The Thinkers Forum is held once a year under the auspices of the China Institute at Fudan University in Shanghai. It is always fascinating, always seeking to address new questions. This talk explores why the American order cannot survive, why we are transitioning to a post-Western world, and why it is not only premature to talk of Pax Sinica but wrong because it will be so different from Pax Americana and Pax Britannica. Finally, it explores why China needs to rethink the way it presents itself and deals with the West. Too often its messaging falls on deaf ears.
The West’s decline has continued. Indeed, over the last five years it has accelerated. The Trump presidency seriously damaged America’s reputation worldwide and brought into question its commitment to its post-1945 global role. America is now more deeply divided and polarised than in any stage during the last century. Prior to the last presidential election, there were growing doubts among its political elites and more widely about the future of American democracy, the country’s unity, and the future of the Western alliance: it was an extraordinary situation that hardly anyone would have predicted in early 2016.
Its handling of the pandemic has been disastrous with over three quarters of a million dead and its economy suffering badly. America finds itself in a growing existential crisis: weakened, divided, more isolated, less respected. Many look forward to the next presidential election with a sense of foreboding. Could Trump, or someone of his ilk, be elected? There is, though, one question which unites Americans: that China is the enemy and a threat to America’s position as the global hegemon.
Europe is now more detached from the United States than at any time since 1945. This has been a long-term trend since the Cold War but it greatly accelerated during the Trump presidency, which did huge damage to how Europeans perceived the US. For its part, Europe’s economic decline has been even more dramatic than America’s. The US and Europe, the twin pillars of the West, have thus grown economically weaker and increasingly estranged from each other. There is one thing, however, they largely agree upon, the belief that China represents a threat to the West, a stance that could be strengthened, in the EU context, by the departure of Merkel and the arrival of a new German government.
It is inconceivable that the West can maintain its global ascendancy. The US economy is no longer strong enough to support it. Its trading footprint has contracted considerably in relative terms. Its indebtedness means that it is less and less able to finance its desired objectives, such as funding a rival to Belt and Road. For now, the dollar retains its position as the world’s reserve currency, but only because there is as yet no alternative. Will that still be true in 2035 when the Chinese economy is likely to be roughly double the size of the US economy, and with digital currencies widespread? When the dollar is no longer the world’s reserve currency, the ability of the US to impose its will on other countries, by threatening their exclusion from the global financial system, will be sharply reduced. This moment will mark the symbolic end of Pax Americana. Meanwhile, the wilting of the Western order is evident around the world: in East Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe, and elsewhere. This is not only about China. It is also about the rise of regional powers such as Turkey, Russia, and India, which are also filling the vacuum created by America’s decline.
Are we already living in a post-Western world? We are certainly transitioning to one. It is a complex and multi-faceted process. In some respects, we are already more or less there, in others not yet. When it comes to global institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, the answer is not yet. But as far as the global trading system is concerned, Western hegemony is in rapid retreat. That is why Trump sought to undermine and sideline the WTO. The trading pacts that America sought to create – the TPP, and the TTIP between the US and the EU – proved abortive. The US is outside the three main trading agreements in East Asia, namely RCEP, CPTPP, and Belt and Road. The once near universal Western system is fragmenting and being supplemented or replaced by regional systems often without the US.
The passing of the Western era will not herald the arrival of Pax Sinica. Not least because the notion of Pax Sinica suggests that it will be in the same vein as Pax Americana. In fact, it will be very different. It will, for example, be rooted in a close and special relationship with the developing world. It will not require political obedience and homogeneity in the manner of US hegemony. And it will not ring the world with military bases or place anything like the same emphasis on military power. The structural context will also be very different. This is, after all, the era not just of China’s rise, but that of the developing world, which is home to 85% of the world’s population and which China seeks to enfranchise in a new model of global governance. The latter will be very different from anything we have seen previously, be it Pax Americana or Pax Britannica. I expect the demise of the Western era to be followed by a prolonged period of transition, with many new actors from the developing world playing an increasingly central role, in what will be a complex and very new kind of global governance.
But this is to get ahead of ourselves. We are nowhere near this. We cannot even touch it. We can barely imagine it. So let us return to the here and now. The West may be in decline, but it is far from dead and buried. Indeed, as I have already alluded to, the West has gained a certain new lease of life since Trump’s assault on China from 2017. Indeed, I have been struck by the ability, of what started off as an American crusade against China, to mobilise wider generalised support in the West and well beyond: India is a good example of the latter. The perception of China in my own country, the UK, has changed fundamentally. The period between 2000 and 2016 saw a new and widespread curiosity about China, based on the latter’s extraordinary growth and poverty reduction together with the belief that China could offer new opportunities for Western countries.
That mood has given way to what is a dominant negativity towards China. China is now seen as a threat to the West and its way of life, as being autocratic, undemocratic, untrustworthy, expansionist, secretive, and closed. This negativity is not nearly as strong in Europe as it is in the United States, but nor should it be underestimated. Let me give you one example of this shift in attitudes. Between 2000 and 2016, there was a growing interest in Chinese history and Chinese civilization, in trying to understand China. Now, China is seen almost solely in terms of its history since 1949. Two thousand years of Chinese history have disappeared. China is reduced to the Chinese Communist Party which is seen as synonymous with the Soviet Communist Party. Many of the gains since 2000 have been lost. Worse, we have gone backwards. It feels at times a bit like the Cold War.
So why the shift?
The shift in America was inevitable. Once the US came to realise that its hopes of China becoming like the West were an illusion, then, as China continued to rise and spread its wings, the US came to see China as a deadly threat to its global hegemony. We should not underplay what this means in America: being No 1 is part of its DNA. That is why the new anti-China crusade is bipartisan and consensual. China is now considered a mortal threat to America’s very being. Europe is different. It does not see China as a threat to its hegemony because it abandoned its own hegemonic aspirations after 1945.
Nevertheless, Europe remains heavily influenced by America. They fought the Cold War together. They share, in varying degrees, Britain most of all, much history and culture. Europeans colonised America and it was their ancestors that created the United States. So, despite the growing distance between the US and Europe since the Cold War, they still have much in common, certainly compared with China, which, as we know, has a profoundly different culture and history. And a further complicating factor is that China has been largely invisible to Westerners until the last few decades. It is a new kid on the block.
During the downturn in US-China relations, China has strengthened its position in many respects: its economic growth, technological innovation, its brilliant handling of the pandemic, and the consolidation of its relationship with many of its partners. But certainly, in its relations with the West, there have been serious setbacks. How can these be reversed? The most important, and by far the most difficult, problem is the fundamental ignorance in the West about why and how China is so different. There are no short cuts, only the long game: to find ways of explaining to and educating the Western publics about China. True, there is a certain force majeure at play; as China rises, Westerners are obliged to learn more about China. But, as we have seen, this process is not always smooth. It can provoke a backlash. Because people harbour doubts, fears, and prejudices about China.
One of these is the sheer size and scale of China. There is nothing that China can do about this except always be aware and conscious of this concern. In my view Deng Xiaoping’s advice about keeping a low profile is relevant to this problem. Although keeping a low profile was conceived for a different era, it contains a kernel of truth for all times. The fact that China is so big will always be a source of anxiety on the part of other countries.
The second point I would make is about how China communicates with the world. Many of China’s attempts to deal with the Western assault on China over the last five years have been ineffectual and sometimes even counter-productive. Who is the audience? It often appears to be Western political leaders and the media. Sometimes it feels as if it might even be aimed at a Chinese rather than an international audience. This is misconceived. The audience should not be the Western governing elites, that is for diplomacy, but, absolutely crucially, the broad Western public.
This requires a different tone and a different style: engaging, concessive, conversational, informal, street-wise, self-critical, seeking common ground. Not wooden, nor belligerent. Perhaps we can learn something from the runaway success of Tik Tok in the West, not literally, of course, but metaphorically and imaginatively. China needs a different tone to appeal to Western audiences. This is where China should draw on a younger generation of influencers and their methods rather than an officialdom which is too remote from Western audiences. China can do this; it just needs to recognise the importance, urgency even, of a different approach.
One final point if I may. China needs to be more open. This is the era of Reform and Opening Up. Opening Up cannot just be about economics. It is also cultural. To Western perceptions, China is too closed, insufficiently open, too secretive. I understand the historical roots of this, but secrecy can easily engender suspicion. Often it is justified on the grounds that the issue in question is an internal matter for China; but as China becomes a great power, people around the world will reasonably expect China to be more open about itself, and its problems and difficulties. Accountability and openness are a necessary price of power and influence.