The latest confrontation between the United States and China officially started with the trade war
in 2018. The time since then has reminded us just how different the two countries are and how difficult it has become to reach a compromise. While the West would like to preserve the current world order and strengthen its global leadership, China brings to the table a different narrative, with Chinese characteristics.
The US has long presented itself as the guardian of world peace and democracy, whereas China’s discourse centres on the utopian idea of a common destiny, which will be built through close cooperation between all states, around shared values, but with Chinese characteristics. This vision, however, strongly precludes any foreign influence on China’s domestic affairs, where centralised authority guides not only the people, but the law itself.
The result is a rule-of-law system with Chinese characteristics, in which the law is above all, but placed under the Communist Party’s unified and centralised leadership; a constitution, but no constitutional court; a formal multiparty system, but one in which the Communist Party inherently reigns supreme.
Internally, the party’s supremacy is easy to maintain when about 1 in 17 Chinese is a party member and Beijing spends more money on internal security than the military. Externally, the Chinese characteristics of the system sometimes lead to paradoxical situations, where internationally proclaimed principles, such as the right of peoples to self-determination, are essentially not in line with China’s political and social realities.
However, China’s huge economic growth and technological prowess clearly mean that the country can no longer be ignored, or isolated. And yet, how many more Chinese characteristics – such as “one country, two systems” – will the global community be willing to accept?
The answer is far from obvious. On the one hand, the huge economic gains from interactions with China have so far prevented both the US and European Union from taking too strong a position on many issues involving China. On the other hand, should the world’s largest democracies abstain from defending the international principles that are the very foundation of the current world order, then the world as we know it will become prey to uncertainty.
In other words, if economic gains continue to prevent the US and EU from challenging China when it drifts away from the principles that govern international relations, then the future world order will be dominated by Chinese characteristics.
This article has been published by Andreea Leonte, Fellow for China Studies at RISAP, in the South China Morning Post. You can read the full article on the SCMP website.