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The new world order and China’s role in it

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Thirty years ago China’s share of world trade hovered below 1% but has increased more than tenfold since. Every year since the turn of the millennium, China has provided a quarter of the international economy’s annual growth.

China’s entering the mainstream of the global economy was symbolically completed when it became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. This added 800 million workers to the international labor force. China is now the biggest market and the biggest economy in the world. The West’s economy and political elite are forced to ride the shock waves caused by China’s rise. Western retailers source most of their stock from China. Millions of blue-collar workers have lost their jobs in the West as production is relocated to the Far East, and China’s huge untapped rural labor reserve will not run out in the coming decade. The entry of China and India into the global labor market reduced the global capital to labor ratio by 55 to 60%. This is the single most important ratio explaining the phenomenon we call globalization. The development of Chinese capitalism is fundamentally different from the previous British or American models though, where the technological innovations of their own inventors fuelled progress. China, on the other hand, imported ready-made solutions from the more developed parts of the world. China is also becoming an international financial power. It has become the leading holder of US Treasury debt and thus is now officially the American government’s largest foreign creditor. China has also accumulated the largest foreign currency reserves in the world.

In 1820, China and India combined accounted for about half of the world output, while Europe only accounted for 24% and the US only 2% (!). China only exported, the West – primarily Britain, the hegemonic power of the 19th century – imported. A huge global trade imbalance was accumulated to China’s advantage and China held an incredible amount of British silver. Today’s situation is surprisingly similar. In the 19th century this led to the opium wars and to the end of the once mighty Chinese empire. In 1978 China accounted for less than 1% of global GDP. What the West sees now is indeed the re-emergence of China in an incredibly fast way.

China’s middle class is expanding at an unheard of speed, and its wealthy few are becoming the wealthy many. Chinese society is undergoing rapid transformation, which alters people’s self-identity as well. A poll published by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs[1] already in 2007 indicated that the Chinese believed that, in ten years’ time, their country will be just as powerful and influential in the world as the United States. At the same time the majority of Americans, Chinese, Indians and South Koreans polled were of the opinion that China would pull ahead of the US in the global race. Clearly China is no longer just an economic power but also a political force to be reckoned with, often flexing its muscles to further increase American unease.

The turn of the new millennium saw the emergence of new centers of gravity, often in the form of non-centralized conglomerates of states with large differences among them and without a single political will. The most important such center of gravity is South-East Asia, which has a growing influence on the global economy and world politics. With the boom in the Chinese economy, the slow but steady recovery of Japan’s economy, the reinvigoration of the “small tigers” and the strengthening regional roles of India and Australia, South and East Asia looks set to become the key focal point of the next world order. But with that role and power comes increased responsibility, in particular for the region’s leading country: China. Issues that have been considered domestic in nature — such as setting the yuan’s exchange rate, the efficient organization of the textile industry, health care reforms, better and more transparent governance or curbing corruption — will have a direct global impact.

As Asia rises, so does the West’s economic, demographic, political and military significance erode. The days of the global rules and institutions established by the West are numbered. Most Chinese researchers, politicians and even the man in the street are convinced that, things will soon be back to normal as China is becoming the world’s biggest economy just as it had always been until the beginning of the 19th century. (As late as the 18th century, China was the world’s largest trading nation, conducting one third of global trade, with India as runner up boasting one sixth of global trade.)

By 2015 the era of G7/G8 – in other words: the era of absolute Western domination with US hegemony – is over. The 21st century will refashion the global political order as well as the global financial world. The hegemony of the dollar — just as of the USA — will come to an end. International institutions need to be reformed. It is just absurd for Belgium to have greater voting weight in the International Monetary Fund than India. At the moment international organizations are functioning inefficiently and are on the decline, which is not surprising, as they are institutions of the post-war West-centered world.[2] We are living in an era of G20 but this seems only an interim solution. The question is what world order follows? Suggestions are plenty.

There is Robert Haass’s vision of a non-polar world order[3], more precisely a non-polar disorder, which is inevitably unstable in the long run. G3 is more of a Chinese idea. It is a multiple variable geometry in which different G3 setups can be envisaged (China, USA, Russia; China, EU, USA; China, Japan, USA) according to the needs of and relevance to the issue in question. G2 (a Sino-American tandem) seems for the time-being to be a weird animal to the Chinese. In 2009, some began talking about a G2 in the model of the G7, G8 or G20 and envisioned an Obama-Hu Jintao duo deciding the fate of the world. China was abashed by that talk of a G2 and was quick to deny any speculations about a bipolar USA-China world order. China has at least two problems with the G2 setup: for the time-being, it does not want to expose itself as a real global power nor wants it to be drawn too close to the US.

Chinese politicians and scholars treat the West’s loss of influence as granted, but there are people in China who worry about the possibility of America’s rapid decline. The more realistic observers in Beijing believe that America’s collapse (no matter how realistic this is anyway) would have disastrous implications, because China is not yet ready to build an alternative world order. Hence the objective should be to compel the USA to show more willingness to cooperate rather than bring it down.

“The rise of China is granted by nature. In the last 2,000 years China has enjoyed superpower status several times…China’s decline is a historical mistake which should be corrected” — the political scientist Yuan Xuetong wrote[4] in the Journal of Contemporary China in 2001, the year when the image of the USA’s invincibility was shattered. “Isn’t it possible that China, like all rising powers of the past, including the United States, wants to reshape the international system to suit its own purposes, commensurate with its new power?” Robert Kagan asked four years later in the pages of the Washington Post.[5]

China is preparing itself, trying to identify the weaknesses and strengths of its rivals. Its vast administration, including the army and intelligence services, is busy calculating, analyzing, generating strategies, and suggesting dos and don’ts for China’s rise. Meanwhile, the Chinese economy is growing at breakneck speed and beginning to reshape the global market. Chinese foreign policy has restricted its attention to local, or at most regional affairs, but the isolationist, policy of the nineties is inappropriate in the 21st century. It is unclear whether China’s true character is soft power or hard power. They have been undecided for centuries, even though China has been involved in wars or armed conflicts with almost all of its neighbors. Chinese political leaders seem to be uncertain at this point how to define the future role of China in the emerging world order. It is indeed a major problem for the West that it does not see where China is headed; but it is even a bigger problem for the whole world that China itself does not know either. Having said this China is reinforcing its global security focus. Chinese President Xi Jinping already announced the setting up of the Chinese National Security Commission (CNSC). The CNSC has three major tasks.

– To advise the Politburo (which oversees the Communist Party) and the highest levels of the leadership on security strategy.

-To coordinate between different departments throughout the party, the government, the military, and society.

– To conduct crisis management and risk management, for both internal and external security threats.

In July 2015, the Chinese government passed a new national security law that will strengthen its role in China’s national security policy.[6] The Chinese Security Commission decided to establish high-level communication mechanisms with the US National Security Council as security issues between China and the US already affect the entire globe, and especially the Asia-Pacific region. The hotline proposed by China between the Chinese National Security Commission and the U.S. National Security Council is meant to handle emergency situations.

The transformation of the international order, the end of a hegemonic system, the appearance of a new power has often brought disaster in history. The only exception to this rule was the changeover of power between the British Empire and the United States in the 20th century, but this was a special case for two reasons. Firstly, the two nations were closely related culturally (in the broadest sense); secondly, that changeover happened during global wars in which the two Anglo-Saxon powers fought side by side. The map of the world is being redrawn again at the beginning of the 21st century. In a Huntingtonian world the birth of a new world order and the emergence of new global powers inevitably lead to a crisis or a global conflict. Zakaria and Khanna, two well-known analysts of current times are less pessimistic,[7] they talk about a world coming to terms with a natural multipolarity by the emergence of the second and the third world.

On a historical scale, America’s rise to global power status was extremely quick: on the eve of World War II the US Army was smaller than that of the Dutch but by 1944 America’s military output was double that of the Axis powers. The USA climbed to the top of the world with unprecedented speed and stayed there for a short century. In 2000 the United States was the strongest power in history, whose global supremacy was uncontested. Its budget showed a healthy surplus, its military might was unparalleled, its economic clout colossal. However, since 2001 the US’s global position weakened. There is a lot of discussion about the end of the US supremacy and also on why has America’s global dominance come to an end and how China found its way up? One obvious explanation is the dynamics of history: it is simply impossible to stop the emergence of new powers. If a civilization, culture, country or region can improve the efficiency of its economy, if it can put human, technological and financial resources at work in a massive way, and if the external environment is favorable, it will become successful. If this happens in a big enough country, it will become a world power. Another explanation is the mistakes committed by the United States: its misguided energy policy, its immensely expensive wars have not produced any tangible results but have emptied the federal coffers, eroded America’s international image and gave China the chance to build up its economy, diplomacy and military almost unnoticed by the hegemon. In the meantime the US economy has become dependent on China (and vice versa for that matter): what China produced the USA bought, and as a result China now holds trillions of dollars in US government bonds. The arrival of the turning point has been accelerated by the profound demographic and economic changes, the pace of globalization, 9/11, America’s military failures and the economic crisis. As the Japanese prime minister said at the end of an international summit in late 2008: “History teaches us that crises create new order.” The shift of geopolitical power towards Asia coincides with the end of a golden age of the West, which brought rapid growth, low inflation and considerable improvements in the standard of living, as well as with an economic crisis unseen in 60 years.

The American intelligence community[8] predicted a fundamental reshuffle of the world as we know it in the next few decades already a decade ago. The international order, as it was created in the wake of World War II, will be unrecognizable by 2025 — they say, adding that the pace at which wealth and political power will move from West to East is unprecedented in modern history. The world will become ever more dangerous, but richer at the same time, which does not mean that the majority of the Earth’s population will not face food and water shortages. Today’s oil powers may become tomorrow’s beggars, while developing countries and regions that build their economies on hard work will see stunning growth. The rise of the non-Western world, which began in the 1950s with Japan and continued in the ’60s with the Asian tigers, became a full-blown trend with the emergence of China, India and Brazil and will continue for decades.

It remains to be seen whether China’s rise will happen peacefully in the long run. The West is instinctively wary of geopolitical changes and knows also that dictatorships do not last long. Still, China needs peace in the world to be able to strengthen its economy, annex Taiwan at some stage and build an international order in which Asia and China play a central role. For the time being, China is not aiming at global hegemony or confrontation. Since the mid-nineties, China has been claiming to be a responsible, peaceful and cooperative partner of the West. A confrontation with America is unlikely to pay any dividends and is therefore not a realistic option. However it is encoded into Chinese culture that everything must have a counterbalance. A power without a counterbalance is unnatural and dangerous. Power must be balanced internationally without encroaching upon the independence or sovereignty of nation states. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the Chinese hoped that the Cold War era would be replaced by a multipolar world order, and were disappointed to see the dawn of total American hegemony. China was shocked by the US intervention in Kosovo in 1999; bilateral relations were all but frozen, and China was afraid that the USA would use Taiwan and Japan to keep China at bay. This was the general view held by Chinese politicians and defense analysts at the turn of the millenium. But the world has changed immensely since then. Niall Ferguson talked about the end of Chimerica[9] – a marriage between the US and China in a completely intertwined economy where America consumes and China produces, China lends, America borrows, China exports, America imports. This cooperation was obviously a pretty problematic one therefore did not last for long. Both USA and China maintain strong suspicions of each other’s intentions. Accordingly, both sides are hedging their bets and securing their positions should relations deteriorate. As long as the question of Taiwan is not resolved peacefully and definitively, hostility between China and the USA remains a realistic risk. Nonetheless, as long as the USA does not pose a threat to its vital national interests, China is willing to tolerate the current global framework but with an ever-growing determination to gradually change it from inside.

According to Kissinger, the United States must be aware of its supremacy but act as if global security depended on all global actors. This strategy can divide the psychological burden of responsibility and will allow the principles of freedom and democracy to dominate international politics. In other words: share power to hold on to power. Kissinger believes that China, with four thousand years of history behind it, must know something about survival, hence the West should avoid being condescending. Kissinger is convinced that China’s rise will be the greatest challenge to the West as well as to China itself. Its political mentality, institutional culture and traditions do not predestine the US to accept easily the loss of its status as the world’s number one power and become one of many global actors. Also, for the US multilateralism has a different meaning and importance than to European countries and the EU. For America multilateralism is the means of achieving its end of a stable world order with the USA as the leading power. For Europe multilateralism is the end itself.

Having said all this, in 2015 US’s global military superiority is still beyond question. The US Navy commands a fleet bigger than the next 50 largest fleets together; America spends over a billion dollars a day on defense. The US economy is world leader not only in term of output but also in the use of cutting-edge technology. America’s intellectual and cultural impact — from Harvard through Hollywood to McDonald’s — is the biggest soft power in the world. Not to mention the fact that the USA is not a status quo power, America is not afraid of change. Apart from its unwavering faith in democracy and in its own specialness, its embrace of change is one of its key distinguishing features.[10]

The rise and reinforced international profile of China and Asia poses some inconvenient but crucial questions for the West. As Asia rises and Europe stagnates, an overhaul of international organizations naturally seems inevitable, however difficult that may be. The French president suggested that India should be given a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, but when the possibility of the EU being given a single seat on the Security Council (instead of the two currently held by France and the United Kingdom), he called it very unlikely that the EU — which has trouble agreeing on much less contentious issues — could find consensus on such a sensitive and crucial question.

What guaranteed the prosperity of the West, apart from its military might, was that the world order that emerged in the wake of World War II was shaped by Western ideas, rules and values. Global politics undergo seismic shifts the global order is realigned and the global value set might also be rearranged to a certain extent. This latter is much less talked about but equally important – in the long run, certainly. We are witnessing not only the competition of economies and military capabilities but of values as well. And what we experience is a new phenomenon: the rise of alternative values and institutions in the world in parallel with a certain level of democracy fatigue even in the West.

In parallel with the global power reshuffle new social models are appearing. These new societal models are not hybrids combining elements of Western society. They tend to be forms of state capitalism or non-liberal (pseudo) democracies, where elections are held regularly but a populist elite rules the country nonetheless. Many developing countries go through this stage in their development; the question is whether they will be able to move on and turn themselves into real democracies. At the same time Western liberal democracy shows signs of ageing and becoming rickety as cowardly political elites motivated only by polls discredit democracy altogether. Postmodern politics is drifting towards dim-witted media politics.

Does China’s rise really mean that the universal expansion of the Western world and of liberal democracy have come to a halt? When China broke with dogmatic communism and opened itself up to the world, it spent three decades adopting Western principles, particularly in the areas of foreign and economic policy. China is opening a new chapter: it wants to create a new model of its own, which can become an alternative to the Western model and will surely be popular in all countries that have a dislike for the American dominated Western world order. When the “Chinese model” crystallizes it can offer the developing world (Africa, Latin America and the Middle East) an alternative to the Western liberal model. The new China does not only rebuff the West-dominated present, it also rejects eurocentric historiography and the eurocentric worldview as false and distorted, because — it claims — these advocate the global supremacy of Greco-Roman culture and underplay the world’s oldest culture (i.e. that of China).

The fact that autocracy and state capitalism seem to prevail and flourish in the biggest country in the world is a powerful signal for many countries. There are speculations that the global system might soon have a viable Third Way (as opposed to the Western and the clear cut third world dictatorship models) which could be a desirable option for many Asian and African countries in the 21st century. It is not a certainty though. But if democracy is challenged by a strong and vivid alternative model on the global scale, remilitarization and old-school power politics could come back into fashion. China will have a responsibility as regards how to tackle these developments and their consequences in the long run.

Francis Fukuyama asks[11] in 2010 whether liberal democratic principles are really universal or have been revealed not to be. His answer is that they are universal – but this is not as sure as it was a decade ago. He asks what the democratic world can do with Putin’s transformation of Russia into an ”electoral authoritarian” state, the undermining of democratic institutions by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and the rise of China as a successful authoritarian modernizer. Are these systems true and viable alternatives of old-fashioned democracy? They are most probably not in the long run, but liberal democracy is not the only alternative to all-out dictatorship in worldwide politics anymore. As he puts it: “The next phase of global history will be a challenging one, as America and Europe stumble to get back their economic balance. It seems doubtful that either the US or Britain will achieve the degree of growth in the next generation that they did in the previous one. But one of the great advantages of democracy is that it does not depend for its legitimacy on continuing high levels of economic growth, as the Chinese system does. As we move forward, it is important to keep in mind the simple power of the idea of a government by, for, and of the people. We need to match those high ideals with unglamorous but steady investments in institution-building if liberal democracy is to deliver on its promises.”

Robert Kagan says that ideology still matters in geopolitics, and one should add perception as well to ideology. China’s strength comes partly from the fact that the world sees it as strong, the future great power. At the same time, part of America’s weakness stems from the fact that it sees itself as a declining power[12]. A change in these perceptions could cause significant shifts in times of uncertainty and global transition. Is China potentially an even bigger a power than we imagine or – as Ari Van Assche puts it – does the West only make a dragon out of a dragonfly[13]?

China is changing geopolitics, surely. Is China going to change the rules of the game? It is doubtful, but this is still a puzzle to the Chinese themselves. China might as well be much less powerful as it seems, based on a shaky “Leninist corporatism” whose development is completely based on stealing know-how and institutions from the West as Will Hutton points out.[14]   But there is a high probability that reality will prove otherwise.


[1]Chicago Council on Global Affairs: World Public opinion, 2007.

[2]Zhao Kejin concludes that “today it seems that EU states are taking a case-by-case approach toward China’s initiatives to constructively reform the Bretton Woods system. They tend to support reform of the international monetary order, thus accepting RMB’s inclusion in the SDR, yet they are not committed to sharing governance of the old institutions, as this would limit European influence and prestige.” In: China’s National Security Commission. Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. July 14, 2015.

[3]Robert N. Haass: The age of non-polarity – What will follow US dominance. Foreign Affairs. May/June, 2008.

[4]Yan Xuetong: The rise of China in the Chinese eyes, Journal of Contemporary China, 2001, Vol. 10.

[5]Kagan, Robert: The Illusion of managing China. Washington Post, 15 May 2005,.

[6]Kejin, Zhao: China’s National Security Commission. Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. July 14, 2015.

[7]See more in Khanna, Parag: The second world – empires and influence in the new global order. Random House, New York, 2008. and in: Zakaria, Fareed: The post-American world. W. W. Norton & Co, New York, 2008.

[8]According to the Global Trends 2025 report.

[9]Ferguson, Niall – Schularick, Moritz: “Chimerica and global asset markets”. 2007. and “The end of Chimerica”. 2009. Harvard Business School. Working Paper 10-037.

[10]A small note: things in the balance of the international order can change unnoticed and sometimes scholars and politicians got carried away by perceptions of visible trends while obviously disregarding the ones less obvious. One good example is the surprise at the collapse of the Soviet Union. In his book (My Country, My People) published in the US in 1935 Lin Yutang described China as a tired old man (in comparison with the dynamic, youthful West.) Some seventy years later my book on the future of Europe bore the subtitle: “The Old Lady and the Bull” (a reference to ancient Greek mythology) describing Europe as an old lady instead of the young girl who she used to be when she had been taken by Zeus disguised as a bull. Probably both of us were right at a certain moment in time, but the lifespan of truths in geopolitics seems to get shorter and shorter.

[11]Is the Age of Democracy Over? Spectator. February 10, 2010.

[12]An example: According to a 2009 survey by Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, 81% of Chinese think the USA will stay ahead of China in innovation, while 41% of Americans think so. (in Newsweek, 28 November 2009.)

[13]Van Assche, Ari: Are We Making a Dragon out of a Dragonfly? – Understanding China’s Role in Global Production Networks. Burgundy Report, CIRANO Network, 2009RB – 03. January 2009.

[14]Hutton, Will: The Writing on the Wall: Why We Must Embrace China as a Partner or Face it as an Enemy. Free Press/Little, Brown.

Hungarian economist, PhD in international relations. Based in Brussels for fourteen years as diplomat and member of EU commissioners’ cabinets. Two times visiting fellow of Wilson Center in Washington DC. University professor and author of books on EU affairs and geopolitics. Head of department, National University of Public Administration, Budapest.

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From China, A Plan For The Future

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On October 26, the fifth plenary session of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China opened in Beijing, with the ambitious goal of defining – after months of preparation and four days of debate behind closed doors – the strategic policy lines of the 14th five-year plan of the country, which – unlike the rest of the world -went practically unscathed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

 The plan – designed to cover the 2021-2025 five-year period – has the meaningful title of “Vision 2035”, aimed at underlining its potential medium-term impact on China’s economy and its international relations. The US economic agency Bloomberg called the plan a “Warning Shot”, a “five-year warning shot to the United States”.

 In fact, as Chinese President Xi Jinping pointed out, “Vision 2035” aims at making China a “moderately prosperous country” and redefining its economic (and hence geopolitical) relations on a global level.

Before examining the broad policy lines of the 14th Five-Year Plan, as announced by the Chinese media in recent months, it should be stressed that the Chinese leadership of the third millennium is profoundly different from the Maoist one. In the days of the “Great Helmsman”, five-year plans were dictated by the most integralist ideology and often did irreparable damage to China’s economy and society.

In 1958, the second five-year plan, defined by Mao Zedong as “The Great Leap Forward”, tried to transform the Chinese economic and production system from rural into industrial with an attempt at a huge forced reconversion that wanted to turn farmers into workers and cultivated fields into manufacturing industries by decree.

 The attempt failed miserably and the famine that followed due to the abandonment of the rural areas caused over 20 million deaths.

Post-Maoist China learned from previous mistakes and it shifted from rigid and obtuse ideological beliefs to scientific pragmatism, with the result that today China is on the way to gaining the leadership of the world economy.

The last five-year plan, i.e. the 13thone for the 2016-2020 period, aimed at “replacing unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable growth” with innovative, coordinated and environmentally-sensitive measures for inclusive growth capable of establishing a new “moderately prosperous society from all viewpoints”(which remains the same objective as the new plan).

The basic goal was to make GDP grow by up to 6.5% per year, an objective that has almost been achieved despite the Covid-19 epidemic, thanks to the results reached in the first three years, a period in which the growth of Western economies -ranging from the United States to Germany -recorded levels three times lower than China’s. Once overcome the pandemic crisis last March, in the third quarter of 2020 China’s GDP reached 4.9% compared to the previous year and all economists, not only the Chinese ones, are convinced that it is destined to grow further by the end of the year.

A concrete goal achieved was to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 12%.According to the Chinese leadership, this augurs well for achieving zero emissions by 2030, thanks to the total abandonment of the use of fossil fuels in energy production.

In China the “green shift” – so dreamt of by the European institutions – has been started concretely while results have been significant also in the fight against poverty: the 56 million “absolute poor” (people with an annual income of 335 dollars) surveyed in 2015 rose to 5.5 million in 2019. In the same period, the housing crisis was tackled with the building of 10 million social housing units that replaced thousands of slums.

It is on the basis of these results that President Xi Jinping has dictated the guidelines of the new five-year plan on which, in these days, the discussion of the Party’s Central Committee is focused.

The central focus of the 14th Plan is “dual circulation”, a strategy that aims at making both domestic demand and foreign investment in consumer goods and technology grow, with a “dual” and coordinated approach of great potential impact on the living conditions of the Chinese population and China’ international relations.

 Morgan Stanley’s economists estimate that China’s GDP will grow by 5.5% per year until 2025, a conservative estimate which, however, is considered sufficient to significantly increase people’s income and domestic demand, to attract significant foreign investment and increase China’s ability to invest abroad, both in financial markets and in industrial and technological markets.

According to Liu Peiqian, a Chinese economist working in Singapore (interviewed by Bloomberg), “in view of 2025, China’s policy is becoming increasingly focused on long-term goals, while investors can expect more continuity and certainty from China’s economic policy over the next 15 years”.

The Economist‘s financial analyst Yue Sue, interviewed by CNBC, said that “she expects the five-year plan to focus strongly on supporting technology and energy security based on diversification of energy sources, rather than relying on increased oil imports, while food security will be looked at carefully in view of possible tensions in relations with food exporting countries (first and foremost, the United States).

The decisions taken at the end of the four days of discussions on the 14th Five-Year Plan will only be made public in March next year, but economists are certain that, all things considered and given President Xi Jinping firm and authoritarian leadership, all what anticipated so far by the State media will be implemented to the letter.

Whatever the final decisions may be, it is certain that the “warning shot” to the United States, about which the Financial Times has talked, will influence – probably in a further negative way – US-China relations in the coming years.

In fact, despite the huge differences existing in domestic policy between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, both candidates in the next US presidential elections are quite in agreement with specific reference to relations with China, as they are both oriented to continue the policy of ongoing confrontation-clash between the two countries.

 For this reason, it is easy to predict that whoever wins the race for the White House, Sino-American relations on the political and economic levels are not bound to improve in the short and medium-term.

Considering the undeniable success of the previous one, the 14th five-year plan will mark a further step forward for the Chinese economy and, if it does not produce positive effects on relations with the United States, it will produce positive effects both on the domestic front and on the global arena.

China has emerged in good condition from the coronavirus epidemic, whose effects, instead, are being felt heavily in Western societies and economies. However, faced with the guidelines dictated by the new Chinese five-year plan, this reality opens up an extraordinary “window of opportunity” for the European and Italian production sector. The “dual circulation” envisaged by the plan opens up huge opportunities for European and Italian companies that want to take advantage of the opportunities offered by China’s economic growth and its increasing financial resources.

Working in effective synergy with Chinese partners is not difficult if you have good professionals, skilful technicians and workers, as well as innovative ideas based on sound scientific foundations.

I can give the example of a reality I know personally: TRAFOMEC, an Italian company established in 1981 by a brave group of engineers, which over the years has become a leader in the production of current transformers and alternators, for industrial and domestic use, as well as in the manufacturing of electrical panels for trains and ships and in technology linked to the development of alternative energies.

After building its production plants in Italy and Poland and setting up joint ventures in India, Poland and China, Trafomec merged with its Chinese subsidiary Indu-Tek in 2016, thus creating a production reality with a dual centre of gravity: in Europe (Italy and Poland) and in China – a reality that has been further enriched thanks to the collaboration recently started with Eldor Corporation, a leading multinational company in the automotive sector and partner of the world’s leading car manufacturers, present in Italy and China.

I have given this example to demonstrate the huge growth potential for Italian companies that will develop forms of collaboration with similar Chinese companies or that will decide, thanks to the opportunities offered also by the 14th five-year plan, to enter the huge Chinese market. Trafomec has grown and will grow also thanks to this challenge that – possibly with the intelligent support of the Italian government and the European authorities- can be taken up also by other Italian and European companies, thus contributing – thanks to the opening of a “new Silk Road” – to the economic recovery of our country, debilitated by the pandemic, in an optimistic vision of the future taking into account an historical fact: after the plague of 1300, Renaissance blossomed in Italy.

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What prevents Japan from ratifying the recently assented Nuclear Ban Treaty?

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With the ratification of Honduras, a Central American country, on 24 October 2020, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), adopted in 2017 by the UN General Assembly, crosses the ’50 ratifications’ mark required for its entry-into-force, and is set to become effective on 22 January 2021. But, interestingly, how come Japan, the world’s only nuclear-attacked country, not among the 50 ratified states?

History remembers Japan as the only country in the world falling victim to a nuclear attack that happened 75 years ago, when the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were attacked using air-dropped atom bombs by the United States with the aim of forcing a surrender from the then Empire of Japan in World War-II.

The U.S. factor in Japan’s security policy

Post-war era saw Japan evolving as a strong U.S. ally, including getting security protection under U.S. nuclear umbrella, a hard fact that prevents the Asian economic powerhouse to ratify the Nuclear Ban Treaty, often abbreviated as TPNW, recently assented for entering into force in January, next year.

Despite calls from anti-nuclear activists and Hiroshima-Nagasaki survivors, both living within the country and around the world, Japan’s ruling establishment faces a big conundrum, but limited in decisional autonomy with regard to a matter involving the United States.

A politician representing the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) said that even though his party share the idea behind the treaty, it would be too unrealistic to move in the direction of ratification, hinting at Japan’s difficulty to handle how US would perceive such a move that can translate into an open disregard for US-led security arrangements in the region.

Moreover, the perceived threat from across the Sea of Japan, arising from a dictator-ruled, nuclear-armed Pyongyang and a recently more assertive Beijing looms over the island state, something that naturally brings Japan closer to the US.

Moreover, for decades, the security alliance with Japan has been a significant factor in US foreign and defence policies in East Asia, and the wider Asia-Pacific region.

Japan’s post-war security arrangements with the United States

Signed in 1951, the early ‘US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty’ was a ten-year, renewable pact that envisaged how Japan would allow U.S. forces to remain on Japanese soil after the country regained its sovereignty, in light of a new pacifist constitution.

This pact combined with the ‘Yoshida Doctrine’, a postwar policy attributed to Shigeru Yoshida, former Prime Minister of Japan, which stipulated Japan’s reliance on the US for its security needs so the government could focus on economic re-building.

The 1951 agreement was revised in 1960, granting US the right to establish military bases on Japanese islands in exchange for a renewed commitment to defend Japan in the event of an attack. These bases gave the US its first permanent military foothold in Asia.

In 1967, PM Eisaku Sato unveiled the ‘Three Non-Nuclear Principles’ (no possession, no production, and no introduction)to cool down tensions surrounding nuclear arms on US bases in Japanese soil. Since then, Japan has relied on the US nuclear umbrella for deterrence capabilities.

Today, according to a US-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations, there are more than 80 US military facilities in Japan, including key ones in Okinawa and Yokosuka. More U.S. service members are permanently stationed in Japan than in any other foreign country.

The aforementioned close security ties of Japan with the United States act as a barrier for the island state to ratify the Nuclear Ban Treaty.

What does the TPNW entail?

The treaty is going to be the first legally-binding international pact to comprehensively ban nuclear weapons, with the ultimate goal of total elimination.

As it was agreed upon, in 2017, when at least 50 countries ratify the treaty, it will qualify for entering into force within the next 90 days i.e. 22 January, next year.

Many international security analysts, however, questions the efficacy of the treaty as an instrument of war-prevention and disarmament as it does not involve any of the strongest, five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (P-5), namely, the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and China, all of them nuclear states along with India, Pakistan, North Korea, and sometimes ambiguously, Israel too.

However, over a quarter of local assemblies across Japan have adopted a written statement demanding that the national government should sign and ratify the TPNW, a difficult choice for Tokyo.

Meanwhile, the United States has been urging countries not to ratify the Treaty, and stated that itself and all the other NATO allies will stand unified in their opposition to the potential repercussions of the TPNW. Washington has also sent letters to the countries that have ratified the treaty, requesting their withdrawal from it.

TPNW requires that all ratifying states should never under any circumstances develop, test, produce, acquire, or possess nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. It also bans any potential transfer of nuclear materials among each other.

The other treaty to keep checks on horizontal spread

Year 2020 also marked 50 years since another pact aimed at preventing the horizontal spread of nuclear weapons entered into force, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons or NPT, in 1970.

While Japan has managed to ratify the NPT in 1976, six years after signing the treaty in 1970, its decisional autonomy with regard to TPNW is much more complex.

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East Asia

Do not panic, we are Chinese: China’s response to the pandemic

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In Europe, in the United States and in South America, the feared second wave of Covid-19 epidemic is spreading. It is generating not only panic among the public and the institutions, but it is beginning to put health systems and economies under stress. They were starting to recover with difficulty after the impact of the first wave of the epidemic which, between the winter and spring of this year, made the pace of industrial and manufacturing production and productivity rates in the trade, tourism and catering sectors plummet globally, with figures suggesting a decidedly dark future.

In Italy, faced with the increase in infections which, however, does not mean an increase in the number of sick people, the Government has decided to delegate to the Regions’ Governors the power to implement measures to limit individual and collective freedom in the name of a “state of emergency” which has been going on since last March and seems bound to accompany us also in the coming months. For the first time since the end of the Second World War, an ominous and worrying word, “curfew”, has reappeared in official communiqués and news reports.

Over the next few days, in the Campania and Lombardy Regions, it will be forbidden to circulate in the streets from 11pm to 5am, while the purchase of alcohol and the opening hours of shopping centres, bars and restaurants will be restricted. Just to complete an increasingly tragic scenario, on October 20 last, the Italian Health Minister, Roberto Speranza, urged Italians to “stay at home as much as possible” with a voluntary lockdown that seems to be a prelude to the adoption of measures that could bring us back to the situation of last spring with incalculable social and economic damage.

Curfews, lockdowns, targeted or generalised closures are now common practice also in France, Great Britain, Ireland and Spain which, like Italy, have suffered the devastating economic impact of the first wave and could be brought to their knees by the new pandemic emergency.

At this juncture we have to ask ourselves a question: what happened and what is happening in the country where it all began? How are things going in China that in our media, obsessively focused on domestic troubles, is mentioned only superficially and in passing?

“China is Near” was the title of a 1967 movie directed by Marco Bellocchio, that evoked the unstoppable expansion of the Maoist thinking. Today we must say that “China is far away”, encapsulated in the stereotypes developed by Western culture, which prevent us from seriously analysing its political, economic and social evolution and, above all, from drawing lessons from the political and health model that has enabled China to come out of the Covid-19 emergency with its head held high.

On September 22 last, in a blunt speech – as usual -at the United Nations General Assembly, President Trump accused China of being responsible “for spreading this plague throughout the world” and – to further underline the concept -he dismissed the coronavirus as a “Chinese virus”. In the same forum, Chinese President Xi Jinping soberly urged all countries affected by the epidemic to follow his country’s example and “to abide by the indications of science without attempting to politicise the problem”.

Figures clearly demonstrate that the Chinese model is important and worthy of attention. In China, where it all began in December 2019, out of a population of about 1.4 billion inhabitants, the Covid-19 epidemic has so far caused 4,739 deaths out of 90,604 sick people. In the United States, over the same period, out of a population that is about one fifth of China’s, 7,382,194 cases of infection were recorded that led to the death of 209,382 people (data provided by the English medical journal, The Lancet, October 8, 2020).

Great Britain, with a population twenty times smaller than the Chinese population, had to deal with five times more infections than China and ten times more deaths.

These are the figures of October 20 last, referring to the whole of China: 19 cases of illness, all imported from abroad. 24 asymptomatic infections and 403 cases testing positive kept under observation. All, except one, imported from abroad(!). Figures which, as you can see, are globally lower than those recorded since the beginning of the emergency in one single Italian region!

Faced with these figures, it seems difficult to shirk a simple, dual question: how could China fight the epidemic and keep it under control? Hence why do we not follow its example by drawing on its experience?

China was accused of responding late to the first outbreak of the epidemic in December 2019 and notifying late the World Health Organization (WHO) of a new outbreak. Both accusations are completely false.

After the outbreak of the new virus in late December, Chinese scientists isolated and identified the genome sequence of Covid-19 on January 10, 2020 and a few days later, after alerting the WHO, the authorities started to take countermeasures.

China was ready for the emergency: since the SARS epidemic – a virus similar to Covid-19 – had caused just over 700 deaths in 2002, but very serious damage to the economy due to the stop of flights, tourism and exports, the government had given orders to prepare accurate contingency plans to be activated promptly in case of new epidemics. Those plans, which were not prepared and put in a drawer but updated and carefully tested, were activated immediately after the first alarm.

With its 12 million inhabitants, Wuhan – the epicentre of the first infections – was immediately imposed a total lockdown, while in the rest of the huge country the population was urged (without curfews or states of emergency) to follow the most elementary and effective prevention and self-protection measures: social distancing, use of masks and frequent hand washing. It has been said in the West that China has reacted so effectively because it is ruled by an authoritarian regime. Indeed, Confucius has counted much more than Mao for the Chinese. The Confucian social philosophy that not even 71 years of Communist rule have managed to wipe out, with its basic rules of respect for the natural hierarchical order, makes the Chinese a naturally well-behaved, orderly and obedient people. Suffice it to recall that since the beginning of the new pandemic emergency the protests in Hong Kong have decreased until disappearing, while in Europe we are witnessing massive demonstrations with diehard “no-mask” people.

It is, however, the quick response of the Chinese political and health authorities that is at the basis of the undeniable success in fighting the epidemic, at first, and later containing it.

As stated above, Wuhan was immediately isolated and subjected to total lockdown for 76 days, while targeted closures were imposed in the Hubei Province. Throughout the country, 14,000 health checkpoints were set up at the main public transport hubs and, within two weeks since the “official” outbreak of the pandemic, in the city of Wuhan alone 9 million inhabitants were tested.

As one of the main producers and exporters of health equipment, China was not caught unprepared in terms of hospital supplies and individual protection devices: in short, no mask crisis.

While in the United States and Europe, despite the lockdown, people did not seem to be inclined to wear masks (President Trump wore a mask in public only last September), the Chinese immediately followed the authorities’ guidelines with a great sense of discipline. All the municipal security cameras were “converted” to control citizens’ use of masks, while drones equipped with loudspeakers were flown over all areas of the huge country to check the inhabitants’ compliance with the rules. The Xinhua State agency released the footage taken by a drone in Inner Mongolia, showing an astonished Mongolian lady rebuked by the drone saying” Hey Auntie, you cannot go around without a mask. Put it on right away and when you go back home remember to wash your hands”. Probably media embroidered the episode a bit, but certainly in China they did not witness the summertime movida that took place in Rome, Naples or Milan, which is at the basis of the many troubles with which we are currently confronted.

On February 5, 2020 the first Fancang hospital was opened in Wuhan, a prefabricated structure dedicated to the treatment of non-severely ill people, while traditional hospitals were reserved for the treatment of severely ill people. The use of Fancang hospitals (dozens of them were built) made it possible to limit the staying at home of people with mild symptoms, but anyway sources of contagion, within their families – the opposite of what is happening in Italy where the people with mild symptoms are advised to stay at home -and prevent the quick spreading of the virus starting from families. The Fancang hospital network made 13,000 beds available and was dismantled as from May 10, 2020 when the first wave of the epidemic ended in China and was not followed by a second wave. To avert this danger, the Chinese authorities have relaxed “internal” checks and made the control measures for those coming from abroad very strict. At a time when in Spain and Italy the checks for incoming travellers are practically derisory, in China all those who enter the country, for whatever reason, are subject to tests and strictly controlled quarantine.

In essence, China has first fought and later controlled the spreading of the Covid-19 epidemic, with drastic but rational measures and above all understood and accepted by a population educated by Confucius to respect hierarchies and discipline. China can currently be an example for the rest of the world and it is there to testify that with strict, but intelligent measures even the most dangerous situations can be tackled successfully.

It is an example that should be studied and followed without the typical arrogance of the “white man”, also considering an important fact: while the economy of Italy and of its European partners is hardly growing, China’s GDP growth rate is 4.9% higher than last year.

There is much to learn from China both in terms of managing a health emergency and in terms of protecting the economic system.

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