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Foreign Policy

China is Engaging with Diplomacy for a Multi-polar World.

May 03, 2023
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

Consider two propositions: 

The first, is that the world is shifting from a unipolar, U.S.-led world (an ancien régime of sorts) towards a multipolar new order. 

The second, is that globalisation, as we know it, is dead. The world is shifting towards more decoupling - globalisation ostensibly peaked in 2008. 

Both theses are gaining growing traction in mainstream discourse. Both propositions feature a degree of truth, yet should also be taken with a healthy dose of salt and multiple caveats. 

The world is shifting towards a more multi-polar global order, though it is by no means there just yet. The U.S. dollar remains the dominant currency just yet, given its long-standing and historically entrenched legal and reputational credibility, the vast volumes of USD-denominated debt (bonds) held by countries, and its institutionally robust financial system that has nevertheless frayed under recent pile-up of stressors. NATO persists as the dominant military alliance in the world, and yet is knees deep in a hot war in Ukraine. 

Globalisation has indeed come under significant strain as countries shift to ‘on-shoring’ and ‘re-shoring’ given strategic constraints and considerations. On strategically sensitive industries such as semiconductors and communication technologies, states are decoupling from counterparts whom they view to be strategically non-aligned; some are even turning to weaponising these tools as a means of accomplishing geopolitical objectives. 

Yet such decoupling is by no means universal or evenly distributed. As I have long maintained, we live in an era of selective recoupling and decoupling: as they distance themselves from actors with whom they do not align, states are also shifting closer to partners they take to be conducive towards their own self-interests. It is no surprise that NATO has become more tightly knit. Finland has also been recently added to the alliance, expedited by widespread security concerns over Finland’s border with Russia. 

It is against this backdrop that China’s recent diplomatic efforts must be understood. My submission is that China is engaging in diplomacy with a multi-polar order in mind. Through selectively bolstering and expanding ties with both strategic partners and actors it needs to remain tactically ‘neutral’ and ‘non-aligned’ between Beijing and Washington, China is seeking to reframe globalisation on its own terms. The strategy is this: the country will continually open itself to actors that are sympathetic and adherent to its geo-strategic interests; as for those who have repeatedly exhibited antipathy and bellicosity to it, however, China would become increasingly vigilant and guarded. This dualistic recoupling-decoupling strategy is the core mechanism paving the way to Beijing’s vision of a “new world order”. 

The past five years have seen China seek to actively consolidate and provide a theoretical foundation to its rapidly expanding economic presence within Southeast Asia. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent visit to China yielded the upgrading of bilateral relations to an “all-round, high-quality, future-oriented partnership”, which reflected China and Singapore’s joint “desire to set the strategic direction” of the two countries on a sturdier course. President Xi’s meetings with President Jokowi of Indonesia in Bali last November, and Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in March this year, affirm China's interests in diversifying its relations with ASEAN beyond the purely commercial and financial. In relatively nascent areas such as the digital economy, food security, governmental and public financing (for infrastructure), and cultural and arts exchanges, China is adamant that its relations with its neighbours move past merely the obvious low hanging fruit of supply chain economics. Much of this in turn highlights Beijing’s search for more holistic well-roundedness in its existing partnerships, vital in preserving fundamental goodwill between China and Southeast Asia amidst overt attempts to politicise and balkanise the region by external forces. 

In the Middle East, Beijing’s historic brokering of resumption in diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran is demonstrative of not just its fledgling prowess as a mediator and power-broker in relatively distant regions, but also the substantial cache that China has amassed in the region over the past few years. With its ‘engage all sides’ approach of fundamental neutrality, Beijing has emerged as a preferred economic, financial, and technological partner for a majority of Gulf states, albeit not in the military-security sense thus far, perhaps. Across dimensions ranging from data and information technology, energy and food supply, to research into solutions combating climate change, the Gulf has rapidly risen in importance within China’s strategic calculus. It is increasingly seen as a standalone pole epitomising the “Islamic civilisations” Huntington wrote of many years ago, and whom he prophesized would eventually join forces with China against a West-led alliance. 

Beyond Southeast Asia and the Gulf, Brazilian President Lula’s visit to China and the substantial roster of agreements upon which both countries settled, as well as statements issued by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in favour of China’s “non-interference” foreign policy, point to Beijing’s intentions to leverage its presence within BRICS to carve out a new geopolitical pole that is firmly under its spearheading leadership. Whilst de-dollarisation remains quite some distance away given the aforementioned reasons, it is clear that the jettisoning of the USD is high up on the agenda list for at least a majority (Brazil, China, India) of BRICS nations. The invoking of ‘BRICS’ also bears an additional layer of significance, as an attempt to implicitly pry India away from the rest of the Quad, a strategic security dialogue of which it is part, and which Beijing perceives as an attempt at isolating China internationally. 

Irrespective of how one appraises the desirability of China’s vision for a “multi-polar world,” it behoves the proverbial West to take this vision seriously, as a conceptual manifestation of China’s latest foreign policy aspirations. Like it or not, China’s foreign policy approach is here to stay, and it is critical for diplomats, politicians, and bureaucrats in the U.S. to seek to understand it fully, without falling prey to wishful thinking or distortionary prejudice. 

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