The Debate on Orders coming into the 21st Century
22nd IISS Fullerton Lecture
Driven by globalization, emerging countries have been rapidly rising. Will this lead to new changes in the world or international order in the 21st century?
China became the second-largest economy in 2010. It’s a socialist country with a big population, unique history and culture, and at the moment, is going through profound transformation.
I am often asked: what does China want from the world; what China can offer to the world; is China going to challenge the current world order dominated by the United States?
For us in China, where food stamps were still printed until 1993, these questions sound premature. The young people born in the 1980s and 1990s in China are the first generation who didn’t suffer hunger growing up. True, China’s economic standing is rising in the world. But for the Chinese people, what matters more is the per capita GDP which determines their living standards.
That said, the Chinese people are not all indifferent to what happens in the world and the experience from the colonial era left a deep imprint on the Chinese outlook on international relations and order with an emphasis on inclusiveness and fairness.
As China’s international standing rises, there are lively discussions on these issues inside the country and Chinese scholars are also making contributions to the debate.
Today, I will share with you some views on this topic. In Chinese we say to “chip in with a piece of brick in order for the jade to follow”. I will start with an observation on the current US-led “world order”, followed by China’s experience with the international order and a comparative analysis and then some comments about the challenges.
I. First, let’s look at the world order led by the United States
Dr. Henry Kissinger’s book World Order gave a thorough overview of world order. My take is that he has strong belief in the Westphalian system, which he also believed needed to be modernized.
The Westphalian system put an end to anarchy among European nation states, providing the basis for a body of laws and mechanisms underpinning modern international relations. But from its very start, it was a Western order and not for universal purposes. For many of the colonized countries, this order is more of an exclusive club and this has remained its inherent flaw. In other parts of the world, there were parallel concepts of orders that existed.
It took the US about a century to complete its rise and establish leadership position in the western world order. After the end of Cold War, the US tried to quickly spread this order to the rest of the world. In November 1990, US president George Bush Senior used the term “new world order” to declare a new framework of American global strategy. He emphasized the irreplaceable leadership of the United States.
As far as I can see, this “new world order” has three components. One is the Western value system as its moral high stand point. Second is the American military alliance system as the security base. Third is the American-formulated international economic and financial structure as the foundation for the world economy. According to the American conception of world order, the UN system is meant to reflect and follow through on the principles and terms of the US-led order.
Admittedly, the current order system has facilitated progress of the world. Especially after the Cold War, economic globalization has grown full-fledged. Capital, market, technology and production have been able to diffuse to all corners of the world, allowing many developing countries long been in the periphery to have an opportunity to develop.
A country like China, which has a big population and was in poverty, grasped this opportunity and achieved leapfrog development. Two months ago, I visited India and heard much talk of how to attract investment and how to be creative. I could feel that another big country is in preparation for economic take-off.
However, this order system is also facing challenges in all three fronts. The financial crisis of 2007 exposed flaws in the global economic governance. In the political sphere, the promotion of Western values in other parts of the world failed more often than succeeding. In the security field, it’s essentially still about bloc politics. In the Asia Pacific, for example, the US seems to give greater care to the security interests to allies at the cost of countries like China who are outside the alignment.
What is more worrying is that it has not provided good solutions to many new issues of the day, as many non-traditional and cross-border security threats are quickly dominating the world agenda. The US leadership falls short of expectations due to domestic and international constrains.
During my recent visit to the US, I observed that many think-tanks are engaged in a new debate about who is the new strategic target and how to cope with the impact of the rise of China.
Dr. Kissinger told me what he thought the most was how much time and space are left for the US to maintain the current order and to design the new order. He believed that China and the US needed to work together but he also said that this could not come without challenges.
Obviously for the US, which remains the strongest of all powers of today’s world，whether the world order is able to adjust to changes and to work with instead of working against the new arrivals on the world stage is going to be a major test.
II. China’s experience with international order
Now, I will talk about China’s experience with the international order. You may notice that I am using the term “international order” instead of “world order”. Because they are，from my understanding, not entirely the same.
The international order China supports and identifies with is the UN framework and its associated international institutions built in the wake of WWII. It was built for maintaining world peace and security and for providing principles and norms for fair and equal relations among countries, which gives it widely recognized legitimacy.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated, at the fourth World Peace Forum held in Beijing last June, “China was directly involved in designing and building the international order and system with the United Nations as the centerpiece. And China will always be a participant, a facilitator and a contributor in the international order.
In China’s long history under the feudal kingdoms, it maintained stable and yet limited relationship with the outside world and developed its own understanding and concept of the world “under haven”, albeit constrained by its geographical knowledge. In the 19th century, the Western gunboat diplomacy forced open China’s door and turned China’s view of the world upside down. Ever since, China had tried to integrate into the Western-dominated modern world, not without pains, hardship and setbacks.
It was in 1971 that the People’s Republic of China returned to the United Nations and started to embrace the international rules and norms based on the UN Charter. Mr. Deng Xiaoping, when speaking at the UN General Assembly in April 1974, explained to the world China’s view on modern international order. He talked about the importance for developing countries to gain political independence.
He also highlighted the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence (namely mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-aggression, non-interference of internal affairs, peaceful coexistence, equality, and mutual benefit).
This has been China’s consistent policy in the past 40 years. For example, the latest Congress of the Chinese Communist Party mentioned in its report a call to make the international order and international system fairer and more reasonable.
At the Asian-African Summit held in Indonesia in April, marking the 60th anniversary of the Bandung Conference, Chinese President Xi Jinping stress the importance of promoting a more just and equitable international order and system. He also said that China is committed to developing friendship and cooperation with all countries on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence.
China has grown into an active member of UN agencies and the international institutions. For example, China has become the biggest contributor of UN peacekeepers among the permanent members of the Security Council.
So, China has chosen to integrate itself into the international order, and indeed has greatly benefited from being part of it. In the meantime, China also emphasizes the principle of fairness, justice, openness and equality to the international order and support incremental reforms needed to adapt to new realities.
China together with other emerging countries and other members of the international community have actively promoted progress in this direction. The G20, RCEP, BRICS, AIIB, Silk Road Initiative, the list may go on, are good examples of such efforts. We stand for enhancing and deepening the current international system centered on the UN system to improve its efficiency, its reach and its representation in order to bring about a healthier and more equitable global market and an environment conducive to development. The fact that the AIIB got support from more than 50 countries speaks to this.
For international security cooperation, China stands for common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security. We hope that the world will avoid going back to the old track of power politics and power fight. Instead of the exclusive security model, we hope that the region and the world will go for comprehensive and cooperative security, which is being promoted at the ARF, Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia. They offer good examples.
III. A comparative analysis
Apparently, what the US is concerned about is that, sooner or later, China will challenge US world power and its dominance over international affairs. As we see it, what the US wants, paradoxically, is to continue leading the world order and dominate the world affairs, while being reluctant to change the exclusive nature of its system or part of the system.
For China, a concern on power fight really belonged to the 20th century. China came from a different history and tradition, as I explained early on. China does not subscribe to the logic of power politics. It has grown a strong belief in the international order and remains an enthusiastic supporter of its principles and purposes.
This is why when the US talks about China challenging the existing order and the US leadership, the Chinese often feel perplexed. The US and China seem to be talking past each other.
That said, I don’t think China and the US are at loggerheads about how the order should evolve. Rather, they share much in common in their views for the world. For example, the pursuit for world peace and prosperity, and the hope for strengthening and improving the UN system. The two countries also have similar stances on nuclear non-proliferation as well as on the need to manage crises and avoid conflicts among major countries.
Even on some important political issues, both countries have made it clear that they do not have a grand strategy to undermine the other side. For example, the US side insists that it has no intention to contain or blockade China.
So, both sides agree that there is the need to reform the international order to suit the new realities. The question is, are we going to work in the same direction or move in two directions?
IV. An inclusive “global order” for the 21st century
The 20th century saw two major world wars which brought huge sufferings for the mankind. Then within less than two years after the end of the Second World War, the US and the former Soviet Union, once allies in the wartime, were dragged into the 40 years of Cold War.
Professor Nicholas Boyle analyzed that the character of a century becomes very apparent in the second decade. In the past five centuries, the major event that changed the course of the century mostly happened in the second decade, like the Thirty Years War in the 17th century (1618-1648), the Napoleon Wars in the 19th century (1803-1815) and the First World War in the 20th century (1914-1918). Each re-equilibrium was achieved through conflict or war.
Now that we are in the second decade of the 21st century, are we able to get out of this historical pattern and blaze a new model of major-country relations? Dr. Kissinger ended his book on World Order with a question mark “Where do we go from here?” He said “A reconstruction of the international system is the ultimate challenge to statesmanship in our time.” He also mentioned in the modern world there is a need for “a global world order” and that leaders of major countries need to rise above the urgency of day-to-day events and think about bigger issues bearing on the future world order.
Indeed, driven by globalization, the world today is more flat and countries are a lot more interconnected. But when it comes to order, different perspectives exist not just between China and the US. Divergent trends have also emerged in other parts of the world, like ISIS, which claims to restore an Islamic Caliphate, and like the Russia-US disagreement on Ukraine, giving rise to growing animosity.
Perhaps, at some stage, the world can think about a bigger and more inclusive framework of global order. We may compare such a framework to a mega umbrella, under which each and every member of the international community shall find its place and have a say. Chinese President Xi Jinping himself talked many times about a community of common interests or a community of common future.
Naturally, any discussion about a common future will be a long process of consensus building. What is important is that in the 21st century, we need think beyond the old concept of power politics. And instead of getting entangled in power fight, countries need to focus on development and finding solutions to common challenges, not just traditional ones, but also in more complicated new frontiers for which the mankind has little experience. We need novel means and joint response to meet the new challenges which defy sovereign boundaries.
China and the US are at the center of the changes. We can get nowhere in this important process if the two countries continue to try to excluding each other in political, security or economic fields. They need to be aware of risks and avoid irritating or pointing fingers at the other. They should give stronger support to the UN and ASEAN for helping to shape consensus.
Be it order or system, at the end of the day, it’s about communication and understanding among peoples. Therefore countries need to engage in more extensive dialogues at all levels. China, as an emerging country, needs to learn how to better convey its policies and strategic intentions to the neighborhood and to the world so as to gain more understanding and support.
So, in this 21st century, let’s hope that the mistakes led to conflicts in the 20th century will not be repeated and let’s work together to ensure that this will truly be a century without major wars and of peace and prosperity.
A better global order can be built through intellectual crowd funding, to borrow a phrase from finance, and co-evolution. All countries need to pitch in.