Surge in China’s rescue lending shows need for co-operation on restructuring
Surge in China’s rescue lending shows need for co-operation on restructuring
Some wars acquire names that stick. The Lancaster and York clans fought the War of the Roses from 1455-1485 to claim the British throne. The Hundred Years’ War pitted England against France from 1337-1453. In the Thirty Years’ War, 1618-1648, many European countries clashed, while Britain and France waged the Seven Years’ War, 1756-63, across significant parts of the globe. World War I (1914-1918) gained the lofty moniker, “The Great War,” even though World II (1939-1945) would prove far greater in death, destruction, and its grim global reach.
Of the catchier conflict names, my own favorite — though the Pig War of 1859 between the U.S. and Great Britain in Canada runs a close second — is the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-1748). It was named for Captain Robert Jenkins of the East India Company who, in 1738, told the British House of Commons that his ear, which he displayed for the onlooking parliamentarians, had been severed several years earlier by a Spanish coast guard sloop’s commander. He had boarded the ship off the Cuban coast and committed the outrage using Jenkins’s own cutlass. If ever there was cause for war, that was it! An ear for an ear, so to speak.
If I could give Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine a name for posterity, I think I’d call it the War of Surprises, because from the get-go it so thoroughly confounded the military mavens and experts on Russia and Ukraine. For now, though, let me confine myself to exploring just two surprising aspects of that ongoing conflict, both of which can be posed as questions: Why did it occur when it did? Why has it evolved in such unexpected ways?
It’s NATO’s Fault
Though a slim majority of experts opined that Putin might use force against Ukraine many months after his military buildup on Ukraine’s border began in early 2021, few foresaw an all-out invasion. When he started massing troops, the reigning assumption was that he was muscle-flexing, probably to extract a promise that NATO would cease expanding toward Russia.
Some context helps here. NATO had just 16 members at its Cold War peak. More than three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has 30 — 32 when Finland and Sweden, which sought membership after Putin’s invasion, are allowed to join. Long before Putin became president in 2000, Russian officials were already condemning the eastward march of the American-led former Cold War alliance. His predecessor Boris Yeltsin made his opposition clear to President Bill Clinton.
In October 1993, as Secretary of State Warren Christopher prepared to travel to Russia, James Collins, chargé d’affaires at the American embassy in Moscow, sent him a cable warning that “NATO expansion is neuralgic to Russians.” If continued “without holding the door open to Russia,” he added, it would be “universally interpreted in Moscow as directed against Russia and Russia alone — or ‘Neo-Containment,’ as Foreign Minister [Andrei] Kozyrev recently suggested.”
In February 2008, eight years into Putin’s presidency and about a month before a NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, William Burns, then the American ambassador to Moscow and now the director of the CIA, sent a cable to Washington focusing on Ukraine. “NATO enlargement, particularly to Ukraine,” he warned, “remains an ‘emotional and neuralgic’ issue for Russia.” That same month, in a memo to President George W. Bush’s National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Burns wrote that Ukraine’s entry into NATO would cross “the brightest of all red lines” for Russia’s leaders. “I have,” he continued, “yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.”
Such diplomatic missives had little effect as NATO expansion became the centerpiece of Washington’s new security order in Europe. In April 2008, at Bush’s urging, NATO finally took a fateful step at that Bucharest summit, declaring that Ukraine and Georgia would, one day, join its ranks.
Now, it was one thing to include former Soviet allies from Central Europe in NATO, but Ukraine was another matter entirely. In the eyes of Russian nationalists, the two countries shared a centuries-long set of cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and religious ties with Ukrainians, not to mention a 1,426-mile-long border, a point Putin made in a 7,000-word essay he wrote in July 2021, tellingly titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.”
Putin, who never regarded Ukraine as an authentic state, saw the Ukrainians’ overwhelming December 1991 vote in favor of independence as a deep injustice. The Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that he told George W. Bush at a NATO-Russia Council meeting held during that 2008 Bucharest summit, “Ukraine is not even a state. What is Ukraine? A part of its territory is Eastern Europe, another part [Ukraine east of the Dnipro River], and a significant one, is a donation from us.” He later added ominously that, if Ukraine entered NATO, it would lose Crimea, its sole Russian-majority province, and the Donbas, its Russophone east. In his 2016 book, All the Kremlin’s Men, Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar confirmed that Putin had indeed threatened to destroy Ukraine, were it to join NATO.
Those who blame NATO for the present war point to just such evidence. And it can’t be denied that NATO expansion created tension between Russia and the West, as well as Russia and Ukraine. But the alliance’s Bucharest promise that Ukraine would become a member someday didn’t make Putin’s war any less surprising.
Here’s why: between then and the invasion moment, NATO never followed through on its pledge to take the next step and provide Kyiv with a “membership action plan.” By February 2022, it had, in fact, kept Ukraine waiting for 14 years without the slightest sign that its candidacy might be advancing (though Ukraine’s security ties and military training with some NATO states — the U.S., Britain, and Canada, in particular — had increased).
So, the NATO-was-responsible theory, suggesting that Putin invaded in 2022 in the face of an “existential threat,” isn’t convincing (even if one believes, as I do, that NATO’s enlargement was a bad idea and Russian apprehensions reasonable).
It’s Democracy, Stupid
A rival explanation for Putin’s war is that it stemmed from his fear of liberal democracy. Under his rule, Russia had become steadily more authoritarian until the state was embodied in a single person: him. Putin’s greatest fear, so this explanation goes, was the specter of Russians thronging the streets demanding more freedom — and so, his departure. For that reason, he curbed the media, exiled opposition figures, allegedly had others like Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov killed, and jailed Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent dissident and the person most likely to lead a grassroots rebellion against him.
According to this account, Putin can’t imagine Russians turning against him spontaneously, since he played such a crucial role in putting the 1990s — a decade of economic collapse, fire sales of state property to sleazy “oligarchs,” rising poverty, and potential civil war — behind them. Instead, he built a strong state, imposed order, crushed the Chechens’ attempted secession, paid off Russia’s massive debt early, rebuilt the army, revved up the economy, and left the country standing tall as a great power once again.
So, if Russians do protest en masse (as they did from 2011 to 2013 against rigged elections), it must be thanks to instigation from abroad, as was supposedly true in adjoining countries like Georgia during its 2003 Rose Revolution, Kyrgyzstan during its 2005 Tulip Revolution, and Ukraine during its Orange Revolution that same year. Putin, this narrative continues, hated the “color revolutions” because they created turmoil in regions he deemed Russia’s sphere of influence or in which, as former president Dmitry Medvedev put it, the country has “privileged interests.”
But his real beef against citizen rebellions in Russia’s neighborhood, according to this explanation of what sparked the invasion, is that they might inspire insurrection in Russia. And when it came to that, he especially feared such events in Ukraine. In 2014, after all, its “revolution of dignity” culminated in the ouster of a Russian-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych. For Putin, in other words, that revolt hit too close to home. He reacted by annexing Crimea (after a referendum that violated Ukraine’s constitution), while working to foster two separatist “republics” across the border in Ukraine’s Donbas region. A little more than a month before his invasion at a meeting of the Russia-led Collective Treaty Organization, he warned that “we will not allow the realization of so-called color-revolution scenarios” and promptly dispatched 2,500 troops to Kazakhstan following a revolt there.
As for Ukraine, while it may be an imperfect democracy, it was certainly making progress. Its elections were cleaner than Russia’s and its media far freer, as political parties competed, governments were voted in and out of power, and civic groups multiplied. All of this, so goes the argument, Putin found intolerable, fearing that such democratic ideas and aspirations would eventually make their way to Russia.
As it happens, though, none of this explains the timing of his invasion.
After all, Ukraine had been moving toward political plurality for years, however slowly and unevenly, and however far it still had to go. So, what was happening in 2021 that could have taken his fear to new heights? The answer: nothing, really. Those who claim that NATO was irrelevant to the invasion often insist that the deed sprang from Putin’s ingrained authoritarianism, dating back to his days in Russia’s secret police, the KGB, his love of unchecked power, and his dread of uppity citizens inclined to rebellion.
The problem: none of this explains why the war broke out when it did. Russia wasn’t then being roiled by protests; Putin’s position was rock-solid; and his party, United Russia, had no true rivals. Indeed, the only others with significant followings, relatively speaking, the Communist Party and the Liberal Democracy Party (neither liberal nor democratic), were aligned with the state.
According to yet another explanation, he attacked Ukraine simply because he’s an imperialist through and through, yearns to go down in history as Putin the Great (like Russian tzars Peter the Great and Catherine the Great), and has been transfixed by far-right thinkers, above all the exile Ivan Ilyin, whose remains he arranged to have returned to Russia for reburial.
But why then did a Russian ruler seized by imperial dreams and a neo-fascist ideology wait more than two decades to attack Ukraine? And remember, though now commonly portrayed as a wild-eyed expansionist, Putin, though hardly a peacemaker, had never previously committed Russian forces to anything like that invasion. His 1999-2009 war in Chechnya, though brutal, was waged within Russia and there was no prospect of outside intervention to help the Chechens. His brief military foray into Georgia in 2008, his landgrab in Ukraine in 2014, his intervention in Syria in 2015 — none were comparable in their size or audacity.
Do I have a better explanation? No, but that’s my point. To this day, perhaps the most important question of all about this war, the biggest surprise — why did it happen when it did? — remains deeply mysterious, as do Putin’s motives (or perhaps impulses).
God Doesn’t Favor the Bigger Battalions
Once Russian troops did cross Ukraine’s border, just about everyone expected Kyiv to fall within days. After that, it was assumed, Putin would appoint a quisling government and annex big chunks of the country. The CIA’s assessment was that Ukrainian forces would be trounced in no time at all, while Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley reportedly told members of Congress that resistance would fizzle within a mere three days. Those predictions briefly seemed on the mark. After all, the Russian army made its way to the northern suburbs of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv — think of a military bent on capturing Washington, D.C., reaching Bethesda, Maryland — before being stopped in its tracks. Had it taken that city, we would be in a different world today.
But — perhaps the biggest surprise of all — the far weaker Ukrainian army not only prevented what was then considered the world’s second-greatest military superpower from taking Kyiv, but in September 2022 ejected Russian forces from the northeastern province of Kharkiv. That October, it also pushed them out of the portion of the southern province of Kherson they had captured on the right bank of the Dnipro River. In all, Ukrainian forces have now retaken about half the territory Russia occupied after the invasion.
As winter approached that year, the crescent-shaped frontlines extending from northern Luhansk Province (one of two that make up the Donbas region) all the way south became the scene of World War I-style trench warfare, with both sides throwing their troops into a virtual meat grinder. Still, since then, despite having overwhelming superiority in soldiers and firepower — the estimated artillery exchange ratio between the two forces has been put as high as 7:1 — Russia’s advance has been, at best, glacial, at worst, nonexistent.
The Russian army’s abysmal performance has perplexed experts. According to American, British, and Norwegian estimates, it has suffered something on the order of 180,000-200,00 casualties. Some observers do believe those numbers are significantly too high, but even if they were off by 50%, the Russian army’s casualties in one year of fighting would exceed by perhaps twofold the losses of the Soviet Union’s Red Army during its 10-year war in Afghanistan.
Russia has also lost thousands of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and helicopters, while vast amounts of equipment, abandoned intact, have fallen into Ukrainian hands. All of this, mind you, after Putin initiated a mega-bucks military modernization drive in 2008, leading the Economist to declare in 2020 that “the Russian military dazzles after a decade of reform” and NATO had better watch out.
For the surprising evolution of the war, unlike so much else, I do have an explanation. Military experts typically dwell on what can be counted: the level of military spending, the number of soldiers, tanks, warplanes, and artillery pieces a military has, and so on. They assume, reasonably enough, that the side with more countable stuff is likely to be the winner — and quickly if it has a lot more as Russia indeed did.
There is, however, no way to assign numerical values to morale or leadership. As a result, they tend to be discounted, if not simply omitted from comparisons of military power. In Ukraine, however, as in the American wars in Vietnam in the last century and Afghanistan in this one, the squishy stuff has, at least so far, proven decisive. French emperor Napoleon’s dictum that, in war, “the moral is to the physical as three to one” may seem hyperbolic and he certainly ignored it when he led his Grande Armée disastrously into Russia and allowed the brutal Russian winter to shred its spirit, but in Ukraine — surprise of surprises — his maxim has held all too true, at least so far.
When it comes to surprises, count on one thing: the longer this war continues, the greater the likelihood of yet more of them. One in particular should worry us all: the possibility, if a Russian defeat looms, of a sudden escalation to nuclear war. There’s no way to judge or measure the probability of such a dreaded dénouement now. All we know is that the consequences could be horrific.
Though neither Russia nor the United States seeks a nuclear war, it’s at least possible that they could slide into one. After all, never, not even in the Cold War era, has their relationship been quite so poisonous, only increasing the risk of both misperception and overreaction born of worst-case thinking. Let us hope, in this war of surprises, that it remains nothing more than another of the scenarios strategists like to imagine. Then again, if as 2021 began, I had suggested that Russia might soon invade Ukraine and begin a war in Europe, you would undoubtedly have thought me mad.
Vijay Prashad is the Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, Editor of LeftWord Books, and Chief Correspondent for Globetrotter.
It has become increasingly difficult to engage in reasonable discussions about the state of the world amid rising international tensions. The present environment of global instability and conflict has emerged over the course of the past fifteen years driven by, on the one hand, the growing weakness of the principal North Atlantic states, led by the United States – which we call the West – and, on the other, the increasing assertion of large developing countries, exemplified by the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). This group of states, along with several others, have built the material conditions for their own development agendas, including for the next generation of technology, a sector that had previously been the monopoly of Western states and firms through the World Trade Organisation’s intellectual property rights regime. Alongside the BRICS, the construction of regional trade and development projects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that are not controlled by the Western states or Western-dominated institutions – including the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (2001) the Belt and Road Initiative (2013), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (2011), and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (2022) – heralds the emergence of a new international economic order.
Since the world financial crisis of 2007–08, the United States and its North Atlantic allies have become acutely aware that their hegemonic status in the world has deteriorated. This decline is the consequence of three key forms of overreach: first, military overreach through both enormous military expenditure and warfare; second, financial overreach caused by the rampant waste of social wealth into the unproductive financial sector along with the widespread imposition of sanctions, dollar hegemony, and control of international financial mechanisms (such as SWIFT); and, third, economic overreach, due to the investment and tax strike of a minuscule section of the world’s population, who are solely fixated on filling their already immense private coffers. This overreach has led to the fragility of the Western states, which are less able to exercise their authority around the world. In reaction to their own weakness and the new developments in the Global South, the United States has led its allies in launching a comprehensive pressure campaign against what it considers to be its ‘near peer rivals’, namely China and Russia. This hostile foreign policy, which includes a trade war, unilateral sanctions, aggressive diplomacy, and military operations, is now commonly known as the New Cold War.
In addition to these tangible measures, information warfare is a key element of the New Cold War. In Western societies today, any effort to promote a balanced and reasonable conversation about China and Russia, or indeed about the leading states in the developing world, is relentlessly attacked by state, corporate, and media institutions as disinformation, propaganda, and foreign interference. Even established facts, let alone alternative perspectives, are treated as matters of dispute. Consequently, it has become virtually impossible to engage in constructive discussions about the changing world order, the new trade and development regimes, or the urgent matters which require global cooperation such as climate change, poverty, and inequality, without being dismissed. In this context, dialogue between intellectuals in countries such as China with their counterparts in the West has broken down. Similarly, dialogue between intellectuals in countries of the Global South and China has also been hampered by the New Cold War, which has strained the already weak communication channels within the developing world. As a result, the conceptual landscape, terms of reference, and key debates that are taking place within China are almost entirely unknown outside of the country, which makes the holding of rational cross-country discussions very difficult.
The New Cold War has led to an enormous spike in Sinophobia and anti-Asian racism in the Western states, frequently egged on by political leaders. The rise in Sinophobia has deepened the lack of genuine engagement by Western intellectuals with contemporary Chinese perspectives, discussions, and debates; and due to the immense power of Western information flows around the world, these dismissive attitudes have also grown in many developing countries. Although there are increasing numbers of international students in China, these students tend to study technical subjects and generally do not focus on or participate in the broader political discussions within and about China.
In the current global climate of conflict and division, it is essential to develop lines of communication and encourage exchange between China, the West, and the developing world. The range of political thinking and discourse within China is immense, stretching from a variety of Marxist approaches to the ardent advocacy of neoliberalism, from deep historical examinations of Chinese civilisation to the deep wells of patriotic thought that have grown in the recent period. Far from static, these intellectual trends have evolved over time and interact with each other. A rich variety of Marxist thinking, from Maoism to creative Marxism, has emerged in China; although these trends all focus on socialist theories, history, and experiments, each trend has developed a distinct school of thought with its own internal discourse as well as debates with other traditions. Meanwhile, the landscape of patriotic thinking is far more eclectic, with some tendencies overlapping with Marxist trends, which is understandable given the connections between Marxism and national liberation; whereas others are closer to offering culturalist explanations for China’s developmental advances. This diversity of thought is not reflected in external understandings or representations of China – even in the scholarly literature – which instead largely reproduces the postures of the New Cold War.
To contribute to the development of a better understanding of and engagement with the thinking and discussions taking place within China, Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and Dongsheng have partnered with Wenhua Zongheng (文化纵横), a leading journal of contemporary Chinese political and cultural thought. Founded in 2008, the journal is an important reference for debates and intellectual developments taking place in the country, publishing issues every two months which feature articles by intellectuals from a range of professions across the entire country. In this partnership, Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and Dongsheng will publish an international edition of Wenhua Zongheng, releasing four issues per year in English, Portuguese, and Spanish, which will be curated by our joint editorial team. The international edition will include translations of a selection of articles from the original Chinese editions that hold particular significance for the Global South. Additionally, Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research will run a column in the Chinese edition of Wenhua Zongheng, bringing voices from Africa, Asia, and Latin America in dialogue with China (some of which will also be published in the international edition). We are excited to undertake this project and hope that it will introduce readers to the vibrant discourse underway in China, share important perspectives from the Global South with a Chinese audience, and enrich international dialogue and understanding. Instead of the global division pursued by the New Cold War, our mission is to learn from each other towards a world of collaboration rather than confrontation.
Yang Ping (杨平) is a leading scholar and editor in China’s contemporary ideological and cultural community. In 1993, he founded Strategy and Management (战略与管理), an important magazine which countered the influence of liberalism on Chinese ideology and culture. In 2008, he founded Wenhua Zongheng (文化纵横, ‘Beijing Cultural Review’), a journal that focuses on the construction of Chinese society’s core value system while consistently upholding the banner of socialism. Over the past fifteen years, the journal has grown into one of China’s most important thought platforms.
‘The Ukraine Crisis and the Building of a New International System’ was originally published as the lead article of the June 2022 issue of Wenhua Zongheng (文化纵横). The article urges China, amid the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, to consider the dangers of the current international system that it has been striving to integrate into and the possibilities of building a new international system.
The outbreak of the Ukraine crisis has not merely altered the geopolitical landscape, it has severely disrupted the current international order. Particularly, the imposition of extensive sanctions on Russia by the United States and other Western countries has compromised the rules of the existing international system and revealed its true, coercive nature. This crisis should provide a strong reminder to China that it must deepen its ‘worst-case scenario thinking’ (底线思维, dǐxiàn sīwéi) and seriously contemplate, as a major strategic aim, building a new international system parallel to the current Western-dominated order.
The current international system is one that is dominated by the Western countries, led by the United States, and liberal capitalist in nature. During periods when liberal capitalism functions smoothly, this system expands globally and appears to be rules-based and fair, able to include most countries and regions of the world. However, during periods of crisis, liberal capitalism will contort itself, abandoning established international rules or seeking to create new ones, exemplified by increasing nativism or deglobalisation where the hegemonic nation relinquishes its purported duties of leadership and returns to power politics.
Amidst the Ukraine crisis, the US and the Western countries have disregarded international norms by forcibly casting Russia out of the global financial architecture, namely the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), confiscating Russian state and personal assets, and freezing the country’s foreign exchange reserves. Such measures go far beyond the typical nonviolent means of confrontation employed by nation states such as trade wars, technology blockades, and oil embargoes, and blatantly contradicts the timeless liberal principles that ‘debts must be paid’ and ‘private property is sacrosanct’, among others. These flagrant violations of the so-called ‘rules-based order’ have laid bare the arbitrary, unlawful, and biased character of the international system and the manner in which it can be manipulated by the US and its allies to violently discipline other countries.
From the Chinese perspective, the Ukraine crisis is a warning to China that it must prepare for scenarios in which it is subject to such hostile measures. It is necessary to re-examine the present international order to grasp an accurate understanding of both its benefits and drawbacks, giving up any illusions in its fairness and long-term viability, and, whilst participating in and maximising the utility of the current system, simultaneously making preparations for the construction of a new international order.
Given the size of China, the task of national rejuvenation requires much more than an economic strategy of mere ‘domestic circulation’ (内循环, nèi xúnhuán). To achieve industrialisation and modernisation, China must engage with the world and develop a broader ‘international circulation’ (外循环, wài xúnhuán) by accessing external resources, technologies, and markets. The central task of China’s reform and opening-up policy over the past four decades has been to open the country to the outside world and participate in the global system in order to promote an international environment more favourable to the pursuit of modernisation.1 At the same time, China has had to take necessary actions when hostile aspects of the current system have threatened the country’s fundamental interests. In the current situation, it is necessary that China, on the one hand, fights steadfastly against the manipulation of the existing system by the US and the Western countries, and, on the other hand, begins to build a new, more democratic and just global system, in partnership with developing countries.
The present world order has not only been shaped by China, Russia, the United States, and Europe, the countries and regions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America have also created a multitude of new regional networks amid the decline of US power. Working with other developing countries is necessary for China to strengthen efforts to build a new international system. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), since it was proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2013, has in fact laid the foundation for such cooperation and for the realisation of a new system.2
Since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, the Third World has consistently provided China with new spaces to survive and grow and new sources of strength whenever it has faced pressure from superpowers, including the national liberation movements of Asia, Africa, and Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, the Bandung Conference of 1955 and the Non-Aligned Movement, Mao Zedong’s Three Worlds theory developed in the 1970s, the emphasis on South-South cooperation during the early stages of reform and opening up in the 1980s, the establishment of the BRICS mechanism at the turn of the century, and, most recently, the development of the BRI in the last decade. Over the past 70 years, China has had adopted a wide range of foreign policies, from the ‘lean to one side’ (一边倒, yībiāndǎo) policy with the Soviet Union in the 1950s to the ‘integrating with the world’ (与国际接轨, yǔ guójì jiēguǐ) (or with the US, to be exact) policy at the turn of the century; however, China has, consciously or unconsciously, consistently turned to the Third World whenever it has felt that its independence and sovereignty were threatened.3
This relationship with the Third World is China’s historic destiny. Today, as China becomes an important pole in the world and is faced with the hostile containment strategy of the hegemonic United States, it cannot follow the alliance politics pursued by the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Dividing the world into antagonistic blocs would drive humanity to the brink of war and global catastrophe; instead, China should continue to pursue an independent and nonaligned foreign policy, focused on bringing together the many countries of the Third World – which constitute the global majority – to foster new forms of partnership, establish new multilateral networks, and create a new international system.
Reflecting upon the practices and experiences of the BRI until now and accounting for the challenges posed by the Ukraine crisis, China’s approach towards building a new international system should be guided by the following considerations:
First, China’s orientation should be based on strategic rather than commercial interests. China cannot merely be concerned with exporting its production capacity and capital or securing access to external resources and markets for Chinese enterprises; but rather it must prioritise what is necessary to ensure strategic survival and national development. By adopting such a strategic perspective, it becomes clear that the approach taken by many Chinese firms and local governments towards other nations and regions, as part of the BRI, is not sustainable as it has prioritised commercial interests and tended to ignore political-strategic interests.4
Second, the creation of the new international system requires the development of a new vision, philosophy, and ideology to guide and inspire efforts to build it. In this regard, the BRI’s principles of ‘consultation, contribution, and shared benefits’ (共商共建共享, gòngshāng gòngjiàn gòngxiǎng) are insufficient. While the United States today rallies the Western camp under the banner of ‘democracy versus authoritarianism’, China must clearly uphold the flag of peace and development, uniting and leading the vast developing world whilst appealing to and persuading more European states to join this cause. President Xi Jinping’s global call for the ‘building of a community with a shared future for humanity’ (人类命运共同体, rénlèi mìngyùn gòngtóngtǐ) should be adapted to the new international situation. The Chinese concept of ‘common prosperity and common development’ should be shared with the world and promoted as a core value in building a new international system.
Third, a ‘Development International’ (发展国际, fāzhǎn guójì) should be set up as an institutional entity to create a new global system. Unlike the Western alliance mechanisms, such as the Group of Seven (G7) and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) which are dominated by a minority of wealthy countries, a new global system must address the fundamental issue that the overwhelming majority of the world faces: how developing countries can be more effectively organised under the principle of nonalignment. Loosely organised and nonbinding initiatives such as conferences and declarations are wholly inadequate for this task; an institutional mechanism such as a ‘Development International’ should be promoted and constructed to drive more powerful organisational action and to develop networks of knowledge and culture, of media and communication, of economic cooperation, as well as other projects. In a nutshell, forms of organisational action under the mandate of peace and development should be established and experimented with.
Building a new system does not mean abandoning the present one.
In the forty years of reform and opening up, China’s direction and goal have been to integrate into the existing international order. As a latecomer to industrialisation and modernisation, China has had no choice but to learn from the Western countries and take in their advanced knowledge and experience. Breaking away from this system would inevitably drive China back to the old road of the ‘closed-door’ (闭关锁国, bìguānsuǒguó) policy of the 1960s and 1970s, cutting the country off from the advanced economies of the present world.5
Nowadays, China has travelled a long way down the road of globalisation and has benefited from it; reform and opening up has become bound up with the Chinese people’s basic interests. For this reason, it is neither desirable nor feasible to give up the benefits derived from participating in the current system.
But this by no means negates the urgent necessity of preparing for the threat of the US-led Western alliance sabotaging the present global system. The development of a new international system and the active participation in the present system are two processes that can be implemented simultaneously without conflict, in which the two systems are bound to overlap and interpenetrate each other. When the quantitative changes accumulated by the new system begin to transform into qualitative changes, a brand-new world order will naturally emerge.
1 ‘Reform and opening-up’ refers to the era of China’s economic reform initiated in 1978 under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping.
2 The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a global infrastructure development project proposed by China’s President Xi Jinping in 2013. By the end of July 2022, China had signed more than 200 BRI cooperation agreements with 149 countries and 32 international organisations.
3 In the early years after its founding, the People’s Republic of China adopted a ‘lean to one side’ foreign policy which declared that the country would ally with other socialist countries against the forces of imperialism. Meanwhile, during the 1990s and 2000s, China pursued a policy of ‘integrating with the world’, increasing its global political and economic engagement. In particular, China and the United States deepened their economic interdependence; in 2000, the US granted China permanent normal trade relations status and, the following year, China became a member of the World Trade Organisation.
4 Along with the central government and firms, China’s provincial and municipal governments are also important actors in the BRI.
5 The term ‘closed-door’ refers to the policy of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and early Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) of limiting China’s economic, scientific, and cultural interactions with the world, which contributed to the country falling behind the Western industrialised nations.
Yao Zhongqiu (姚中秋) is a professor at the School of International Studies and dean of the Centre for Historical Political Studies, Renmin University of China. He has published numerous studies and translations on the history of Chinese thought and institutions, and currently focuses on historical politics, vanguard party theory, and modern world political systems. His latest publications include The Chinese Moment in World History (世界历史的中国时刻) and Large and Lasting: A History of Chinese Political Civilisation (可大可久：中国政治文明史).
Humanity is in the midst of a global upheaval, on a scale unseen in 500 years: namely, the relative decline of Europe and the United States, the rise of China and the Global South, and the resulting revolutionary transformation of the international landscape. Although the era of Western global dominance is often said to have lasted five centuries, precisely speaking this is an overstatement. In reality, Europe and the United States have occupied their positions as world hegemons for closer to 200 years, after reaching their initial stages of industrialisation. The first industrial revolution was a turning point in world history, significantly impacting the relationship between the West and the rest of the world. Today, the era of Western hegemony has run its course and a new world order is emerging, with China playing a major role in this development. This article explores how we arrived at the current global conjuncture examining the different stages in the relationship between China and the West.
The first encounter between China and Europe dates back to the era of naval exploration of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, during which the Chinese navigator and diplomat Zheng He (1371–1433) embarked on his Voyages Down the Western Seas (郑和下西洋, Zhèng Hé xià xīyáng) (1405–1433), followed by the Portuguese and Spanish naval expeditions to Asia.1 From then on, China has established direct contact with Europe through ocean passages.
During this period China was ruled by the Ming dynasty (1388–1644), which adopted a worldview guided by the concept of tianxia (天下, tiānxià, ‘all under heaven’).2 This belief system generally categorised humanity into two major civilisations: the Chinese who worshipped heaven, or the sky, and the West which, broadly, worshipped gods in a monotheistic sense.3 It is important to note that, in this era, the Chinese had a broad conception of the West, considering it to encompass all the regions which expanded northwestward from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean Sea and then to the Atlantic coast, rather than the contemporary notion which is generally limited to of the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. On the other hand, Chinese civilisation spread to the southeast, from the reaches of the Yellow River to the Yangtze River Basin onward to the coast. The two civilisations would meet at the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, from which point there has been a complete world history to speak of. At the same time, however, tianxia put forward a universalist conception of the world, in which China and the West were considered to share the same ‘world island’. Separated by the ‘Onion Mountains’ (the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia), each civilisation was thought to have its own history, though there was not yet a unified world history, and each maintained, based on their own knowledge, the tianxia order at their respective ends of the world island.
Although the Ming dynasty discontinued its sea voyages after Zheng He’s seventh mission in 1433, some islands in the South Seas (南洋, nányáng, roughly corresponding to contemporary Southeast Asia) became incorporated into the imperial Chinese tributary system (朝贡, cháogòng). This constituted a major change in the tianxia order, compared with the prior Han (202 BCE–CE 9, 25–220 CE) and Tang (618–907 CE) dynasties in which tribute was mainly received from states of the Western Regions (西域, xīyù, roughly corresponding to contemporary Central Asia). More importantly, this southeastward expansion opened a road into the seas for China, as Chinese people of the southeast coast migrated to the South Seas, and with them goods such as silk, porcelain, and tea entered the maritime trade system. Compared with the prosperous Tang and Song (960–1279) periods, overseas trade expanded, with the Jiangnan (江南, jiāngnán, ‘south of the Yangtze River’) economy, which was largely centred on exports, being particularly dynamic; consequently, industrialisation accelerated and China, for the first time, became the ‘factory of the world’.
European nations did not have the upper hand in their trade with China, however they offset their deficit with the silver that they mined in the newly conquered Americas. This silver flowed into China in large quantities and became a major trading currency, leading to the globalisation of silver. Meanwhile, the introduction of corn and sweet potato seeds, native to the Americas, to China contributed to the rapid growth of the nation’s population due to the suitability of these crops to harsh conditions.
However, China’s involvement in shaping a maritime-linked world order also brought about unexpected problems for the country; namely, an imbalance between its economy, which penetrated the maritime system, and its political and military institutions, which remained continental. This contradiction between the land and the sea produced significant tensions within China, eventually leading to the demise of the Ming dynasty. Border conflicts in the north and northeast required significant financial resources, however most of China’s wealth at that time came from maritime trade and was concentrated in the southeast. Consequently, education thrived in this coastal region, resulting in scholar-officials (士大夫, shìdàfū) from the southeast coming to dominate China’s political processes and prevent tax reforms to better distribute wealth – instead, the traditional tax system was strengthened, imposing larger burdens on the peasantry.4 These tensions would eventually come to a head; taxation weighed particularly heavily on northern peasants who mainly lived off farming, leading to their displacement and becoming migrants who eventually overthrew the Ming regime. At the same time, military resources in the north were insufficient, leading to the growing influence of Qing rebel forces in the northeast and their opportunistic advances to the south, culminating in the establishment of the Qing dynasty’s (1636–1912) rule over the entire country.
The Qing dynasty originated among the Manchu people of northeast China, who had agricultural and nomadic cultural roots. As Qing forces marched southwards and founded their empire, they made great efforts to establish control over the regions flanking China from the west and north, an arc extending from the Mongolian Plateau to the Tianshan Mountains and to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. For thousands of years, these northwest regions were a source of political instability, with successive dynasties trying and failing to unify the whole of China. By integrating these areas into the Chinese state, the Qing dynasty was thus able to achieve this historic political aim of unification. This domestic integration also had an impact on China’s international position, with Russia now becoming the country’s most important neighbour as the overland Silk Road was rerouted northwards, via the Mongolian steppe, through Russia to northern Europe.
By the mid-to-late eighteenth century, these two ‘arcs’ of development, on the land and sea respectively, held equal weight but differing significance for China: the land provided security, while the seas were the source of vitality. However, both the land and sea developments contained contradictory dynamics: the regions of the northwestern steppe were not very stable internally while relations with neighbouring Russia and the Islamic world remained stable, on the other hand, the southeastern seas were stable internally but introduced new challenges for China in the form of relations with Europe and the United States. These land-sea dynamics have historically presented China with unique trade-offs and, to this day, they remain a fundamental strategic issue.
In contrast, European countries benefited more from direct trade with China, and rose to a dominant position within the new global order.
During the sixteenth century, under the increasingly decadent Roman Catholic Church, ethnic nationalism brewed up in Europe, culminating in Martin Luther’s Reformation in Germany. Subsequently, Europe entered an era of nation-state building known as the early modern period, characterised by the break-up of the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and the establishment of the sovereignty of secular monarchies, which overcame some of the hierarchies and divisions created by the feudal lords and made all subjects equal under the king’s law. The first country to achieve this was England, where Henry VIII banned the Church of England from paying annual tribute to the Papacy in 1533 and passed the Act of Supremacy the following year, establishing the king as the supreme head of the English Church which was made the state religion. This is why England is recognised as the first modern nation, while the constitutional changes were secondary.
The Roman Catholic Church, facing a ruling crisis, sought to open up new pastoral avenues, and began to preach outside of Europe through the voyages of ‘discovery’. Christianity gradually became a world religion, one of the most important developments in the last five centuries, with missionaries finally making their way to China, after many twists and turns, in the late sixteenth century.
The Christian missionaries had prepared to spread their message of truth to the Chinese, who they had expected to be ‘barbarians’. However, to their surprise, they discovered that China was a powerful civilisation with a sophisticated governance system and religious traditions. Although not believing in the personal gods of the missionaries, the Chinese people had a system of moral principles, a highly developed economy, and an established order. This inspired some missionaries to develop a serious appreciation for China, including translating Chinese classics and sending the texts back to Europe, where they would have a notable impact on the Enlightenment in Paris.5
During the Enlightenment, Western philosophers developed ideas of humanism and rationalism, including notions that human beings are the subject and a ‘creator’ does not exist; humans should seek their own happiness instead of trying to ascend to the kingdom of God; humans can have sound moral beliefs and relations without relying on religion; the state can establish order without relying on religion; direct rule by the king over all subjects is the best political system, and so on. It is important to note, however, that these Enlightenment ideals, which are said to have formed the basis for Western modernity, had been common knowledge in China for thousands of years. As such, the flow of Chinese ideas and teachings to the West through Christian missionaries can be considered an important, if not the only, influence in the development of Western modernisation. Of course, the Western countries have been the main drivers of global modernisation over the last two centuries, but the modernity that it advocates has long been embedded in other cultures, including China. It is necessary to recognise and affirm this fact to understand the evolution of the world today.
In short, during the first stage of world history, which spanned more than 300 years from the early-to-mid fifteenth century to the mid-to-late eighteenth century, an integrated world system began to form, with both China and the West adjusting, changing, and benefiting in their interactions. From the Chinese perspective, this world order was largely fair.
In the mid-to-late eighteenth century, Western countries utilised their higher levels of industrialisation to secure decisive military superiority, which they abused to conquer and colonise nearly the entire Global South. This brought the world closer together than ever before, but in a union that was unjust and, therefore, unsustainable.
Among the Western countries, England was the first to achieve an advanced stage of industrialisation, for which there was a special reason: colonisation. The British empire appropriated massive amounts of wealth from its colonies, which also served as captive markets for British manufactures. This wealth and market demand, along with England’s relatively small population, drove scientific and technological development, and ultimately industrialisation based on the mining of fossil fuels (namely, coal), and production of steel and machinery. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, England would become the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, with its wealth spreading to western Europe and its colonial settlements such as the United States and Australia. The thriving European powers violently conquered and colonised the outside world through military force including most of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, eventually reaching China’s doorstep in the early-to-mid nineteenth century. In the preceding centuries of peaceful trading with China, the Western powers accumulated a large trade deficit, which they now sought to balance through the opium trade. However, due to the severe social consequences of this drug trade, China outlawed the importation of opium in 1800; in response the Western powers launched two wars against China – the First Opium War (1839–1842) and the Second Opium War (1856–1860) – to violently open the country’s markets up. After China was defeated, various Western countries, including England, France, Germany, and the United States, forced China to sign unequal treaties granting these nations trade concessions and territories, including Hong Kong. As a result, the tianxia order began to crumble and China entered a period referred to as the ‘century of humiliation’ (百年国耻, bǎinián guóchǐ).
China’s setback was rooted in the long-standing imbalance between its marine-oriented economy and continental military-political system. First, China’s market relied heavily on foreign trade, but the Qing government failed to develop a sovereign monetary policy, resulting in the trade flow being constantly controlled by foreign powers. Silver from abroad became China’s de facto currency and, with the government unable to exercise effective supervision, the country lost monetary sovereignty and was vulnerable to the fluctuations of silver supplies, destabilising the economy. Second, China’s natural resources were over-exploited to produce large amounts of exports; as a result, the country’s ecological environment was severely damaged. Constrained by both market and resource limitations, China’s endogenous growth hit a chokepoint, as productivity plateaued, employment declined, and surplus populations became displaced, leading to a series of major rebellions in the early-to-mid nineteenth century. It was in this context that the West showed up at China’s doorstep.
Under the pressure of both domestic problems and external aggression, China embarked on the path of ‘learning from the outside world to defend against foreign intervention’ (师夷长技以制夷, shī yí zhǎng jì yǐ zhì yí), which has been fundamental theme of Chinese history over the past century or so. This formulation, despite having been ridiculed by many since the 1980s following the initiation of China’s economic reforms, epitomises the country’s strategy. On the one hand, China has closely studied the key drivers of Western power, namely industrial production, technological development, economic organisation, and military capability, as well as methods for social mobilisation based on the nation-state. On the other hand, China has sought to learn from other countries for the purpose of advancing its development, securing its independence, and building upon its own heritage.
Until the mid-twentieth century, however, this path did not yield significant changes for China, fundamentally due to its inadequate state capacity, which deteriorated even further after the Qing dynasty fell in 1911. In fact, several initiatives undertaken in the late Qing period to strengthen the state, generated new problems in turn; for example, the ‘New Army’ (新军, xīnjūn) which was established in the late-nineteenth century in an effort to modernise China’s military would turn into a secessionist force. Meanwhile, theories of development advocated by scholar-officials in this period, such as the concept of ‘national salvation through industry’ (实业救国, shíyè jiùguó), were impossible to implement due to the state’s inability to provide institutional support. As such, trade remained China’s fastest growing economic sector, which, despite bringing short-term economic benefits, resulted in China becoming further subordinated to the West.
However, by the time of the Second World War, which was preceded by China’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937–1945), the country’s international position began to improve, while the West experienced a relative decline. The Second World War and anti-colonial struggles for national liberation dealt a crushing blow to the old imperialist order, as the Western powers were forced to retreat, initiating a decline as they were no longer able to reap colonial dividends. Countries across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, including China, won their independence; meanwhile, the Soviet Union, stretching across Eurasia, emerged as a significant rival to the West. Amid these global convulsions, China’s weight on the international stage dramatically increased and it became an important force.
In this global context, China began its journey toward national rejuvenation, with two main priorities. The first priority was political; emulating the Soviet Union, China’s Nationalist and the Communist parties established a strong state, which had been the cornerstone of Western economic development, while the lack of state organisation and mobilisation capacity was the greatest weakness of the Qing dynasty in the face of Western powers. The second priority was industrialisation, which advanced in a step by step manner in three phrases.
The first breakthrough in industrialisation took place after the Chinese Revolution in 1949 and was made possible by the help of the Soviet Union, which exported a complete basic industrial system to China. Although this system had serious limitations, which came to a head by the 1970s and 1980s, it allowed China to develop a comprehensive understanding of the systematic nature of industry, especially the underlying structure of industrialisation, that is, heavy industry.
The second breakthrough in industrialisation came after China established diplomatic relations with the United States in the 1970s and began to import technologies from the US and European countries. During this phase, China focused on the development of its southeast coast, a region which had a longstanding history of rural commerce and industry. With the support of machinery and knowledge gained during the first round of industrialisation, the consumer goods sector in the southeast coastal areas was able to develop rapidly at the township level, the level of government which had the most flexibility. By absorbing a large amount of workers, the labour-intensive industrial system significantly improved livelihood for the people.
The third breakthrough in industrialisation, beginning at the turn of the century, was driven by the traditional emphasis for a strong state and a desire to continue the revolution, saw the government devote its capacity to building infrastructure and steering industrial development. As a result, China experienced continuous growth in industrial output and kept moving upwards along the industrial chain, creating the largest and most comprehensive manufacturing sector in the world. The global economic landscape thus changed dramatically.
Today, China is in the midst of its fourth breakthrough in industrialisation, which revolves around the application of information technology to industry. In the current period, the United States is worried about being overtaken by China, which has prompted a fundamental change in bilateral relations and ushered in an era of global change.
In short, at the heart of the second stage of world history were the shifting dynamics between China and the West. For more than 100 years since the early nineteenth century, the Western powers were on the upswing while China experienced a downturn; since the Second World War, however, the trends have reversed, with China on the rise and the West declining. Now it appears that the critical point in this relationship is approaching, where the two sides will reach equivalent positions, exhausting the limits of the old world order.
In the wake of China’s rise, the old, Western-dominated world order has been overwhelmed, however, the real trigger for its collapse is the instability resulting from the fact that the United States has been unable to secure the unipolar global dominance which it pursued after the end of the Cold War.
Historically, the Roman empire could not reach India, let alone venture beyond the Onion Mountains; in the other direction, the Han and Tang dynasties could have hardly maintained their power even if they had managed to cross this range. The structural equilibrium for the world is for nations to stay in balance, rather than be ruled by a single centre.
Even the immense technological advances in transportation and warfare have been unable to change this iron law. Prior to the Second World War, the Western powers had penetrated nearly all corners of the world; despite their competing interests and the force needed to maintain their colonies, this system of rule was, in a way, more stable than the current order by distributing power more broadly across the several countries. Meanwhile, in the postwar period, the Soviet Union and the West formed opposing Cold War blocs, with each camp having its own scope of influence and balanced, to an extent, by the other.
In contrast, following the end of the Cold War, the United States became the sole superpower, dominating the entire world. The United States, as the most recently established Western country, the last ‘New World’ to be ‘discovered’ by the Europeans, and the most populous of these powers, was destined to be the final chapter in the West’s efforts to dominate the world. The United States confidently announced that their victory over the Soviet Union constituted ‘the end of history’. However, ambition cannot bypass the hard constraint of reality. Under the sole domination of the United States, the world order immediately became unstable and fragmented; the so-called Pax Americana was too short-lived to be written into the pages of history. After the brief ‘end of history’ euphoria under the Clinton and Bush administrations, the Obama era saw the United States initiate a ‘strategic contraction’, seeking to unload its burdens of global rule one after another.
In addition to external costs, Washington’s fleeting pursuit of global hegemony also induced internal strains. Although the United States reaped many dividends from its imperial rule by developing a financial system in which capital could be globally allocated, this came with a cost; as a Chinese saying goes, ‘a blessing might be a misfortune in disguise’ (福兮祸所依, fú xī huò suǒ yī). The boom of the US financial sector, along with the volatile speculation that feeds off it, has caused the country to become deindustrialised, with the livelihoods of the working and middle classes bearing the brunt. Due to the self-protective measures of emerging countries such as China, it was impossible for this financial system to fully extract sufficient external gains to cover the domestic losses suffered by the popular classes due to deindustrialisation. Consequently, the US has developed extreme levels of income inequality, and become sharply polarised, with increasing division and antagonism between different classes and social groups.
Deindustrialisation is at the root of the US crisis. Western superpowers were able to tyrannise the world during the nineteenth century, including their bullying of China, mainly due to their industrial superiority, which allowed them produce the most powerful ships and cannons; deindustrialisation causes the supply of those ‘ships and cannons’ to become inadequate. Even the US military-industrial system has become fragmentary and excessively costly due to the decline of supporting industries. The US elite realises the gravity of this problem, but successive administrations have struggled to address the issue; Obama called for reindustrialisation but made no progress due to the deep impasse between Republicans and Democrats, a dynamic that inhibits effective government action, which Francis Fukuyama termed the ‘vetocracy’; Trump followed this up with the timely slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, promising to make the US the world’s strongest industrial power once more; and this intention can also be seen in the incumbent Biden administration’s push for the enactment of the CHIPS and Science Act and other initiatives aimed at boosting domestic industrial development. However, as long as US finance capital can continue to take advantage of the global system to obtain high profits abroad, it cannot possibly return to domestic US industry and infrastructure. The United States would have to break the power of the financial magnates in order to revive its industry, but how could this even be possible?
In contrast to the deindustrialisation which has taken place in the United States, China is steadily advancing through its fourth breakthrough of industrialisation and rising towards the top of global manufacturing, relying on the solid foundation of a complete industrial chain. Fearing that they will be surpassed in terms of ‘hard power’, the US elite has declared China to be a ‘competitor’ and the nature of relations between the two countries has fundamentally changed.
The US elite have long referred to their country as the ‘City upon a Hill’, a Christian notion by which it is meant that the United States holds an exceptional status in the world and is a ‘beacon’ for other nations to follow. This deep-seated belief of superiority means that Washington cannot accept the ascendance of other nations or civilisations, such as China, which has been following its own path for thousands of years. China’s economic rise and, consequently, its growing influence in reshaping the US-led global order is nothing more than the world returning to a more balanced state; however, this is sacrilegious to Washington, comparable to the rejection of religious conversion for missionaries. It is clear that the US elite have exhausted their goodwill for China, are united in pursuing a hostile strategy against it, and will use all means to disrupt China’s development and influence on the world stage. Washington’s aggressive approach has, in turn, hardened the resolve of China to extricate itself from the confines of the US-led global system. Pax Americana will only allow China to develop in a manner which is subordinated to the rule of the United States, and so China has no choice but to take a new path and work to establish a new international order. This struggle between the United States and China is certain to dominate world headlines for the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, there are several factors which decrease the likelihood that the struggle will develop in a catastrophic manner. First, the two countries are geographically separated by the Pacific ocean; and, second, although the United States is a maritime nation adept at offshore balancing, it is much less capable of launching land-based incursions, particularly against a country such as China which is a composite land-sea power with enormous strategic depth. As a result, US efforts to launch a full-scale war against China would be nonviable; even if Washington instigated a naval war in the Western Pacific, the odds would not be in its favour. On top of these two considerations, the United States is, in essence, a ‘commercial republic’ (the initial definition given for the country by one of its Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton), meaning that its actions are fundamentally based on cost-benefit calculations; China, on the contrary, is highly experienced in dealing with aggressive external forces.6 Altogether, these factors all but guarantee that a full-frontal war between the two countries can be entirely avoided.
In this regard, the shifting positions of China and the United States vary greatly from similar dynamics in the past, such as the evolving hegemony on the European continent in recent centuries. In the latter context, the narrow confines of Europe cannot allow for multiple major powers, whereas the vast Pacific Ocean certainly can. This situation constitutes the bottom line of the relationship between the two countries. Therefore, while China and the United States will compete on all fronts, as long as China continues to increase its economic and military strength and clearly demonstrates its willingness to use that power, the United States will retreat in the same rational manner as its former suzerain, Britain, did. Once the United States withdraws from East Asia and the Western Pacific, a new world order will begin to take shape.
Over the past few years, China’s efforts in this respect have paid off, causing some within the United States to recognise China’s power and determination, and adjust their strategy accordingly, pressuring allied countries to bear greater costs to uphold the Western-led order. Despite the posturing of the Western countries, there is, in fact, no such ‘alliance of democracies’; the US has always based its alliance system on common interests, of which the most important is to work together, not to advance any high-minded ideal, but to bleed other countries dry. Once these countries can no longer secure external profits together, they will have to compete with each other and their alliance system will promptly break up. In such a situation, the Western countries would return to a state similar to the period before the Second World War; fighting each other for survival rather than to carve the world into colonies. This battle of nations, although not necessarily through hot war, could cause the Western countries to backslide to their early modern state.
The willingness of the United States to do anything in its pursuit of profit, has led to the rapid crumbling of its value system. Since former President Woodrow Wilson led the country to its position as the leader of the world system, values have been at the core of the US appeal. At that time, Wilson held sway with many Chinese intellectuals, though disillusion soon followed; meanwhile, today, the myth of the ‘American dream’ and universal values of the United States remains charismatic to a considerable proportion of Chinese elites, however, the experience of the Trump presidency has torn the mask off these purported values. The United States has openly returned to the vulgarity and brutality of colonial conquest and westward expansion.
In addition, the current generation of Western elites suffers from a deficit in its capacity for strategic thinking. Many of the leading strategists and tacticians of the Cold War have now died, and amid hubris and dominance of the two decade ‘end of history’ era, the United States and European countries did not really produce a new generation of sharp intellectual figures. Consequently, in the face of their current dilemmas, the best that this generation of elites can offer is nothing more than repurposing old solutions and returning to the vulgarity of the colonial period.
This kind of vulgarity may be shocking to some, however it has deep roots in US history: from the Puritan colonists genocide against indigenous peoples in order to build their so-called ‘City upon a Hill’; to many of its founding fathers having been slave owners, who enshrined slavery in the Constitution; to the Federalist Papers which designed a complex system of separation of powers to guarantee freedom, but coldly discussed war and trade between countries; and to the country’s obsession with the right to bear arms, giving each person the right to kill in the name of freedom. Thus, we can see that Trump did not bring vulgarity to the United States, but only revealed the hidden tradition of the ‘commercial republic’ (it is worth noting that, in the Western tradition, merchants also tended to be plunderers and pirates).
Today, the United States has nearly completed this transformation of its identity: from a republic of values to a republic of commerce. This version of the country does not possess the united will to resume its position as leader of the world order, as evidenced by the strong and continued influence of the ‘America First’ rhetoric. The rising support among certain sections of the US population for such political vulgarity will encourage more politicians to follow this example.
The world order continues to be led by a number of powerful states, but is in the midst of great instability as efforts to strengthen the European Union have failed, Russia is likely to continue to decline, China is growing, Japan and South Korea lack real autonomy, and the United States, due to financial pressures, is rapidly shedding its responsibilities to support the network of post-war global multilateral institutions and alliances and instead seeks to build bilateral systems to maximise its specific interests. Put simply, the world order is falling apart; presently, the relevant questions are related to how rapid this breakdown will be, what an alternative new order should look like, and whether this new order can emerge and take effect in time to avoid widespread serious global instability.
A new international order has begun to emerge amid the disintegration of the old system. The main generative force in this dynamic is China, which is already the second largest economy in the world and is a civilisation that is distinct from the West.
China is one of the largest countries in the world and its long history has endowed it with experiences that are relevant to matters of global governance. With its immense size and diversity, China contains a world order within itself and has historically played a leading role in establishing a tianxia system that stretched over land and sea, from Central Asia to the South Seas. Alongside its rich history, China has also transformed itself into a modern country over the past century, having learned from Western experiences and its own tradition of modernity. By sharing the wisdom of its ancient history and the lessons of its modern development, China can play a constructive role in global efforts to address imbalances in the world order and build a new system in three major ways.
1. The restoration of balanced global development. The classical order on the ‘world island’ (世界岛, shì jiè daǒ, roughly corresponding to Eurasia) leaned toward the continental nations, while the modern world order has been largely dominated by Western maritime powers. As a result, the world island became fractured, with the former centre of civilisation becoming a site of chaos and unending wars. Pax Americana was unable to establish a stable form of rule over the world island, as the United States was separated from this region by the sea and was unable to form constructive relations with non-Western countries. Therefore, the United States was only able to maintain a maritime order, rather than a world order. It relied on brutal military interventions into the centre of the world island, hastily retreating after wreaking havoc and leaving the region in a perpetual state of rupture.
Conversely, China’s approach to the construction of a new international order is that of ‘listening to both sides and choosing the middle course’ (执两用中, zhí liǎng yòng zhōng). Historically, China successfully balanced the land and sea; during the Han and Tang dynasties, for instance, China accumulated experience in interacting with land-based civilisations, meanwhile, since the Song and Ming dynasties, China has been deeply involved in the maritime trade system. It is based on this historical experience that China has proposed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which the most important aspect is the incorporation of the world island and the oceans, accommodating both the ancient and modern orders. The BRI offers a proposal to develop an integrated and balanced world system, with the ‘Belt’ aiming to restore order on the world island, while the ‘Road’ is oriented towards the order on the seas. Alongside this initiative, China has built corresponding institutions, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
2. Moving beyond capitalism and promoting people-centred development. The system on which Western power and prosperity has been built is capitalism, rooted in European legacies of the merchant-marauder duality and colonial conquest, driven by the pursuit of monetary profits, managing capital with a monstrously developed financial system, and hinging on trade. Under capitalism, the Western powers have viewed countries of the Global South as ‘others’, treating them as hunting grounds for cheap resources or markets. Although the Western powers have been able to occupy and spread capitalism to much of the world, they have not been able to widely cultivate prosperity, too often tending towards malicious opportunism; for those countries that do not profit from colonialism, but suffer from its brutal oppression, the system is nonviable. As a result, since the Western powers took charge of the world in the nineteenth century, the vast majority of non-Western countries have been unable to attain industrial or modern development, a track record which disproves the purported universality of capitalism.
The ancient Chinese sages advocated for a socioeconomic model that Dr. Sun Yat-sen, a leader in the 1911 revolution to overthrow of the Qing dynasty and the first president of the Republic of China, called the ‘Principles of People’s Livelihood’ (民生主义, mínshēng zhǔyì) which can be rephrased as ‘the philosophy of benefiting the people’ (厚生主义, Hòushēng zhǔyì). This philosophy, which values the production, utilisation, and distribution of material to allow people to live better and in a sustainable manner, dates back over 2000 years, appearing as early as the Book of Documents (尚书, shàngshū), an ancient Confucian text. Guided by this philosophy, a policy of ‘promoting the fundamental and suppressing the incidental’ (崇本抑末, chóngběn yìmò) was adopted in ancient China to orient commercial and financial activities towards production and people’s livelihood. Today, China has rejuvenated this model and begun to share it with other countries through the BRI, which has taken the approach of teaching others ‘how to fish’, emphasising the improvement of infrastructure and advancement of industrialisation.
China, which is now the world’s factory and continues to upgrade its industries, is also driving a reconfiguration of the world’s division of labour: upstream, accepting components produced by cutting-edge manufacturing in Western countries; downstream, transferring productive and manufacturing capacity to underdeveloped countries, particularly in Africa. As the world’s largest consumer market, China should access energy from different parts of the world in a fair and even manner, and promote global policies which emphasise production (‘the fundamental’) and minimise financial speculation (‘the incidental’).
3. Towards a world of unity and diversity. When the European powers established the current world order, they generally pursued ‘homogenisation’, inclined to use violence to impose their system on other countries and inevitably creating enemies. The United States, influenced by Christian Puritanism, tends to believe in the uniformity of values, imposing its purported ‘universal values’ on the world, and denouncing any nation that differs from its conceptions as ‘evil’ and an enemy. During ‘the end of history’ period, this tendency was exemplified by the so-called War on Terror which launched invasions and missiles throughout the Middle East. Despite this preoccupation with homogenisation, the US-led order is being unravelled by rampant polarisation, broken apart by intensifying cultural and political divisions.
China, on the other hand, tells a different story. For millennia, based on the principle of ‘multiple gods united in one heaven’ or ‘one culture and multiple deisms’, various religious and ethnic groups have been integrated within China through the worship of heaven or the culture, thus developing the nation and the tianxia system of unity and diversity. Universal order or harmony can neither be attained through violent conquest nor through the preaching and imposition of values to change ‘the other’ into ‘self’, but rather by recognising the autonomy of ‘the other’; as emphasised in The Analects of Confucius (论语·季氏, lúnyǔ·jìshì), ‘…all the influences of civil culture and virtue are to be cultivated to attract them to be so; and when they have been so attracted, they must be made contented and tranquil’ (修文德以来之，既来之，则安之, xiūwén dé yǐlái zhī, jì lái zhī, zé ānzhī). By and large, it is along this path of harmony in diversity that China today conducts international relations.
China should understand the building of a new international order through the lens of revitalising the tianxia order, and its approach should be guided by the sages’ way of ‘harmonising all nations’ (协和万邦, xiéhé wànbāng) to pacify the tianxia. The process of constructing a new international order, or a revitalised tianxia order, should adhere to the following considerations:
1. A tianxia order will not be built at once but progressively. A Chinese idiom can be used to describe the China-led process of forming a new global system: ‘Although Zhou was an old country, the (favouring) appointment alighted on it recently’ (周虽旧邦,其命维新, zhōu suī jiù bāng, qí mìng wéixīn). Zhou was an old kingdom that was governed by moral edification; its influence gradually expanded, first to neighbouring states and then beyond, until two thirds of the tianxia paid allegiance to the kingdom and the existing Yin dynasty (c. 1600–1045 BCE) was replaced by the Zhou dynasty (c. 1045– 256 BCE). In approaching the construction of a new international order and revitalising the concept of tianxia, China should follow this progressive approach to avoiding a collision with the existing hegemonic system. The concept of tianxia refers to a historical process without end.
2. Virtue and propriety are the first priority in maintaining the emerging tianxia system. A tianxia system aims to ‘harmonise all nations’, not to establish closed alliances or demand homogeneity. China should promote morality, decency, and shared economic prosperity in relations between nations and international law. What distinguishes this approach from the existing system of international law is that, in addition to clarifying the rights and obligations of each party, it also emphasises building mutual affection and rapport between nations.
3. A tianxia order will not seek to monopolise the entire world. The world is too large to be effectively governed by any country alone. The sages understood this and so their tianxia order never attempted to expand all over the known world at the time, nor did later generations; for instance, Zheng He came across many nations during his voyages to the Western Seas, but the Ming dynasty did not colonise and conquer them, nor did he include them all in the tributary system, but instead allowed them to make their own choices. Today, China does not seek to impose any system onto other countries; with such moderation, the struggle for hegemony can be avoided.
4. A new international order will consist of several regional systems. Instead of a world system governed by one dominant country or a small group of powers, a new global order will likely be made up of several regional systems. Across the world, countries with common geographies, cultures, belief systems, and interests have already begun to form their own regional organisations, such as in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and the Atlantic states; China should focus on the Western Pacific and Eurasia.
The concept of regional systems shares some similarities with Samuel Huntington’s division of civilisations, however, importantly, it does not necessitate any clash between them. As a large country and land-sea power, China will likely overlap with multiple regional systems, including both maritime- and land-based regional systems. China, which literally means ‘the country of the middle’, should serve as a harmoniser between different regional systems and act to mitigate conflict and confrontation; in this way, a new international order of both unity and diversity can emerge.
A new architecture of global governance will be built gradually, with layers nested upon each other from the inside out. To this end, China’s efforts should begin in the innermost layer to which it belongs, East Asia. Traditionally, China, the Korean peninsula, Vietnam, Japan, and other countries in this region formed a Confucian cultural sphere; however, after the Second World War, despite these nations successfully modernising, relations between them have deteriorated due to the pressures of foreign powers, such as the United States and Soviet Union. China’s efforts to reorganise the world order must start from here, by revitalising this shared heritage, developing coordinated regional policies based on the ‘Principles of People’s Livelihood’, and demonstrating improved standards of prosperity and civility for the world. As the achievements and strength of such regional efforts grow, the power of the United States and its world order will inevitably fade out, and the process of global transformation will rapidly accelerate.
After the inner layer of East Asia, the next-most nested layer, or middle layer, that China should focus on is the heart of the world island, Eurasia. Central to these regional efforts is the SCO, in which China, Russia, India, and Pakistan are already member states, Iran and Afghanistan are observer states, and Turkey and Germany can be invited. Due to its economic decline and weakening global influence, Russia is likely to increase its focus on its neighbouring regions, namely Central Asia, and to participate more actively in the SCO, including assisting in efforts to promote harmonious relations and development in the region and minimising conflict. The stability of Eurasia is key, not only to the security and prosperity of China, particularly its western regions, but to overall global peace.
Finally, the outermost layer for China is the institutionalised BRI, which connects nations and regions across the world. Proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2013, to date China has signed more than 200 BRI cooperation agreements with 149 countries and 32 international organisations.
The evolution and future direction of the world order cannot be understood without examining the shifting relationship between China and the West over the past five centuries. In the early modern era, the Western powers were inspired by China in their pursuit of modernisation; in the past century, China has learned from the West. The reemergence of China has shaken the foundations of the old Western-dominated world order and is a driving force in the formation of a new international system. Amid the momentous changes in the global landscape, it is necessary to recognise the strengths and limits of Western modernity, ideologies, and institutions, while also appreciating the Chinese tradition of modernity and its developments in the current era. For China, this requires a restructuring of its knowledge system, guided by a new vision which is inspired by classical Chinese wisdom: ‘Chinese learning as substance, Western learning for application’ (中学为体，西学为用, Zhōngxué wèi tǐ, xīxué wèi yòng).
1 During the early fifteenth century, the Ming dynasty (1388–1644) sponsored a series of seven ocean voyages led by the Chinese navigator and diplomat Zheng He (1371–1433). Over a thirty-year period, these naval missions travelled from China to Southeast Asia, India, the Horn of Africa, and the Middle East.
2 Tianxia is an ancient Chinese worldview which dates back over four thousand years and roughly translates to ‘all under heaven’, or the Earth and living beings under the sky. Incorporating moral, cultural, political, and geographical elements, tianxia has been a central concept in Chinese philosophy, civilisation, and governance. According to this belief system, achieving harmony and universal peace for tianxia, where all peoples and states share the Earth in common (天下为公 tiānxià wèi gōng), is the highest ideal.
3 See Yao Zhongqiu, The Way of Yao and Shun: The Birth of Chinese Civilisation [尧舜之道：中国文明的诞生] (Hainan Publishing House, 2016), 64–74.
4 Scholar-officials were intellectuals appointed to political and government posts by the emperor of China. This highly educated group formed a distinct social class which dominated government administration within imperial China.
5 For further reading on this topic, see Zhu Qianzhi, The Influence of Chinese Philosophy on Europe [中国哲学对欧洲的影响] (Hebei People’s Publishing House, 1999).
6 Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, The Federalist Papers [联邦党人文集], trans. Cheng Fengru, Han Zai, and Xun Shu (The Commercial Press, 1995).
Hamilton, Alexander, John Jay, and James Madison. The Federalist Papers [联邦党人文集]. Translated by Cheng Fengru, Han Zai, and Xun Shu. The Commercial Press, 1995.
Yao, Zhongqiu. The Way of Yao and Shun: The Birth of Chinese Civilisation [尧舜之道：中国文明的诞生]. Hainan Publishing House, 2016.
Zhu, Qianzhi. The Influence of Chinese Philosophy on Europe [中国哲学对欧洲的影响]. Hebei People’s Publishing House, 1999.
Cheng Yawen（程亚文）is dean of the Department of Political Science at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Shanghai International Studies University. He previously taught at the Department of War Theory and Strategic Research, Academy of Military Sciences, People’s Liberation Army. His research areas include comparative politics and national development strategies. He has held a long-term interest in topics such as the impact of globalisation on underdeveloped countries, the development strategies chosen by underdeveloped countries amid globalisation, and the relations between China and underdeveloped countries.
The ‘special military operation’ launched by Russia against Ukraine, along with the attendant stalemate that has set in between the West and Russia, are landmark events that signal the approaching end of the globalisation wave that began in the 1980s. The absurd efforts of the United States to bully its allies into enacting murderous sanctions against Russia and to browbeat other countries into taking sides in this conflict, have brought the world to a state reminiscent of the deadly global struggles of the twentieth century ago. These developments pose a major challenge to China; the end of this wave of globalisation means that the country will no longer have the same external environment for development that it has enjoyed for the past forty years, and that the US will likely intensify its push to re-establish its domination over the international system and to decouple from China and Russia. The world has undergone a paradigm shift.1 In the face of a potential forced and complete decoupling from the United States and Western countries, China must take initiative and adjust its foreign strategic orientation, reprioritising the countries that it engages with in order to develop a new international order that would safeguard against the repercussions of this decoupling.
During the three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, relations between Russia and the West have vacillated. Initially, Russia pursued friendly ties with the US and Western countries, then it gradually grew apart from them, and now it has entered into a fierce confrontation. The evolution of this relationship reflects the political limits of globalisation. Unlike the romantic notions of globalisation that were ascendant following the end of the Cold War, in reality, this era saw the establishment of US hegemony and the dismemberment of the Soviet Union and the socialist camp. This process of globalisation and the US pursuit of global supremacy are two sides of the coin; they condition and promote each other. The inability of this system to promote international equality, with developed and developing countries locked into a relationship of dominator and follower states, means that it cannot continue endlessly. On the one hand, globalisation is abandoned, reversed, or redesigned when it backfires on its initiators, threatening their superiority; on the other hand, countries will continue to resist when powerful states relentlessly pursue domination.2 Russia’s special military operation against Ukraine was the result of the domineering nature of this round of globalisation, and has brought the US-dominated system to a standstill.
The decades-long eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was the main reason for Russia’s preemptive strike. This military buildup was not only a security issue but also an economic issue, as part of US efforts to marginalise Russia. Russia’s efforts to leverage globalisation to achieve national development and become a central country in the world order, ran counter to the logic of US-led globalisation. Global capital, financial capital in particular, has mainly concentrated on Russia’s energy, grains, and minerals, sectors which it can exploit for extravagant profits. However, during the tenure of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, the state has strengthened its grip on key sectors concerning national security and people’s livelihoods, and has sought to build a Eurasian economic union to create space for its own economic growth; all of this has upset foreign capital. NATO’s eastward expansion is a manifestation of capital’s control over politics to achieve market expansion. If Russia cannot respond effectively to the efforts to squeeze its development space and exacerbate its marginalisation, it will become even more deeply confined to being a producer of primary goods and lose access to great power politics, increasing the likelihood of a domestic political crisis, which Russian elites wish to avoid.
The power structure of the contemporary world order has been laid bare by NATO’s eastern expansion and the comprehensive sanctions regime imposed by Western countries on Russia. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the European colonial system began to fade out and, during the last half of the twentieth century, the world order became centred on the United Nations and international law, namely the principle of the sovereign equality of states. However, the hierarchical centre-periphery order of the European colonial system has not actually disappeared, but instead continues to exist in an implicit and hidden manner. The absolute power hierarchies which were enforced by colonial diktat have been replaced by an international order based on ‘common but differentiated’ responsibilities, in which states are sovereign equals on the surface but unequal in their actual operation of power.3 Although the United States and its allies refer to this international system as a ‘rules-based’ order where every nation is bound to observe the same rules, in fact, it revolves around the West rather than the UN and international law.
Post-war US hegemony is the modern incarnation of the global centre-periphery order. The international Group of Seven (G7), established in the 1970s, holds annual meetings at which Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States discuss not only the affairs of these seven countries, but also global issues for which they negotiate and determine international rules. The so-called rules-based order is indeed an order based on the rules made by Western countries and their allies. What matters here is who makes the rules. In this global system, the division of labour, money supply, industrial production, and rulemaking are the exclusive purview of a select few countries. The advantageous position of these countries would be broken up if other countries attempted to join their club, disrupting the rulemaking authority, monetary dominance, and technological superiority maintained through the intellectual property rights regime. China’s unexpected economic rise in recent decades has broken precisely this post-war centre-periphery world order, threatening the structural privileges of the Western countries, which had never imagined that China could enter the centre of the global stage (even if China is only approaching this position and has not yet arrived). As a result, the United States has labelled China as its ‘strategic competitor’ in recent years and demonstrated its willingness to use any means to halt China’s development.
Both NATO’s eastward expansion and Washington’s attempt to contain China suggest that the US and Western countries only seek to maintain and reinforce their own positions of power in the world order. The Russia-Ukraine conflict and the comprehensive Western sanctions against Russia have further underscored the truth about the global system: the majority of the world find themselves in the ‘countryside’ of the global periphery whereas only a select few countries sit in the ‘cities’ of the global centre, at the core of which is the United States. These countries do not wish to see the ‘countryside’ turn into ‘cities’, as they are. China and Russia hinder the global ‘city centre’ in two key aspects: on the one hand, due to their strong capacity to control capital, the two countries are the largest remaining territories in the world that have not been subject to the arbitrary domination of capitalist globalisation; on the other hand, their national strength is much greater than most countries and impedes efforts of the ‘city centre’ to further control the ‘countryside’ of the global periphery. During this wave of globalisation, China has departed from the ‘countryside’ for the ‘city’ with its strong economic growth and overall growth in national strength. The countries at the centre, despite their earlier enthusiastic praise for globalisation, are now leading ‘deglobalisation’ efforts, exposing the limits of the universality of the post-war international order. China and the other nations of the ‘countryside’ joining the ‘cities’ is simply intolerable to the central countries.
Since the 1980s, China has pursued reform and opening up and promoted international cooperation, including, over the last decade, advancing a proposal for the building of ‘a community with a shared future for humanity’ (人类命运共同体, rénlèi mìngyùn gòngtóngtǐ). These efforts can be traced back to the ancient Chinese idea of ‘the great unity under heaven’ (天下大同, tiānxià dàtóng); however, this ‘great unity’ cannot be achieved by China’s desire alone. In the current context of all-out hostility from the US-led West towards Russia and China, the world can no longer be viewed in a mechanical manner and simply assumed to be united around peace and development. Instead, it is necessary to seriously consider the threats of competition, conflict, and war; even if war is excluded from the likely outcomes, it is clear that it is no longer possible for China to continue to pursue its path of development in the Western-dominated system of globalisation. As such, China must reassess its answer to the primary question in foreign relations: which countries are potential partners for China, now and in the future, and which countries will China find it difficult to establish or maintain partnerships with?
As a well-known Chinese idiom goes, similar things group together and similar people fit together (or, birds of a feather flock together). The same applies to nations; those nations which share similar experiences, contexts, and challenges are more likely to form an enduring cooperative relationship. Since the nineteenth century, the world has undergone a global transformation driven by three key components, industrialisation, rational state-building, and ideologies of progress, shifting from a polycentric world with no dominant centre to a highly interlinked and hierarchical core-periphery order in which the centre of gravity resided in the West.4 Between the mid-to-late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, imperialism and globalisation were two sides of the same coin: imperialism has driven globalisation while globalisation reinforced imperialism. Together, these related processes have trapped the peripheral nations of the world in a prison of underdevelopment, from which it is extremely difficult to break free. The West, as the former centre of the international system and the birthplace of imperialism, produced both the modern colonial order as well as the system of US hegemony that has dominated the world since the mid-to-late twentieth century. Meanwhile, many revolutionary movements, namely the anti-colonial struggles of the past century, have fought to overcome the inequality and injustice of this global centre-periphery power structure.
In this unequal world order, the central countries do not fairly welcome peripheral countries to the centre and oppose revolutions in the periphery. Consequently, to liberate themselves from subordination and exploitation, peripheral countries have to work together and, occasionally, exploit the rifts between those states at the centre, tactically cooperating with central states when it can advance the struggle. Over the past century, during the Chinese Revolution and the consolidation of state power, the main external forces that China depended on for support came from the global periphery. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Communist Party of China (CPC) was a member of the Communist International, an alliance of state and nonstate actors among the colonised and oppressed peoples of the world. During the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931–45), China joined the World Anti-Fascist War, upheld the anti-imperialist banner, and furthered the struggle to dismantle the unequal global structures created by imperialist states. After the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949, China placed a great deal of emphasis on cooperation with the countries of the Third World and supported the anti-colonial movements and post-independence development across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Of particular importance was China’s active participation in the Bandung Conference of 1955 – an important step in the eventual creation of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961 – where its proposal of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (和平共处五项原则, hépíng gòngchǔ wǔ xiàng yuánzé) for international relations was well received; the conference became a milestone in China’s relations with the Global South, where cooperation and solidarity gained positive momentum.5 It was with the support of peripheral countries that the PRC regained its rightful seat in the United Nations in 1971 and became a permanent member of the Security Council.
The mutual solidarity and support between China and the countries of Asia Africa, and Latin America has remained a key feature of China’s approach to international relations, which emphasises multilateral cooperation with developing countries of the Global South to defend national sovereignty and development in a joint struggle against the unequal and unjust international order structured by the central countries. Despite focusing on relations with peripheral countries, under the framework of ‘omnidirectional diplomacy’ (全方位外交, quán fāngwèi wàijiāo), China remains open to engaging and developing friendly cooperation with Western developed countries and other major powers. However, it should be noted that, in the past, the interaction and cooperation between China and the countries at the centre always bore two preconditions: on the one hand, China insisted on developing foreign relations premised on independence, equality, and mutual benefit, and opposed the existing power hierarchies in international relations; on the other hand, the central countries placed a ceiling on their collaboration with China, namely, the position of Western countries at the centre of the global power structure could not be altered. Whenever either of these two preconditions were not met, China, as a member of the developing world, faced serious challenges in deepening its cooperation with the Western countries, especially on political matters.
Over the last forty years, setting aside ideological differences and institutional disparities between countries, China has sought to work with all the other nations. Gradually, China’s international relations came to be guided by the following logic: the major powers are the key; surrounding areas are the first priority; developing countries are the foundations; and multilateral forums are the important stage. However, as the current era of globalisation comes to an end, this approach has increasingly encountered obstacles. The US-initiated process of decoupling from China in terms of economic, technological, knowledge, and people-to-people exchanges – a process that Washington has coerced other Western countries into joining – is unlikely to be reversed and instead, due to the Russia-Ukraine war, it could intensify even further.
Since its founding in 1949, the PRC has undergone several significant shifts in its foreign policy direction, all of which occurred in response to specific historical situations; from the advocacy of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence in the early years of the PRC, to the Three Worlds Theory proposed amid the normalisation of the China-US relations in the 1970s, to the emphasis on developing partnerships with Western countries as part of the transition to reform and opening up after 1978. The contemporary situation is defined by, what China’s President Xi Jinping has called, ‘major changes unseen in a century’ (百年未有之大变局, bǎinián wèi yǒu zhī dà biànjú) and the increasing tendency of Western states to suppress challenges to their authority. Especially in the period since war broke out between Russia and Ukraine, Western states have revealed their willingness to gang up on, pressure, and contain developing countries, a feature of the current Western-dominated order that will undermine international relations for some time. China cannot help but be highly alarmed by the punitive measures that the West has imposed on Russia, as they could also be imposed on China in a similar manner in the future. For this reason, it is urgently necessary that China re-examines its multilateralist tradition and re-orients the geographic configuration of its foreign relations, strengthening its partnerships with developing countries of the Global South to foster a new international environment that is conducive to China’s national security and long-term development.
In 1974, Mao Zedong set forth his Three Worlds Theory, which categorised the countries of the world into three major groupings, each necessitating a distinct approach to engagement from China. The third grouping, the developing countries of the Third World, were the main focus of China, which itself was also part of the Third World; the Chinese government and people firmly supported the just struggles of all the oppressed peoples and nations. Drawing on China’s previous practices and experiences in foreign relations, the theory outlined spatial priorities for China’s ties with other countries and provided an important ideological guide to the country’s approach to South-South cooperation. This theory remains highly relevant and should guide the present-day reconfiguration of the spatial priorities of China’s foreign relations. Contrary to the emphasis placed on working with Western countries since reform and opening up began four decades ago, China now needs to foreground the advancement of the South-South project.
Whether it concerns diplomatic affairs, long-term development, or national rejuvenation, for a considerable period of time, China’s foreign strategic arrangements will have to prioritise engaging with countries of the Global South. China should configure its foreign relations and promote the construction of a new global order under the ‘three-ring’ (三环, sān huán) framework. The first ring refers to China’s neighbouring regions of East Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East, which present important resource, energy, and security considerations; the second ring refers to the developing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, with which China engages in trade, investment, and infrastructure projects, and to which China mainly delivers its foreign aid; finally, the third ring refers to the United States, European countries, and other industrialised countries with which China exchanges industrial products, technologies, and knowledge.
Within the new ‘three ring’ framework, China’s first and foremost priority in helping to build a new international system should be the first ring, namely East Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East. To further promote East Asian economic integration and linkages with Central Asia and the Middle East, it is necessary to strengthen engagement and cooperation between Asian countries.. In recent years, by promoting economic diplomacy, China has made considerable progress in advancing East Asian economic integration and economic cooperation with many Asian countries. The latest breakthrough in East Asian economic integration was realised on 1 January 2022, when, after years of negotiation, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) finally entered into force. However, economic exchanges among East Asian countries have been increasingly affected by extra-regional forces and security issues in recent years, with disputes over maritime rights in the South China Sea and Washington’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy fuelling uncertainty in the region. To prevent external forces from exploiting internal problems in Asia, China should move away from the ‘GDP supremacy’, or a narrow focus on economic matters, which it prioritised previously in its foreign relations, and pay greater attention to political and security agendas in the region, promotinge more security cooperation among Asian countries.
The material basis for the new ‘three rings’ framework is South-South cooperation, a concept that emerged in the late twentieth century regarding mutual interests, support, and solidarity among Third World countries.6 In the twenty-first century, a new foundation for South-South cooperation is being laid, making the concept more achievable in reality. The main reason for this is that, in recent decades, a number of developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have been able to industrialise or quasi-industrialise by ‘climbing up the borrowed ladder’, seizing the opportunities afforded by the wave of globalisation. Among these countries, a new global system of material production and circulation has taken shape, and is on track to eclipse the original ‘ladder’ of globalisation built by Western countries. This new global system has manifested in two important respects.
First, the share of developing countries in the global economy has changed significantly. In 1980, developed countries accounted for 75.4 percent of global GDP while developing countries accounted for less than 25 percent; however, by 2021, the former group’s share of global GDP had fallen to 57.8 percent while the latter’s share rose to 42.2 percent.7 The combined GDP of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) plus Turkey, South Korea, and Indonesia, in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, jumped from 21 percent of the global economy in 1992 to 37.7 percent in 2021, while the combined share of G7 countries declined from 45.8 percent to 30.7 percent in the same period.8
Second, trade and reciprocal investment between developing countries have also become pivotal. From 1997 to 2010, trade between China and African states increased 22.4 times and trade with Latin American states increased roughly 22 times; and from 2010 to 2021, China-Africa and China-Latin America trade increased another 2 times and 2.5 times respectively.9 From 2000 to 2018, trade between China and Arab states ballooned from $15.2 billion to $244.3 billion, a 16-fold increase in less than twenty years.10 Other emerging economies, such as Brazil and India, have sharply increased their trade with developing countries. From 2003 to 2010, Brazil’s trade with Arab states increased four-fold, while its trade with African states increased five-fold, reaching a total of $26 billion, a figure higher than Brazil’s trade with traditional trading partners such as Germany and Japan; and from 2010 to 2019, Brazil’s trade with Arab and African states increased by 98 percent and 68 percent, respectively.11 Similarly, since 2001, India’s trade with African states has grown at an average annual rate of 17.2 percent and, from 2011 to 2021, it increased 2.26 times.12 India’s trade with Latin American states as well as the Middle East and North Africa region, has experienced similar growth. Trade volumes between developing countries are growing at a faster rate than the global average, while trading with developed countries continues to decline.
Within the developing world, a particularly important network of economic cooperation has emerged in Asia, centring around China. This is demonstrated in the following four trends:
Today, developing countries have formed the preliminary structure for a new global economic system, but further synergy between them is needed to achieve a higher degree of economic connectivity as well as greater political influence in the international arena and freedom from Western control and coercion. This past decade, China has become the world’s largest real economy (concerning the production and exchange of goods and services) and the second largest economy overall, as well as the largest trading partner of most countries in the world. In 2021, the global share of China’s manufacturing sector was nearly 30 percent. As the country that produces the most material goods in the world, China is in a similar position as the United States was in the post-Second World War period (at its peak, in 1953, the US accounted for roughly 28 percent of global industrial output). What China can and should do is to take initiative in driving a global strategy to improve the system of global material exchange among developing countries, that is, to truly realise South-South cooperation.
However, deficiencies still remain. Current trade and investment between developing countries still rely heavily on Western-led financial and monetary networks. If developing countries are to further enhance their economic and political autonomy, and if emerging economies are to gain levels of political influence in the world system commensurate with their economic scales, they must overcome their financial and monetary dependence on the West. Therefore, to build a ‘new three ring’ international system, developing countries must consider not only traditional geopolitical factors, but also the global systems of finance and information. In recent years, China has explored this by developing currency swaps with several emerging market economies. A higher-level and broader mechanism for financial and monetary cooperation should be created among developing countries. To this end, it is important to take advantage of existing platforms and mechanisms that can enhance South-South cooperation, including: upgrading and transforming the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (NDB) established by the BRICS countries to advance an autonomous international payment system; strengthening security and financial cooperation within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), particularly between China, Russia, India, and Iran cooperation (it should be noted that Russia is also a developing country and that the Chinese and Russian economies are highly complementary); further promoting East Asian economic integration under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with special efforts to consolidate the achievements of the RCEP; building a common energy market in Asia, so that buyers in East and South Asia and sellers in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Russia can share the same energy trading and payment network; making proper use of the BRICS Summit mechanism, thus deepening South-South cooperation; and promoting the diversification of the international monetary system and the internationalisation of the RMB in the context of South-South cooperation, as well as supporting the international status of the euro while hedging against the hegemony of the US dollar.
One hundred years ago, the CPC leaders proposed the revolutionary strategy of ‘encircling the cities from the rural areas’ (农村包围城市, nóngcūn bāoweí chéngshì). In the present era of ‘major changes unseen in a century’, China and developing countries need to dismantle the centre-periphery world order, overcome the hostility of Western countries, and improve solidarity and cooperation within the global ‘countryside’. The deepening of South-South cooperation will create favourable conditions and mobilise resources for the construction of a new ‘three ring’ global system, which can ease international tensions and allow developing countries, including China, to take their rightful places at the centre of the world economic and political order. After more than forty years of reform and opening up, China must adjust its understanding of ‘opening up’ and transform its thinking about foreign relations. Of course, China should still try to maintain its cooperation with the West as long as possible and as long as they do not make the choice to go completely against China.
Note: This article was edited by Guo Jinze.
1 Cheng Yawen, ‘Understanding the Paradigm Shift in the Characteristics of the Times’ [理解时代特征的范式性变革], Academic Frontiers [学术前沿], no. 15 (2022): 42-53.
2 Cheng Yawen, ‘Political Limits of Globalisation’ [全球化的政治限度], Dushu [读书], no. 11 (2020).
3 Cheng, ‘Understanding the Paradigm Shift’.
4 Barry Buzan and George Lawson, The Global Transformation: History, Modernity, and the Making of International Relations [全球转型：历史、现代性与国际关系的形成], trans. Sui Shunji (Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 2020).
5 Hong Liu, ‘China Engages the Global South: From Bandung to the Belt and Road Initiative’, Global Policy 13, no. S1 (2022): 11-22.
6 For the international edition of this article, statistics have been updated to reflect the latest data.
7 Calculated from the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database (October 2022), https://www.imf.org/external/datamapper/NGDPD@WEO/OEMDC/ADVEC/WEOWORLD.
8 Calculated from the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database (October 2022), https://www.imf.org/external/datamapper/PPPSH@WEO/OEMDC/ADVEC/WEOWORLD/BRA/RUS/IND/CHN/ZAF/TUR/IDN/KOR/MAE.
9 In 1997, the trade value between China and Africa was $5.673 billion and that between China and Latin America $8.376 billion, according to the China Statistical Yearbook 1999. In 2010, the trade value between China and Africa was $127 billion and that between China and Latin America was $183.6 billion, according to the China Statistical Yearbook 2021. Finally, in 2021, the trade value between China and Africa was $254.3 billion and that between China and Latin America was $451.591 billion, according to the General Administration of Customs of China.
10 Jing Kai, ‘New chapter opens for China-Arab economic and trade cooperation’ [中阿经贸合作奏响新乐章], Guangming Daily [光明日报], 5 September 2019.
11 Calculated according to the data from the World Integrated Trade Solution (WITS), software developed by the World Bank, in collaboration with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), that provides access to international trade, tariff, and non-tariff statistical information; ‘Brazil to play an ambitious global role’ [巴西要在全球扮演雄心勃勃角色], Reference News [参考消息], 2 September 2010.
12 Sun Xiaohan, ‘Analysis of the Current Situation and Prospects of India’s Investment and Trade with Africa’ [印度对非投资贸易现状分析与前景展望], China Investment [中国投资], September 2021.
13 Calculated from the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database (October 2022), https://www.imf.org/external/datamapper/NGDPD@WEO/WEOWORLD/APQ/CAQ/MEQ/JPN/AZQ. Here, developing countries of Asia, refers to the IMF’s designated regions of Asia and Pacific, Central Asia and the Caucasus, and the Middle East, except for Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.
14 Calculated from the IMF’s World Economic Outlook database (October 2022), https://www.imf.org/external/datamapper/NGDPD@WEO/OEMDC/ADVEC/WEOWORLD/EAQ/SEQ. Here, East Asia, refers to the IMF’s designated regions of East Asia and Southeast Asia.
15 Zhu Xiaoxiong and Li Pan, ‘How Effectiveness of RCEP Will Benefit World Economy’ [RCEP生效，世界经济受益几何], Guangming Daily [光明日报], 4 January 2022.
16 Li Ning, ‘RCEP Becomes Official! World’s Largest FTZ Starts’ [RCEP正式生效！世界最大自贸区启航], International Business Daily [国际商报], 3 January 2022.
17 Wing Chu and Yuki Qian, Tapping the RCEP Opportunities: Hong Kong to Maximise GBA’s Unique Edge as a Business Platform, Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) and ACCA, 18 November 2021, https://portal.hktdc.com/resources/RMIP/20211112/67htt6r-QUNDQSZIS1REQyBSZXBvcnRfR0JBX1JDRVBfRU4=.pdf.
18 Chu and Qian ‘Tapping the RCEP Opportunities’.
19 Boao Forum for Asia, Annual Report 2022: Asian Economic Outlook and Integration Process, April 2022.
Boao Forum for Asia, Annual Report 2022: Asian Economic Outlook and Integration Process, April 2022.
‘Brazil to play an ambitious global role’ [巴西要在全球扮演雄心勃勃角色]. Reference News [参考消息], 2 September 2010.
Buzan, Barry and George Lawson. The Global Transformation: History, Modernity, and the Making of International Relations [全球转型：历史、现代性与国际关系的形成]. Translated by Sui Shunji. Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 2020.
Cheng, Yawen. ‘Political Limits of Globalisation’ [全球化的政治限度]. Dushu [读书], no. 11 (2020).
Cheng, Yawen. ‘Understanding the Paradigm Shift in the Characteristics of the Times’ [理解时代特征的范式性变革]. Academic Frontiers [学术前沿], no. 15 (2022): 42-53.
Hong, Liu. ‘China Engages the Global South: From Bandung to the Belt and Road Initiative’. Global Policy 13, no. S1 (2022): 11-22. https://doi.org/10.1111/1758-5899.13034.
International Monetary Fund. ‘World Economic Outlook (October 2022)’. Accessed 13 February 2023. https://www.imf.org/external/datamapper/datasets/WEO.
Jing, Kai. ‘New chapter opens for China-Arab economic and trade cooperation’ [中阿经贸合作奏响新乐章]. Guangming Daily [光明日报], 5 September 2019.
Li, Ning. ‘RCEP Becomes Official! World’s Largest FTZ Starts’ [RCEP正式生效！世界最大自贸区启航]. International Business Daily [国际商报], 3 January 2022.
National Bureau of Statistics of China, Chinese Statistical Yearbook. Beijing: China Statistics Press, 1999.
National Bureau of Statistics of China, Chinese Statistical Yearbook. Beijing: China Statistics Press, 2017.
Sun, Xiaohan. ‘Analysis of the Current Situation and Prospects of India’s Investment and Trade with Africa’ [印度对非投资贸易现状分析与前景展望]. China Investment [中国投资], September 2021.
Wing, Chu and Yuki Qian. Tapping the RCEP Opportunities: Hong Kong to Maximise GBA’s Unique Edge as a Business Platform. Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) and ACCA, 18 November 2021, https://portal.hktdc.com/resources/RMIP/20211112/67htt6r-QUNDQSZIS1REQyBSZXBvcnRfR0JBX1JDRVBfRU4=.pdf.
Zhu, Xiaoxiong and Li Pan. ‘How Effectiveness of RCEP Will Benefit World Economy’ [RCEP生效，世界经济受益几何]. Guangming Daily [光明日报], 4 January 2022.
Beijing is emerging as a new heavyweight in providing emergency funds to debt-ridden countries, catching up to the I.M.F. as a lender of last resort.
Both sides are spending lots of money on technological elites.
Here are some recent headlines from U.S. newspapers concerning developments in Xi Jinping’s China, putatively America’s foremost adversary on the world stage: “STIFLED BY XI, DISSENT ROARS BACK TO LIFE”; “ANTI-LOCKDOWN PROTESTS CALL FOR XI TO RESIGN”; “XI JINPING APPROACHES MULTIPLE POINTS OF NO RETURN”; “A WITNESS TO MAO SEES WORRYING SIMILARITIES IN THE ERA OF XI”; “XI’S CHALLENGE: HOW TO MOURN PREDECESSOR”; “BEIJING’S BARGAIN WITH ITS PEOPLE IS SHAKEN..”
It is a common saying in China that Mao Zedong made the country free, and Deng Xiaoping made it rich. Mao’s communist revolution did set China free from the stranglehold on its economy exercised by Western powers since the mid–nineteenth century, but his cruel experiments in economic development resulted in mass famines on a colossal scale. It was indeed his successor, Deng, who set China on a course of economic modernization that brought remarkable prosperity to the country, especially in the urban areas, in little more than two decades. Deng accomplished this by opening China to foreign trade and investment and making it an integral part of the globalization process then underway, asserting that no country in the world had been able to modernize successfully without doing so. His successor, Jiang Zemin, continued Deng’s approach, which happens to be what provoked the headline concerning Xi’s difficulty in mourning him—because Xi, after he took office, had soon undertaken to curtail Jiang’s and Deng’s open-door policy.
The charming term CHINAMERICA was now a thing of the past. But what did the future hold, observers now wondered—especially when it began to appear that anti-democratic sentiment was sweeping the globe, reaching even into the hinterlands of the United States? Aligned with that question was a further concern: Were China, as a rising, increasingly bellicose power, and the United States, a supposedly declining one, bound eventually to clash, possibly in nuclear warfare?
This concern was connected to a 2017 book entitled Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, by Graham Allison. Allison derived his question from Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, which chronicled the downfall of Athens at the hands of Sparta. “When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power,” Allison wrote, “the resulting structural stress makes a violent clash the rule not the exception.” A few years later, Allison’s theory was modified by Edmund Stewart, a professor of ancient Greek history at the University of Nottingham, in an article in the journal Antigone. Stewart questioned Thucydides’s notion that Athens was a rising power challenging the dominance of Sparta, and contended rather that differences in constitutional arrangements and political values—such as those between a democracy (Athens) and an oligarchy (Sparta)—are likely to lead to dangerous friction between national entities. This, obviously, could apply equally for the United States and China.
There has been a great deal of focus in recent years on China’s coming decline. One notable such effort, “THE END OF CHINA’S RISE” by Michael Beckley and Hal Brands, appeared in Foreign Affairs magazine in October 2021. Beckley and Brands argue that the phenomenal economic success China enjoyed for several decades was a “historical anomaly” resulting from several factors that are no longer existent. The first was the close and mutually advantageous economic relationship that developed between the United States and China after President Nixon’s visit there in 1972. The second was the economic and political reforms set in motion by Deng. The third was the dramatic rise in population growth that began after the end of the civil war between the communists and nationalists in 1949. But in more recent times, Beckley and Brands explain, China has experienced a reversal of fortune in all these areas. China is running out of water—half of its rivers have vanished, and 60 percent of its groundwater is undrinkable. It has destroyed 40 percent of its farmland through overexploitation.
Food insecurity is widespread. Despite its prodigious domestic production, China has been a net importer of agricultural products for nearly two decades. Most deleteriously, China’s population is shrinking, a consequence of the one-child policy adopted by the government in 1980. Between 2020 and 2035, Beckley and Brands estimate, China will lose 70 million working-age adults and gain 130 million senior citizens—a problem that will get worse through 2050. Age-related spending will have to triple by that year, reaching 30 percent of GDP (as a point of comparison, all of China’s government spending today comes to roughly that amount). Finally, Beckley and Brands inform us that most recent growth in China—since the financial crisis of 2008—has resulted from the government “force-feeding” capital into the economy, which the academic Daniel Lynch, in his version of “THE END OF CHINA’S RISE,” calls “the greatest monetary stimulus program the world has ever seen.”
How will China’s demographic and economic deterioration affect its behavior on the world stage? As Europe discovered in 1914, it is impossible to predict the future course of international events. Anne Applebaum wrote a piece for The Atlantic, “THE BAD GUYS ARE WINNING,” in which she portrays a coalition of anti-democratic states, led by Russia and China, determined to challenge the democratic order around the globe. It is particularly worrisome that Xi has emerged as a Mao-like tyrant, complete with books on “Xi Jinping Thought.” The deterioration of China’s economic status might make it more likely, rather than less, that Xi will take unwise actions. However, the United States has at the ready a number of allies in the Indo-Pacific—including Japan, Australia, India, and the Philippines—prepared to participate in countering Chinese belligerence. The future, an ancient sage might venture, is wide open to the vagaries of fate.
For nearly a decade in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the newly founded Islamic Republic of Iran waged a merciless war against each other. The fighting saw the return of World War I-style human-wave offensives, trench warfare, and chemical weapons attacks.
Though it dragged on for years, the Iran-Iraq war benefited neither side. In the end, the conflict claimed the lives of over a million people, since, despite the carnage and wishes of ordinary people on both sides to end it, no diplomatic solution proved possible over eight years of fighting.
There is good reason to worry that this ugly history is repeating itself today in Eastern Europe.
Like the Iran-Iraq war, the war in Ukraine was triggered by an expansionist dictator hoping to make quick work of a neighbor whom he had wrongly predicted would prove incapable of defending itself. Now, over a year into the fighting, the conflict, which has already claimed hundreds of thousands of casualties by some estimates, has ground to a bloody stalemate that has transformed once-anonymous Ukrainian towns like Bakhmut and Marinka into killing fields.
A peace treaty that puts a stop to this chaos is attractive for many obvious reasons, and foreign powers like China and India have recently indicated that they would like to encourage one. Yet observers say that all signs point to the war dragging on for years to come, with both sides — like Iranians and Iraqis in the past — committed to the belief that victory is within their grasp and that pressing the war forward is worthwhile.
“I don’t see any prospect of diplomacy. What both sides would accept as an equitable settlement to the war is very far apart,” said Rajan Menon, the author of “Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order” and a research fellow at Columbia University. Menon pointed to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration that the four Russian-controlled Ukrainian provinces had already been annexed — a position he is extremely unlikely to back away from.
“I don’t see any prospect of diplomacy. What both sides would accept as an equitable settlement to the war is very far apart.”
“On the Ukrainian side,” Menon said, “because their country has been invaded and has witnessed immense destruction and atrocities, there is a coming together of Ukrainian sentiment to fight against Russia. They have no illusions about a quick victory and have already priced in that they will have to endure this for a long time.”
Menon argues that the war is thus likely to continue for many years to come, a prediction that is echoed by many other observers. Some have argued that the conflict will become a permanent part of the international system, only concluding if either Ukraine or Russia collapses, or both cease to exist as states. Even if a negotiated settlement emerges sometime in the future, the amount of destruction that will have likely taken place by that time will be staggering.
The war has already taken a devastating toll on the Ukrainian population, which has suffered civilian massacres and systematic destruction of infrastructure. Yet it has also proved damaging to Russia. In addition to suffering Western sanctions, which are likely to escalate in the years to come, huge numbers of young Russian men have been killed, wounded, or simply fled the country to escape military enlistment. According to The Economist, this exodus and killing off of young Russians means that there are now 10 million more Russian women than men in the country — a situation that portends a demographic nightmare for an already rapidly aging population.
In a sense, the U.S. has played a role in prolonging the conflict by heavily arming the Ukrainians to resist Russia’s aggression. The position has drawn scrutiny from some sectors of the U.S. political establishment. Noninterventionist foreign policy observers from the realist, right-wing, and left-wing camps have characterized the conflict as overly costly in financial terms, blamed the U.S. for provoking Russia with the prospect of NATO expansion, or suggested that it would be the lesser evil to cease arms shipments to the Ukrainians and let the conflict conclude swiftly, accepting a likely Russian victory.
What these positions fail to account for are the actions of Ukrainians, who, over a year of grueling fighting, have proven themselves very committed to preserving their own nationhood and territorial integrity.
“If you are calling to stop the war right now, and you’re a person on the left, you’re effectively telling Ukrainians to accept the partition of their country, which is the same position as the MAGA right,” Menon said. “Ukraine would have to cease existing as a coherent state and be truncated. But through his actions, Putin has kind of remade Ukrainian nationalism, and they have a commitment to win.”
Despite the unlikelihood of a negotiated outcome to the war coming any time soon, there are signs of longer-term planning for an endgame by the United States.
While U.S. leaders were glad to egg on the Iran-Iraq war for years — including arming both sides and helping facilitate chemical weapons attacks against Iran by Saddam — there seems to be less appetite for the risk of an indefinite conflict involving a nuclear power like Russia.
A recent report by the RAND Corporation laid out the consequences for the U.S. of a very long war in Ukraine, including the small but persistent possibility of nuclear escalation. The report acknowledged that Ukrainian and American interests may well diverge in the future, with Americans coming to prioritize ending the conflict over helping Ukraine regain full control of its occupied territory — a goal ultimately more important to Ukrainians than Americans.
“The U.S. is currently engaged in [a] protracted attempt to punish Russia because they have offended our moral sensibilities. I don’t think that is inherently wrong, but it’s different from saying that it’s a critical national security interest,” said Benjamin Friedman, policy director at the realist foreign policy think tank Defense Priorities and a lecturer at George Washington University. “We have already underlined that invading other countries in this day and age is very costly. Russia has been punished heavily for violating Ukrainian sovereignty, and I don’t think that anyone would look at them after today and say that they are an example to emulate.”
For now, the fighting will continue and may even increase. Ukraine is likely to pursue a counteroffensive against Russia this spring, even as soldiers on both sides continue to die in the grueling battle for the town of Bakhmut.
The U.S., for its part, is reportedly looking at upping its own support by providing F-16s to the Ukrainian military, with pilots now being brought stateside for training. Unlike in the Iran-Iraq war, where the U.S. armed both countries at various times in order to keep the conflict going and kill as many people on both sides as possible, in the Ukraine war, it has clearly picked one side to support to the hilt.
“The war has a low probability of a serious escalation, but the longer you continue to roll those dice, even if the odds are low, the more likely you are to hit on a future disaster.”
Faced with the Russian invasion, heavily arming Ukraine may indeed be the least bad option. Yet despite paying dividends in slain Russian troops, this policy, likely to keep the war going for a long time to come, will keep the risk of far more dangerous escalation alive down the road. Just as the horror of the Iran-Iraq war had unintended long-term consequences for U.S. politics in the Middle East, an endless conflict in Ukraine will likely give shape to an Eastern Europe that is more radicalized and dangerous for Americans in the future.
“A lot of people basically have the view that it’s great that we’re killing Russians and weakening Russia for the future. It will prevent them from invading other countries, and, so long as it’s Ukrainians who are signed up on the front lines, there’s no real issue for the United States,” said Friedman. “But the war going on and on is bad for the United States. The war has a low probability of a serious escalation, but the longer you continue to roll those dice, even if the odds are low, the more likely you are to hit on a future disaster.”
The post The War in Ukraine Is Just Getting Started appeared first on The Intercept.
China sees a partnership with Russia as a way to challenge, and potentially weaken, the United States, a new threat assessment said.
President Biden has not acted to resolve a dispute that pits the Defense Department against other agencies.
As the uprising enters its sixth month, Iran is plunging further into a deep economic and social crisis. But the struggle against the regime continues.