Coronavirus News Asia

Is a China-led world order inevitable?


Open any news website or newspaper, and you’ll find the feud between the United States and China over the Covid-19 pandemic splashed across the front. But behind these headlines is another struggle that may prove far more consequential: the battle of opposing global systems.

Last week, this fight was on full display during the World Health Organization’s annual meeting. On the very day that Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged US$2 billion over two years to help the WHO fight Covid-19, US President Donald Trump was threatening to do the opposite. Without “substantive” reforms, Trump wrote in a letter posted on Twitter, American funding – and even membership – could vanish.

On one level, the rhetorical and fiscal sparring at the WHO’s expense is rooted in the domestic politics of each country. With Trump’s re-election campaign clouded by a mounting Covid-19 death toll, and Xi under scrutiny for his early handling of the crisis, both leaders are taking steps they view as necessary to support flagging legitimacy at home.

But on another level, the WHO tug-of-war has more to do with the two leaders’ opposing views of the international order, and of the multilateral institutions that comprise it. For more than seven decades, the alphabet soup of post-World War II global leadership – from NATO to the WTO – has been dominated by the US-led West. The failed response to the coronavirus crisis has demonstrated that this era is over. The question now is what will replace it.

The most honest answer is that no one really knows. But given that no country besides the US has the ability to reshape the global order quite like China, the best way to prognosticate is to look closely at what Beijing wants.

For China’s elite, one of the main complaints of the existing system is that it was built on norms and values – liberalism and fundamental human rights – dictated by the US. But because these values pose a threat to one-party rule, China holds a starkly different perspective on the basic responsibilities of a global superpower.

“Whereas the West believes that the promotion of liberal democracy can help achieve global peace and prosperity, the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] blames the global promotion of ‘so-called universal values’ for conflict and disruption worldwide,” Nadège Rolland, a senior fellow at the US National Bureau of Asian Research, wrote in testimony to Congress in March.

China’s preferred alternative is a global order rooted in what Rolland calls “anti-ideology” – a system of global integration in which every country can select its own political and economic models.

At the heart of this vision is a China-centric world of interconnectivity, where norms set by Beijing form the basis of engagement. Unlike Washington, which applies political and social conditions to its partnerships, Beijing’s version of hegemony is agnostic. Its terms are simple: Respect China’s authority and interests and reap the economic and political benefits.

Xi is not the first Chinese leader to advocate such a global order; indeed, it is a tribute-like system that formed the basis of China’s imperial power for centuries. But unlike his modern predecessors, Xi has the means to deliver. For instance, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to link China to Africa, Europe, the Middle East and beyond via trade, infrastructure and people-to-people connectivity, is in many ways a re-creation of China’s imperial approach.


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