In today’s globalized world the two primary powers are the United States (the hegemon) and China (the rising challenger). Their respective models of global leadership could shape the future of 21st Century international relations. However, their styles could not be more different. While America has long relied on an international order of liberal and inclusive institutions that have laid out the rules and regulations of global governance, reinforced by a series of alliance systems as military cover; China basis its own vision on historical experience, an experience derived from the key role played by the ancient silk roads’ in helping facilitate an era of ancient globalization. To put it simply, due to the nature of globalization, isolation has become taboo while alliances and international cooperation are becoming increasingly important. Thus, for the last 75 years we have lived under America’s global vision; however, increasingly China is seeking to implement its own model of universal collaboration in the form of its Belt and Road Initiative. Only time will tell which model is best suited for dealing with the numerous challenges of today. It is highly likely that during the 21st Century there will be an even greater spread of communication and technology resulting in a more computerized world and thus creating a more interconnected global system. One result of this spread will possibly be the diminishing of the border system as the bastion of State legitimacy and protection. Thus, the idea of one country acting as the sole global policeman is virtually impossible, the days of Rome are long gone and the days of U.S. hegemony are also fading. However, does that necessarily mean that the international order set up by America in the aftermath of World War II is also on the wane?
Introducing A Global Crisis: The Covid-19 Blame Game
It is easy for us to work together when things are going smoothly, but the mark of a healthy international and cosmopolitan civilization is both learning and trying to cooperate as one entity in times of crisis. The Covid-19 Pandemic was the perfect opportunity for the world to come together for arguably the first time in human history. This is unique, albeit it is a tragic moment in our history that rarely occurs (the last time was 1918-1920 in form of the Spanish Flu). The Coronavirus Pandemic is original in its context because we are not living through an ordinary or mainstream war fought among nations, empires or other forms of polities or even armed organizations. Instead the international community consisting of nation-States, Intergovernmental Organizations, Non-Governmental Organizations, international courts, financial and sporting institutions and business-corporations all face a common threat that affects every human being. Rich and poor, king and pauper, both powerful and weak States, big and small Businesses, peacemakers and terrorists are all threatened by the Coronavirus. No corner of the world is immune or safe from this ravaging Pandemic. Yet despite this present and clear treat what do we see, we see blame and figure pointing. America blames China while China blames the U.S. military for initiating and thus presenting this deadly pandemic to the entire world (Horsley 2020; Jaworsky and Qiaoan 2020). In a situation where the rest of the world looks to China and the U.S., the two most powerful and influential countries on earth, for guidance – these two great powers instead continue to place the majority of their efforts into blaming each other for initiating the spread of the Virus rather than trying to bring the global community together to discover a common solution to ending this Pandemic.
To phrase it differently, is the America-China blame game based on a genuinely held belief by both governments/administrations that blame for the spread of Covid-19 lies on the other country’s door step (the first theory)? or is it based on sinister rival politics which can be explained by the power transition theory (the second reason)? In this writer’s opinion the power transition theory better explains the current policy stances of both governments. In other words, the Covid-19 blame game is just another policy ploy manipulated by both governments in order to discredit the other’s standing in the world in terms of influence, prestige and as a reliable global partner in times of crisis. The current global health crisis is another arena in which China (the world’s rising economic and military power) and the United States (the current global hegemon) look to upstage the other on the international stage. The Coronavirus will likely heighten tensions between China and America, whose relationship is already at its most critical and lowest point since China opened up to the West in 1978. This is because in addition to the Covid-19 blame game, the U.S.-China rivalry is also in the midst of ongoing and serious trade, economic, diplomatic and military disputes (thank God short of military confrontation). This rivalry does not bode well for either nation and for the larger nation-State community, who look to and rely on both countries for a variety of issues especially for commercial, economic and military assistance and cooperation.
History of Globalization
Globalization is a divisive term splitting those who believe in a unified world from those who adhere to the nation-state concept. However, if we examine the history of globalization we would find that it is rooted in colonialism. In other words, colonialism paved the way towards globalization (Dirlik, 2002). It was European colonization and the European empires’ competition for wealth and economic power (which arguably became a priority of history with the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Western Europe) in far-flung regions that resulted in the global spread of Western political-economic ideas which form the basis of our modern political world. In other words, colonialism dragged capitalism with it to all four corners of the world. The importance of the spread of capitalism in creating a globalized world cannot be understated. Despite its many shortcomings, the capitalist system drove “an enormous increase in world productive capacity and in world population” (Wallerstein 1992, p. 564). The substantive rise in world production was due to the emergence of the industrial revolution and the shift from agricultural based economies to industrial based economies. Furthermore, this new global productivity created new wealth and new scientific and medical discoveries which helped fuel a world population expansion to such an extent that some people have proclaimed that overpopulation is an existential threat to the Earth. Another vast problem facing humanity today is the growing economic gap between the wealthy classes and the rest of the world’s population. What makes this situation unique is that the wealthy strata are truly globalized, and the rest of society is also very universal in scope. For example, it is no longer a question of a rich European economically controlling the lives of the colonists. Nowadays there are super-wealthy Arabs, Asians and Africans, and poor Westerners and vice versa. Therefore, it is such threats that require us as a global society to collaborate and cooperate more soundly and with greater vigor, understanding, and most importantly with human compassion. Taking it further to within the confounds of this article’s main question; should the international community bandwagon thus under American leadership or should we replace our current emperor with a new sovereign, a leading nation with a revolutionary global vision such as China?
Global Pax Americana
According to numerous sources and statistics, the United States currently operates a global military ‘empire’ that stretches across all continents and is currently the biggest the world has ever known. In fact, the United States army, navy, and air force overseas can be compared to the Roman Imperial garrisons that were stationed across the Roman provinces. This comparison can be made due to the de facto perpetual presence of U.S. military bases and troops in countries such as Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, Japan, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Germany (Morgan, 2006). Overall, the U.S. armed forces are present in 165 countries (Morgan 2006), which means there are more countries currently part of rather than excluded from the U.S. global military ‘empire’. That is the extent of the outreach of American hard power, it is a truly global ‘empire’, with the ability to influence and even determine major events throughout continents. However, it would be unfair to only call the United States a military ‘empire’. The USA is much more than an empire, in fact, it is no ordinary empire. Perhaps no power in history has understood the importance of global cohesion and the benefits of alliances more than the United States of America.
Figure 1: Map of America’s global military bases (Vine in van der Made 2020)
U.S. leadership and foreign policy in the post Second World War era can be classified as bipolar. On the one hand, tremendous pain and suffering has been inflicted upon numerous countries and regions as a result of America’s endless foreign wars which began in 1990 with the 1st Gulf War (Riedel 2020) and U.S. assumption to the position of sole international superpower. Yet, on the other hand, America has also used its position of strength to create an international order of multilateral institutions and organizations: with the aim of bringing nations to cooperate through a multilateralism approach to address and or combat global problems. One key leadership style of the U.S. has been the construction of the permanent alliance, a concept now practically engrained into the fabric of international society. The perfect example of a permanent alliance is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the post Second World War brain child of the USA. NATO is a fixed multilateral military alliance with 30 member States scattered across North America, Europe and the Middle East (Turkey) and the only known alliance with an internationally recognized charter, the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty/Washington Treaty (The North Atlantic Treaty 2009). In fact, there is one article within the Washington Treaty that more than any other stipulation proves U.S. commitment to international cooperation. The stipulation known as Article 5 obliges all its members to adhere to a policy of protecting each other when one of them is attacked and embraces a spirit of solidarity between its members (The North Atlantic Treaty 2009). The concept of collective defense is indicative not only of U.S. commitment to the alliance system, but also in the understanding that the great issues of our time will require a universal or multilateral response. In addition, to pushing for the establishment of a Westernized global military alliance, the U.S. Government also vigorously championed the international community to organize a liberal international system following the Allied Powers (who called themselves the United Nations) WWII victory. The revolutionary idea behind this new system was that it was organized into a set of liberal institutions who were endowed by the nation-State community with the authority to set down the rules and norms of global governance. Notable institutions include the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization and the International Monetary Fund.
While, there is no doubt that under American leadership the world has suffered from a platitude of crises; nevertheless, we are ‘blessed’ to live through the longest period of global peace since between 1815 (the end of the Napoleonic Wars) and 1914 (the start of the Great War). This era of universal peace denotes an avoidance of direct conflict between the great powers; a period known as ‘Pax Americana’ or ‘The American Peace’.
On the other hand, China is developing its own geopolitical and geo-economic clout through the construction of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A project that aims to connect through both land and sea networks, the Far East, Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe under China’s leadership. This policy of global expansion by China has not been seen since the ancient Silk Road was abolished in 1453 AD (Mark 2018). If the BRI’s purpose is similar to the ancient Silk Road’s then humanity could reach a new age of prosperity based on direct interaction between civilizations beyond the confounds of State-led institutions like the United Nations. Why is it important to refer to the ancient Silk Road, it is important because analyzing history can help us formulate a possible future for humanity. The ancient Silk Road or silk roads (since there was more than one trade route) were a network of commercial routes that linked East with West from 130 BC to 1453 AD (Mark 2018). For example, a network of caravanserais connected “China, the Indian subcontinent, the Iranian Plateau, the Caucasus, Turkey, North Africa, Russia, and Eastern Europe” (United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). This cross-continental connectivity which was realized through infrastructural means not only resulted in some of the first global trade networks, but also in an era of unprecedented globalization. The Silk Roads allowed for direct and regular interaction between populations and civilizations across Eurasia, a dream that was near on impossible for humanity to have realized in more modern times just 150 years ago. As a result of the silk roads, there was a proliferation and diffusion of scientist ideas, technologies, arts and crafts, literature, language, and religious and cultural beliefs across the ancient world (United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). As an example of the silk roads effectiveness, the Mohammedans had an open avenue in which to demonstrate to the different peoples, communities and societies that they met of the superiority of their religion (that was their viewpoint) over other beliefs. Eventually, Islam spread to distant lands (distant in comparison to its original home in Arabia) that existed along the silk roads, penetrating the heart of south Asia notably Malaysia and Indonesia (United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). In other words, direct trade paves the way to greater interaction between peoples and nations which is arguably a pre-requisite for gaining a better understanding between civilizations, cultures and religions.
Figure 2: Map of the Ancient Silk Road (Encyclopædia Britannica 2021)
The Birth of a Pax Sino World?
China’s Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) is arguably the greatest geopolitical infrastructural project since the ancient Chinese Silk Road. The BRI is the Crown Jewel of China’s new international policy, a policy that will allow China to venture beyond the confines of the Asia pacific. In other words, the BRI is a geopolitical strategy that could transform the world’s second most powerful nation from a purely Far East participant into a true global player (China is already involved in the world economy since it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 (World Trade Organization 2020)). However, the BRI will allow China to participate in world affairs as a global geopolitical player for the first time in at least modern history. This is because China through the BRI seeks to connect Asia, Europe and Africa through land and maritime infrastructural networks. For example, China’s strategy includes the formation of “deep ocean-related cooperation by fostering closer ties with countries along the Belt and Road, by drawing support from the coastal economic belt in China” (Niblock et al. 2018, p. 75). In other words, the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ is a combination of a land and maritime geopolitical strategy: the land-based ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ and the marine-based ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Road’. This is seen in China’s pursuit to develop the ‘China-Indian Ocean-Africa-Mediterranean Sea Blue Economic Passage’, which would then connect with the land corridors of China’s ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’: ‘the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor’ (Niblock et al. 2018, p. 75). Another example, that illustrates China’s determination to link Afro-Eurasia together into practically one geo-economic sphere of cooperation is the ‘ “Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative” ’. This vision is based on the notion of developing an economic passage that extends “from the South China Sea into and across the Pacific Ocean, and to Europe via the Arctic Ocean” (Niblock et al. 2018, p. 75). Therefore, it can be argued that China seeks to reintegrate the ‘old World’ into one commercial sphere of cooperation just like the days of the ancient Silk Road, which contributed to the development of human contact across Eastern and Western civilizations.
Figure 3: Map of the Chinese BRI (Dews 2019)
Conclusion: China and America’s Opposing Models
Therefore, the evidence thus far points to opposing U.S. and Chinese visions with respect to the structure of the global system in the 21st Century. On the one hand, America created an international order that gave liberal institutions the powers to set the rules and norms that determine global governance. These rules and regulations are the basis of how States should behave and any divergence from them will likely lead to ostracization. On other hand, China’s model is based on facilitating direct trade relations including establishing economic exchange and investment deals between China and the Afro-Eurasian countries situated along the BRI’s land and maritime corridors. In fact, one could argue that a successful implementation of the BRI will allow China to expand its geopolitical tentacles beyond its natural sphere of influence which historically has been confined to the Far East. As evidence to back this claim, one can point to the fact that the BRI was originally called the ‘One (land) Belt One (Maritime) Road Initiative’. Such a name might provide some insight into Chinese ambitions, ambitions which might include expanding its power and influence through geo-economic means. This is not hearsay desire, it is admitted Chinese Government policy. The clearest indication of Chinese admission of its intent can be found in a March 2015 proposal entitled, the “ “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” ”. The main objective of the project is to further Chinese expansionist plans along the BRI through “ “ pushing forward port infrastructure construction; building smooth land-water transportation channels, and advancing port cooperation; increasing sea routes and the number of voyages; and enhancing information technology cooperation in maritime logistics” ” (Niblock etal. 2018, p.74). Therefore, there is enough evidence to show that China and America back opposing models that could either stimulate 21st Century global cooperation or lead us into a path where the two opposing models dominate and divide the international system.
writer Simon Nasr MA, King's College, University of London, UK.
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