Conference, Chancellor Merkel of Germany was right to have warned that the West and democratic countries would have to actually let actions speak instead of just speaking about their values.
Believing still in the zero-sum game and ignoring the repeated voices of many countries’ unwillingness to take a side, the Biden administration is now aggressively forcing its allies onto the bandwagon to alienate both Russia and China.
The old trick to “divide and rule”, to interfere into the domestic affairs of other countries, or to promote ideological supremacy is no longer in fashion in the 21st century; improving the lives of the people should be the priority of all governments, and countries around the world must all come and work together to confront our common challenges and threats such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, disease and terrorism.
The US is undoubtedly still the most powerful country on earth but its decline is no longer a secret that can be covered up. In fact, it was already made public by Donald Trump himself four years ago when he vouched to “Make America Great Again”, and Biden’s attempt to assure its allies that “America is back” is nothing but a further admittance of the country losing control of a world in which the US was the omnipresent hegemon in the days after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The repeated attempt of the US in recent years to reverse the development trajectory has demonstrated its unwillingness to accept the multi-polar world we are living in now, thus putting itself on the wrong side of history. That the European Union, ever since its inception, has never been perceived as a threat is a fact worthy of recognition and respect by all, and is a clear reminder that the notion of “Might is Right” or the practice of hegemony is outdated if we are to be proud of our advancement in human civilisation.
In our culturally diversified and politically different world, choosing the right way forward takes an open mind and the courage to admit one’s own faults. In the case of handling the pandemic alone, for example, there are already lessons to be learned, from the failure of the West’s handling of lockdown compared to the East, to the differing vaccinations and rollouts successes and failures; and how all these are data points that highlight the good and bad of each political system. There is much to synthesize here, and given the West’s propensity to only see the virtues of their own political system, it is all the more important for there to be a countervailing voice that challenges such truths as the American styled liberty and democracy, held “self-evident” by the utter debacle that has been America’s pandemic response.
However, it is wrong to just believe that the world’s agenda will thus be set by the Asians from now on and that the West will soon be marginalised or left out of the game. It is equally wrong to suggest that China is ready and can lead the world now. Despite all of its achievements in the past decades, China is still a developing country with a GDP per capita far below that of the US, Japan and many European countries, and still has a lot to learn to catch up. Yet, as a rising power with the world’s largest consumer market of 1.4 billion people, it is only natural that China has become an important player in international institutions and should have a say in global governance.
A better tomorrow for the world will not be achieved by a few countries’ attempt to contain China’s development, nor will it be determined by the outcome of confrontation between the US and China, or by splitting the world into two competing camps, as recent developments of world politics have shown. A worldwide call for rational dialogues among global leaders must therefore be placed on top of the agenda for all stakeholders to reach a consensus in order to protect and to safeguard the continued peace and development of mankind, particularly in a post-pandemic world.