It has been said in recent years that the world has entered a period of turbulent change as a result of unprecedented changes in the international situation over the past century or so. The international community is going through a major tests of multilateralism versus unilateralism, openness versus closed approaches and cooperation versus confrontation, while the new corona pneumonia epidemic has accelerated the adjustments in the international landscape.
First, we need to clarify what is this “century-old pattern”? The author’s explanation is that the “100-year pattern” is (nothing but) the international governance system formed on the basis of the rules set by the developed Western countries led by the United States. This pattern mainly serves to maintain, consolidate and promote their interests. With the changes in the international power balance over the past century, especially the rapid rise of a large number of developing countries represented by China, developed countries such as the United States increasingly feel that the pattern they have carefully constructed has become “unmanageable” and increasingly difficult to control.
Initially, they tried to retain the model of the original governance system, i.e. the shell, but in practice, they tried to promote double and multiple standards. This approach was met with resistance from a wide range of developing countries. This explains why, in recent decades, the vast majority of international multilateral organizations and institutions have almost come to a “standstill” or have been on the verge of disintegration in some cases. The vast majority of international treaties and agreements are difficult to comply with and implement. The World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are typical examples. In addition, many bilateral treaties and agreements reached between the United States and the Soviet Union (Russia) have been torn up. The United States under Trump, guided by the “America First” strategy, has simply withdrawn from international organizations one after another.
Second, how should we evaluate the “100-year pattern”? According to my understanding, “one hundred years” is counted from the Second World War. After the end of World War II, the international community, on the basis of lessons learned from World War I, created a system of international governance based on the United Nations. Since World War II, there has been no World War III, and the world has been generally peaceful and stable, despite local wars and skirmishes. The world economy and society have seen the fastest and best development in human history.
But interestingly, many people are dissatisfied with this pattern and are clamoring for reform. Those developed countries are not satisfied, not to mention the United States. The developing countries in general are also strongly demanding to increase their representation and enhance their voice. The entanglement of the two forces has brought difficulties for international governance. Populism and unilateral bullying are rampant and there is muck flowing all around. Objectively speaking, this is not the fault of the United States and party alone, but as the only superpower today, it is the instigator. For example, our neighboring country, India, is also not reconciled to falling behind. Looked upon as a former flag bearer of the Non-Aligned Movement, it appears to have ideas of (effecting) a dramatic change of course.
Third, what is China’s attitude? The author believes that, for China, there are advantages in change. The dramatic changes in the landscape mean huge opportunities as well as huge challenges. The key lies in how to accurately judge the changes, adapt to them, and then lead them in a direction that is beneficial to China and humanity as a whole. In the above-mentioned major test of “multilateralism and unilateralism, openness and closed approaches, cooperation and confrontation”, China has chosen multilateralism, openness and cooperation. The United States under Trump’s administration has chosen unilateralism, closed approaches and confrontation. The current U.S. Administration is coming to the end of its term, the 15 countries in the Asia-Pacific region have successfully completed the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP), and China and Europe have completed negotiations on an investment agreement at the end of 2020. It can be said that these are all “gifts” to send off the current U.S. administration.
Fourth, what does the change of regime in the United States mean for China and the world? After the voting in the U.S. elections, European countries initially could not hold back their joy and cheered “America is back”. Some countries that bet on the wrong thing wilted, while others breathed a sigh of relief, but are still waiting to see what happens. Because Trump has still not publicly admitted defeat, more than 100 Republican members of Congress are reportedly planning to refuse to accept the results of the Electoral College vote on January 6. So, more people are concerned about the U.S. because of the uncertainty and the extent to which the U.S. under Biden will “flip” Trump’s policies in the coming years.
During the four years of his Administration, Trump disrupted the world with his “America First” banner. The government under his leadership has been making attacks all round, all over the world, resulting in “angry and discontented publics” globally. With regard to China, the U.S. government has adopted a frenzied crack-down, from trade, science and technology, people-to-people contacts, diplomacy, military and other fields, bringing Sino-U.S. relations to the lowest point in more than 40 years of diplomatic relations. Some top officials of the current U.S. administration (such as Secretary of State Pompeo) have bad things to say about relations with China. Of course, these four years have also made the vast majority of Chinese people understand that this is what the democracy, freedom and human rights the U.S. boasts of are about. The U.S. has been a free “negative instructor”.
And Trump has left Biden with a completely divided country. The political polarisation and tearing apart of the social fabric will be very difficult to heal. The election saw the highest turnout in U.S. history. And Trump became the re-election seeking Presidential candidate with the highest number of votes in U.S. history, and Biden also became the President-elect with the highest votes in U.S. history. It is important to note that hardcore groups inclined towards “Trumpism” are still there. Biden also announced his “100-day New Deal”, under which he would address three things in his first 100 days: adjusting immigration policy, controlling the new corona epidemic, and returning to the Paris Agreement on climate change. Let’s wait and see whether Biden can fire the first shot.
Fifth, what will happen next in Sino-US relations? This question is of concern not only to the Chinese, but to the whole world. In a congratulatory message to Biden, the Chinese leader said, “Promoting the healthy and stable development of Sino-U.S. relations is not only in the fundamental interests of the two peoples, but also a common expectation of the international community. We hope that both sides will uphold the spirit of non-conflict and non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, focus on cooperation, manage differences, and promote healthy and stable development of Sino-US relations”. This is both the answer given by China and an expression of the Chinese government’s consistent position on U.S.-China relations. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in an interview on Jan. 2 that U.S.-China relations have come to a new crossroads, and he hopes the new U.S. Administration will regain its rationality and restart dialogue.
As President-elect of the United States, Biden previously said in a question-and-answer session that “the United States is strongest when it works with its allies. He said he wanted to “restore American leadership to the world. Many people will ask what Biden will do when he unites with his allies. The world has changed, China and the United States have changed, and Biden is still trying to lead the world. Who does he want to lead? Who will accept his leadership? No matter what answer the U.S. gives, I firmly believe that as long as all Chinese people are closely united and do their own thing, there will be no difficulty that cannot be overcome and no adversary that cannot be defeated.
(The author is a former UN Under-Secretary-General)