The old world order – the Pax Americana - is falling apart. What does China think about all of this? Beijing realises that it needs to do more to maintain a reasonable minimum of international order – and that it needs to work with the United States towards that purpose.
The world is in turmoil. Islamist terrorist attacks hit France, Indonesia, Somalia, Burkina Faso; the Syrian civil war continues unabated; North Korea tests another nuclear bomb. The United States can and will no longer lead the way in solving all these crises, and the consequences of this void are not exactly reassuring, especially not for China. Rather than transitioning from a Pax Americana to the much-touted Chinese vision of a multipolar world, the global order seems to be falling apart.
One authoritative voice reflecting where the present Chinese leadership stands on such issues is Fu Ying. She chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s National People‘s Congress, its parliament, and she will lead China’s delegation at the Munich Security Conference. A few weeks ago, Fu Ying published an essay on Chinese-Russian relations in Foreign Affairs. More recently, she explained her thoughts in an op-ed contribution to the Financial Times. Both pieces contained much of the usual harsh accusations against an America „elbowing its way into regional disputes“ in East Asia and trying to set new trade rules „without including all the major economies“ (for which read: China).
Finding common ground with the US
Yet in Fu’s FT article, the familiar critique of America was sandwiched between two arguments that are rather more interesting. First, she identified terrorist political violence as today’s possibly most important threat to world order, if not to the modern world as a whole. In that vein, her op-ed remarkably opens with a reminiscence of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 against New York and Washington, DC. Implicitly, Fu thus establishes common ground and even expresses a measure of solidarity with the United States, as Beijing did back in 2001. One may read this as an offer to join with America in the global struggle against Islamist terrorism.
Fu’s second point is that China needs to do more to shoulder its international responsibilities. Using a discussion between Henry Kissinger and a group of Chinese students as a foil, she observes that China is dissatisfied with the American world order and ready to criticise it – but not ready to come up with its own ideas. She is right. Her op-ed does not spell out what this implies, but she clearly recognises that Beijing has to try harder to do its part in shaping the future world order. She also accepts that good relations between China and the US are critical in that context. She got that right, too: today´s threadbare world order increasingly depends on the bilateral relationship between Washington and Beijing.
That relationship is complicated enough in itself: the two “tangled titans”, as George Washington University’s David Shambaugh calls them, are economically so massively intertwined that some economists call this the economic equivalent to MAD (mutually assured destruction). In other words, if one of the two lashed out at the economy of the other, it would itself suffer from the fallout. It need not be a deliberate attack, either: it would be enough if something went wrong badly in one of the two countries. The US Federal Reserve recognized this mutual vulnerability last autumn when it suspended its planned interest rate rise in view of the economic situation in China.
Managing the complex US-China relationship
Managing this complex bilateral relationship on the rails will require a lot of deft and responsible policy management by both Washington and Beijing, especially since China also challenges the US dominance in East Asia’s regional order, and thus threatens America’s global position geo-politically.
At the same time, the two will have to work together on a number of broader issues. For only when China and the US can agree on a common approach to tackling global challenges, be it maintaining an open world trading order, fighting IS or slowing climate change, will there be a reasonable chance for broader international solutions. In that sense, the Paris climate agreement was paradigmatic: it was the bilateral compromise on climate change policies of November 2015 between Presidents Obama and Xi that made the success in Paris possible. Whenever the two countries cannot find common ground, however, as for example on the right response to North Korea’s nuclear threat, this will further undermine what is left of – in that case – the international non-proliferation order.
Beijing and Washington are condemned to maintain a mode of “peaceful coexistence”. Yet they will not only have to learn to respect each other as equals, they will also have to get used to work together as partners in shaping and maintaining the new international order. There is a lot at stake in this bilateral relationship, not only for China and America, but also for Europe and the rest of the world. Fu Ying’s contributions are a welcome sign that the political leadership in Beijing is thinking seriously about this.