The International System Change - A Deepening Conflict Between The US and China - A New Post Liberal World Order In Emergence?
On the cover page of Foreign Affairs Journal was the question: ”Out of Order: The future of the international System?” Vitaly Churkin , the Russian ambassador to the UN, who died on Tuesday, told Russia Today in an interview this month that diplomacy had become "much more hectic," with ”political tensions rising and stability elusive in various hotspots”. These two observations introduce properly the title of my lecture which tries to answer the question whether a deepening conflict between the US and China will result for the presidency of Donald Trump.
The international System - The Concept Under Scrutiny
First, a few comments concerning the concept of the international system. Historically, it has been generally agreed that the modern capitalism and industrialization created the basis of the present international system since the sixteenth century. Furthermore, the states are the key units within the system, and a state-centric international system was founded in the Westphalian Treaty in 1648. The balance of power between the units - i.e. the states - constitutes the structure of the system. The endless debate is going on whether the bipolar system is more stable then the multipolar or hegemonic system.
Since the world War II we have had a liberal world order until 1991 based on the bipolar system. The Cold War was fought on two fronts. One between China and the Soviet union and another between the Soviet union and the US-led West. Since the end of the Cold War a short period of time a US-led Unipolar momentum emerged in the 1990s. The victory of capitalism in terms of globalization has become a common enemy for radical islam, a number of populist movements in the West and authoritarian states like Russia. Since 2007 a new conflict emerged between the West and Russia that challenged the liberal order. The official Russian national security strategy 2015 contains the strategic goal ”transforming the Russian Federation into a world power” as a key national interest.
The structure of the system acts as a constraint to the actors and is autonomous for the individual actor, but not for the actors as a whole. Although Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping matter as well as Donald Trump, they are constrained by the system. The classic works in the field are Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics1 and Robert Gilpin’s War and Change in World Politics.
According to the theory of the hegemonic war, the threat of war is high when the rising state (now China) would like to seek to change the rules of the international system in its favour. However, an interesting issue is that China is a solid supporter of globalization which is one of the basic rules of the present liberal international system. China is the second largest funder of the UN peace-keeping, member of the UN Security Council and has gained from liberal economic institutions, like WTO and IMF. China has been an active promoter of climate change treaties and control of cyberspace conflicts.On balance, China has tried not to overthrow the current order but rather to increase its influence within it. However, President Xi Jinping has sometimes referred to a need of a new world order that would be based on the rising economies, like India and Brazil, but as far as I understand, still based on globalization.
A word of warning is necessary. The scholars of ”the world society model” of international relations, like Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye in their book Power and Interdependence,(1977) referred, by interdependence, ”to situations characterized by reciprocal effects among countries or among actors in different countries3 . Such situations do not always result in mutual benefits. It has been realized that Russia has weaponized interdependence in the energy sector. More examples. Interdependence restricts autonomy. This problem is real when analyzing Chino-American relations. A few years ago it seemed that both country shared same goals and interests with respect to globalization and considered Europe for inspiration on how to balance between economic growth and social security. No more.
China’ model is creating a greater Asian co-prosperity sphere that holds the greatest potential to force a rethinking of the basic geographic and economic building blocs of the global order. Today China’s Central Bank sits atop of perhaps 3 trillion of foreign exchange reserves, and is a real factor in the international financial markets, in particular buying the US state bonds. The US wants ”buy America policy”, and China is buying America. China is leading the charge toward the next monetary order with calls for a stable neutral currency dominated by no one nation. A Global Central Bank as an idea has been discussed at least in the Davos Economic Forum4. The Peking government is planning infrastructure project increasing connectiveness globally.
Can Russia Change The Liberal Order?
Russia seeks a change of the liberal world sorder more rapidly in order to regain its great power status back. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated last week in Munich that we are experiencing a ”post-West world order” to emerge. He went on and emphasized that in that order all countries are sovereign and not controlled by the Western powers. The speech by Lavrov was not surprise as was the speech of Vladimir Putin 10 years ago in the same conference. Putin declared in his speech a conflict with the West although he was not taken by the word. Even the war in Georgia was considered primarily as an individual case not part of any aggressive strategy of Russia. In these efforts Russia is not supported by other BRIC- nations when the issue is about the use of military power.
I have used both scholars in my Dangerous Peace (1997). In both bipolar and multipolar systems and structures, changes in relative powers among the principal actors in the system are precursors of international political change. We could say that the post World War II liberal and US-dominated international order is challenged at least for number of reasons. New power centers have been in the rise (BRICS) and the western countries are facing economic stagnation and demographic setbacks. However, the the liberal world order does not have any serious alternative in the short term, next 20-30 years.
In any case, the odds are stacked against the US. While America is a much stronger power than China, it is also perceived to be in decline, while China is perceived to be on the rise. However, like Harvard Professor Joe Nye emphasizes, China’s economy is still 61% of the US economy, and economic might is just part of the geopolitical equation. Militarily China is far behind the US and concerning the attraction index, ”soft power”, the US is number one and China 28th. Leadership is not the same as domination. But in the system complexity is growing that is a challenge to all actors within the system. Neither China nor the US can achieve greatness without cooperation and partners.
The world may be “on the brink” of a “post-Western age”, as a leading German think tank has warned.“Some of the most fundamental pillars of the West and of the liberal international order are weakening ... [and] the willingness and ability of Western democracies to shape international affairs and to defend the rules-based liberal order are declining,” Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German diplomat who now chairs the Munich Security Conference (MSC), said.
The German think-tank is wrong when uplifting Russia which is without any doubt a declining power although both China and Russia are frightening their neighbors. So far, Trump seems far more likely than any of his predecessors to accelerate, rather than resist, the unwinding of the postwar order. And that could be a very bad — or an unexpectedly good — thing. So far, he has chosen to act as if the West no longer matters, seemingly blind to the danger that Putin’s Russia presents to American security and American society. The question ahead of us is whether Trump will aid the Kremlin’s goals with his anti-globalist, anti-NATO rhetoric – or whether he’ll clearly see the end of the old order, grasp the nature of the war we are in, and have the vision and the confrontational spirit to win it.
US-China relations were always destined to end in difficult territory. Whenever the world’s number two power (today China) is about to overtake the world’s number one power (today USA), relations inevitably get difficult. However, the inherent difficulties are likely to be aggravated by the election of Donald Trump. He has shown virtually no diplomatic restraint in his criticism of China, although has slightly withdrawn or backed from his critical comments of ”One China” politics of the Peking government of the Chinese Communist Party. It does not take a political genius to conclude that US-China relations are heading towards a turbulent phase.
Moreover, geography matters. All of China’s neighbors know that the US may be in Asia for another hundred years. However, they know that China will be around for another thousand years. It would thus be unwise for any Asian country to seriously alienate China. The clear preference of virtually all the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ( ASEAN) is to maintain good relations with both the US and China. They do not wish to be forced to choose between the two.
ASEAN - CHINA - US
There will be many accidental victims of US-China turbulence. One of the most vulnerable candidates is (ASEAN). The US is tempted to use ASEAN as an instrument to embarrass China over its assertive actions in the South China Sea. Several American leaders have already spoken out on the issue, including President Barack Obama, who said: “Regional aggression that goes unchecked – whether it is southern Ukraine, or the South China Sea, or anywhere else in the world – will ultimately impact our allies, and could draw in our military.” The Trump administration has been equally critical.
ASEAN leaders, in turn, should recognize that ASEAN’s neutrality is one of its greatest strengths. The United States, China, Japan and India have a common interest in ASEAN’s survival and success. It has become indispensable in the Asia- Pacific region, and no other organization can replace it. It is trusted by all the great powers. As former Singaporean Ambassador to the UN Tommy Koh has said: “The US, China and India are not able to take the role of driving the region because they have no common agenda. ASEAN is able to do so precisely because the three great powers cannot agree. And we can continue to do so as long as the major powers find us neutral and independent.”
Both America and China will have to display extraordinary sensitivity in dealing with ASEAN. It is an inherently weak regional organization yet, paradoxically, its weakness has been a source of strength, as it provides a neutral geopolitical platform. This will become all the more important as the competition between the US and China continues to intensify.
China And The US - Concluding Remarks
China and the US are doomed to cooperate for new global challenges and processes in technology, climate change and social issues. The leaders of both countries understand the calamities that hey face in case a conflict instead cooperation would result. At the moment a deepening conflict may be the reality of the day but not a response to them in the longer term.Their mutual cooperation will be decisive for the maintenance for the adjustments of the liberal world order in the 21st century.
In his book On China (2011), Henry Kissinger completes his major book with two questions:
At the beginning of the presidency of Donald Trump these questions are more open than 2011 when Kissinger published his book. The conflictual relationship may become as much an option as ”genuine strategic trust”.
"The more you understand the world, the higher your chance of shaping it".
Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.
Valtiotieteen tohtori, suurlähettiläs, tasavallan presidentin entinen neuvonantaja, professori ja kirjailija.
Kirjoituksia saa lainata. Lähde on mainittava.