By Timothy Bovy
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has as one of its principles: “Respecting differences in values, refraining from imposing one’s own values as universal ones.” The target of this belief is clearly the West and its Enlightenment values, which, since the eighteenth century, it has promoted as both universal and superior to the Other; i.e., the Orient. The West has long seen as its destiny the obligation to teach (some might say, proselytize) inferior nations and cultures in both how to live and how to govern.
Reason became one of the West’s arsenal of weapons that it used to colonize what it looked down upon as the feminized and irrational East. Thus, did Britain justify its imperialistic ambitions in India, and a plethora of nations exploit and rule African nations as part of the “Scramble for Africa” in the nineteenth century. More recently, American neo-conservatives have deployed the belief in the West’s superiority, adding in a dash of Christian millennialism, to legitimize the use of warfare to spread democracy in the Middle East.
By promulgating the principle noted above, the SCO is announcing to the West that it has turned this argument on its head, taking instead a counter-Enlightenment approach to its geopolitical strategy. By this, I mean one that is post-modern and advocates respect for the Other as a more realistic geopolitical strategy than a monistic belief in the supremacy of liberal democracy when dealing with other nations. It is easier to see how the East’s counter-enlightenment movement manifests itself in practice if we focus upon China, the lynchpin of the SCO.
China’s Counter-Enlightenment Foreign Policy Strategy
If one of America’s requirements is that to receive aid a country must accept liberal democracy with its underlying tenets of Enlightenment thought, China’s largess (or so it appears on the surface) is unconditional. By espousing a respect for differences in values as part of a political and ideological alternative to the West, China is asserting that there is no universal set of principles that makes one nation superior to all others. In its Arab Policy Paper, for example, published in January 2016, China states: "[China and Arab countries] have always respected each other's social system and development path no matter what differences exist in ideology." Compare this with America’s evangelical attempts to impose liberal democracy in the same region.
My view is that China intends to use its tolerance of competing ideologies and its acceptance of the Other to dominate Afro-Eurasia, and to relegate both the US and Europe to minor roles in geopolitical power and influence. Significantly, China has already taken major steps in this direction by initiating its plan for the creation of the New Silk Road Economic Belt in 2013, by executing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank Constitution on June 29, 2015, and by signing the Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China on cooperation in construction of conjugation of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt on May 8, 2015.
Countries that know they can receive economic benefit without the turmoil of transitioning to an uncomfortable, ill-suited, and unsustainable political ideology such as liberal democracy have been gravitating towards China in ever-increasing numbers. China already looms large over the African continent with its substantial investment in ports on the coasts of Djibouti, Tanzania, Mozambique, Gabon, Ghana, Senegal, and Tunisia. Nor has it neglected Africa’s interior, with its plans to build a multibillion-dollar railroad linking Nairobi to Mombasa, thus connecting Nairobi to China’s maritime trade route, and eventually to other African capitals, such as Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan.
The Eurasian scope of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (One Belt, One Road or OBOR) is no less impressive. One of the earliest nodes to take shape was the New Eurasian Land Bridge, a railway that connects China to Central Europe through Kazakhstan and Eastern Europe. Many of the countries that figure prominently in China’s One Belt, One Road initiative are also members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), covering an area that includes the North belt (through Central Asia, and Russia to Europe; the Central belt (through Central Asia, West Asia to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean; and the South belt (from China to Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Indian Ocean).
The scope of China’s maritime routes may also indicate more than an interest in enhancing its global trade. It could very well tie in to the country’s long-term vision to “rule the waves”, as the natural successor of Great Britain and the United States. There are, for instance, the high-profile examples of its ambitions in the East and South China Seas. We must not overlook, however, how ports such as Gwadar on the Southwest coast of Pakistan, Djibouti at the southern end of the Red Sea, Athens, Istanbul, and Colombo, together with the other African ports noted above, could enable China gradually to dominate major sea lanes in Afro-Eurasia.
China’s plan to “circle its wagons” around Afro-Eurasia is becoming ever more feasible, especially now that President-elect Trump is planning to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP), and oppose the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), whose potential devastation he has compared to the North American Free Trade Agreement. As he guides America towards isolationism and builds walls, whether literal or metaphorical, the United States will begin to look more and more like an island set adrift from the rest of the world, with ever dwindling links to Europe to the east, and to Asia to the west. Brexit simply underscores this isolationist picture, as does America’s almost certain abandonment of Japan and the rejection of NATO.
America’s growing intolerance of the Other will have a dramatic impact on its foreign policy, and will stand in stark contrast to China’s perceived acceptance of diverse ideologies. China will also be aided in its ambitions for Afro-Eurasian dominance by the rise of illiberal democracies in the EU, in countries such as Hungary and Poland, and by the growing appeal of populist right-wing politicians in France and the Netherlands, whose political views and rejection of the Other dovetail with Trump’s. These developments simply increase the appeal of China to countries looking for a no-strings-attached economic alliance.
China’s Potential to Dominate Mackinder’s World-Island
What would bring China its ultimate glory would be 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. As Mackinder famously noted: “who rules the World-Island commands the world." It would be foolish to think that China is there yet. Indeed, it has a long way to go. But look closely at the elegant structure and design of the Belt & Road, the growing influence of the AIIB and how it integrates with it, China’s conjugation agreement with Russia, and its key role in the SCO. Add to this its success in having the yuan accepted into the basket of currencies that form the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights, and we begin to see the broad outline of a country on its way to establishing a global hegemony.
As Zibignew Brezhinski has observed: “America's global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained." Obama understood this, and, some experts argue, was planning to use the combination of the TPP and the TTIP to splinter China’s Eurasian strategy. Now, however, by consigning these initiatives to the dustbin of history, Trump will be removing all obstacles from China’s path, bringing down the curtain on America’s final Eurasian act.
It may be a long time before we see the US on center stage again. Certainly, not for at least another four years. In the meantime, China will use its counter-enlightenment approach to foreign policy, including its tolerance of cultural differences and competing ideologies, to take control of Afro-Eurasia. How much of the rest of the SCO it brings with it remains to be seen.
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.
 Zbignew Brzezinski, (1997). The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, Perseus Books, New York, pp. XIII-XIV, 30-31