Viewpoints of China and Russia on world order
In seeking a broader, multifaceted understanding of the present world order it may therefore be appropriate to take a closer look at the Chinese and Russian present comprehensions regarding the issue of world order.
In the historical Chinese international order, China has never had great ambitions beyond its borders, although being a large empire. The aim of the Chinese system, first of all, was to guarantee Chinese security when states within the system defended themselves against external threats. China provided stability for the system and there was barely any need for wars within the system. However, temporal Chinese weakness could cause chaos in the system.
In the comparable framework, Russia’s history has been quite different, being the real empire, willing and capable of defending its interests with all necessary means. Likewise, when necessary, ready and determined to expand its territory outwards, also using military force.
Geopolitics is a key factor to the existence of an empire. Empires are compared according to their size, capacity, resources, population and its diversity, heritage and invasions. Their domestic division of power is uneven and the government and overall administrative apparatus are centrally-conducted, military forces being highly respected. The basic idea of any empire is actually the expansion and territorial conquest.
The role of great powers in the international relations and international law is contradictory: they have laid the foundation of the United Nations (charter and organs), but when needed, they reserve themselves a right to interpret the common norms according to their current interests.
During some last five years, there has been an active academic discourse on the subject “world order” both inside Russia and China as well as bilaterally. Covering the overall range of this discourse is out of the scope of this presentation but here below is the short summary of present Sino-Russian understanding of the subject “world order”.
Legacy of WWII
The world order since the end of WWII was built on the accords reached by the victorious countries in Yalta, Potsdam and San Francisco in 1945. The accords drew borders in Europe and the Far East where the German, Italian and Japanese empires had collapsed; they established the United Nations and resolved many postwar issues.
The idea was that the great powers would jointly maintain peace and resolve international disputes and conflicts on the basis of the UN Charter in order to prevent a new world war. But that world order was never built—it quickly crumbled amid the fierce confrontation between the USSR and the United States in Europe and then worldwide, in the Cold War.
US-led unipolar period
The fundamental change in the balance of power in the world arena was accompanied by changes in the world order. The collapse of the Soviet empire, economy, state and ideology spelled the end of the bipolar system of international relations. Throughout the 1990s and the 2000s, the US sought to replace this world order with the idea of US-led unipolar system and the US led liberal world order.
Russia, China and other former socialist countries, despite differences in their political systems, were integrated into one global financial and economic system and common global institutions, even though they did not have much influence on them.
The crisis of 2008 demonstrated financial and economic interdependence of the world. Having started in the US, it quickly swept other countries and hit hard the Russian economy too, which finally led to “Russian pivot to Asia” by 2012 Putin’s Edicts.
Before that several attempts were made to legally formalize the new balance of power (e.g. OSCE 1995 and the NATO-Russia Founding Act 1997). However, these attempts were largely ineffective or were not completed, because the US realized itself as “the only superpower in the world” and began to substitute international law with the law of force, legitimate decisions of the UN Security Council with directives of the US National Security Council and OSCE prerogatives with NATO actions.
The first two decades after the end of bipolarity have convincingly shown that the US led unipolar world brings no stability or security. China, Russia, new interstate organizations (SCO and BRICS) and some regional states (Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, Venezuela and Bolivia) began to show growing opposition to the “American order.” In August 2008, for the first time in post-Cold War era, Moscow used military force abroad—in the South Caucasus.
Changes in the air, since 2014
There is a widespread view in Russia that the Ukrainian crisis in 2014 and many events thereafter have transformed again the international system and the prevailing world order. The previous global political system was all but destroyed in the first two decades of the post-Cold War era but nothing has been devised to replace it. The world is increasingly sliding towards chaos, which now threatens not just individual nations or regions but the entire international community.
In former days, the geopolitical conflict took place amid the ideological confrontation between communism and capitalism. Now, the ideological schism has again come to the fore—this time between spiritual values of Russian conservatism and Chinese Confucian traditions vs. Western democracy and liberalism. History has taught that transition from one world order to another has been always driven by the accumulation of new technologies or with major wars and revolutions usually acting as a catalyst. Today, a critical mass of new technologies has been accumulated but new cycles of wars and revolutions may prove deadly not only for individual countries but for overall humanity.
In these new conditions, the traditional centers of global politics are unable to play a leading role in establishing a new world order. The US is deeply politically polarized and no one can reliably predict when or how that chasm will be bridged.
The European Union is struggling with fundamental internal crisis of its own (whole set of structural, financial, economic, political and even value crises). Thus, Brussels will most likely continue to focus on resolving its multiple internal issues for a long time to come, rather than on building a new world order.
Other leading global political players have their own problems that are preventing them from taking charge of designing new rules of the game for the modern world.
In this framework, Russia and China insist enjoying a substantial advantage over the other global centers of power:
Firstly, Russia and China are politically consolidated and united in their attitudes towards the most important global problems.
Secondly, Russia and China are capable of building policies that strategically plan for years or even decades ahead, something that Western democracies simply cannot do.
Thirdly, Russia and China have accumulated wide-ranging and multifaceted experience developing bilateral cooperation, comprehensive strategic partnership. This experience will prove useful in a wider multilateral format too.
Fourthly, over the past two decades, instead of the unipolar world based on the US hegemon, Russia and China have been promoting the idea of a “multipolar world” or “polycentric world” as the most sustainable, dependable, and fair structure for international relations.
The multilateral mechanisms and large international cooperation networks, established over the past two decades with the active participation of Russia and China, such as the SCO, BRICS, and EAEU, ASEAN, RIC etc. might become integral parts or elements of a future international structure.
Sino-Russian interpretation of polarity
According to Sino-Russian interpretation, the US unipolar order was deeply undermined by Washington’s actual defeat in the Iraqi and Afghan wars and by the global financial and economic crisis of 2008.
The unipolarity ended with an increasingly intensive military-political rivalry between the US and China in the Asia-Pacific region and the tough confrontation between the US and Russia over the Ukrainian crisis and a bit later in Syria, during 2015-2016.
According to China-Russia interpretation, since 2015 the failed unipolar world began its slow turning process into polycentric world order based on several major centers of power which are not equal in might and have different social systems.
Objectively, the logic of a polycentric world pushes Russia and China towards closer partnership and prompts the CIS/CSTO/SCO/BRICS to create economic and political counterweights to the West (US/NATO/Israel/Japan, South Korea/Australia).
However, these trends are unlikely to evolve into a new bipolarity comparable to that in the Cold War era. Economic ties between major members of the SCO/BRICS and the West are broader than among themselves and they are still partly dependent on the West’s investments and advanced technologies.
Since the yearend 2017, the world has been living through a period of progressive erosion of international order inherited from the past twentyfive years. The rapid increase of US containment policy against Russia and China has entered its apogee. Collapsing old order opens up possibilities for the creation of a new world order. Russia and China believe they have a good chance of influencing the formation a new order. However, the establishment of a new world order will take time and, in the meantime, serious crises and even armed conflicts may occur between great powers.
Regarding both Russia and China, no major improvement in relations with the United States is in sight, mainly because of the situation within Western societies (strict and fixed punitive legislation of sanctions against both China and Russia) and the Western international community itself (threat and enemy assessment underlines the primary adversary position of both two countries).
At the same time, Russia and China continue to deepen their bilateral partnership and enhance cooperative relations with India and other major Asian states. China-Russia deepening strategic partnership has emerged as the full peer competitor to the US, thus materializing the worst nightmares of the American disciples of the late Zbigniew “Grand Chessboard” Brzezinski, who focused on the imperative of preventing the emergence of a peer competitor in Eurasia.
As the US and Europe are not ready to engage in serious rebuilding of world order with Russia and China and will proceed highly likely in the same way in the future, the emergence of a new peaceful international order is more likely to occur in the 2030s or 2040s than in the 2020s.