As the world works through the novel coronavirus crisis and seeks a new order amid fractured multilateralism and deteriorating U.S.-China relations, what were previously serious but relatively contained problems have begun to intersect and potentially cascade.
This was illustrated in part by the deadly clashes in June in the Galwan Valley, which Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at an ensuing press conference lies on the Chinese side of the Line of Actual Control between China and India. The border dispute is many-sided, driven by a multitude of local, national, and international forces, not unlike other sensitive pressure points in other parts of the world, which are sometimes inflamed intentionally to create new fronts of instability.
In situations like these, what actually happened and why is of course very important, but whether someone actually knows this information and whether it’s communicated faithfully and accepted broadly are the seemingly unanswerable questions, drowned in the usual flood of conspiracy theories, deliberate misinformation and general misunderstanding.
One theory that helps understand problems today is "asymmetric insecurity." The idea, as I develop it, originates largely with U.S. international relations scholar Jeffrey Reeves’ book, Chinese Foreign Relations With Weak Peripheral States: Asymmetrical Economic Power and Insecurity (2015). The primary strength of Reeves’ work is to recognize the unique characteristic of China’s regional political geography—that no other comparable large state has more immediate neighbors, major (Russia) or rising (India) powers on its border, and is driving economic growth and development regionally the way it is.
Reeves'theory is linked to what Vladimir Lenin called the "core-periphery" problem, first expounded in his pamphlet Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916). Lenin was arguing that capitalism then was at an endpoint, particularly given the circumstances of World War I.
Secondarily, he explained why leading capitalist economics under imperialism were unlikely to lead a global socialist revolution—because their workers, while exploited, also benefited from their nation’s exploitation of weaker, peripheral states.
Reeves argues that given the asymmetries of Chinese power relative to its neighbors, and even given its well-intentioned efforts to create win-win developments throughout the region, a type of “structural violence” emerges, further undermining the weaker states.
There are many who have laid this charge at Beijing’s door, particularly as China’s development approaches have matured in recent years under the rubric of the Belt and Road Initiative. The point such critics fail to balance properly is not whether this form of development or co-development is perfect, but whether it’s superior to the forms that preceded it, and whether real alternatives exist.
While one might question whether the Westphalian notion of the nation-state can or should be abolished in favor of a universal, global socialism, as Lenin argued, China by no means encourages such a radical development today. In fact, while key figures in U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration argue that China is a Marxist-Leninist country aiming for global domination, as recently as on June 24 by Trump’s National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien, China’s respect for its neighbors'sovereignty and its efforts to create more equitable multilateralism indicate otherwise.
Unfortunately, Reeves'formulation judges China by an impossible idealistic standard, and does not acknowledge ultimately that China's development strategy is constructed precisely to avoid recreating the core-periphery problem that Lenin described.
Consequently, although China's position vis-à-vis weaker, developing countries is far from perfect, it has been judged generally by many of those countries, both Asian and African, as being far more equitable and win-win than what they experienced under Western imperialism and hegemony. In part, this explains why even those Asian countries with longstanding disagreements with China over various issues have established and continue to grow their economic ties with China. Despite the recent hullabaloo, this includes India as well.
Ironically, Lenin’s core-periphery theory is relevant to this discussion because it helps explicate how the U.S.—the surviving successor of imperialism and hegemony—is attempting to inflame tensions between China and its neighbors in order to reestablish its dominance and slow its decline, particularly in the face of China’s rise.
Indeed, perhaps the single biggest destabilizing event leading to the current conflict was the U.S. decision to disengage with Pakistan because it could not compete positively with projects like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and other Belt and Road efforts. After decades of destabilizing its nominal ally Pakistan, and projecting that negative power into Central Asia and China’s western border, it flipped sides and started trying to entice India into an anti-China alliance.
U.S. policymakers appear to have done this intentionally—looking for asymmetric insecurities that America helped create in the first place, and then picking at those problems, both directly and indirectly, until they have festered and bled.
To blame China, therefore, for this outbreak of violence is ironic. Likewise, blaming China for implementing a development strategy that has allowed it to evolve and grow economically and politically, past its own limitations and those imposed on it by others. And further, blaming China for working with others to find positive ways forward.
All of this is to point a finger in the wrong direction while also trying to hold China responsible for the system it has transcended and did not create.
One must recognize the role the U.S. plays as the superpower and primary provocateur picking at vulnerable points, whether the misguided and tragic war on terror, attempts to establish airbases in Central Asia, sparking and playing different sides of struggles in North Africa and the Middle East, or destabilizing Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics including Ukraine.
There is also expanding U.S. aggression toward China via trade wars and undermining regional relations by forcing China into defensive positions that unnerve its neighbors while simultaneously trying to entice China’s neighbors into anti-China alliances. And finally, by constantly meddling in Taiwan and now Hong Kong affairs, while neglecting global responsibilities like global warming and persisting with an America First strategy during a global pandemic.
Asymmetry will always undermine equality, and China will need to guard against this as it moves forward, particularly as the U.S. increasingly aims to exacerbate problems and diminish the rise of Asia as a whole. Individually, Asian nations, weak and strong, have much to worry over, even in this moment when their lot is improving.
Hopefully, the solutions that emerge collectively will bury one form of imperialism once and for all, and avoid reincarnating the same under a different name.