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Foreign Policy

Navigate Through Changes and Embrace a New Era

Oct 14 , 2019
  • Fu Ying

    Chair, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University


President Xi Jinping has pointed out that the world we live in is undergoing profound changes unseen in a century.

I. At the center of the profound changes is the changing world structure, with the rise of China as one of the driving forces.

When the US became the sole superpower after the unraveling of the bipolar world order in the wake of the Cold War, it sought to establish a unipolar world known as “Pax Americana”. However, economic globalization has ushered in a more diverse world with one superpower and many other powers. Over the years, circumstances have evolved and multiple forces interacted with each other, setting in train profound changes in the world as we enter the second decade of the 21st century.

A China that is on the rise and US in (relative decline) retreat constitute a major driving force behind a new round of adjustment in the world power structure. On the part of China, its economic success has captured the imagination of the world. Thanks to sustained and rapid economic growth, Chinese living standards have been materially improved, and China now boasts full-fledged infrastructure and a manufacturing sector of depth and width. China’s influence is also on the rise in terms of its system, culture, military and in other domains, thus giving China more voice and weight in international affairs.

On the part of the US, the post-911 era saw US strategic wherewithal squandered away primarily due to the prolonged military operations in Afghanistan and Iran with ensuing attempts of political transformation of these countries, which has overreached and overstretched US influence and capabilities. On the economic front, its TFP has been on a downward trajectory, declining to an average of 0.4% in the years between 2004 and 2014, only a quarter of the level in the 1970s, indicating dwindled contribution by technological advancement to economic growth. The 2008 financial crisis that wrecked havoc across the Atlantic and around the world has devastated many families who are still trying to recover and the wealth gap has only aggravated in spite of economic globalization. Many in the US also became increasingly concerned about political polarization and government dysfunctions.

Though the US is a dominant power in the world, its strategic miscalculation and misguided policies have eroded its global clout and standing, overstretched its financial means, hence weakening its willingness to stay at the helm of world affairs. Under the Trump presidency, the US has been cutting back commitment to external affairs, jumping at every opportunity to unload nonessential obligations in order to avoid getting mired in any regional conflicts. As such, even though the US still manages to preserve its supremacy, probably its hegemony has passed its heyday.

According to the World Bank, at the end of the Cold War in 1991, the US accounted for 25.73% of the global GDP, OECD countries 82.7%, and China a mere 1.59%. While in 2018, the US accounted for 23.88% of the global aggregate, the OECD countries 61.3%, whereas China’s percentage has risen to 15.9%. When the US started the Iraq war in 2003, China’s GDP accounted for 1/9 of that of US. Seven years into the war, when the US withdrew from Iraq, China’s GDP approached near 1/2 of that of the US, and has grown to 60%. At this rate, China is on course to become the biggest economy around the year of 2035. That said, the US still has unrivalled national strength and supremacy in the global system. Thus, a reversal is not impossible as there are factors that could work in favor of the US, such as its self-healing ability, strength of the dollar and dynamics of international security.

The shifting dynamics between China and the US in the global system will have a bearing on the balance of power, and underscores the inherent divergence and structural tensions between the two countries. For a long time in the foreseeable future, the US will not be able to block China from its rise, while at the same time conditions will not allow or enable China to replace the US. Competition and hedging but short of outright confrontation will be the order of the day. In the absence of a truly multipolar world order, our world will be feeling its way forward with heightened uncertainties, fraught with both opportunities and risks.

II. China’s peaceful rise is propelled,to a certain extent, by economic globalization and rapid advancement of technology. It is the evolution afoot in this era that has empowered China’s success.

Economic globalization gives a boost to effective allocation of factors of production such as capital, technology, labor and information, a process that opens up the global markets and fuels rapid accumulation of wealth. But in the meantime, it leads to more diffused power on a global scale, and inevitably alters the juxtaposition of geo-economic and political interests and systems, as well as cultural influence.

Admittedly, “capacity deficit” in global governance has been laid bare, evidenced by concentration of wealth, coupled with inadequate financial regulation. Anti-globalization, de-globalization is gaining traction, in tandem with surging populism and protectionism. Trump rides on this tide, and guided by America First, he is in the thick of protectionism, pushing the global system to (a risky brink) the brink of collapse or reshuffle. In the meantime, climate change, terrorism, maritime security, plastic pollution among other challenges, call for more effective global governance. Rapid development of AI and other emerging technologies necessitates cooperation between countries to stave off potential risks. China, along with other emerging countries, is also called upon to play their part in the quest for reform and improvement of global governance. China has gained substantial international influence with propositions like the Belt and Road initiative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the New Development Bank. But the gap in global governance is too huge to be plugged by any single country. Reinventing the wheel offers no solution, while global coordination and cooperation is the answer.

New technologies are about to upend the old pattern of human life. We are expecting the arrival of the fourth industrial revolution, characterized by AI, clean energy, robotech, quantum information, VR and synthetic biology. The US is still the foremost incubator for R&D and new breakthroughs, while China excels in technological integration and application. In this sense, a successful future of the fourth industrial revolution hinges on cooperation from both China and the US.

III. How China-US relations evolve will shape global political architecture in the years ahead

The “power transition” theory envisions that the established power would not readily relinquish power to the rising power, while the rising power will use its rapidly accrued strength to explore overseas markets, build up military power, monopolize cutting-edge technologies, and purge the established power, all aiming to change the existing order and norms and attain global privilege that is on par with its new found power, which means upending the old order. When the rising power unseats the established power and thus completes the transition, it marks the onset of a new world order. History suggests that “power transition” in modern times took place invariably between western powers and fierce competition was a hallmark, though they hailed from more or less the same history, culture and system. So here the “power transition” in its essence is leadership transition within one and the same political and civilization ecosystem.
The 21st century saw transformation of world political landscape that is at least partially driven by the rise of China, a country of vastly different history, culture and even political convictions and development paths, compared with most major powers in the world. Multi-faceted heterogeneity between China and the US dictates that the ongoing round of adjustment entails readjustment of interests and reset of rules, a process that is at once peculiar, comprehensive and complex in a way that is unseen in the past centuries.

The US cannot deal with China the same way as it did with the Soviet Union. As China is a big eastern socialist country led by the Communist Party of China, deeply integrated into the world economy, with its economic and trade interests closely intertwined with the US and other western countries alike. Containment and bashing in the Soviet Union era will not work, not least that China has not shown the slightest tendency to seek hegemony over the US. Anti-hegemony is in China’s political DNA, and China stands firm in support of multilateralism and multi-polarity. Maybe out of its hegemonic mindset, the US cannot come to terms with China’s rise, still less see China capitalizing on opportunities. Since Trump took office, the US government has substantially adjusted its China policy, and sends a clear signal for power competition, conveying a provocative message that either China changes or faces a new Cold War. But as things stand now, the Trump administration may not be able to complete a new and full-fledged strategic thinking for the US, as Trump himself pays more attention to honoring commitments made in his election campaign including those related to trade. In the meantime, the strategic camp in the US has grown more hard-lined in favor of more competition with China. In the short term, they believe the US should suppress China’s momentum to catch up with the US, and forestall the prospect of China gaining global supremacy in the ultimate power rivalry in the long run. For a time, the strategic hawks have been attempting to throw wrenches in the works in the trade negotiations, by upping the ante in the political domain, and pressing for decoupling in technology, dual-use manufacturing, telecommunications among other sectors. The US military presence is pivoting towards west Pacific and east Indian Ocean, and has upgraded its military deployment, strengthened alliance network as part of an overall strategic planning to leverage the South China Sea and Taiwan issue to contain China.

If we think of US policy adjustment against China as a full circle, the current status is akin to completing half the circle, meaning a domestic consensus has largely emerged that the goal should be to forcefully and effectively curb China as informed by the conclusion that China is a rising rival power. When it comes to how the second half of the circle will play out, or how the new policy looks like in substance, there seems not yet an outright consensus, with some in favor of smart competition, some arguing for containment tempered with engagement, and others clamoring for all-out bashing at any cost. As such, it is a foregone conclusion that China-US relations is on the cusp of a new chapter, the two countries differ in terms of outlook, objective, pathway, but there are broad common interests that need to be coordinated, and the choices made by the two countries will define where the world is headed for.

IV. To safeguard peace and development is the calling of the times, and the endeavor to build a community with a shared future for humanity is the historic calling that China must live up to.

The “profound changes unseen in a century” is fundamentally driven by the ebb and flow of national strength between world powers, and it is not detached from China. A rising China is one of the driving factors behind the profound changes, and itself is also exposed to such changes, and wield significant influence on the direction in which things will go. It is of paramount importance that China runs its own house in order. While it is also important that we in China put the country’s changes in the larger context of the world, identify China’s role, standing and interests in the world, and deal with the opportunities and challenges amid the changes. China must press ahead with reform and opening up, integrate further with the rest of the world, promote peaceful cooperation, advance global governance reform, and contribute to world peace and common development to build a community with a shared future for humanity.

The “profound changes unseen in centuries” is the outcome of peace and development as the prevailing trends in our world today. In spite of pockets of chaos and turbulence, the balance of power between major powers remains intact, embattled economic globalization renders interdependence indispensable, and the set of diplomatic rules and global institutions established in the wake of the WWII remain in force. China is increasingly shaping global trend with its positive influence. As President Xi Jinping pointed out, peace and development remain the themes of our times; yet our world is also faced with rising uncertainties and destablizing factors, and mankind is confronted with many common challenges.
While the situation is complicated, China’s direction is clear. The primary task at this stage for the Party and the government is to strive for the two centenary strategic goals and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. The foremost interest for China is to ensure the march toward a strong nation will not be interrupted and the strides toward the two centenary goals will not be hindered.

The US has grown increasingly anxious about China and sees it as a competitor, while it still needs to cooperate with China on multiple fronts because they are inextricably linked. China needs to deal with the US on a long term basis. US hegemony in the world will experience a slow and prolonged process of decline, but as a world superpower, it still exerts strong control over finance, information flow and other key factors. This constitutes the external context for China’s peaceful rise. China needs to adapt to and uphold the current international order and global system, and proceed to address any inadequacy and unfairness on this basis. Competition with the US also happens in this context. Compromise alone will not lead to a reasonable equilibrium in China-US relations, so China must learn the art of competition and confrontation in order to safeguard China’s core interests and vital interests, and head off risks and challenging scenarios, with a view to reaching a new pattern of engagement that allows for peaceful competition and win-win cooperation.

China pursues peaceful rise within the existing world order and global system, and it has a lot of stake in upholding it. But it also needs to tackle squarely the unjust, irrational and anachronistic aspects of the system, and take vigorous actions to reform and improve global governance. By virtue of natural endowment and late-comer advantage, China is well placed to play a more important role, and empowers world economic growth with the Belt and Road initiative, and ultimately grow out of the old world system and embrace a new one that encourages peaceful coexistence, common prosperity and the building of a community with a shared future for humanity. Only by making more tangible contributions to improving global governance can China lend credence to the logic that when China gets stronger, the peace, development and prosperity of the world are better safeguarded.

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