Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing on May 14(XINHUA)
The world of 2017 is one marked by turbulence and chaos. In assessing the international situation over the past year, much can be revealed by starting with two international conferences.
Anxious about the future due to the uncertainties brought about by Trump's presence in the White House and the European refugee crisis, the 53rd Munich Security Conference (MSC) held in February marked the first time European observers put forward the idea that the "post-Western era" or even the "post-order age" has now arrived.
Wolfgang Ischinger, Chairman of the MSC, voiced his concern that the growth of anti-liberal movements had eroded traditional Western values and democratic politics, and that open society itself is under attack, factors which have ultimately accelerated the decline of the West as a world power. He went on to question whether the old international order is falling apart and a new one is beginning to take shape.
The second such instructive event of 2017 was the 14th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club, held on 16 October in Sochi, Russia. Whilst previous iterations of this meeting have focused on domestic policy trends in Russia, this time those of the international order were at the center of a heated debate. Consensus between the attendant delegates seemed to suggest that it is unrealistic to build a world order that seeks hegemonic global governance, while "demilitarization" should be the only solution to the world's problems. However, it was also widely agreed that the building of such an order is a difficult process, and that the world right now is in fact on the verge of disorder.
An ever changing world
The themes of these two otherwise very different events are alike in that they express concern over the same situations taking place across the world. In recent years, the United States has been preoccupied by internal political dysfunction and the consequences of wars started beyond its border. All the while China has been steadily on the rise, its global influence continuing to expand. The grand plan of European integration has been thwarted unremittingly, along with its international standing as the "center of a Western order," whilst tumultuous events both internal and external of Russia have undermined that country's status as a major world power. In India, the upward trend of its economy has been limited by internal problems and insular strategic thinking. Amidst all of this, the cross-border challenges posed by old and new problems of economy, security and society have largely exacerbated, and in response the world's current international multilateral institutions have merely displayed their inefficiencies and limitations.
The international situation in 2017 continues to be filled with major events and major changes that reflect these chaotic times. U.S.-Russian relations have been deeply strained by three major events in the form of the ongoing Syrian crisis, the follow-up effect of the standoff over Ukraine, and the election scandal which has plagued the Trump administration since his inauguration. In light of these developments, it is difficult to see the situation improving in the near future, with both nations looking to continue pursuing their own geopolitical agendas.
In the Asia Pacific region, the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula has rapidly become the top security concern. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) conducted its sixth nuclear test in September, and its ballistic missile launches continued to contravene international regulations. These tests have seen the nation's nuclear technology make significant progress and the international nuclear non-proliferation regime now faces its most serious crisis since the end of the Cold War. The United States has in turn deviated from the previous international strategy of aiming to solve the problem peacefully through dialogue and negotiations, instead conducting its own display of military deterrence and intimidation by deploying the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea in an effort to tilt the strategic balance in the region. Northeast Asia now seems to be wandering toward the edge of war. Once initiated, any conflict would inevitably destroy the arrangements of the post-war security order.
During his first year in office, the Trump administration has significantly adjusted U.S. foreign policy to principles of protectionism and isolationism by adhering to an "America first" and "peace through strength" ideology. On the one hand, the U.S. continued to strengthen military deployment in the Middle East, Indian Ocean and West Pacific, whilst on the other began to withdraw from international commitments in non-military areas, relinquishing some of its global leadership responsibilities, and shifted its focus on global affairs from multilateral cooperation to bilateral negotiation.
In the Middle East, faced with encirclement by the troops of an international coalition made up of the U.S., Russia, Asian, African and European countries, the so-called "Islamic State" has been brought to its knees in its territorial heartland in Iraq. However, as insurgents scatter and return to their respective countries, they have continued to operate through the Internet to spread extremism and inspire "lone wolf" terrorist attacks in U.K., U.S., France, Sweden, Egypt and Afghanistan. The challenges posed by international terrorism are far from over and the chaos in the Middle East resulting from the Sunni–Shia insurgency under the intervention of external forces will continue to be a risk to regional security going forward.
Meanwhile, in Europe, continued efforts toward European integration have resulted in ideological standoffs between the left and right. Whilst center-right politics managed to retain its primacy in the elections of the Netherlands, France and Germany, the rise of right-wing, xenophobic and anti-integration forces still represents a trend that Europe cannot ignore. With Europe entangled by its internal affairs, it looks unlikely that it will restore its international standing as the ideological "center of the international system."
U.S. people protest the Trump administration's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement outside the White House in Washington D.C. on June 2(XINHUA)
The roots of disorder
The above crises are a manifestation of the ineffectiveness of the current international order, and the lack of viable alternatives to this coalition of mismanagement. Against the backdrop of the evolving international situation in 2017, the wavelike principle that a rise succeeds a fall can guide our assessment of the future. In this case, the fall refers to the declining global influence of the U.S., and perhaps even that of the whole Western world, which has become more accentuated as concepts of liberalism have begun to ebb. The withdrawal of the Trump administration from international affairs has acted as the catalyst in this situation, having a seismic impact on international relations. The subsequent rise has manifested itself in a China that is more proactive in global affairs, its position and function among international powers having significantly increased and its cooperation with returning powers such as Russia and the developing nations having also been strengthened.
This example highlights a strategic misstep by the U.S. in the long distance race to stay ahead as the world's only superpower. It reveals that the unfolding shift in global power has displaced the model of "Western centralism" that has existed since the 19th century. This in turn will drive many third party powers to adjust their own foreign policy focus accordingly, accelerating the process placing the Asia-Pacific at the center of world economic development and the global strategic game.
It is important for existing and emergent powers to exercise caution in their relationship with one another, safeguarding cooperation, managing differences and preventing conflicts wherever they can. In April of this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with President Trump at the latter's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. In November, Trump and his wife paid a state visit to China. Here both sides seemed to abandon pursuit of glory and instead returned to a most basic and simple understanding of Sino-U.S. relations; one which seeks the well-being of the two peoples, as well as the peace, stability and prosperity of the world. Cooperation is the only correct choice for China and the U.S., through which a mutually beneficial arrangement and a consequently better future can be achieved.
However, structural contradictions between China and the U.S. in the fields of economy, politics, society as well as strategy have not been fundamentally resolved. The signing of economic and trade contracts worth $253.5 billion during Trump's visit to China alone will not solve the trade imbalance between the two countries as market frictions, competition between systems and strategic power-plays continue to affect the relationship between the emerging and the established powers.
Sergey Karaganov, founder of the Valdai forum and Dean of the World Economy and Politics Department at the Russian National Research University Higher School of Economics, predicted that, in the next 15 years the world will form two major centers of power. According to his theory, one will be a "center of the Western world" dominated by the U.S., and the other will be a "major Eurasian center" based on the strategic alignment of the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative and Russia's Eurasian Union partnership. Trump's closest confidant, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, speaking after having left his post, warned the U.S. political elites not to underestimate the potential for China's rise. In his opinion, the global center of the 21st century will be the Pacific Ocean with China as its economic center of power. According to Bannon, the hitherto relationship between the U.S. and China has placed the United States in an extremely unfavorable situation.
Karaganov's proposal is that China should support economic development in the Asia-Pacific while Russia functions as a security provider, to jointly contain the strategic operations of the United States in the region. Karaganov's expectations may be possible in the future, but for now it is important to realize that despite the resurgence of protectionism, economic globalization remains irreversible. Today we belong to the same economic system, a modern reality that contrasts starkly with the model of global hegemony pursued by the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War era. Against this backdrop, the three major powers, China, U.S. and Russia, could either play a joint role in leading human society into a new era of cooperation or co-star in the major collapse of the global system with the inevitable, hostile conflicts that would follow.
The Syrian army fights "Islamic State" extremists in Syria's Deir al-Zour Province on November 11(XINHUA)
The world is concerned about China as China becomes a force more capable of shaping the world. However, the future is above all uncertain and the question remains as to what extent China can play a significant part in creating a positive future for humanity. As a rejuvenating power, China itself still faces the arduous task of achieving balanced development at home, but is it also possible for the country to simultaneously take the lead in managing new global solutions for mankind?
For now, the future exists only in our imagination and its appearance may not only depend on the interaction between China and the world, but also on what kind of path China takes toward its own reform, and what kind of development model and value system China can provide for the world to follow.
In his January 2017 speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, President Xi confirmed China's wholehearted embrace of economic globalization and pointed out that "any attempt to cut off the flow of capital, technologies, products, industries and people between economies, and channel the waters of the ocean back into isolated lakes and rivers is simply not possible." Xi called for strengthening global governance, adherence to fairness and inclusiveness, as well as the building of a balanced development model.
The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China held in October is undoubtedly one of the most consequential events of 2017. The Congress released a development strategy that China plans to pursue until 2050, focusing on the core values of maintaining and promoting fairness and justice, as well as defining the foreign policy goals necessary to build a new model of international relations and a community with a shared future for mankind.
In practical terms, China has already taken step toward this goal. Beijing's Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation and the Ninth BRICS Summit, held in the coastal city Xiamen, demonstrate China's cooperation with partner nations in the construction of a new Silk route. The Belt and Road Initiative has made substantial progress in 2017, whilst the number of member countries of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank increased to 80. Today, a total of 57 freight lines are operating between China and Central and Eastern Europe, connecting 35 cities in China to 34 cities in Europe. Such unprecedented infrastructure projects have stimulated the development of transport on sea and land, as well as the growth potential of Asia, Africa and Europe.
These cooperative efforts have subsequently expanded China's global influence, and added momentum to a process which looks as though it might displace the systems of global governance established after World War II. As one of the prime movers in this transformation, China must be ready to manage the responsibilities and consequences which will inevitably arise.
The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and a researcher at the Pangoal Institution
Copyedited by Laurence Coulton
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