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Mon. December 17, 2018
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China and the Race for a New Form of State
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Introduction

Viktor Orban’s career, from liberal reformer to promoter of illiberal democracy, marks the trajectory of the evolving disillusionment with the neoliberal world of Reagan and Thatcher, and, as is less often noted, of Clinton and Blair, which led to the financial collapse in 2008. [1]  Orban’s transformation reached its zenith in 2014 when he claimed in a speech that the financial crisis of 2008 “had marked a pivot point in world affairs just as 1989 had. But in this case, power had passed from the liberal democracies that had won the Cold War to states that were not liberal nor, in some cases, democracies,” resulting in his criticism of “liberalism as the god that failed.”[2]  And so, Orban argued, the race has begun “to invent a state that is most capable of making a nation successful.”[3] Not surprisingly, Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia are his new ideological models, and their leaders his mentors. 

My purpose here is assess the likelihood that China will emerge as the model for a new form of state.  Let’s begin by looking at the way it has come to dominate Eurasia, and the significance of that achievement.

The Waning of American Influence in Eurasia

It is perhaps interesting and instructive to compare two observations regarding how preponderance in Eurasia defines a country’s power and influence.  In 1997 Zibignew Brezhinski commented that “America's global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained."[4]  Twenty years later, in 2017, Nadege Rolland noted: “More than a mere list of revamped infrastructure projects, [the Belt and Road Initiative] is a grand strategy that advances China’s goal of establishing itself as the preponderant power in Eurasia and a global power second to none.”[5]  America’s withdrawal as a challenger to China in this arena came quickly and precipitously.  Indeed, when Michael Green recently observed that “If there is one major theme in American strategic culture as it has been applied to the Far East over time, it is that the United States will not tolerate any other power establishing hegemonic control over Asia or the Pacific,” [6]  he could not have anticipated how rapidly President Donald Trump would shatter the geopolitical edifice that the United States had painstakingly built, commencing in 1783, and ending on January 20, 2017.

President Obama understood Eurasia’s importance, and, some experts argue, was planning to use the combination of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) to splinter China’s Eurasian strategy.[7] Now, however, as I have noted in a previous article, with Trump’s consigning these initiatives to the dustbin of history, the US is removing all obstacles from China’s path, bringing down the curtain on America’s final Eurasian act.[8]

China’s Growing Hegemonic Dominance in Eurasia

As Trump projects an image of the US as the head of a giant tortoise, which is retreating slowly but inexorably within its shell, and as the EU loses the plot of its liberal democratic narrative,[9] China is expanding its power and influence through a series of elegantly designed alliances.  We can see their broad outline in three important China-driven organizations and initiatives: One Belt, One Road (OBOR), the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).  China’s main role, as these alliances mature, will be to orchestrate the way they function from Beijing, the headquarters of both the SCO and the AIIB, and the incubator for OBOR, since its primary purpose is to benefit China’s own domestic economy and markets.[10]  To these, we can add the agreement that China and Russia signed in the Kremlin, on May 8, 2015, to support each other’s initiatives (China, Russia’s EAEU; Russia, China’s OBOR), as part of a long-term plan to seek convergence of the two.

This interlocking geostrategic web that encircles and connects many of the main areas of Afro-Eurasia with ports, railways, and roads could very well enable China to accomplish what Russia hoped, but failed, to achieve during the Cold War: to control what Halford Mackinder called the World-Island, which he saw as the interlinked continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia.  

Is Liberal Democracy “the god that failed”?

If China’s success becomes the model for a new form of state, what will be the consequences for liberal democracies?  Orban is not their only critic; we can find plenty of them within the West.  Years before Orban’s speech in 2014, eminent voices within the liberal democratic community were expressing their concerns.  Martin Wolf, associate editor and chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, noted that "On the global stage, the advanced countries have lost their moral and intellectual authority.  Emerging countries might not have liked their pretensions, but they did respect their competence.  That is true no longer."[11]  And in 2012 Bishop Welby, now the Archbishop of Canterbury, commented: “But one principle seems to me to be clear, we cannot repair what was destroyed in 2008, we can only replace it with something that is dedicated to the support of human society, to the common good and to solidarity.”[12]  Even the Head of the Policy Unit in 10 Downing Street in 1982-83 when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, and the person who wrote the 1983 Tory general election Manifesto, Ferdinand Mount, expressed his views that "The unbridled greed of the oligarchs and their indifference to the normal obligations and restraints… engender a sense that society has lost its recognizable moral shape and, with it, its legitimacy."[13]

Although the West recognized its problem, it did nothing to fix it, bumbling through half-hearted attempts to convince the electorate that it wanted to.   In the run-up to the 2010 General Election in the UK, for example, David Cameron toyed with the idea of promoting the best elements of the Nordic model, with a particular emphasis upon Sweden, just as Edward Miliband, through his trusted advisor Stewart Wood, flirted with adopting aspects of the German model in the UK’s 2015 General Election.  By doing so, both candidates were hoping to show what Bishop Welby above describes as a dedication “to the support of human society, to the common good and to solidarity.”  Bernie Sanders tried and failed to promote a similar concept in the most recent US election.  As appealing as this idea might have been in the abstract, however, it was not going to fly in countries whose governments were wedded to what Karl Polanyi saw years ago as “the Utopian endeavor of economic liberalism to set up a self-regulating market system,”[14]  which places the needs of markets and banks above the needs of society.

Does China Control the Narrative for the Post-2008 World?

China’s 2016 Arab Policy Paper describes “the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation, which is to build a strong, prosperous, democratic, culturally-advanced and harmonious modern socialist country,”[15]  a theme that President Xi further developed at the recent 19th Party Congress, and that has now been enshrined in the Chinese constitution as a centrepiece of “Xi Jinping Thought for the New era of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”  President Xi claims that China will achieve this Dream by mid-century.

It will, therefore, be many years before we realize how China’s aspirations will fulfil themselves, and whether they are merely a soft-power hand expertly played.  In the meantime, all eyes are upon it as it promotes: “adherence to the principle of non-interference in internal affairs and opposition to the practice of imposing one’s will on others; a willingness to uphold fairness and justice as well as opposition to the singular pursuit of selfish interests; and adherence to political settlement and opposition to the use of force in handling hotspot issues.”[16]  These tenets complement what Alexander Lukin describes as the four, anti-Western principles of the SCO: “Non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states (and the responsibility of states for their own stability, unlike the responsibility-to-protect concept that the West uses as a pretext for intervention); maintaining the central role of the United Nations and the Security Council; creating a more just system of global governance that takes into account the interests of the non-Western world, without scrapping the current system; and respecting differences in values, refraining from imposing one’s own values as universal ones.”[17] 

The pluralism captured in the above tenets, as opposed to the monism underpinning liberal democracy’s Enlightenment heritage, not only defines the familiar clash between East and West, but throws down the gauntlet on the West’s claim to cultural and intellectual superiority.  China is setting out its store for countering the problems that liberal democracies created in their pursuit of a Utopian ideal, resulting in the financial collapse.  In a very real sense, it controls the post-2008 narrative for a new form of state as an alternative to the neoliberal world that the three commentators quoted above so damningly criticize.

Although we are right to challenge China’s record on human rights, we in the West need our own answers to how we are going to achieve poverty reduction, reduce income gaps, tackle human rights issues related to blacks, Jews, immigrants, and women; in short to how we are going to restore any semblance of moral and intellectual authority.  In the race to create a new form of State, China has a thirty-year plan and a compelling narrative, which recognizes “that not only have the people's material and cultural needs grown, their demands are increasing for democracy, rule of law, fairness and justice, security and a better environment.”[18]  What is our narrative?  Without an equally compelling one, liberal democracies are not even in the game.

 

Tim Bovy has been teaching Japanese diplomats at EJEF, formerly the Euro-Japanese Exchange Foundation, since 2010. Tim is also the CEO of Six Sentinels Ltd, an international consulting firm, located in London.  He has over 30 years of experience in designing information and risk management systems for organizations in Europe, the Middle East, and the US.  Tim has a BA, magna cum laude, from the University of Notre Dame, and MA and C.Phil degrees from the University of California, Davis.

 


[1] It was in 1999, during the Clinton presidency, that the US government repealed the Glass-Steagall law, which separated commercial and investment banking for seventy years, a disastrous decision that arguably was one of the underlying causes of the financial crisis of 2008.

[2] James Traub, The Regression of Viktor Orban, FP, October 31,2015 (http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/31/the-regression-of-viktor-orban-hungary-europe/)

[3] Full text of Viktor Orbán’s speech at Baile Tusnad (Tusnádfürdo) of 26 July 2014 (https://budapestbeacon.com/full-text-of-viktor-orbans-speech-at-baile-tusnad-tusnadfurdo-of-26-july-2014/)

[4] Zbignew Brzezinski, (1997). The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, Perseus Books, New York, pp. XIII-XIV, 30-31

[5] Nadege Rolland, "China's Eurasian Century? Political and Strategic Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative," May 2017 (PDF), p. xi

[6] By More than Providence, Columbia University Press, 2017, p.5

[7] http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/latenightlive/breaking-the-chessboard-the-geopolitics-of-obamas-asia-pivot/7125368

[8]“China’s Counter-Enlightenment Approach to Taking Control of Afro-Eurasia,” http://www.ia-forum.org/Content/ViewInternalDocument.cfm?ContentID=8660

[9] See, for example, Anne Applebaum, “A New European Narrative,” New York Review of Books, October 12-25, 2017, pp. 44-45.

[10] In addition, China has formulated its 16 + 1 framework to facilitate cooperation among sixteen Central and Eastern European nations, and is instrumental in pushing forward the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which comprises ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and six states with which ASEAN has existing free trade agreements.  RCEP is also considered as a replacement for the TPP, sans the US.

[11]“New Global Economics: The Shock & the Shift,” BBC World Service, 22 November 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02rspkt

[12] “Archbishop of Canterbury contender criticises banks,”

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/banksandfinance/9638148/Archbishop-of-Canterbury-contender-criticises-banks.html, 27 October 2012

[13] “The New Few: Or a Very British Oligarchy,” https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/apr/29/new-few-ferdinand-mount-review  

[14] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of our Time, Boston: Beacon Press, 1944, p. 140.

[15] China's Arab Policy Paper, January 2016, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2016-01/13/c_135006619.htm

[16] http://carnegieendowment.org/2017/10/16/19th-party-congress-and-chinese-foreign-policy-pub-73432

[17] http://eng.globalaffairs.ru/valday/Shanghai-Cooperation-Organization-Looking-for-a-New-Role-17576

[18] http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2017-10/19/content_33428169.htm

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