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Foreign Policy

Global Changes and China’s Role

May 02 , 2017
  • Fu Ying

    Vice Chair, NPC Foreign Affairs Committee

Has Globalization Gone Awry?

The debate about “world order” and “China’s new leadership role” is attracting more attention especially when China has more loudly expressed support to the economic globalization and free-trade at a time when these ideas are under criticism in the Western world. Many in China who are also interested in the debate find the concepts behind these terms are not as clear as they may look.

China has long regarded itself as a creator, contributor, beneficiary and reformer of the exiting international order. The international framework centered on the United Nations and complemented by other international institutions, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank, have shaped the international order. This order designed by the victors of the Second World War based on the principle of sovereignty of nation-state, has played a vital part in safeguarding world peace. The end of the Cold War and the rise of multilateralism gave this rule-based international framework new opportunities to play a greater role in, among others, advancing economic globalization. As capital, technology, talents and industries continue to spread from the center of the developed nations to the wider periphery of the rest of the world, economic globalization has gathered growing momentum and many newly rising economies picked up the pace, which in turn reinforced the enlargement of the world market and global wealth. This process has also promoted faster science and cultural progress worldwide. Generally speaking, all countries benefited from globalization, the Western world in particular.

The United States, the sole superpower that survived the Cold War, has prided itself on being the winner and has been blinded by the ambition of creating a “world order” as evident in the notion of Pax Americana. This US-led word order is founded upon its unipolar leadership and reluctance to be bounded by the rules of the UN. Particularly in the security field, the US has often gone its own ways, through bypassing the UN and its rules and principles. The US-led military alliance and their common interests sit at the core of this exclusive US-led world order and are often held above those of others and that the liberal democratic system adopted by the US and its allies is promoted as superior to other forms of government. China neither agrees with this line of thinking, nor was accepted by this exclusive circle.

The economic globalization which has been the most striking trend in the post-Cold War environment was first enthusiastically advocated and promoted by the US and its allies. However, impacted by the global financial crisis, the world economy has structurally moved to a lower growth level. Uneven growth across countries and uneven distribution of wealth in some countries are widening income gap and causing growing social problems, and in particular, some developed countries are suffering from the weakening of the middle class. As anti-globalization and de-globalization sentiments rise, many people in the West become doubtful about globalization and its benefits, and the US has begun to waver on its commitments to it. In the meantime, there has been a resurgence of geopolitical conflicts among major countries, especially in the Middle East. As a result, the world order has been found wanting in the face of conventional and non-conventional security challenges.   

There has been complex web of factors at play. While the world’s wealth has been substantially expanded through economic globalization, with the absence of a sound global governance system, there is a failure to rein in the capital and distribute the benefits properly. Lying beneath the hotly debated global saving glut is, a deep structural problem – unequal distribution of the world’s wealth and a North-South growth gap. 

There is also an important point not to be missed that is the globalization agenda that the US and its Western allies tried to pursue was not limited to the economic sphere. It also included a political dimension: “global Westernization,” meaning exporting western values and systems under the guise of liberalism. But this has not been working well and in some places even backfired, causing protracted turmoil in some countries. The consequent refugee crisis has taken a heavy toll on both the reformed and the purported reformers.

Many problems bubbling to the surface is signalling that the global governance system is at a historic crossroad and calling for significant changes. Yet before getting down to new reforms, we must first get to the crux of these problems. The issue is not so much that the current international order is incapable, but that the sole superpower in this system has been aiming at a mistaken target. Secondly, it is not so much that the economic globalization is flawed as a whole, but the way Western countries promote economic globalization has gone awry. We cannot say that the UN Charter and the basic norms governing international relations have become outdated. Quite the contrary, the problem lies in the fact that they haven’t been seriously implemented. Also, we cannot say globalization is a total failure. Instead, what we can see is that it didn’t serve the political purpose Western countries have sought. As new global issues continue to emerge, a new way of thinking and acting is required. 

Bringing New Changes to the World Order Does Not Mean Starting All Over Again. The Master Key to Addressing Challenges Is Growth and Development.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, with vision and commitment, has on many occasions talked about how to improve the current international order and global governance. China proposes to solve the mounting international challenges through booting economic growth. While addressing the UN Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015 and the UN Office at Geneva in January 2017, President Xi said that mankind was in an era of significant growth, reform and adjustment, and an era of numerous challenges and increasing risks. To properly address the numerous global challenges, there is no fundamental solution other than through the pursuit of peace and development. As President Xi remarked, “We must hold on to development as our master key.”

China’s views on economic globalization is realistic and constructive. Indeed, economic globalization is a double-edged sword, but it is by nature open and inclusive. We should look squarely at the current problems as they are while remembering we cannot reverse the trend and go back in time. We should properly adjust and regulate the globalization, making it more vibrant, inclusive and sustainable, so that it can deliver benefits to people all over the world.

President Xi raised China’s perception of the international order and global governance to a higher level, calling for building a community for a common future with a network of cooperative and win-win relations. He has called for a concerted effort to promote security, economic, cultural understanding. These proposals advocated a new framework to look at the international relations. China is in support of reforming the existing international order, making it more balanced and better reflect the new development and the interest of the majority countries. We don’t want to discard the past and start all-over again. Rather, we would want to maintain the international order and the global system that adhere to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and that reform should be done from within and through consensus.  

China Has Stayed on Guard about “Global Westernization”

China came across the economic globalization at its early stages of reforms. It saw peace and development as the dominant theme in the world and decided to focus on growing its own economy. By maintaining an open mind, it tried hard to understand the economic globalization and boldly adapted to it. China successfully introduced capital, advanced technologies and management skills and merged itself with the world market, making tremendous progress riding on the tide of economic globalization. It was not all smooth-sailing and not without difficulties, controversies and doubts, but China eventually overcame the enormous obstacles and survived rounds of painful setbacks. Now China is able to navigate through the ocean of deeper reform knowing it's on the right course. Not only has China been making progress for itself, but it has also made a significant contribution to the world with its growth. Having said that, China also took stock of globalization in a sober and critical way. By staying vigilant against some of the values imposed by Western countries in their advocacy of “global Westernization,”; by following a development path that best suits its own national conditions; China has achieved domestic social stability and policy coherence. It must maintain this tradition when joining the efforts to reshape the international order and global governance in a new period of changes in the world.

To reform the international order and global governance will inevitably be a complicated, difficult and a time-consuming process. China should prioritize and continue to boost the domestic economy, bringing benefits to its people. By making achievements at home, China will become stronger and will wield greater influence and therefore being able to do more for the world. To play a world role, China prefers multilateralism and would mainly rely on the existing international institutions. It would focus on helping address the concerns of developing countries and provide new public goods that are tailored to the needs of development, and promote North-South cooperation. For these purposes, China should carefully choose areas where it has the skills, experience and capability. For example, recently, with a focus on its neighborhood, China has been promoting the Belt and Road Initiative, designed to improve connectivity and new growth. As its global influence grows, China needs to foster deeper coordination with other major countries, establishing more balanced and stable relationship, rather than letting the relationship slide into the trap of a zero-sum game. By promoting dialogue and communication, and embracing the spirit of inclusiveness and openness, China also hopes to be able to communicate better with the international community and reduce misunderstandings and mistrust.

China Needs to be Sober-minded about Being Called a “World Leader”

Today, there is a quite popular view that the US is going to “step down from its leadership position,” and that China will fill the power vacuum and become a new “world leader.” Politicians and scholars from other countries tend to use the word “leadership” to describe China, believing it’s only a matter of time before Chinese leadership replaces the US on an increasing number of global issues.

In the Western understanding of international relations, “world leader” has been a special term to describe the American leading role in the world. The modern concept of “US-leadership” originated from the hegemonic stability theory of the 1970s according to which, the international system needed to be managed by a single dominant superpower who could regulate the interactions of the actors in this system. The US already turned into one of the most powerful states in the world during the Second World War, and in the Cold War, it became the leader of the Western world. In the post-Cold War era, the US, the only superpower standing, wanted to extend its leadership to the whole world. There is a phrase written in the ‘A National Security Strategy for A New Century’ published by the White House in 1997 — “leadership today for a safer, more prosperous tomorrow,” which reflects the US’s view on its role in the world. As a defender of liberal values, the Obama administration kept trumpeting the importance of maintaining the US’s role as a world leader, which has been a strong policy objective of his administration. Even President Trump, who had tried to make a radical break from Obama’s foreign policies, didn’t deny the US’s role as a “world leader.” Rather, he advocated to “put America first” to regain strength, and then once again shoulder the responsibility to “lead the world.”

It must be noted that the “world leadership” the US has been seeking to assume adopts “God’s perspective” of the world and was founded upon the principle of maximizing hegemonic power. To maintain the position of “world leader,” the US has relied on its supreme military power and the military alignment network for global intervention. The US is also a strong economic power with the ability to influence the world economy through the US-dollar centered international monetary system. Politically, the US promoted the “universal values” and after the fall of the Soviet Union, in its growing self-importance, has tried to lead the West to transform the world. But its miscalculated plans have ended up exacting a severe toll on itself and thrown some part of the world into chaos. The Obama administration made some introspection and exercised prudence in the use of force. Now the Trump administration has taken one step further by reflecting on whether the US should continue to uphold responsibilities for its allies and making enemies around the world. The international community should welcome such self-reflection and adjustment of American goals. But such change may not be easy for the US, as it’s so accustomed with its global strategic reach and geopolitical competition and so comfortable with its leadership role. Considering this is not the first time the US had been confronted with a difficult situation and made adjustment, we need to wait and see how it plays out.

Going after the maximization of international power inevitably involves the suppression of actual and potential opponents. This is not China’s diplomatic philosophy or practices and it is not our goal in international affairs. China firmly upholds the UN-led international order and follows closely the basic norms outlined in the UN charter. As a socialist country led by the Communist Party, China embraces the ethics of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states and the principle of equality of nations, large and small. China, with a very different culture and history, is not the US, nor will it ever seek to become a hegemon or controlling leader like America.

Despite its tremendous achievements over the past decades, China is still a developing country confronted with difficult challenges as its reform and opening up drive has entered a new stage. China’s focus is and will be, for a long time to come, on its domestic front and its long-term national policy. It has to be quite inward looking. Only with continued success at home, can China offer more to the world. 

So how do we define China’s international role? President Xi Jinping mentioned on a number of occasions that Chinese diplomatic goal is to maintain world peace and promote common development. China wants to be a contributor to world peace, a facilitator of global development and a proponent of the international order. President Xi also called for staying cool, reminding us that China should keep a sober mind in the face of the title “global leader.” No matter how strong China may become, it cannot manage everything for the world. Ultimately it’s only through consultations and negotiations among nations that complex international issues can be resolved. There is no doubt that China, in pursuit of its vision of international order, would want to play a growing role in global governance and it is already making more efforts. For instance, as seen when China hosted the G20 Hangzhou Summit in September 2016 and when President Xi presented to the UN Secretary China’s ratified documents to join the Paris Agreement, showing commitment to addressing climate change.

Promoting the Development of a More Inclusive International Order

The complexity of present day security threats poses a huge challenge and China is giving lots of thoughts to it. Since the rise of nation-states in 17th-century Europe, lasting peace has never been achieved and the world has witnessed centuries of power struggles and wars as states competed for dominance on the international stage. It’s time to get out of this cycle. China is striving for revitalizing the nation and is setting a historic precedent with its peaceful rise. In the meantime, it is also developing the capabilities to promote peace and prosperity across the world.

Talking about future reform of the international order and retooling of global governance, it is important to find a proper balance of power and interests between China and the US. Due to the significant differences in the political systems and foreign policies of the two countries, China may not agree with the US on everything. However, the two countries do have common interests and shared vision in many areas, which make their collaboration necessary and possible. China will gradually increase its input where it feels appropriate in the successful transformation of international order going forward.

China is on the right track in strengthening domestic development, achieving social fairness and the rule of law. It is taking advantage of the opportunities brought about by economic globalization. With domestic success, China is also promoting international peace, cooperation, and justice. It is important that China does not tread down the old path of geo-strategic conflicts and hegemonic struggles. In the long run, China should be interested in and acquire the ability to promote a more inclusive international order, which can accommodate different interests and governance views of all parties, like a common roof for all.


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