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Foreign Policy

What Power Looks Like

Feb 13, 2020
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for International Studies

The world has undergone tumultuous and profound changes over the course of the past year -- changes unseen in a century. New dynamics in major power relations warrant attention, particularly in the following six aspects.

First, American soft power is imperiled. Under “America first," the current U.S. administration seeks to pursue and maximize self-interest at the expense of other countries and people. This has come at a cost of its soft power and international standing. As the United States becomes increasingly self-centered, inward looking and isolated in its foreign policy, its rallying power and international appeal are on the decline. Gone are the days when the U.S. calls the tune and everybody dances to it. Be it France, Germany or Japan, hardly any country responded to its Persian Gulf escort alliance. Rather, we saw a French-led mission to monitor shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf region, while Japan and the Republic of Kora each launched their own escort missions in adjacent waters.

Second, U.S. allies are keen to uphold their own sovereignty and pursue an independent foreign policy. As a dominant power, the U.S. has been overriding the interests of other countries in putting out major policies, which is a constant source of frustration for its allies, with some contemplating breaking ranks. Increasingly, U.S. allies want to take things into their own hands, and see the U.S. as a fickle partner. In response to unilateralism by the U.S., the European Union has set out the vision of a “European army," along with policy gestures to improve relations with Russia as a counterweight to American pressure.

Third, the U.S. has failed to co-opt other countries in its campaign against a third country. Pursuing unilateralism not only jeopardizes U.S. relations with its allies but also encroaches on the foundation of the rules-based international system, threatening to upend the architecture of international relations. On the other side of the divide stand the majority of countries, which are in favor of multilateralism and the rules-based international system.

In other words, unilateralism vs. multilateralism has pitted the U.S. against the majority of countries. The U.S. went to great lengths to block Chinese tech company Huawei, threatening suspension of intelligence sharing should its allies use Huawei's 5G technology or equipment. Despite the threat, the United Kingdom decided in favor of a “a restricted role” for Huawei in developing 5G networks in the UK. The EU announced that its 5G network security toolkit would not target any specific supplier or country. Huawei announced that, as of October last year, it had signed 65 contracts related to 5G, with half the contracts sourced from Europe, including the UK, France and Germany.

Fourth, an unprecedented level of interdependence between major powers renders “decoupling” with China untenable for the U.S. As major powers have become inextricably intertwined, their relations have become defined by the coexistence of both competition and cooperation. One or the other will rise to priority in different stages and circumstances. As for competition, it can be virtuous or malicious, the latter of which is driven by a zero-sum mentality.
Decoupling runs against the trend of the times, as shown by the recent phase one trade agreement between China and the U.S. Rather, closer trade ties between the two countries is the trend going forward.

Fifth, a balance of power between major countries is an unstoppable trend. The U.S. has repeatedly asked its allies to shoulder more military expenses along with a request to cut trade deficits. This demonstrates that the U.S. is in decline with its narrow vision of national interests. It is a telling fact that reveals a weakening ability to run the world, and it's just a matter of time before America descends from the throne as the sole superpower.

Meanwhile, emerging and developing countries are rising as a collective grouping; hence, the world order will not go back to “bipolar” or “bipolar with multiple major powers coexisting," making the world order more balanced. This is an unstoppable trend that will unfold regardless of anybody's will.

Sixth, major power relations have entered an era of complex cooperation and counterbalancing. Multilateral cooperation mechanisms keep cropping up, such as those between China, Russia and India; between the US, Japan, Australia and India; between China, Japan, the ROK and the BRICS mechanism.

Major powers constantly maneuver to gain leverage over each other and counterbalance or contain each other. Their positions can shift between offensive and defensive in the blink of an eye -- partners for one day and strategic competitors the next. The crux of relations is safeguarding self-interest by leveraging divergent interests between other powers. It is more complex than ever before, but it also heralds unprecedented opportunities for cooperation.

For China, it is important that it navigate the complex situation and respond creatively in light of the circumstances. It must keep the global picture in mind, in a bid to make new progress in its foreign policy and serve the ultimate goal of meeting the two centenary goals of national rejuvenation.

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