Rethinking China and the new world orderOct 3, 2023
The world is now experiencing a new era of multilateralism. The Quad (India, US, Japan, Australia) now sits alongside the G20, the G7, and has been joined by AUKUS (Australia, UK, US), and the great new vision of the Indo Pacific. BRICS, around for almost two decades, looks like it might expand to become a gathering for the newly emerging global South. That is before we take on board the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Asia Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) and the collection of other acronyms that increasingly dot across the world.
This might mean that we are entering a golden era of talk. Never have there been so many places to talk, in so many different kinds of gatherings, at every kind of level. Everyone seems to be talking. Maybe that will dissipate some of the underlying tensions and frictions. After all, as every therapist would say, speaking about an issue is a good part of finally managing and dealing with it. Even so, there are clearly immense structural issues that are coming to the fore through all this talk, raising the question about at which point the various fora and gatherings are going to coalesce into two clear camps.
Those camps are already easily discernible in geopolitics. On the one hand, there is the structures built largely around the US, mostly after the Second World War, and mostly involving other like-minded democracies. There are built on a set of values which are both political and economic, and promote freedoms both of individual human agency, and the operations of the market. Against them are a newer group – the emerging economies, loosely but not solely gathered around China (but with India playing an increasingly important role). These may well subscribe to the importance of global rules and regulations, and they may well accept a list of core challenges that everyone needs to face (global warming being amongst the most pressing). But in terms of values, they are unaccepting of the idea that a particular set of convictions has to form the basis of a uniform world view necessary to combat these.
This division has existed for a long time. Even in the 1950s, the non-aligned nations decided to sit in the years of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union in a space China chose to describe in the 1970s as the `third world.’ These days, while that term has been jettisoned, and the Soviet Union has long gone, the non-aligned nations are still with us, but with a radical difference; economically, militarily and politically they have far greater capacity and strength than ever before. China and India alone exemplify this, constituting between them about a third of global GDP. Their enrichment and rise has been a game changer.
We are therefore seeing the emergence of a two-track world, where the Global South/BRICS/Emerging economies with China at the centre, are facing the G7/Bretton Woods/Developed world ranged still around the US. Overlaid across this however is the fact that for all their differences in outlook, identity and values, both sides have to recognise some very clear common constraints. Overt military conflict between the biggest players (and in particular the US and China) would involve contemplating an escalation where two nuclear powers would be facing each other. The assumption is that Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) means that this final deployment of force would be impossible. On the other hand, too, the US, China and their respective sets of key allies or partners (China tends to avoid formal alliances) do, at least at the moment, accept the common threat of global warming and the impact of human activity on climate. Even in the toughest moments between the two in the last few years, therefore, it is noticeable that the dialogue in this area has continued, and largely been constructive. Xi Jinping and Joe Biden have many differences, but they are both committed environmentalists. Their main differences are on detail here; they are not disagreeing on the nature of the problem itself.
These two structural issues (MAD and mutually accepted global issues, which we can call MAGI) at least supply some level of constraint to everyone’s behaviour. Broadly, we live in a world of sharp division, but one where the costs of global conflict are too terrifying to contemplate, and there are issues that overshadow everything else, and which everyone broadly agrees they need to cooperate on.
We can see these new and strengthening global divisions vividly inscribed in the Asian region. Broadly, from 1950s to today, this region has been dominated by two seemingly intractable problems. Both originated in the Second World War and its aftermath. The issue of North and South Korea, and of China and Taiwan, have proved almost insoluble. Many attempts to manage or resolve them have been tried, and endless amounts of dialogue and diplomatic effort have been expended on trying to come up with solutions. But in 2023, we are no closer to seeing any kind of resolution.
To come back to the MAD constraint mentioned above, what has changed is that as Asia with China at its heart has become increasingly important economically, and much stronger politically, so too have the costs risen if either of these issues spirals out of control. A conflict between North and South Korea, we have long known, would be catastrophic, particularly as it is now clear the DPRK has some nuclear capacity. For Taiwan and China too, any intemperate move by Beijing to unify with the island would tip the world into geopolitical and economic mayhem. Not the least of the issues would be the smashing apart of the semiconductor high tech infrastructure which Taiwan with its Silicon Shield sits at the heart of.
Currently, policy makers in the US and Europe might give themselves the illusion that reversion to orders, commands, and force are still options when dealing with these issues. They might talk airily about defending Taiwan militarily, or launching strikes on the DPRK. But it is clear that neither is a viable option. They would involve a quick escalation to global conflict, and outcomes which would be terrifying and destructive to everyone. Like it or not, the world is now in perpetual management mode, and much of this will need to be done not through acting but talking. As for solutions, the most we know is that the old approach simply hasn’t worked, and we clearly need a radical new framework within which to see issues like the two mentioned above – one that accepts that the traditional approach of security alliances and balance of interests has to be replaced by something else. In the current world order, North Korea and Taiwan are literally insoluble, because of the way their resolution in favour of one side rather than another involves pitching forces against each other which will end up in mutual destruction.
The new era of multilateralism and talking has to also be one that involves new modes of persuasion, and new ways of framing arguments. Everyone needs to engage with this. This is not just a case of the US and its alliances needing to change some of their most fundamental views about what a global order is, and how it accommodates new and very different players. It also involves players like China rethinking their vision of their global role. This might be a fanciful suggestion. But the brute fact is that, as of today at least, it is hard to see any other option. As for evidence that, on fundamental issues, people can sometimes change their minds, we merely need to look at what China did after 1978, when it totally rethought its role in the global economy and geopolitical system. We need a moment like this now, though with the major difference that all the key players need to rethink, not just one. That would at least give some hope for dealing with the massive issues we are now facing, and the seeming impediments to ever being able to meaningful resolve these.
This article is part of P&I’s extended series China: Perspectives beyond the mainstream media guest edited by Jocelyn Chey. The full series is available to view here: