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Surviving A World Order Upset by Its Builder
How China remains a status-quo power while America grows revisionist
Upon the genesis of the United Nations, Harry Truman envisioned a “durable world order” in which the UN would be the linchpin for global governance, and he vowed to position the support of this overarching institution as the “Point One of the U.S. foreign policy.” Seven decades later, however, America has grown to resent the world order it helped create. Donald Trump stomped on the multilateral frameworks for four years, and was outspoken about his contempt. And now, amid the excommunicatory condemnation of the geopolitical rivals, Joe Biden’s most recent UN address sent a subtle message: Despite the “America-is-back” rhetoric, the Trumpian disdain for international institutions has found root in the U.S. foreign policy behind the facade of resurgent internationalism.
Biden in Trump’s Shoes
Addressing the present world leaders, Biden passionately enunciated the morality of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, but he did not even bother to attempt a possible peaceful solution to the life-devouring armed strife, least of all, through the UN framework. Instead, he seized the opportunity to anathematize Russia and sought to engineer an ideological crusade for what is essentially a geopolitical gambit. And UN Security Council, the most prominent multilateral organ of great power concert, is on its way to being weakened by the U.S., which called for the removal of Russia from its seat as a permanent member and the inclusion of American allies in its stead. When it comes to managing the externality of the conflict, the U.S. conveniently shunned its duty. In the height of the following global food crisis, the U.S. sat idly by as the UN and Turkey midwifed a Black Sea Deal to ensure a safe water passage. Biden simply thought it is a great accomplishment on his part to exempt Russia from food and fertilizer sanctions, among a rising number of U.S.-backed sanctions that are not endorsed by the UN.
In a way, Biden is no different from George W. Bush. They both took full advantage of a war, fueled by the U.S. and without the UN's blessing, to advance America’s ideological dominance, only at the expense of the tradition of multilateral consensus. Moscow might have been an unsatisfied power at its own doorstep, but Washington is pushing unilateral moves against the global regime.
Unlike his abrasive predecessor, Biden strove to reinstate the charade of America being a benevolent public good provider. But that reputation is beyond repair. Despite the fact that Biden had referred to “climate crisis” 11 times in his UN speech last year, His absence in the UN meeting on climate change this year turned out a living metaphor of how the high-profile issue takes a back seat. Of course, Biden did not waste the opportunity this time to flaunt his hard-won legislation triumph with an alleged US$369 billion check to brace for climate change. Nevertheless, the deal should be considered a pyrrhic victory at best, as a substantial portion of the money is set to boost the fossil fuel industry to appease conservative Democrats. Not to mention this move will only reduce America’s greenhouse emissions by 40% below 2005 levels, falling short of Biden’s above 50% commitment to the Paris Agreement, the first multilateral framework Washington re-embraced as a signature gesture upon Biden’s inauguration. The fact that the Act in question was passed with a slimmest margin indicates that the policy pendulum has swung to the extreme position on the left. It is the beginning to the end, not the end to the beginning.
Another package deal that seemed to earn Biden bragging rights is the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII), a US$600 billion project aimed to offset the success of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. But that is how far the U.S. bipartisan consensus would go. The beta version of the deal, Build Back Better World, has come out as nothing but a tongue-twisting pet phrase upon its launch last year. How tenable the new plan is going to be is thus called into question, given the initiative is overwhelmingly built on vengeful geopolitical competitiveness, not the willingness to engage the global south.
What Biden dramatically omitted in his UN address is the growing economic isolationism and sprawling trade barriers, a trend which the Biden administration still condones and is now fomenting global economic dysfunctions. Inheriting the tactic from trade war-obsessed Trump, Biden continues to undermine the WTO by blockading the Appellate Body, its key organ which adjudicates trade disputes. Therefore, the organization designed to facilitate global trade was intentionally left in paralysis by the U.S., in order to keep its leeway on the protectionist trade policies. Twenty months after Trump left the Oval Office, the tariffs he slammed on China have been kept intact, even after the subsequent trade distortions recently resulted in soaring domestic inflation. The IMF made an appeal to the Biden administration to honor “the U.S. international obligations” and roll back the tariffs on China, only to be ignored altogether.
The zero-sum calculation poisoned the institutions sustaining the global market and free trade, the ideas the U.S. once championed. Biden claimed the U.S. does not seek to “ask any nation to choose between the United States or any other partner,” but the fault lines Washington draws along its self-involved geopolitical interests around the globe are now the elephant in the room. It is the lowest common denominator of American bipartisan politics to jealously hold on to the American hegemony amid swift global power transitions. And this mentality is taking its toll on the current world order and international norms, which the U.S. once helped shape based on the ideal of multilateral global governance. As is shrewdly observed by Colorador University’s Steve Chan: the U.S. is the hegemon, but also a revisionist power.
The Right Side of History
In the face of a growing revisionist America, China has a path to pick. As the Washington-designated “strategic competitor,” China could have easily slid into an equally revisionist orbit to counterbalance the U.S. confrontational handling. For Biden and his cabinet cohorts, it becomes an enchanting catchphrase that China is “a challenge to the rules-based international order.” During Trump’s reign, Washington went so far as to officially brand China as a “revisionist power.” The evolution of this cognizance could be traced back to some 20 years ago, when Condoleezza Rice renounced the idea of China being a “strategic partner” during the Clinton administration by stressing that “China is not a status quo power.” She hailed America as the one “on the right side of history,” and one of the reasons was that the U.S. interests “can be promoted within the UN and other multilateral organizations.” The truth is, as Washington drifts away from “the right side of history” today, China is still a mainstay, if not the only, status-quo major power that upholds the current international regime.
On so many fronts, China has been the staunchest supporter of the multilateral order. It never shies away from its commitment to the global governance bodies. Ahead of the 77th Session of the UN General Assembly, China proclaimed that “in the world, there is only one international system, i.e. the international system with the United Nations at its core.” China contributes 12% of the UN regular budget, second only to the U.S., which is now substantially in arrears in its payment. China’s only military actions overseas over the past few decades were performed by the 50,000 soldiers sent to the UN peacekeeping missions. Aiming to help deliver the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals, China launched the Global Development Initiative, which incorporates over 100 developing nations.
China is even willing to set aside quarrels about its core national interests, just to maintain the inclusiveness of multilateral frameworks. Take India for example. The South Asian power actively takes part in the Quad, the prototype of “the NATO in Asia” resurrected by Washington in recent years. However, from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), China has been more than open to India’s membership when it comes to the institutions China helped create. Also, India has long been the top borrower of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a Beijing-based development bank that has often been demonized as China’s strategic pawn. By 2021, India had taken up more than 22% of the AIIB’s overall lending, followed by Indonesia’s 10%. Even amid the height of the China-India border clash in 2020, the AIIB still kept the loans flowing to New Delhi. As the AIIB president Jin Liqun said, the China-initiated financial organ is a “truly international multilateral institution that adheres to best practices and apoliticism.”
By promoting multilateral institutions, China rises to the occasion to fill in the gap while the U.S. scales back its role as a public good provider. It is estimated that emerging economies need US$66 trillion for infrastructure investment by 2030. Compared to the aborted B3W and hesitant PGII boasted by Biden, China’s Belt and Road Initiative has led the global infrastructure drive over the past ten years. The total value of the Belt and Road projects is estimated to reach US$4.3 trillion by 2020. The ambitious plan is aimed to alter the global division of labor that favors only the developed world. And for this reason, the BRI is groundlessly accused of “debt-trap diplomacy,” of which many Western nations are really guilty. For instance, 66% of American direct investment in Africa today still goes to the mining sector. In fact, the top ten mining companies on the continent are all based in the West, and three of them America. In stark contrast, 63% of Chinese loans to Africa over the past two decades went to transport, communication, and electricity. These capitals were transformed into 13,000 km of railway and highway, 80 power plants, and 160,000 local skilled workers. It might be, at long last, the beginning of industrialization on the African continent.
And this is what the U.S. and its Western partners are really afraid of, not threats to the current world order, but changes to the West-dominated power hierarchy. As is noted by the FT commentator Gideon Rachman, “America is the status quo power on geopolitics, so it has become the revisionist power on economics.” Still, China picks “the right side of history.”
Real “Rules-Based Order”
With a status-quo China, and a revisionist America, will the current world order still be sustainable? Interestingly, the key to this question might be the “rules-based international order,” which the U.S. claims to uphold, but fails to live up to.
The U.S. has grown to ignore, circumvent, undermine, or even rewrite the rules. Washington’s wayward withdrawal from international institutions like the WHO, UNESCO, UN Human Rights Council, etc. under the Trump administration was just an exhibition of how the U.S. could trample on the rules with impunity. The U.S. was the one that tore up the JCPOA, but Biden still had the audacity to urge Iran to “set up to its obligations.” The SWIFT system has now been reduced to a tool to punish those who dare to bark back at Washington. And the U.S. and its allies could wage war on sovereign countries upon fabricated casus belli, whilst calling out others as aggressors.
It lies in America’s subconsciousness that it is the one who dictates the rules. And as long as those rules work for the U.S. interests, which they did for half a century after WWII, they could be kept by and large in place. However, as another power embraces international norms, plays by the rules, and grows into the world’s second-biggest economy, America wakes up deciding that the rules need to be changed.
“The issue is not the United States’ preference for a ‘rules-based’ order and China’s alleged lack of interest in it; rather, the issue is who will determine which rules pertain where,” as is argued by Stephan Walt, the groundbreaking founder of constructivism in international relations study. The rules for international engagement are not static, but are in a dynamic status, shifting along with the global power distribution. As the rise of China and other developing countries is likely to define the power disposition of the 21st century, it should be recognized that Western powers are not the only ones who write the rules, just as they are not the only major participants in the world order.
Subscribe to Sinical China for more original pieces to help you read Chinese news between the lines. Xu Zeyu, founder of Sinical China, is a senior correspondent with Xinhua News Agency, China’s official newswire. Follow him on Twitter @XuZeyu_Philip
Disclaimer: The published pieces in Sinical China reflect only the personal opinions of the authors, and shall NOT be taken as Xinhua News Agency’s stance or perception.