The need for an alternative international system

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

Both the United States and China share the same ambition to remake the world, except that they have different images of what the world should be like. Both nations rely on trying to build a network of alliances but the United States has been much more successful than China.

At the moment, it seems that a large number of China’s plans to become the global leader seem to be failing or backfiring. In fact, many of China’s neighbors like Japan, the Philippines and India are drawing closer to Washington. The aggressive style of diplomacy may have pleased Xi Jinping and his generals, but it has won very few friends for China. In fact, some polls indicate that Beijing does not have a favorable image worldwide.

A 2023 PEW Research Center study surveyed attitudes towards China and the United States in 24 countries on six continents. The poll showed that only 28 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of Beijing and just 23 percent said that China contributes to global peace. Nearly 60 percent of the respondents had a positive view of the United States and 61 percent said that Washington contributes to global peace and stability.

Xi Jinping’s vision is backed by a comprehensive well-resourced and disciplined strategy. It reaches out to government and people in almost every country in the world.

In contrast, according to Chinese officials, the United States advances its cultural objectives through what has been described as pop culture. In a 2023 report, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the “…real weapons in the US’s cultural expansion were the production lines of Mattel Company and Coca-Cola.” Mattel is the manufacturer of Barbie dolls.

Xi Jinping has four distinct global programs that he uses with the objective of making China the central nation in the world.  The first is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which is used to address the infrastructure needs of emerging and middle-income economies, while making use of the Chinese construction industry’s overcapacity. This program also promotes China’s developmental model, expands the reach of its military and police forces and advances the use of its currency.

The second program is the Global Development Initiative launched in 2021. It focuses on global development. It often works with the United Nations and supports small-scale projects that address poverty alleviation, digital connectivity, climate change and health and food security. It advances Beijing’s preference as a foundation for human rights. A Chinese government document on this program accuses other countries of the “…marginalization of development issues by emphasizing human rights and democracy.”

The third program is the Global Security Initiative (GSI) launched in 2022. According to Xi Jinping, the GSI advocates that countries “reject the Cold War mentality, oppose unilateralism and say No to group politics and bloc confrontation.”

The fourth program is the Global Civilization Initiative launched in 2023. This advances the idea that countries with different civilizations and levels of development will have different political and economic models. This asserts that states determine rights and that no one country or model has a mandate to control the discourse of human rights. This initiative has proven to be very popular with authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes whose concept of human rights is very different from those who are strong advocates of human rights.

China has a wider diplomatic outreach program than the United States. It has more embassies and representatives around the world than any other country. China also has an extremely wide media network. China’s international news network, CGTN, has twice as many overseas bureaus as CNN. Xinhua, the official Chinese news service, has over 180 bureaus globally.

Xi Jinping has also enhanced the role of China’s armed forces as a diplomatic tool. China’s People’s Liberation Army is conducting exercises with a growing number of countries and offering training to militaries throughout the developing world. It has been reported that during the term of the past president, Rodrigo Duterte, several Filipino military officers attended training sessions in China. The response to China’s initiatives has begun to wane, partly because of the current difficulties in the Chinese economy. The Belt and Road Initiative, for example, had 23 leaders attend its 2023 forum compared with 37 in 2019. Financing for the BRI has fallen sharply since its peak in 2016. This has been attributed to the economic difficulties that China is now undergoing. At the same time, many BRI recipient countries are struggling to repay their loans to Beijing.

China’s influence over the large global organizations like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization may seem minor at this stage but it is slowly growing. This can be attributed to the fact that international systems have not been able to resolve longstanding conflicts like those in the Middle East or preventing new ones like the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

China is right when it says that the international system needs to be reformed. But no one, including China and the United States, has created an acceptable and compelling alternative.

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