How China is pursuing a new world order among the geopolitical ruins

27 Feb 2024 - 10:14
Bron: ©Reuters/Clingendael

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“Perhaps Europe should ask whether it would do well to join an organisation like BRICS?”

China has issued calls for peace and is willing to negotiate between the parties in the Middle East conflict, but it has refrained from any real intervention. It’s a smart strategy. Since the West is rapidly losing its moral authority following its unconditional support for Israel – which is battling the Hamas terrorist organisation with tens of thousands of Palestinian civilian deaths as a consequence – a growing number of countries is feeling attracted to Beijing’s dream of a new, multipolar world order. A world order in which the hegemony of the West is a thing of the past, and liberalism and democracy are no longer sacrosanct. 

But appearances can be deceptive. Although Beijing seems to be keeping a low profile as regards the Middle East, it does appear to be pursuing a strategy that extends far beyond the region. What does this strategy look like? 

‘China wants to present a friendly face and to maintain good relations with all countries in the Middle East. It also claims to not want to interfere with other civilisations and other political systems. China does not want to become co-responsible for what is happening in those countries,’ says Ties Dams, geopolitical expert and China expert, affiliated with Clingendael Institute and Leiden University. 

‘Beijing is currently sitting back and watching the West get tangled up in all sorts of problems. It also sees how European and American societies are becoming polarised over the conflict between Israel and Hamas. In the meantime China is successfully pursuing its own ideal of a post-Western, multipolar world order.’ 

Beijing does aspire to play a diplomatic role in the Middle East. Last year saw a rapprochement between the archenemies Iran and Saudi Arabia, thanks in part to Beijing’s mediating role. And now China has repeatedly called for a ceasefire in Gaza and for things to calm down in the Red Sea. There, pro-Palestinian Houthi rebels – allies of Iran – are constantly attacking freight ships.

Washington has asked Beijing – which maintains strong relations with Iran – to put the authorities in Tehran under pressure to call off the Houthis. Iranian sources report that Beijing indeed relayed the request to the Iranian government, but it remains unclear how much pressure was actually exercised on Iran. 

China’s diplomatic influence and power in the region therefore appear to be fairly limited. Dams: ‘From an American perspective on power, it is true that China does not have the kind of influence over for instance Iran as some parties wish it did.’ 

‘China cannot get a grip on the Houthis, but nor can the United States. A safe passage through the Red Sea is as important to China as it is to the United States. However, because Beijing does not provide military support to Israel, it is only Western and not Chinese freight ships that are coming under attack. That’s smart politics too.’ 

How does China envision its longed-for post-Western world order? 

Dams: ‘Beijing is aiming for a multipolar world order in which countries refrain from interfering in the internal politics of other countries. In which the notion of ‘universal values’ is viewed with scepticism, and where the United States is just one of the players.’

‘In this new world order, democracy and liberalism are no longer a universal ideal, but only hold sway over certain parts of the world. The liberal world order will transform into a regional order.’

‘Autocratic forms of government will no longer be rejected out of hand, and the rules in this multipolar world order will mainly be set by China and its partners.’

China wants to play a leading role in this post-Western world, but without getting drawn into all sorts of conflicts? 

Dams: ‘Beijing is convinced that the United States will succumb to the tension between the military, diplomatic and moral responsibilities it has assumed in the world and the care for its own people.’ 
‘China therefore does not aspire to the same kind of hegemony that the United States once enjoyed, but has a different kind of agenda. Beijing wants to be a military superpower mainly in South-East Asia, and in other parts of the world it wants to mainly have economic influence and to offer countries an alternative to the United States.’ 

Why is Xi so opposed to the Western world order from which China has also benefited so much, for instance by being part of the World Trade Organization (WTO)? 

According to Xi, the liberal international order is based on arrogant Western standards, such as democracy as the ideal political system. These values and standards were first imposed on many countries by the European colonial powers and subsequently, and often hard-handedly, by the Americans. This has mainly benefited the United States and other wealthy capitalist nations. But now China has the power to influence and shape that order to its own liking. So it’s not so much about chucking out the world order, but recycling it. 

China is pursuing the post-Western world order by means of a multi-pronged strategy. What is the overall tactical plan? 

Tactic 1: China has assumed a leading role within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is mainly devoted to matters of security and politics. Other members are Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, Pakistan and Iran. Belarus is in the waiting room. 
China also plays an important role in BRICS. This intergovernmental organization originally comprised the ‘emerging economies’ of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Now, the organization has expanded to include Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Argentina and Ethiopia.

Besides offering a platform for consultation, BRICS is also devoted to economic cooperation. It has established its own bank, the New Development Bank, to offer financial support to developing nations, certainly since many economies suffered severe setbacks in the wake of the COVID pandemic and the war in Ukraine. 

SCO and BRICS are not based on liberal values and member states can have autocratic governments just as well as democratic ones. 
Whereas Iran is boycotted by the West on account of its nuclear programme, it is a member of both organisations. This is due in part to China’s support, with which Iran concluded an investment and energy treaty in 2021, since China very much needs Iranian oil. 

Partly through SCO and BRICS, the authoritarian states of Iran, Russia and China have bonded together more closely than ever before. This is a worrying development, especially for the Americans. By teaming up, these countries can oppose the US and exercise their own power more vigorously. 

According to Dams, China is eager to use the channels provided by these organisations to spread its own vision of the world. ‘The popularity of SCO and BRICS shows how lots of countries, despite significant ideological differences, are attracted to the kind of diplomacy propagated by Beijing: à la carte, based on self-interest, and without Western interference.’

Tactic 2: Xi Jinping shows a great deal of concern for ‘non-wealthy countries still developing’ – also referred to as the ‘Global South’ – by launching a series of new initiatives aimed at those countries.

First, in 2013 Xi launched the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), soon dubbed ‘the new Silk Road’. It comprises a development strategy for a huge network of ports, railways, pipelines, industrial parks, power stations and roads, that connects continents and stimulates world trade.  
Countries submitted requests for infrastructural projects, China provided loans and had Chinese constructors and workers carry out the projects. A thorough justification of the need and utility of the projects – commonly demanded by Western donors – was not required.

The ‘new Silk Road’ is still under construction, but the development strategy saw three new follow-up initiatives in recent years. According to the Chinese government’s mouthpiece, the Global Times newspaper, these initiatives will create stability and ‘bring new hope in a world of turmoil and transformation.’ 

The Global Development Initiative holds that all countries deserve advancement in wide-ranging areas, from food safety and medicines to the latest technological developments. There doesn’t seem to be much difference with the Sustainable Development Goals, launched in 2015 by the United Nations. The GDI could give an additional impetus to achieving these goals.

China presented the GDI at the United Nations in 2021, at a time when the West prioritised itself over poorer parts of the world in the allocation of vaccines during the COVID pandemic. 

Seventy countries have now embraced the GDI, according to a voluminous report in which China also lists numerous aid projects that it has already carried out.

The Global Security Initiative (GSI) was launched in April 2022, two months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In a paper, Beijing describes six fairly obvious principles aimed at ‘eliminating conflicts from the world and achieving lasting peace’. The document is full of grandiose statements such as, ‘Stay committed to the vision of a communal, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable peace and respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries.’ For China, the GSI mainly offers the opportunity to pursue an active diplomatic role. Presenting a peace plan for the war in Ukraine (February 2023) [1] [2] and restoring relations between archenemies Iran and Saudi Arabia (March 2023) are examples.

‘Within the United Nations, China has been very successful at changing the general approach to for instance human rights.’ 

Finally, the Global Civilization Initiative was launched in March 2023, informally dubbed Xivilization, with China as the guardian of a new ideology. According to Xi’s vision, countries must stop imposing their own values and political governance models on other countries, and should show mutual respect for the diversity of civilisations. The Western sense of superiority must end. 

Tactic 3: China influences Western institutions and global organisations from within, and in that way achieves major changes. 

In exchange for the BRI loans, Beijing expects the recipient countries to remain loyal to China at the United Nations. And they do. Countries that are strongly indebted to China will think twice before criticising Beijing.

Dams: ‘Within the United Nations, China has been very successful at changing the general approach to for instance human rights.’ 

For the Chinese Communist Party, pivotal human rights are not the freedom of expression or individual liberty, but economic development and ending poverty. Steadily more countries at the United Nations are adopting this view.

Dams: ‘Other non-Western countries are becoming increasingly vocal with regard to international jurisdiction as well. See for instance how South Africa accused Israel of committing genocide in Gaza at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. This is South Africa’s way of showing that the West no longer has a monopoly on moral leadership. 

What does a prospective multipolar world order mean for the West? 

It is a fact that the global power relations are shifting. Dams: ‘Much depends on the attitude taken by the US and Europe. The American president Biden continues to cling to the idea of American moral leadership in the world, even though he cannot live up to that commitment in various respects. Especially not considering the American electorate’s waning support for the astronomical sums the country spends on defence.’ 

‘On the global stage, Biden still sees himself as engaged in a contest between good and evil, and seems to see the future in terms of a bipolar world order – the US versus China – in which the democratic world is expected to side with the US. But the democratic world is no longer willing to fully support this narrative.’ 

According to Dams, Europe needs to carve out its own future, and should start to open up to the possibility that a multipolar world order is not necessarily a bad thing. 

Through its pioneering role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS, and by launching the global initiatives in infrastructure, development and security, China has created a ‘diplomatic order’ to parallel the Western forums such as the G7. 

‘The challenge posed by organisations like the SCO and BRICS might be indirect, but that doesn’t make it any less significant. Europe might find itself relegated to the sidelines as a global player if it fails to engage with China’s new diplomatic order.’ 

‘Perhaps Europe should ask whether it would do well to join an organisation like BRICS? Perhaps it wouldn’t, but these questions are becoming increasingly relevant. What we must do in any case is to start looking at the world and at ourselves more often through the eyes of other important non-Western countries. That’s what China is forcing us to do.’ 

Ties Dams is author of ‘Xi’ (2023), about the Chinese president.