If somehow all those ‘rules-based’ systems work overwhelmingly to the benefit of the US and its Western allies, the rest of the world may wonder why they should follow them.
The latest meeting between presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden was covered all over the world. And yet, the Western media have been strangely silent about a key speech Xi gave before an audience of some 300 American business leaders in San Francisco, at the end of which they responded with a standing ovation.
If he had said the opposite, say, praising the superiority of the Chinese political system or economic model over America’s, it would have been front-page news everywhere. But he didn’t.
Instead, Xi said something very different: “Just as mutual respect is a basic code of behaviour for individuals, it is fundamental for China-US relations … We are proud of our choice, just as you are proud of yours. Our paths are different, but both are the choice by our peoples, and both lead to the realisation of the common values of humanity. They should be both respected.”
Who can argue with that? Of course, what Xi said was nothing new; Beijing has repeatedly said that it is not interested in fighting another cold war, or supplanting the dominant position of the US within the international system.
“China never bets against the United States, and never interferes in its internal affairs,” Xi continued in the same speech. “China has no intention to challenge the United States or to unseat it. Instead, we will be glad to see a confident, open, ever-growing and prosperous United States. Likewise, the United States should not bet against China, or interfere in China’s internal affairs. It should instead welcome a peaceful, stable and prosperous China.”
Before you dismiss it all as communist propaganda, let’s draw up a few takeaways. Our values and your values may be different, but they need not lead to conflicts. There need not be an ideological fight to the death between China and the US.
There also need not be a naked power struggle to the death either – so long as you stay out of my backyard and I yours. You do your things, good or bad, and I do mine, but let’s stay off each other’s lane.
This is basic pragmatism or political realism. It must sound perfectly reasonable to many if not most Chinese, including yours truly. It’s also why it will mean little to the American ruling elites. masking its fundamentally narrow national interests, say those of Wall Street, with universalist claims of good and evil, or democracy against communism, fascism, Islamic extremism or Chinese authoritarianism.
Put another way, America is so used to fighting and winning big ideological wars over the centuries it seems constitutionally incapable of recognising much simpler struggles between great powers. Indeed, historically, it has rejected great power politics and refused to play by such traditional categories as “balance of power” and “sphere of influence”. This doesn’t mean it didn’t practise them all along, from its inception.
The centuries-old Monroe doctrine arguably still applies today, to the western hemisphere. And yet, the US refuses to recognise Russia’s own sphere of influence in eastern Europe and Central Asia, a root cause of the war in Ukraine; nor China’s in the South and East China seas, hence the ever escalating tensions. It exercises provocative behaviour in other countries’ backyards in ways it will never tolerate in its own neighbourhoods. As Henry Kissinger once said, other countries have national interests, America alone has global interests.
Moreover, from fighting off corrupt monarchical empires of old Europe, beginning with the colonial British overload and then the Spanish empire, to beating European fascism and communism in the last century and Islamic extremism in this one, the US has always positioned itself as the universal defender of freedom and democracy.
And so, when it comes to China, rather than recognising it as a good, old-fashioned contest between great powers, Washington insists on an ideological cover, as a universalist war for democracy against authoritarianism; never mind that the US has always supported and made friends with any number of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes throughout its history up to the present day.
But this time, China may yet win the ideological war, if not the geopolitical and economic power struggle. Why? Because it doesn’t have a world-conquering ideology or even ambition; and more importantly, for the rest of the world, across the Global South, few people buy into America’s sanctimonious ideology any more. Ukraine and Gaza have merely accelerated this ideological unmasking.
The horrors in Gaza have exposed Washington’s extreme tolerance for the mass killing of civilians that borders on genocide and ethnic cleansing, so long as it’s done by a close and friendly regime. Regards for human rights and sanctity of human life, it turns out, are completely relative.
In an unhinged, unguarded moment, Stuart Seldowitz, who helped direct US policy on Israel-Palestine between 1999 and 2003 and then served on the Obama administration’s National Security Council, was captured unloading a vile tirade against a New York Islamic street food vendor selling halal food.
“Did you rape your daughter like Mohammed did?” he said on a video clip that has gone viral. “If we killed 4,000 Palestinian kids, it wasn’t enough.”
For all the crocodile tears from the Biden administration over the high death toll of Palestinian civilians, especially young children, now we know the kind of US officials who have been rushing weapons and financial aid to Israel “to finish the job”.
Talks of global norms and a rules-based international system are increasingly exposed as masked challenges to real international law and institutions. The US, often supported by allies, freely attacks or invades other countries, subverts their governments, and wrecks their economies. It breaks international law and undermines international institutions while chastising others for doing the same.
Whether it’s rulings by international courts and adjudicators, UN Security Council or General Assembly votes, and/or the operations of the World Health Organisation and the World Trade Organisation, Washington castigates others for challenging them while freely opposes or undermines them when it’s convenient.
It can do it not because it is the right but because it has the might. Common international goods such as the global Swift financial transaction messaging system is being abused by the US for sanctions and as an instrument of foreign policy. International underwater cables for internet traffic are increasingly controlled and tapped by US government agencies, especially intelligence services.
If somehow all those “rules-based” systems work to the benefit of the US and its allies, the rest of the world may wonder why they should follow them. That is one big reason why while the rest of the world has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the vast majority have refused to join Western sanctions – it’s not in their interests but rather US interests.
Hawks in Washington see lies, misinformation and propaganda coming from Russia and China that try to challenge America’s global narratives. Yes, there are plenty of those, which I suspect, are far less effective than many have assumed.
The rest of the world is simply waking up to the sanctimonious ideology of the West, but especially that of the US. If you and your ally want to wipe out my whole family with million-dollar bombs, there is nothing I can do about it. But spare me the lies that you are fighting terrorism or furthering the cause of freedom.
Article first published in South China Morning Post on 23 November, 2023