The following is an English translation of an article by Martin Jacques that appeared in the People’s Daily, 22nd December 2017.
At the end of 2017 uncertainty dominates the outlook for the future. As we can now see with great clarity, the Western financial crisis of 2007-8 proved the most important turning point in the West since 1945. For a decade, the Western economies have been mired in varying degrees of stagnation, not least with regard to living standards. And it was the Great Recession that begat the Great Populist Uprising in 2016. The latter signalled the end of the hegemony of neo-liberalism in the West, which began in 1980 with the arrival of Reagan and Thatcher and was characterised by hyper-globalisation, privatisation and a huge growth in inequality. The Uprising was driven by large swathes of the population in both the United States and Britain whose living standards had more or less stagnated for four decades. It was a popular revolt against the governing elites by those who felt left behind and who held these elites responsible for their deteriorating situation. Politically the new mood was articulated most clearly, though not solely, by the right, notably Trump in America and the Brexiteers in the UK.
While 2017 did not witness anything as dramatic as 2016, nor did we see any kind of reversal. On the contrary, Trump, far from retreating from his election campaign rhetoric, has essentially been true to it: ditching TPP, TTIP, threatening to do the same with NAFTA, distancing himself from Europe and adopting a belligerent tone towards it, building the wall on the border with Mexico and much else besides. The obvious exception is that he has not, as yet, embarked on the trade war against China that he advocated during his campaign. Not least as a consequence of very skilful diplomacy on the part of China, the US-China relationship has remained relatively friendly and warm, with neither trade relations nor Korea souring the atmosphere. But this should not mislead us into thinking that there is not a chasm between Trump’s view of the world and China’s. Where Trump rejects the idea of multilateralism and the need for multitudinous forms of global cooperation – instead advocating the jungle law of nation-states, where the writ of the strongest (the US) reigns supreme – China propounds new forms of global collaboration, as exemplified by BRI, and the idea of a community of shared destiny, as the way of the future. Ever since the beginning of the reform period it is doubtful whether the philosophies of the US and China have ever been so diametrically opposed. The two countries now speak entirely different languages and seem to occupy what could only be described as parallel universes.
It is this divergence that represents the greatest source of danger and instability in the world as we enter 2018. The US-China relationship is by far the world’s most important bilateral relationship; and it has grown evermore important with China’s rise. The fact that their relationship has, despite these profound philosophical differences, remained on an even keel is a source of hope, an encouragement that this can continue to be the case. Should their relationship seriously deteriorate then the outlook for the future of the global economy and global peace would be far bleaker.
Yet that pessimistic scenario, far from being unimaginable, is now all too imaginable. Protectionist measures against China – a fundamental plank in Trump’s presidential campaign – are beginning to make progress in Washington and we certainly cannot rule out the possibility of a growing trade war between the two countries. Nor can we exclude the possibility of unilateral American military action against the DPRK, with the all too obvious dangers that this would this pose for world peace. For the first time since the height of the cold war – most notably, the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 – the idea of nuclear war is no longer fanciful bordering on the inconceivable. Trump’s threat, in his United Nations speech in September, to ‘totally destroy North Korea’ was received by the world in shock and horror; for the first time for many decades world peace is seriously imperilled, the possibility of nuclear war no longer to be dismissed. Global peace has become, once more, a central issue confronting humanity.
The shift in US foreign policy under Trump has undoubtedly served to enhance interest in and support for China’s global outlook and approach. We should remember that 2017 dawned with President Xi Jinping’s speech to the Davos Summit last January. The world was reeling from, and seeking to come to terms with, Trump’s imminent assumption of the US presidency. Never before in modern history had the speech of a Chinese leader been so eagerly awaited by a global audience, not least in a Europe plunged into uncertainty about the future of the transatlantic relationship. The central tenets of his speech suddenly moved to the centre of the global stage and began to assume something of a normative status and even emerge, dare one say it, as the new global common sense. China’s advocacy of globalisation (in a balanced and inclusive rather than hyper and exclusive form) as the irresistible trend of our times stood in sharp contrast to Trump’s notion of America First (with everyone else was left to fend for themselves) and struck a chord all around the world.
It set the tone for what became a growing tendency in 2017, namely rising global interest in what China had to say and offer. Previously China’s appeal had been largely confined to being a source of trade and investment, its attraction overwhelmingly economic, often almost exclusively so. 2017 saw an important and subtle shift following in the footsteps of China’s growing willingness to become a proactive player with regard to the global economy and polity. From climate change and globalisation to peace and development, China’s profile and appeal steadily grew. China could no longer be pigeon-holed as simply an economic phenomenon, but was increasingly seen as having something to say and offer on a broad range of global issues. China came to be seen by much of the world for the first time as a global power, its gravitational attraction enhanced accordingly. While the United States has moved towards an increasingly atomised and jungle-like view of the world, China has been seeking ways of drawing the world closer together, of seeking to find solutions to common problems, of recognising that global problems require global solutions, of building a community based on a shared future for humanity.
Undoubtedly China’s strongest appeal is development. As a developing country, it has an intimate knowledge of the problems of development and a powerful affinity with other developing countries. Arguably the most important historical trend since 1945, following colonial liberation, has been the rise of the developing world. In the mid 1970s it accounted for only one-third of global GDP; today that figure stands just shy of 60%. The shift in the global centre of gravity from the rich world, accounting for around 15% of the world’s population to the developing world, home to 85% of the world’s population, is transforming both the global economy and the global polity. And the axis of this transformation is the relationship between China and the developing world.
The quintessential expression of this relationship is the Belt and Road Initiative, which, over the course of the last year, has made significant progress, the highlight being the BRI Summit in Beijing last May. The size of the conference, combined with its representivity and diversity, spoke to the novelty and timeliness of the initiative. The BRI is a metaphor for the relationship between China and the developing world. From Southeast Asia and South Asia to Central Asia, West Asia and the Middle East, and beyond that North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, not to forget Latin America, the relationship between China and the developing countries is in the process of transforming the world. Even the continent on the western edge of the Eurasian landmass, namely Europe, is slowly but steadily being drawn into the possibilities of the BRI, led by its least developed part, central and eastern Europe. It will not be easy for western Europe, which has looked westwards across the Atlantic for the last three centuries rather than eastwards towards Asia, to abandon such a deeply rooted mentality but its long-term future, in terms of prosperity and influence, will surely depend on its willingness to pivot 180 degrees eastwards.
Development – together, of course, with global peace – is the message of our times. China is the leader of the former and the key to its successful dissemination across the world. But while China was the initiator of the BRI, its ultimate success will depend on the project’s ability to take root in countless developing countries. China may be the inspiration but these countries must take ownership of the development project, indigenise it and thereby transform their own countries. The idea at its core is simple and, at its heart, Chinese. China transformed itself by a combination of economic growth, large-scale investment in infrastructure, and the pivotal role of the state in masterminding the project. The Chinese experience cannot be copied by such a huge number of diverse countries, all of which are profoundly different from China, but the basic tools of the transformation are the same: economic growth, infrastructural investment and an activist and competent state.
The growth of a multilateral institutional framework to support development is essential and steadily taking shape. Over the last year we can point to the BRI Summit, the BRICS summit in Xiamen and also the High Level Global Dialogue of Political Parties in Beijing in December. If the latter acquires a more permanent and institutionalised form, it would help to widen and deepen the network of communication, interaction, mutual learning and sharing of experiences.
The West, it should be noted, remains largely external to these developments. The main reason is that the West, as home to the rich economies, is largely removed from and inexperienced in the problems of development. The relevant American doctrine, in this context, was, of course, the Washington Consensus but this has now more or less disappeared into oblivion, having failed miserably and been largely rejected. Of course, American and European companies have potentially much to offer, and gain, from being involved in the Belt and Road project and should be encouraged to do so: indeed, some like GE are already associated with it.
As we look forward to 2018, the thorniest question facing the world, and China in particular, is finding a peaceful resolution to the crisis in the Korean peninsula. The alternative could lead to nuclear war and death and destruction on a scale far worse than ever witnessed before in human history. The problem is that the US president believes that this option is a serious one and should remain on the table. It cannot and it should not. The overarching strategic challenge is that posed by development. Over the last several decades, the developing world, led by China, has made enormous progress but the task ahead remains huge with global poverty still a grave problem. Now, however, we can see the possibility of making major advances: the danger is that growing friction between the US and China, with the threat of a serious trade war hanging in the balance, could make the global cooperation necessary for development very much more difficult as new divisions make such cooperation far more problematic. The danger is that the world could become divided and balkanised in a manner that echoes the 1930s. We live at a time of great opportunity – and danger.