French philosopher of social science René Girard (1923-2015) once described the tendency of two parties in a rivalry to become increasingly alike over time. They may start out with different values and ideologies, but as each strives to outdo the other, or as each attack provokes a retaliation in kind from the other side—given each act is mirrored by the other, both parties become locked in a spiral of escalation in which they become more and more alike. Many "games" of strategy take this form. A war between nuclear powers, for example, might escalate through retaliation and anticipatory violence to reduce both sides to the ultimate identity of mutual destruction. Girard called this process mimetic rivalry, or the competition and conflict that arises from imitating the desire of another.
The neoconservatives who have taken over Western foreign policy project their own behavior and history onto China, assuming China must also have practiced genocide and colonialism to achieve what it has over the last 40 years. This projection of history is the result of framing China as the mimetic rival.
It is not easy to escape this trap. When someone punches you, you want to punch back immediately. This launches you into a mounting back-and-forth of mimetic violence.
Instead of responding in kind, however, China's policy, as articulated by Foreign Minister Qin Gang, evades the very terms of Western rivalry. To use a picturesque American idiom, it "refuses to wrestle with a pig"—the pig enjoys it and you both get dirty. It takes great skill not to fall into the spiral of mimesis, but despite the relentless provocations of the West, China continues to do just this, and thereby preserves its freedom to focus on peaceful development and remain open to the world. In doing so, it is creating the conditions for a new multilateral order based on peaceful cooperation.
China's foreign policy today is deliberately non-rival and non-exclusive. It rejects in principle the formation of blocs and camps directed at third parties. This determination goes well beyond tactics—or even strategy. It is a philosophical commitment embedded in the country's political culture, motivated by an ancient conception of interstate relations that is rooted in the common good of humanity. Instead of division, it seeks peace, unity and common prosperity.
These are not just fine words. They make the difference between the possibility of peace and the capitulation to a "rules-based order" that is just another name for Western hegemony sustained through perpetual warfare.
China is forging a set of nested and overlapping relationships across the world grounded in trade, infrastructure and educational exchange; in cooperation rather than military intimidation and financial exploitation. Western elites dismiss statements of principle such as those articulated by Qin as an ideological fig leaf on par with Western democracy and human rights talk. They do not imagine international relations as anything but a contest of coercive force. Drawing on their own history, they cannot imagine that a great power could rise without war and plunder.
Western elites were therefore unprepared for China's major achievement in March, brokering a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran that will reverberate across the Middle East and beyond, particularly in the Global South.
They cannot accept that this is just Chinese diplomacy doing what it says on the bottle, applying principles Chinese diplomats never fail to say they are committed to.
By avoiding zero-sum competition and sidestepping the rivalry of fear and envy that drives Western politics, Chinese foreign policy is catalyzing a profound change in international politics. It is building the norms and the global infrastructure, figuratively and in concrete and steel, for a new multilateral order based on peaceful cooperation and shared prosperity.
The future that beckons is immediately recognizable and compelling to other countries of the Global South. It seems, however, to terrify the West.
How else to explain the shameless stupidity of trying to export NATO to Asia by coordinating the interaction between NATO and its Indo-Pacific allies, just as its expansion has led to a war spiraling out of control in Europe. How else to explain the imposition of AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, over the South China Sea with no regard for the peaceful order that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has carefully constructed in the region over 50 years by applying exactly the principles of non-interference, non-rivalry and openness that Chinese foreign policy is making global.
Western foreign policy today signals to Asians, but also to Africans and Latin Americans, the moral and intellectual collapse of Western leadership. In the face of a new dawn for global cooperation, the West is fighting a rearguard action that offers only division, stagnation and war. And it would seem the West is becoming more and more unlike the Rest.
The author is a former Malaysian government official and a senior fellow with the Perak Academy
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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