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To the Future or the Past?

Dec 22, 2022
  • Chen Wei

    Senior Research Fellow, China Institute of International and Strategic Studies

The focus of this session is on Asia-Pacific security, which, in fact, has been a persistent and consistent defining theme of the Beijing Xiangshan Forum — but not only because China is located in the Asia-Pacific, which is the preferred or priority direction of China’s diplomacy, and the place from which China’s external relations and foreign policy start. It is also because Asia-Pacific security is complex by and for itself. The vastness of the region, the great size of its population, the dynamics of its vibrant economic growth and the huge diversity in historical and cultural background — combined with its varied development stages and political systems — all combine to complicate security in the region.

It’s also because Asia-Pacific security is significant and relevant not only to the region itself but also to the rest of world. In an increasingly integrated and globalized world, all regions are interdependent and can by no means be separated, let alone isolated. The idea of decoupling is neither pragmatic nor ethical in today’s global village. The center of gravity of the global economy, as well as geopolitics, has been gradually and steadily shifting to the Asia-Pacific, the security of which has been and will continue to be inextricably interrelated with global security. In fact, there’s a mutually reinforcing effect.

This interrelatedness, or indivisibility is what we have to keep in mind when discussing Asia-Pacific security in this forum, either with regard to the Asia-Pacific itself or, no less important, with regard to its relationship with the rest of the world.

The Asian moment, a recent hit phrase used to describe the G20, APEC and East Asian summits, held back-to-back in Southeast Asian countries, provides a timely opportunity to address global security and economy-related issues in an Asian venue. They have proved that true multilateralism is still popular and that it should and can prevail.

Pessimistic words like turbulence, uncertainty and helplessness are among the conventional phrases to describe and define the current international situation. All are true to the facts. With regard to the Asia-Pacific, a more optimistic description goes that the overall situation is generally stable as worries persist. However, complacency is unwarranted and could be dangerous. It is like a glass of water. Pessimists prefer to see the empty half while optimists tend to see the full half. Neither sentiment is complete, and neither should be neglected.

The most visible damage nowadays comes from the COVID pandemic, which has caused an annoying disruption of social and economic life with devastating effects, regionally as well as globally. Perhaps the most damaging disruption has been the cutoff of normal communications, a severe consequence of which is the disruption of industrial and supply chains that are indispensable in a globalized world. What is more striking is that the pandemic have revealed more than ever the lack of effective coordination in global governance to address emerging, as well as existing, common challenges and risks. International institutions have virtually failed to provide good governance.

Structural defects inherent in international institutions have been prominently exposed in the face of the emerging and lingering disturbances. Reforms are a must and urgent. The question is not when or where, but how? In addition to the prolonging the pandemic, which is a natural disaster, the human disaster plaguing Europe has had a profound impact on the whole world, with the Asia-Pacific region no exception.

While what is happening in Europe provides useful and timely context for this webinar with regard to how we should address security issues in the Asia-Pacific, I hope that what we may hopefully gain insights into pragmatic and effective solutions for the stagnated situation in Europe.

When the Cold War came to an end in 1991, a question was raised: Would Europe go back to the future? Now, 32 years later, the future has become the present and it seems that Europe has now gone back to the past. If the “post-post-Cold War era” has come into being and the world is entering seemingly uncharted territory, then the question raised 32 years ago is not irrelevant today: Will the Asia-Pacific, or the world at large, go back to the future, or, to be specific, go back to the status quo before the post-Cold War? It is a realistic question. A Cold War mentality is severely plaguing this region.

Mentality matters. A Cold War mentality inevitably leads to misjudgments of reality and becomes the source of misbehavior — as can be seen, in particular, in U.S. strategy and policies toward China. A Cold War mentality is the very origin of U.S. prejudice. It tends to see the sources of Chinese conduct through the same prism it used to see Soviet conduct, but neglecting the fundamental differences in both the content and context of the two relationships in two hugely different ages.

It should be emphasized that the process of China’s development over decades has also been the process of its being increasingly integrated into the international community and its institutions. There could be no more wrong argument that a developed China would seek to challenge or undermine the existing international system, with the United Nations at its core, — or the international order, underpinned by international law — even though China is of the view that the current system and order are not perfect and should be reformed and perfected to become more democratic and fair. They should better reflect a changed world and changing times.

What can be seen nowadays is the development of two parallel but conflicting trends: Unity vs. division; integration vs. fragmentation. As mentioned by Professor Moon in his presentation, fragmentation can only block effective cooperation and progress in this region.

Globalization has been an irreversible mega trend, although the process has never lacked twists and turns. However, the headwind against globalization has never been as strong and steadfast as it has been in recent years.

The biggest harm that a potential new cold war could exert is that it would turn a united and integrated world into divided and fragmented blocs. Unfortunately, this is what is happening or being encouraged and called for by people in some countries. That must be firmly resisted and opposed. And that is why the creation of the RCEP should be regarded as a hugely promising silver lining against the emerging black clouds threatening to darken this area. Here again, true multilateralism has prevailed and showed its resilience.

Will this be a decisive decade? A decisive and fundamental question for this so-called decisive decade — and maybe of the whole century — is whether and how a changed (and changing) China and a changed (and changing) world should and would adapt to and accommodate one another.

And that question goes on to:

1. What are the implications of the rise of China?

2. Is China’s rise a challenge or an opportunity? 

The answers to these questions are of vital significance to the theme of this forum. 

(Speech delivered at the Beijing Xiangshan Forum in November 2022)

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