[Beijing Forum 2019] Thoughts on the changing world order

By: Ciara Morris/Edited by: Huang Weijian/Peking University, Nov. 6, 2019

On November 2 and 3, Peking University hosted Beijing Forum Panel Session on “The Changing World Order”. The two-day session facilitated rigorous academic debate on shifts in international institutional structures, the decline of American hegemony, the development of China, and a multipolar future.

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At the forum

The sessions began with “The Debate on Economic Globalization”. After the Cold War, Western style market economics dominated the global economy. Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council lamented we were more romantic about globalization 20 years ago, and since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, “now we blame it for everything”. It was later discussed how globalization, although being “blamed” by countries in the West, has facilitated impressive growth and development across the world, and is still largely supported in China. All speakers agreed, however, that with the death of the old order of American dominance, we are entering uncharted territory in our global economy.

With the US retreating from many of its previous international commitments and declining in economic power, while China’s economy continues to thrive, many Western academics fear China will replace the US as a unipolar world power. Su Chenghe from Fudan University and Zhu Feng from Nanjing University, along with many of their colleagues from universities across China, made clear that China is not seeking unipolarity. China wishes only to add to the existing changing order to ensure the benefits of globalization, global security, and shared responsibility of the international community.

Besides, China could not be assumed to replace the US’s unipolarity before its own domestic transformation is complete. Speakers thoughtfully discussed that although, on the one hand China’s development should be celebrated, on the other hand, the dangerous implications of power should be carefully considered to avoid a Thucydides trap. Jorge Heine from Boston University agreed it is unlikely the world will see Pax Sinica replace Pax America, and instead “we are moving towards a multipolar world where the global south will play a much larger role”.

Session 2 explored “The Dilemma of Regionalization”. The speakers agreed that conventional international relations theories are unfairly eurocentric, and we ought to shift our thinking towards the increasing role of the global south and regional blocs. Funmi Olonisakin from King’s College London emphasized the misunderstanding in how big powers conduct diplomacy and trade relations with Africa, as an example of how this narrow-minded theoretical framework is leaving global actors unprepared for the future. Zheng Ruolin, a senior researcher with the Taihe Institute acknowledged that industrial capital is still a dominant source of power coming from the US, East Asia and the Islamic world, and changing global supply chains are increasing power bases in this new world that deserves academic and policy-making attention.

On discussing the role of regional associations, such as ASEAN, Wang Zhengyi from Peking University proposed four requirements for a successful regional solution; articles for peace and trade, norms, rules, and policy-making processes that support a common agenda. However, Wang predicted that “power relations, especially US-China-Japan relations, will continue to shape the regional cooperation process in East Asia in the foreseeable future”.

Session 3 examined the “Technological Revolution and International Order”. Paradigm shifts in global governance affects technology because, as Qi Haotian from Peking University said, “technology is not an apolitical and amoral force”. Major concerns over the governance of technology include privacy, accountability, safety and security, transparency and explainability, non-discrimination, human control, and development responsibility. Jia Zifang from Foreign Affairs University, China, commented on the speed of technological advancement, saying “seven years ago the big word was big data, now it’s AI (Artificial Intelligence)”.

These technological advances are also impacting foreign relations, most notably the strategic competition between China and the US. The US is still the best in the world for technological innovation. However, China currently leads the communications industry with its 5G technology. Jia Zifang proposed, with a government that has “greater power to concentrate resources to solve complex issues”, there are more and more strategic advantages coming to China.

Session 4 on “The Change of American Hegemony” began with Sean M. Lynn-Jones from Harvard University who regrettably expressed more pessimistic views on the future of multipolarity. Lynn-Jones stated, “American scholar John Mearsheimer is right, the change in the balance of power will produce a more intense China-US rivalry”. According to Lynn-Jones, this will occur both because of the classic security dilemma between two large powers, and also because of China’s resentment of America’s presence in the region as it seeks hegemony in East Asia.

Some of Lynn-Jones other predictions include: although nuclear weapons will avert the danger of nuclear war, “there is a real possibility of accidental conflict”; “Francis Fukuyama was wrong… the spread of democracy around the world will not happen”; and “we will not see a world that will come together to solve world problems such as climate change”. Lynn-Jones did have one optimistic observation, when questioned about whether the China-US tension will become a second Cold War. He replied, because “they are economically integrated… neither is trying to change the other’s political system… it won’t be as intense”.

China and the US used to have great commercial relations, two-way trade and investment, and similar policies embracing globalization and liberalization of markets after the end of the Cold War. Wang Yong from Peking University explained the factors that have led to the trade war. The first observation is a declining enthusiasm for globalization causing a rise of populism and nationalism resulting in more national security driven policies. The second factor is the anti-China narrative coming out of the US. This narrative focuses on the trade deficit, accusing China of free riding, spurring its development on the theft of US technologies, as well as having closed markets, and not abiding to WTO rules. As a result, China has shifted focus to non-US regions, such as their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) partners.

Session 5 concluded the Forum with “The “China Solution” and Its Implications”. As the US has become more isolationist, Fantu Cheru from American University observed, China has stepped up in shaping rules and regulations with the intention of engaging the existing system constructively to bring about change from within. China has been active in fostering a strategic tactical alliance with other BRICS nations, using the BRI to seek more cooperation in the international arena, and made significant contributions to the international financial systems, including making a strong pitch for democratizing processes at the World Bank and IMF.

China’s two centenary goals are to see the realization of the national rejuvenation of China, and to play a role in global governance and cooperation internationally. To conclude the weekends’ discussion, academics stressed the dedication to making sure China considers its development thoughtfully, learning from the experiences of US unipolarity, and working together with other countries to help shape a peaceful multipolar future.

Overall, the two-day panel session was a fruitful dialogue on the state of the international system and global power balances, with valuable insights from contributing academics worldwide.


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