Only a few major powers exist at any given time in human history. In today’s world, probably the U.S. and China are truly major powers, followed by Russia, Japan, the European Union, India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia and others in different tiers. But it is the U.S.-China relationship that will primarily determine the future of the world.
Why did Sino-U.S. relations take a nosedive in the last few years, to the point of falling into the Thucydides trap — if not already fallen? The gulf between the U.S. and China in their domestic development models, as well as in their views of the future world, is widening.
China will continue to pursue a development model that combines a market economy with macro management by the government, which has proved to be best for itself over the last four decades, while appealing to many developing countries.
On the political side, the American “liberal democracy” model did not and will not work in China, which irks the U.S., whose model of democracy turns out to be less appealing and less successful in practice than has been anticipated and advocated. Moreover, the “color revolution” that worked elsewhere didn’t gain traction in China. The Communist Party of China and the political system it leads has provided guarantees for economic reform and opening-up to produce the desired results while avoiding the political disorder many countries have suffered.
For the future of the world, China has a view of the democratization of international affairs and rule-based global governance that aims to strengthen the voice and decision-making power of developing and emerging countries through the provision of global commons — for example, the Belt and Road Initiative, a network of global partnerships, which is designed to foster a community with a shared future and common destiny.
In short, China sees the future world as more balanced, both politically and economically, forming a foundation for long-term peace and prosperity.
America’s anxiety over China’s being a major power with different political and economic systems and ideology, has aroused deep fears about the erosion of the global hegemony the U.S. has enjoyed for almost a hundred years. The description of China as a “non-capitalist, non-Christian, non-Jewish and non-Anglo Saxon” country is certainly jaundiced and may not represent the majority view of American society. But an “us vs. them” approach — arising from the label of China as America’s major strategic competitor — has taken hold, and a process of decoupling and containment has begun. The trade and technology wars show no sign of abating. The military saber-rattling by the U.S. can be seen every week in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.
American allies in Europe and East Asia are under strong pressure to decouple from China in tech cooperation, starting with 5G. Although the U.S. may not be as successful at decoupling as it wishes, it surely has caused ruptures, not only in Sino-U.S. economic relations but also in global free trade and free investment by creating both tariff and non-tariff barriers between the major economies. The collapse of the World Trade Organization’s appellate court and the trade dispute settlement system have dealt a huge blow to the international institutions that underpin the rules-based global governance system. And that is just the tip of iceberg of what would come in a disordered world.
But global governance is not about the U.S. and China alone. It involves other countries, big and small, as well as international and regional institutions and a bunch of international treaties and agreements accepted by the international community. The UN and other global institutions, such as the WTO, IMF, World Bank, WHO, WFO, ILO, AU and APEC, are all under duress, and in some cases under attack, by anti-globalization and populist-driven forces. The Trump administration wants to ditch those institutions and rules when it perceives them as unable to provide maximum benefits for the U.S. — in other words, when they are not in line with the “America First” yardstick.
The battle to preserve or ditch those institutions and rules is unfolding. The EU and other countries and regions should play a big role and not be intimidated by the U.S. or be sucked into the so-called U.S.-China strategic rivalry.
Competition is normal and cooperation is necessary for world peace and economic progress. What will prevail at a given time depends on specific circumstances and the interplay of major powers. But a general approach should be recognized and adopted by major powers: They need to abandon vicious competition, whether economic or technological, and keep things healthy and peaceful,
The key, again, is to steer away from geopolitical rivalries between major powers in a zero-sum game.