Building the New ‘Three Rings’: Reconfiguring China’s Foreign Relations in the Face of Decoupling
The ‘special military operation’ launched by Russia against Ukraine, along with the attendant stalemate that has set in between the West and Russia, are landmark events that signal the approaching end of the globalisation wave that began in the 1980s. The absurd efforts of the United States to bully its allies into enacting murderous sanctions against Russia and to browbeat other countries into taking sides in this conflict, have brought the world to a state reminiscent of the deadly global struggles of the twentieth century ago. These developments pose a major challenge to China; the end of this wave of globalisation means that the country will no longer have the same external environment for development that it has enjoyed for the past forty years, and that the US will likely intensify its push to re-establish its domination over the international system and to decouple from China and Russia. The world has undergone a paradigm shift§. In the face of a potential forced and complete decoupling from the United States and Western countries, China must take initiative and adjust its foreign strategic orientation, reprioritising the countries that it engages with in order to develop a new international order that would safeguard against the repercussions of this decoupling.
The Unspoken Rule of the International Order: The Centre-Periphery Power Structure
During the three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, relations between Russia and the West have vacillated. Initially, Russia pursued friendly ties with the US and Western countries, then it gradually grew apart from them, and now it has entered into a fierce confrontation. The evolution of this relationship reflects the political limits of globalisation. Unlike the romantic notions of globalisation that were ascendant following the end of the Cold War, in reality, this era saw the establishment of US hegemony and the dismemberment of the Soviet Union and the socialist camp. This process of globalisation and the US pursuit of global supremacy are two sides of the coin; they condition and promote each other. The inability of this system to promote international equality, with developed and developing countries locked into a relationship of dominator and follower states, means that it cannot continue endlessly. On the one hand, globalisation is abandoned, reversed, or redesigned when it backfires on its initiators, threatening their superiority; on the other hand, countries will continue to resist when powerful states relentlessly pursue domination§. Russia’s special military operation against Ukraine was the result of the domineering nature of this round of globalisation, and has brought the US-dominated system to a standstill.
The decades-long eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was the main reason for Russia’s preemptive strike. This military buildup was not only a security issue but also an economic issue, as part of US efforts to marginalise Russia. Russia’s efforts to leverage globalisation to achieve national development and become a central country in the world order, ran counter to the logic of US-led globalisation. Global capital, financial capital in particular, has mainly concentrated on Russia’s energy, grains, and minerals, sectors which it can exploit for extravagant profits. However, during the tenure of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, the state has strengthened its grip on key sectors concerning national security and people’s livelihoods, and has sought to build a Eurasian economic union to create space for its own economic growth; all of this has upset foreign capital. NATO’s eastward expansion is a manifestation of capital’s control over politics to achieve market expansion. If Russia cannot respond effectively to the efforts to squeeze its development space and exacerbate its marginalisation, it will become even more deeply confined to being a producer of primary goods and lose access to great power politics, increasing the likelihood of a domestic political crisis, which Russian elites wish to avoid.
The power structure of the contemporary world order has been laid bare by NATO’s eastern expansion and the comprehensive sanctions regime imposed by Western countries on Russia. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the European colonial system began to fade out and, during the last half of the twentieth century, the world order became centred on the United Nations and international law, namely the principle of the sovereign equality of states. However, the hierarchical centre-periphery order of the European colonial system has not actually disappeared, but instead continues to exist in an implicit and hidden manner. The absolute power hierarchies which were enforced by colonial diktat have been replaced by an international order based on ‘common but differentiated’ responsibilities, in which states are sovereign equals on the surface but unequal in their actual operation of power§. Although the United States and its allies refer to this international system as a ‘rules-based’ order where every nation is bound to observe the same rules, in fact, it revolves around the West rather than the UN and international law.
Post-war US hegemony is the modern incarnation of the global centre-periphery order. The International Group of Seven (G7), established in the 1970s, holds annual meetings at which Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States discuss not only the affairs of these seven countries, but also global issues for which they negotiate and determine international rules. The so-called rules-based order is indeed an order based on the rules made by Western countries and their allies. What matters here is who makes the rules. In this global system, the division of labour, money supply, industrial production, and rulemaking are the exclusive purview of a select few countries. The advantageous position of these countries would be broken up if other countries attempted to join their club, disrupting the rulemaking authority, monetary dominance, and technological superiority maintained through the intellectual property rights regime. China’s unexpected economic rise in recent decades has broken precisely this post-war centre-periphery world order, threatening the structural privileges of the Western countries, which had never imagined that China could enter the centre of the global stage (even if China is only approaching this position and has not yet arrived). As a result, the United States has labelled China as its ‘strategic competitor’ in recent years and demonstrated its willingness to use any means to halt China’s development.
Both NATO’s eastward expansion and Washington’s attempt to contain China suggest that the US and Western countries only seek to maintain and reinforce their own positions of power in the world order. The Russia-Ukraine conflict and the comprehensive Western sanctions against Russia have further underscored the truth about the global system: the majority of the world find themselves in the ‘countryside’ of the global periphery whereas only a select few countries sit in the ‘cities’ of the global centre, at the core of which is the United States. These countries do not wish to see the ‘countryside’ turn into ‘cities’, as they are. China and Russia hinder the global ‘city centre’ in two key aspects: on the one hand, due to their strong capacity to control capital, the two countries are the largest remaining territories in the world that have not been subject to the arbitrary domination of capitalist globalisation; on the other hand, their national strength is much greater than most countries and impedes efforts of the ‘city centre’ to further control the ‘countryside’ of the global periphery. During this wave of globalisation, China has departed from the ‘countryside’ for the ‘city’ with its strong economic growth and overall growth in national strength. The countries at the centre, despite their earlier enthusiastic praise for globalisation, are now leading ‘deglobalisation’ efforts, exposing the limits of the universality of the post-war international order. China and the other nations of the ‘countryside’ joining the ‘cities’ is simply intolerable to the central countries.
The Base of Support for Multilateralism Is in the Global South
Since the 1980s, China has pursued reform and opening up and promoted international cooperation, including, over the last decade, advancing a proposal for the building of ‘a community with a shared future for humanity’ (人类命运共同体, rénlèi mìngyùn gòngtóngtǐ). These efforts can be traced back to the ancient Chinese idea of ‘the great unity under heaven’ (天下大同, tiānxià dàtóng); however, this ‘great unity’ cannot be achieved by China’s desire alone. In the current context of all-out hostility from the US-led West towards Russia and China, the world can no longer be viewed in a mechanical manner and simply assumed to be united around peace and development. Instead, it is necessary to seriously consider the threats of competition, conflict, and war; even if war is excluded from the likely outcomes, it is clear that it is no longer possible for China to continue to pursue its path of development in the Western-dominated system of globalisation. As such, China must reassess its answer to the primary question in foreign relations: which countries are potential partners for China, now and in the future, and which countries will China find it difficult to establish or maintain partnerships with?
As a well-known Chinese idiom goes, similar things group together and similar people fit together (or, birds of a feather flock together). The same applies to nations; those nations which share similar experiences, contexts, and challenges are more likely to form an enduring cooperative relationship. Since the nineteenth century, the world has undergone a global transformation driven by three key components, industrialisation, rational state-building, and ideologies of progress, shifting from a polycentric world with no dominant centre to a highly interlinked and hierarchical core-periphery order in which the centre of gravity resided in the West§. Between the mid-to-late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, imperialism and globalisation were two sides of the same coin: imperialism has driven globalisation while globalisation reinforced imperialism. Together, these related processes have trapped the peripheral nations of the world in a prison of underdevelopment, from which it is extremely difficult to break free. The West, as the former centre of the international system and the birthplace of imperialism, produced both the modern colonial order as well as the system of US hegemony that has dominated the world since the mid-to-late twentieth century. Meanwhile, many revolutionary movements, namely the anti-colonial struggles of the past century, have fought to overcome the inequality and injustice of this global centre-periphery power structure.
In this unequal world order, the central countries do not fairly welcome peripheral countries to the centre and oppose revolutions in the periphery. Consequently, to liberate themselves from subordination and exploitation, peripheral countries have to work together and, occasionally, exploit the rifts between those states at the centre, tactically cooperating with central states when it can advance the struggle. Over the past century, during the Chinese Revolution and the consolidation of state power, the main external forces that China depended on for support came from the global periphery. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Communist Party of China (CPC) was a member of the Communist International, an alliance of state and nonstate actors among the colonised and oppressed peoples of the world. During the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931–45), China joined the World Anti-Fascist War, upheld the anti-imperialist banner, and furthered the struggle to dismantle the unequal global structures created by imperialist states. After the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949, China placed a great deal of emphasis on cooperation with the countries of the Third World and supported the anti-colonial movements and post-independence development across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Of particular importance was China’s active participation in the Bandung Conference of 1955 – an important step in the eventual creation of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961 – where its proposal of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (和平共处五项原则, hépíng gòngchǔ wǔ xiàng yuánzé) for international relations was well received; the conference became a milestone in China’s relations with the Global South, where cooperation and solidarity gained positive momentum§. It was with the support of peripheral countries that the PRC regained its rightful seat in the United Nations in 1971 and became a permanent member of the Security Council.
The mutual solidarity and support between China and the countries of Asia Africa, and Latin America has remained a key feature of China’s approach to international relations, which emphasises multilateral cooperation with developing countries of the Global South to defend national sovereignty and development in a joint struggle against the unequal and unjust international order structured by the central countries. Despite focusing on relations with peripheral countries, under the framework of ‘omnidirectional diplomacy’ (全方位外交, quán fāngwèi wàijiāo), China remains open to engaging and developing friendly cooperation with Western developed countries and other major powers. However, it should be noted that, in the past, the interaction and cooperation between China and the countries at the centre always bore two preconditions: on the one hand, China insisted on developing foreign relations premised on independence, equality, and mutual benefit, and opposed the existing power hierarchies in international relations; on the other hand, the central countries placed a ceiling on their collaboration with China, namely, the position of Western countries at the centre of the global power structure could not be altered. Whenever either of these two preconditions were not met, China, as a member of the developing world, faced serious challenges in deepening its cooperation with the Western countries, especially on political matters.
Adjusting the Geographic Priorities of China’s Foreign Relations
Over the last forty years, setting aside ideological differences and institutional disparities between countries, China has sought to work with all the other nations. Gradually, China’s international relations came to be guided by the following logic: the major powers are the key; surrounding areas are the first priority; developing countries are the foundations; and multilateral forums are the important stage. However, as the current era of globalisation comes to an end, this approach has increasingly encountered obstacles. The US-initiated process of decoupling from China in terms of economic, technological, knowledge, and people-to-people exchanges – a process that Washington has coerced other Western countries into joining – is unlikely to be reversed and instead, due to the Russia-Ukraine war, it could intensify even further.
Since its founding in 1949, the PRC has undergone several significant shifts in its foreign policy direction, all of which occurred in response to specific historical situations; from the advocacy of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence in the early years of the PRC, to the Three Worlds Theory proposed amid the normalisation of the China-US relations in the 1970s, to the emphasis on developing partnerships with Western countries as part of transition to reform and opening up after 1978. The contemporary situation is defined by, what China’s President Xi Jinping has called, ‘major changes unseen in a century’ (百年未有之大变局, bǎinián wèi yǒu zhī dà biànjú) and the increasing tendency of Western states to suppress challenges to their authority. Especially in the period since war broke out between Russia and Ukraine, Western states have revealed their willingness to gang up on, pressure, and contain developing countries, a feature of the current Western-dominated order that will undermine international relations for some time. China cannot help but be highly alarmed by the punitive measures that the West has imposed on Russia, as they could also be imposed on China in a similar manner in the future. For this reason, it is urgently necessary that China re-examines its multilateralist tradition and re-orients the geographic configuration of its foreign relations, strengthening its partnerships with developing countries of the Global South to foster a new international environment that is conducive to China’s national security and long-term development.
In 1974, Mao Zedong set forth his Three Worlds Theory, which categorised the countries of the world into three major groupings, each necessitating a distinct approach to engagement from China. The third grouping, the developing countries of the Third World, were the main focus of China, which itself was also part of the Third World; the Chinese government and people firmly supported the just struggles of all the oppressed peoples and nations. Drawing on China’s previous practices and experiences in foreign relations, the theory outlined spatial priorities for China’s ties with other countries and provided an important ideological guide to the country’s approach to South-South cooperation. This theory remains highly relevant and should guide the present-day reconfiguration of the spatial priorities of China’s foreign relations. Contrary to the emphasis placed on working with Western countries since reform and opening up began four decades ago, China now needs to foreground the advancement of the South-South project.
Whether it concerns diplomatic affairs, long-term development, or national rejuvenation, for a considerable period of time, China’s foreign strategic arrangements will have to prioritise engaging with countries of the Global South. China should configure its foreign relations and promote the construction of a new global order under the ‘three-ring’ (三环, sān huán) framework. The first ring refers to China’s neighbouring regions of East Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East, which present important resource, energy, and security considerations; the second ring refers to the developing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, with which China engages in trade, investment, and infrastructure projects, and to which China mainly delivers its foreign aid; finally, the third ring refers to the United States, European countries, and other industrialised countries with which China exchanges industrial products, technologies, and knowledge.
Within the new ‘three ring’ framework, China’s first and foremost priority in helping to build a new international system should be the first ring, namely East Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East. To further promote East Asian economic integration and linkages with Central Asia and the Middle East, it is necessary to strengthen engagement and cooperation between Asian countries.. In recent years, by promoting economic diplomacy, China has made considerable progress in advancing East Asian economic integration and economic cooperation with many Asian countries. The latest breakthrough in East Asian economic integration was realised on 1 January 2022, when, after years of negotiation, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) finally entered into force. However, economic exchanges among East Asian countries have been increasingly affected by extra-regional forces and security issues in recent years, with disputes over maritime rights in the South China Sea and Washington’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategy fuelling uncertainty in the region. To prevent external forces from exploiting internal problems in Asia, China should move away from the ‘GDP supremacy’, or a narrow focus on economic matters, which it prioritised previously in its foreign relations, pay greater attention to political and security agendas in the region, and promote more security cooperation among Asian countries.
South-South Cooperation is the Material Basis of the New ‘Three Rings’
The material basis for the new ‘three rings’ framework is South-South cooperation, a concept that emerged in the late twentieth century regarding mutual interests, support, and solidarity among Third World countries§. In the twenty-first century, a new foundation for South-South cooperation is being laid, making the concept more achievable in reality. The main reason for this is that, in recent decades, a number of developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have been able to industrialise or quasi-industrialise by ‘climbing up the borrowed ladder’, seizing the opportunities afforded by the wave of globalisation. Among these countries, a new global system of material production and circulation has taken shape, and is on track to eclipse the original ‘ladder’ of globalisation built by Western countries. This new global system has manifested in two important respects.
First, the share of developing countries in the global economy has changed significantly. In 1980, developed countries accounted for 75.4 percent of global GDP while developing countries accounted for less than 25 percent; however, by 2021, the former group’s share of global GDP had fallen to 57.8 percent while the latter’s share rose to 42.2 percent§. The combined GDP of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) plus Turkey, South Korea, and Indonesia, in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, jumped from 21 percent of the global economy in 1992 to 37.7 percent in 2021, while the combined share of G7 countries declined from 45.8 percent to 30.7 percent in the same period§.
Second, trade and reciprocal investment between developing countries have also become pivotal. From 1997 to 2010, trade between China and African states increased 22.4 times and trade with Latin American states increased roughly 22 times; and from 2010 to 2021, China-Africa and China-Latin America trade increased another 2 times and 2.5 times respectively§. From 2000 to 2018, trade between China and Arab states ballooned from $15.2 billion to $244.3 billion, a 16-fold increase in less than twenty years§. Other emerging economies, such as Brazil and India, have sharply increased their trade with developing countries. From 2003 to 2010, Brazil’s trade with Arab states increased four-fold, while its trade with African states increased five-fold, reaching a total of $26 billion, a figure higher than Brazil’s trade with traditional trading partners such as Germany and Japan; and from 2010 to 2019, Brazil’s trade with Arab and African states increased by 98 percent and 68 percent, respectively§. Similarly, since 2001, India’s trade with African states has grown at an average annual rate of 17.2 percent and, from 2011 to 2021, it increased 2.26 times§. India’s trade with Latin American states as well as the Middle East and North Africa region, has experienced similar growth. Trade volumes between developing countries are growing at a faster rate than the global average, while trading with developed countries continues to decline.
Within the developing world, a particularly important network of economic cooperation has emerged in Asia, centring around China. This is demonstrated in the following four trends:
1.Asia is once again the world economy’s centre of gravity. In 1980, the developing countries of Asia accounted for only 13.7 percent of global GDP, however, their share would rise to 24.7 percent in 2010 and reach 35.8 percent in 2021§. For East Asian countries (including China, Japan, South Korea, and ten Southeast Asian countries), in 1980 their share of global GDP was only about 16.2 percent, but by 2020 it had more than doubled, reaching 30 percent§. Meanwhile, among the fifteen member countries of the RCEP, by 2020, their combined population reached 2.27 billion, cumulative GDP hit $26 trillion, and total imports and exports surpassed $10 trillion, accounting for about 30 percent of the global total§. According to HSBC, the cumulative size of the RCEP economies is estimated to expand to 50 percent of the world economy by 2030§.
2.Global trade and investment are also shifting to Asia, with its share in global trade having steadily increased from 15.7 percent in 1980, to 22.2 percent in 1990, to 27.3 percent in 1995, to 26.7 percent in 2000, to 25.6 percent in 2001, and further to 36 percent by 2020. Today, Asia is the world’s leading trading region§.
3.The level of intra-regional trade dwarfs that of extra-regional trade in Asia. Between 2001 and 2020, Asia’s total internal trade jumped from $3.2 trillion to $12.7 trillion, with an average annual nominal growth rate of 7.5 percent; during the same period, Asia’s share of total world trade increased from 25.6 percent to 36.0 percent§. In 2020, Asia’s intra-regional trade has accounted for nearly 58.5 percent of its entire foreign trade§.
4.East and West Asia are growing closer economically; the main destinations of Middle Eastern energy have shifted from the United States and Europe to East and South Asia.
Today, developing countries have formed the preliminary structure for a new global economic system, but further synergy between them is needed to achieve a higher degree of economic connectivity as well as greater political influence in the international arena and freedom from Western control and coercion. This past decade, China has become the world’s largest real economy (concerning the production and exchange of goods and services) and the second largest economy overall, as well as the largest trading partner of most countries in the world. In 2021, the global share of China’s manufacturing sector was nearly 30 percent. As the country that produces the most material goods in the world, China is in a similar position as the United States was in the post-Second World War period (at its peak, in 1953, the US accounted for roughly 28 percent of global industrial output). What China can and should do is to take initiative in driving a global strategy to improve the system of global material exchange among developing countries, that is, to truly realise South-South cooperation.
However, deficiencies still remain. Current trade and investment between developing countries still rely heavily on Western-led financial and monetary networks. If developing countries are to further enhance their economic and political autonomy, and if emerging economies are to gain levels of political influence in the world system commensurate with their economic scales, they must overcome their financial and monetary dependence on the West. Therefore, to build a ‘new three ring’ international system, developing countries must consider not only traditional geopolitical factors, but also the global systems of finance and information. In recent years, China has explored this by developing currency swaps with several emerging market economies. A higher-level and broader mechanism for financial and monetary cooperation should be created among developing countries. To this end, it is important to take advantage of existing platforms and mechanisms that can enhance South-South cooperation, including: upgrading and transforming the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (NDB) established by the BRICS countries to advance an autonomous international payment system; strengthening security and financial cooperation within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), particularly between China, Russia, India, and Iran cooperation (it should be noted that Russia is also a developing country and that the Chinese and Russian economies are highly complementary); further promoting East Asian economic integration under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with special efforts to consolidate the achievements of the RCEP; building a common energy market in Asia, so that buyers in East and South Asia and sellers in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Russia can share the same energy trading and payment network; making proper use of the BRICS Summit mechanism, thus deepening South-South cooperation; and promoting the diversification of the international monetary system and the internationalisation of the RMB in the context of South-South cooperation, as well as supporting the international status of the euro while hedging against the hegemony of the US dollar.
One hundred years ago, the CPC leaders proposed the revolutionary strategy of ‘encircling the cities from the rural areas’(农村包围城市, nóngcūn bāoweí chéngshì). In the present era of ‘major changes unseen in a century’, China and developing countries need to dismantle the centre-periphery world order, overcome the hostility of Western countries, and improve solidarity and cooperation within the global ‘countryside’. The deepening of South-South cooperation will create favourable conditions and mobilise resources for the construction of a new ‘three ring’ global system, which can ease international tensions and allow developing countries, including China, to take their rightful places at the centre of the world economic and political order. After more than forty years of reform and opening up, China must adjust its understanding of ‘opening up’ and transform its thinking about foreign relations. Of course, China should still try to maintain its cooperation with the West as long as possible and as long as they do not make the choice to go completely against China.
Note: This article was edited by Guo Jinze
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