Morality and Law
The Post-Pandemic World and US-China Rivalry

The post-pandemic world will not be determined by the outcome of the confrontation between the US and China, or by splitting the world into two competing camps, writes Nelson Wong, Vice Chairman of the Shanghai Centre for RimPac Strategic and International Studies, speaker at the Special Session of the 18th Annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club.

As we are moving towards the end of the second year since the outbreak of the pandemic, the deadly virus is still around and our fight against it is far from over. But we all have to move on, regardless. And thanks to technological advancements, even if our travels and face-to-face meetings have been greatly reduced, business can still be done through modern telecommunication means and we can still participate in this event with the benefit of video conferencing facilities.

That said, whilst every country's government is trying hard to achieve an economic recovery, to get more people vaccinated, and to hopefully help reduce electricity bills for its people, as is happening now in many countries, let’s not forget that we still need to work together to confront our shared threats such as climate change, terrorism, the imbalance in development and distribution of wealth, chemical and biological weapons, and nuclear proliferation, etc. More importantly, our world has moved into an age of multi-polarity by nature, and the different perceptions and resulting misunderstandings may lead to disastrous consequences, if we do not manage our differences properly.

Coming from China, I know that there are many topics I would be happy to discuss with our colleagues and friends here, but to stay focused on the topic of this session and save time for other speakers, I will share with you my understanding of some of the challenges China is facing and my personal opinions thus concerned.

Control of the virus’s spread in China has been successful and so is our economic recovery in general. But just as the Valdai report has pointed out, the pandemic has not only taken the world by surprise, but also caused "globalisation to be at a standstill", prompting many countries to take a more cautious or protectionist approach towards economic globalisation. Shocking as it was, it proves once again that "changing is the only thing that never gets changed". 

Just like everywhere else around the world, this unexpected turn of event which could have long-lasting repercussions, and has triggered the resolve of the Chinese government to re-examine the country’s own economic, social and political realities to recognise what is best for the country and what needs to be reformed, corrected and re-enforced. But this is not the only challenge for China. For quite some time, since before the pandemic, China has found itself being dragged into a trade war with the US, which constantly blames China for almost everything that goes wrong in America. The pandemic simply adds fuel to the US' expressed frustration.

So what has actually gone wrong? People start to wonder about the conflicts between the US and China and question whether they can be avoided. My take on this is that if we all believe that the rising of China is unstoppable, then conflicts between China and the US may be unavoidable for many years to come. Judging from what's been happening over recent years, it is clear that both countries are sailing into unchartered waters, and both will therefore need to navigate carefully along the way to manage their differences properly and to prevent them from developing into major conflicts and confrontations. But it takes two to tango, and the most worrying part right now seems to be the difference in the perceptions of one towards the other.  

In my opinion, the declared mission of both the Biden Administration and its predecessor to contain China is putting the US on the wrong side of history and its chance of success is therefore questionable. To the US, China is now first and foremost a competitor, but the US may need to cooperate with China on certain matters, and is also ready to confront China whenever necessary.

This might sound absolutely logical from the US perspective, particularly if one believes that US hegemony is justified and that the direction of where the world is heading and how each country is developing should be decided and manipulated by the US as the only superpower on Earth.

But the world has changed, and I doubt very much that the majority of the people in today's world will agree with such a perception.

Fear can make people irrational and the old trick, to "divide and rule", the act to interfere into the domestic affairs of other countries, or to promote ideological supremacy is no longer in fashion in the 21st century. It's a shame that the US still seems to believe in the zero-sum game and, ignoring the repeated voices of many countries unwilling to take a side, the US has been aggressively forcing its allies onto the bandwagon to alienate China. From messing with China's affairs in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and now Taiwan, to launching trade wars against China, containing the development of HUAWEI and China's home-grown C919 aircraft, the US has been really busy and relentless, but it has achieved almost nothing. China is still there and is still developing along its set route, HUAWEI is still there and our trading houses are growing bigger.

Most interestingly, China's exports to the US have increased during the first half of this year, an increase of almost 40% compared to the volume of the same period last year.

China, on the other hand, comes from a background that is fundamentally different in culture and experience and is a relative newcomer on the world stage. China takes pride in its own economic achievements over the past four decades and having lifted hundred millions of its people out of poverty, but China does not harbour a hostile attitude towards the US. Instead, seeing how the world has developed and benefited based on the principle of respecting each other's sovereignty and peaceful co-existence, China has pronounced its commitment to a peaceful rise and to building a community for the shared future for mankind. So when being called a competitor, or labelled as a threat, or being constantly attacked by the US, it is all too natural that China may sometimes feel wronged and puzzled.

For good or bad, the growing but unwanted confrontation between China and the US in recent years is a wake-up call for China now to reflect on its resolve and actual preparedness for global competition, and to effectively handle the organised attacks from the US to contain China’s rise. Like every country, China does have baggage: issues and challenges to be dealt with at home, but these are our internal matters.

I’d like to add that although the Chinese people are not confrontational by nature and believe that constraint is a virtue, there is always a limit to our tolerance and, as China's leadership has repeatedly stated, our determination and preparedness to preserve our national sovereignty and territorial integrity and to defend our core interests is firm and not to be questioned.

On another front, I have been following the development of the bilateral relations between China and the Russian Federation and I can say that the progress has been quite remarkable over the last 10 plus years. This has been reflected in the growing trust between the administrations of our two countries and both sides have been respecting and understanding each other’s core interests. Our economies have become more mutually complementary and trade between our two countries has been growing fast and reaching "record highs" year after year. Most importantly, it is clear that both China and Russia share a vision on multilateralism and recognise the United Nations as the platform to address matters of global concern, and both are very much against the act of interfering into the internal affairs of others, as the unilateral measures often taken by the US are in fact nothing but an act of hegemony.  

Moving forward, let's hope that the US will adjust itself to accept the reality of a new world order that is multi-polar in nature, and that China will perhaps also learn to communicate more effectively to convey its sincerity and kind motives towards the US and the rest of the world. The good news is that both the US and China are now taking active steps to communicate and to understand the core interests and bottom lines of one another, with the objective of preventing relations from deteriorating further because, after all, I am of the opinion that China and the US will have to work together, not only for themselves but, as the two biggest economies in the world, they also share the undeniable duty to promote and to safeguard the continued peace, development and prosperity of the whole world together with other powers like Russia, the EU, as well as each and every other country on Earth.

To sum it up, I would like to say that it's only natural for countries to have differences from time to time, but we might still have to be realistic about what we can expect by the end of the day and may only go as far as our wisdom can take us. What I believe is certain is that the world is moving steadily into a Pacific era, powered by China's large economy and consumer market. Yet it is wrong to just believe that the world’s agenda will thus be set by 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 the attempt of a few countries to contain China's development, nor will it be determined by the outcome of the confrontation between the US and China, or by splitting the world into two competing camps. 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.

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