Open any news website or newspaper, and you’ll find the feud between the United States and China over the coronavirus 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 battle was on full display during the annual meeting of the World Health Organization. On the very day that China’s president Xi Jinping pledged $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 Two global leadership – from Nato to the WTO – has been dominated by the west, led by the US. 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’s 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 for 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 recreation of China’s imperial approach.
But in addition to the BRI, China is engaging in institution-building that is far more threatening to a liberal order. Beijing does this by working to reshape multilateral institutions from within, while at the same time building competing structures that it can influence from the start.
For example, in 2018, a World Bank capital increase strengthened China’s voting rights, making it the third-most influential member state. At the same time, however, Beijing was building its own development vehicles to spread its influence, including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Silk Road Fund, the New Development Bank and the 17+1 platform in Central and Eastern Europe. In each of these institutions, China sets the agenda.
To some, especially those in the Global South, a China-led international order has some appeal. At a time when the US is abdicating its global leadership role, China is doing the opposite.
But to supporters of liberal values and norms – and to anyone who despises China’s trampling of basic human rights – Beijing’s vision is parochial and even frightening. Jude Blanchette, a China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says Beijing is increasingly ambitious, and that should worry the West. “That doesn’t have to mean that China wants to take over the globe,” Blanchette says. “But I do really think that the Party is renegotiating its role in the world, and I get very nervous when I think about that picture.”
Unfortunately, the options for rewriting the script are limited, especially given that the Trump administration has no clear strategy for challenging China in places where Beijing’s influence is growing. While some argue only drastic measures – like dismantling the WTO and convening a Bretton Woods 2.0 – will salvage the liberal order, even nuanced recommendations (such as increasing public diplomacy and focusing more research efforts on China’s strategy) require leadership that currently does not exist.
Unlike during the Cold War, which divided nations into two distinct camps, the world today is too interconnected for separate rules and norms. Therefore, states that value liberalism and human rights as foundational principles must act swiftly to craft policies and economic responses that convincingly challenge China’s narrative. Failing that, the war of words that Trump is so focused on will be meaningless compared to the ideological battle that China seems convinced that it can win.
Greg C. Bruno is the author of “Blessings from Beijing: Inside China’s Soft-Power War on Tibet.” He was a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and is a former opinion editor at The National in Abu Dhabi and Project Syndicate in Prague.