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"Belt & Road" vs. Liberal Order

By He Yafei, former Vice Minister, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China

This is really the best of times and worst of times. With the rise of a large number of developing and emerging countries and relative decline of “advanced countries”, the global convergence of power is accelerating and the balance of power continues to tip in favor of the developing countries. This big picture provides a useful prism through which a clearer view of the world today and tomorrow, including the future of globalization, global governance and the global liberal order, becomes clear in our minds.

Liberal order in crisis

Without any doubt, a crisis has been raging across the “liberal democratic world” for some time with “black swan events” appearing in the U.S. and in many European nations. These have wreaked havoc with the political eco-system in the Western world, weakening the centrist and progressive forces that used to underpin the U.S.-led postwar world liberal order.

The challenges to liberal order as well as liberal democracy come from both within and outside, mostly from within, which raises many questions as to whether the U.S.-led and U.S.-defined liberal order can survive.

Among challenges from within, first and foremost is the loss of credibility of economic neo-liberalism as the governing ideology for global economic order since the 2008 financial crisis, which has made many countries turn to the East, in particular to China, for new ideas and concepts.

Next naturally are the “Trump Phenomenon” and its copycat versions in European countries, though the result of French election has given people some relief as Europe stares into the abyss of EU disintegration.

President Trump has been in office for a bit more than four months, during which his pronouncements and actions, together with his midnight tweets, are perceived both at home and abroad as risking an end to the role by the U.S. as guarantor of this liberal world order. His view of American decline and his instinctive contempt for the norms and values of liberal democracy, long held as sacrosanct by Western nations, is too blunt to miss or to ignore. Hence comes the question: Will the US continue to provide global commons in this new era of globalization or will it backpedal and go into an isolationist Mode Vivendi as has been the American tradition? That is why Francis Fukuyama repeatedly asks that “irksome” question of “do we still live in the liberal international order” as he gives talks and writes about the fast dismantling of that order based on liberal democracy.

China offers an alternative?

The Belt & Road Initiative is both a national developmental strategy and an innovative initiative by China to global governance offering huge opportunities for greater cooperation among countries concerned on the basis of equality and mutual benefit. The widely acclaimed success of the recent B&R Forum of International Cooperation in Beijing testifies to its popularity worldwide. The number of countries (and regional and international organizations) that have signed MOUs on B&R with China had increased to 68 by the closing of the forum.

Nevertheless, B&R has been viewed with deep suspicion – some in the West portrayed the initiative as China’s attempt to grow its sphere of political and economic influence, with a hidden agenda to overthrow the current international system of liberal democracy.

Here we have to distinguish between two things that are not really related. The liberal democracy and liberal order as defined in the Western narrative are indeed under siege and in crisis, because politically and economically they has been used or abused to impose a Western model of governance onto other nations regardless of their domestic conditions, including the “Washington Consensus” and “Responsibility to Protect”. It has also been followed rigidly in Western countries themselves for capital-holders to extract as much profit as possible from the society —overlooking the negative impact it has on some segments of the populations, especially those who have only unskilled labor to offer. The French economist Thomas Piketty in his famous book entitled “The 21st Century Capital” described this ugly phenomenon in great detail.

The widening gap and exacerbating conflict between the rich and the poor have been blamed on globalization per se. The fact that governments in those countries failed to address this glaring problem has been conveniently forgotten.

Here lies another reason why China’s proactive B&R proposal is so popular.

There are at least two things that make B&R an attractive proposition. One is that this idea of new international cooperation is deeply rooted in the success of China’s economic growth and its domestic governance, including the enormous efforts in poverty reduction and elimination. China was successful in lifting over 700 million people out of poverty in the last four decades.

The other is the fact that China’s success has been achieved by taking its own path of development with strong institutional guarantees from government led by the Chinese Communist Party. In other words, China has not followed the governance model of neo-liberalism offered and sometimes imposed by Western nations. Other developing countries and emerging markets, as well as many advanced industrial nations, have come to the conclusion that China offers an alternative model, though by no means to be simply copied, to economic growth and good global governance. B&R is a solid example.

President Xi solemnly promised at the B&R Forum that the new Silk Road will be “the road of peace, prosperity and innovation with inclusiveness and civilization integration”. B&R is also offered as a way to deal with the serious global challenges of peace deficit, governance deficit and development deficit.

It is quite clear that B&R has nothing whatsoever to do with the decline or non-decline of the liberal order or liberal democracy as claimed by some scholars and experts in the West. If there is anything about B&R that can contribute to the future of global governance and world order, it is the inherent opportunities of that proposal to further democratize international relations and make globalization an equal process for sharing benefits among all nations and therefore more sustainable.

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