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Foreign Policy

Responding to an Imbalanced Global Order

Apr 06, 2021
  • Xiao Bin

    Deputy Secretary-general, Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Chinese Association of Social Sciences

At their foreign ministers’ Guilin meeting on March 23, China and Russia reached four strategic consensuses on human rights, democracy, international order and multilateralism. They also identified four priority areas of cooperation: mutual support and assistance, pandemic containment, accumulation of “light and heavy assets” in cooperation and preservation of the UN’s central role in international mechanisms.

While Beijing emphasizes that the meeting was not a special arrangement, nor targeted at any specific countries, China-Russia strategic interaction always directly or indirectly has an effect on international politics.  From the perspective of structural realism, the Guilin meeting was an inevitable reaction to balance an imbalanced global order.

As the renowned American structural realist scholar Kenneth N. Waltz pointed out, powerful countries always tend to believe they are acting in the name of world peace, justice and well-being, while such terms are always defined to their tastes, which often contradict other countries’ interests and preferences. In international politics, overbearing behavior always upsets others and results in pushback.

Such endeavors by powerful countries to preserve their position of advantage in the international system have worsened imbalances in the global order. The existing international order is dominated by such powerful countries.

Pressures from the international system were far greater on Russia than on China before 2018. But China has witnessed an abrupt increase in systemic pressures since 2018 that extend from economics to the security and political realms. Consequently, strategic mutual confidence and benefits for China and powerful countries have dropped to the freezing point.

After China-Russia military cooperation strengthened Chinese military might, divergences on some strategic issues between China and powerful countries have continued to widen. The latter’s perceptions of China have been seriously twisted. They believe the increasing Chinese economic and military strength will prevent powerful countries from shaping the world according to their interests and ideals. They have thus taken China and Russia as revisionist states, potential threats and competitive rivals and come up with tough containment policies against both, accelerating the imbalance of the global order.

China and Russia have been forced to enhance their strategic interaction to balance external pressures. Such balancing acts are defensive, with no intention to seek conflict, confrontation or enmity with powerful countries, and accompanied by appeals for constructive dialogue and collaboration. The four major strategic consensuses the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers announced in Guilin were a direct response.

The core concern of the Guilin meeting was cementing bilateral ties between the two partners of all-around strategic cooperation; the focus was to build consensus. Although external pressures on China and Russia are from the same international system, they differ in intensity and may transform over time. At present, China faces greater pressure on sovereignty, while Russia is under greater pressure in the security arena.

China and Russia have different approaches in offsetting such pressures. China tends to argue and fight back by economic means, while Russia generally chooses to push back jurisprudentially and militarily.  For example, Russia sought strategic stability by extending New START, updating its weaponry and holding frequent military drills.

Even in the fruitful field of economic cooperation, more consensus is needed. For instance, under the tremendous pressure of financial sanctions, Russia hopes to persuade China to jointly reduce reliance on the U.S. dollar and Western payment systems, which may both reduce longstanding pressures and offset powerful countries’ hegemony in the international political and economic order by means of Chinese influence on global value chains.

The Russian proposal is appealing to China, because as powerful countries and their allies expand interferences in Chinese domestic affairs, conflicts between China and powerful nations and their allies may constantly escalate, and spill over into the fields of trade and investments. Yet it is impossible for China to get rid of the U.S. dollar as a currency anchor, as its financial cooperation with Russia comes more from the need for strategic stability.

It is more important than ever to restore stability around the globe. NATO’s influence extends to the Asia-Pacific, Japan, Australia, the Republic of Korea and New Zealand, which have become “NATO Plus” members; and India may come next. In the NATO 2030 report released in December, China was for the first time identified as a challenge for NATO.

The behaviors of powerful nations and their allies reflect the inevitability of “the tragedy of big power politics,” which indicates that the global order will remain out of balance in the long term and face huge risks. Therefore, both powerful nations and their allies and China and Russia must avoid excessive balancing moves, resorting more to strategic engagement than to containment strategies and restraining state-to-state conflict.

Permanent members of the UN Security Council have the responsibility and obligation to restore relative equilibrium to the global order. This is the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers’ message to the international community.


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