China’s foreign policy should be understood as a large puzzle made up of many small pieces. Treated individually, most of them seem rather unspectacular. Altogether, however, they provide an impressive network of alternative institutions in a world struggling with growing American unilateralism. The crisis-stricken liberal democracies should start taking the smaller pieces of the puzzle seriously if they don’t want to lose track of the big picture of international relations being reshaped by an increasingly powerful China.
The Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) should be understood in this context. The annual forum was due to be held in late March but has been postponed in reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak. The BFA brings together leaders from government, business, and academia from Asia and beyond to discuss economic issues important to the region. Although the BFA itself was first initiated by the leaders of the Philippines, Australia, and Japan, ever since its establishment in 2001, it has been carrying China’s thumbprint more than anything. Modeled after the World Economic Forum in Davos, the BFA has an expressed focus on the “Asian perspective.”
The “Asian Davos” is not the only mechanism calling for Asian problems to be solved by Asians themselves, neither is it the only institution modelled after existing Western institutions: Alongside “Asia’s Davos” stands the Chinese version of the Shangri-La Dialogue – the Beijing Xiangshan Forum – its alternative to the World Bank and IMF – the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) – and what some observers label as the NATO of the East – the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). While the accuracy of these depictions and comparisons is questionable, all of them represent Chinese-style multilateralism and are heralded by the Chinese government as more adequate fora for 21st century cooperation than many of the multilateral formats created by the Western democracies after World War II.
The upcoming China country report of the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) 2020 notes that many AIIB projects indeed challenge the U.S. global and Japanese regional leadership roles in economic governance. In a similar vein, one of the official goals of the SCO is to establish a “democratic, fair and rational new international political and economic order.” Other international events likewise offer convenient platforms for Chinese government officials to publicly reject U.S.-style “Cold War mentality” and “zero-sum thinking” and instead promote China’s very own “New Security Concept” of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination.
A major critique of Western-style multilateral cooperation heard at these meetings is the one-sided favoritism Western countries enjoy in mechanisms they created. What China offers instead is “democratic” platforms, which are increasingly assertively confronting “U.S. hegemony.” Related to this, the BTI 2020 concludes that “the Chinese government faces the very real risk of isolating itself from the world’s liberal democracies.” What must not be missed, however, is the existence of the hundred-plus countries outside the group of liberal democracies, many of which are increasingly relying on China to improve their domestic conditions and international standing.
How the dynamics have changed becomes clear on the largest international stage, the United Nations. The United States holds four of altogether 15 top posts at the specialized UN agencies; China holds the same number (and almost won a fifth, having recently lost a bid for the future head of the World Intellectual Property Organization). The leadership positions at UN agencies are elected by all agency members; in other words, whoever gains the most support globally wins the vote. Revealingly, the election of the head of the Food and Agriculture Organization last June resulted in a 108 to 12 victory of China’s Qu Dongyu over the U.S.-backed candidate.
China’s ability to mobilize international support and to oust Western democracies from setting agendas is also revealed in the field of human rights. Last July, 22 nations, including Australia, Germany, and Sweden, signed a letter addressed to the UN Human Rights Council criticizing China’s massive detention program in Xinjiang. Shortly afterwards, a significantly higher number of states, altogether 37, signed a letter praising China’s human rights achievements. Most of the China-supporting signatories take part in China’s Belt and Road Initiative as well as many of the China-led international institutions. Many states dependent on financial assistance are glad about China’s promise of loans. This, combined with a rather widespread dissatisfaction with Western double standards and partisan international behavior, makes for a high number of states supporting China internationally.
Whether we like it or not, this year’s BFA motto “A world in change: Bond together for a shared future” is spot-on. The current COVID-19 outbreak illustrates just how connected the world is. Consequently, for better or worse, even states with diverging systems and interests must cooperate to tackle some of the major challenges of our times, including health crises and climate change. For the Western democracies to better position themselves in a changing world more and more dominated by China, they must finally start taking even the smaller pieces of the puzzle of the country’s foreign policy seriously. They must acknowledge the depth and character of China’s new relationships and drop outdated and often patronizing beliefs that their own institutions are the only ones that matter.
Besides this, liberal democracies would be well advised to up their own game and provide incentives for other states to adhere to international human rights standards and to democratize. This includes both fixing their own broken institutions as well as more credibly sticking to their own human rights commitments. In this way, they would not only get a more realistic idea of today’s world beyond the West, but would also increase their chances of improving their own position in this world where even the most opposing states are – like it or not – “bonded together for a shared future.”
Eva Seiwert is a doctoral candidate at the Graduate School of East Asian Studies (GEAS) at the Freie Universität Berlin and a guest author for the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s BTI Blog. Her research focuses on China’s foreign policy towards Central Asia, in particular within the context of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.