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We must meet China halfway

By Andrew Sheng and Xiao Geng
Xiao Geng
Xiao Geng

In their recent pronouncement, the leaders of NATO member states said that China poses “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order”. The response from China’s EU representation was clear: “We do not pose a ‘systemic challenge’ to anyone, but if someone wants to be a ‘systemic challenge’ to us, we will not remain indifferent.” Such confrontational rhetoric is unnecessary, and most of the world’s population probably doesn’t want it to escalate. But escalation is exactly what is becoming more likely by the day.

This is largely because China is one of the few policy areas where US President Joe Biden has largely adopted the approach of his predecessor Donald Trump: strict competition, cooperation only when absolutely necessary, and confrontation when necessary. So, as its response to the Nato announcement suggests, China seems to have developed its own three-tiered response: not looking for a fight, not being afraid to fight, and fighting when necessary.

Nato is by no means the only forum in which Biden is pushing the US approach. At the recent G7 summit and in his meeting with EU leaders he also tried to persuade his allies to build a common front against China (and Russia).

Drumming for a New Cold War

US Senator Bernie Sanders has recognized the problem: he recently warned that by calling China an existential threat, the US political elite is beating the drums” for a new Cold War in which there will be no winner. According to Sanders, gearing US foreign policy towards a “zero-sum global confrontation with China would be politically dangerous and strategically counterproductive”.

This flawed U.S. approach to China is rooted in a persistent belief in the concept of absolute national security. While this may have been a reasonable goal for the United States in the decades after World War II – when the country was at the helm of a unipolar world order – it is no longer realistic in today’s multipolar system.

In today’s world, trying to “corral and confront” countries with different values or systems, rather than negotiating a new world order in which they have their place, is a sure path to conflict. In any case, it hinders the possibility of taking helpful economic action together on common problems like climate change. As a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in London noted after the G7 summit, “The days of global decisions being dictated by a small group of countries are long gone.”

Stiglitz: USA more Plutocracy than Representative Democracy

But the problem is deeper: even within this “small group of countries,” decisions like promoting conflict with China do not necessarily reflect the will of the majority. As Joseph E. Stiglitz once noted, the US today no longer looks like a representative democracy, but more like a plutocracy – in which the top one percent of income earners can influence much of public policy in their favor.

If the top one percent of a country representing five percent of the world’s population brings the world’s two largest economies into conflict with each other, the whole world will suffer significantly, and the vast majority of people will have no say in the matter. If the US and its Western allies seriously believed in democracy, they should find this unacceptable.

A better approach – one that also reflects the values that Western liberal democracies claim to respect – would take into account the interests of the “one Earth,” which includes not only all of humanity, but also the planet on which we depend. This means broadening our perspective beyond national security to seek global security – the greatest good for the greatest number – and ensuring that all people have a say regarding our common future.

Rhetoric of the global Elite must be broken through

We are not arguing for world government. The natural and social sciences have proven how fragile monocultures are. Just as in nature, diversity brings stability and progress to human civilization. Even competition can be a good thing, but only if it is complemented by effective cooperation and avoids violence against people or the environment.

So how could a “One Earth” system be realized? Feedback mechanisms from the bottom up, made possible by technology, are crucial. The goal must be to break the bunkers that the global elite has been building for a long time with its abstruse rhetoric. This would allow more people – with expertise in more areas – to contribute to the debate.

“Clash of Civilizations”

The benefits of such an approach are evident in the tensions that exist between traditional economic thinking – which focuses on ever more consumption, investment, and growth – and environmental imperatives such as reducing greenhouse gases and protecting biodiversity. In a “One Earth” system, more of “one good thing” can often be very bad.

This outdated, divisive approach is also reflected in the superficial narrative that the US and China are locked in a “clash of civilizations. Empires clash, but civilizations should be “civil” to each other – not least because we all share the same earth.

To do so, policymakers must move beyond a narrow focus on national security and engage in broad, inclusive discussions about how to achieve global security in the form of peace, stability, adequate food, and environmental sustainability. But first, the US must stop trying to contain China and start engaging it.

Andrew Sheng is a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong and a member of the UNEP Advisory Council on Sustainable Finance. Xiao Geng, Chairman of the Hong Kong Institute of International Finance, is Professor and Director at the Sea Silk Road Research Institute at HSBC Business School, Peking University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.


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