The speech was delivered during the webinar “China’s deepening ties with the Middle East”, organized by MEPEI (the Middle East Political and Economic Institute) and IRS (the Institute of Regional Studies) on Thursday, March 30, 2023.
A. A little bit of history and a little bit of global context
1.The last few centuries have seen the dominance of Europe, followed by that of America in the world order. The most recent system of world peace organization was known as pax americana. The Pax Americana was a unipolar and consequently asymmetric power system that was based on three pillars: i. the supremacy of American military power; ii. the unity and universalism of human rights (and generally of the rules of organization of society adopted in Western Europe and the USA); iii. the freedom of trade while the American economy was the most competitive economy in the world (that is, the most able to take advantage of the free trade opportunities).
2. In this context, which had the merit of eliminating the old colonial system practiced by the European imperial nations, as well as in the shadow of the Cold War between the capitalist bloc and the communist bloc, the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, despite external domination, could emancipate until some of them (especially China, but not only) came to be perceived as strategic rivals of the USA and the former European colonial powers. They are the emerging global superpowers calling for the replacement of the American order with a post-American world order. The main conflict of the present moment globally is that between the American order and the post-American order. The US is ready to sacrifice everything (including “American values” / “the American dream”) to preserve the old order. The question is, does he still have the resources to emerge victorious from this confrontation?
3. As the leader of the Euro-Atlantic world and the supreme guardian or absolute guarantor of the pax Americana, the USA is confronted at home and in the world with a complex of crises, namely: i. the crisis of democracy (of the American type); ii. the crisis of neoliberal capitalism; iii. the crisis of neoconservative capitalism; iv. the crisis of international law (of “rules-based international relations”). The mismanagement of these crises (including the impact of the “double standards” policy) led to the emergence of other crises, respectively: i. the crisis of credibility; ii. the crisis of legitimacy; iii. the crisis of authority; iv. the crisis of leadership.
4. These crises explain the popular uprisings that engulfed the most important states of the Euro-Atlantic world, in terms of internal politics, and the world war (both hybrid and conventional, with the prospect of bringing into play also nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction) in which the US fights with military, economic, cultural and other means, in terms of foreign politics. The main fronts of this war are now in the Black Sea and the China Sea. The involvement of America and its allies, for now with varying intensity, on these main fronts, has caused American (and Euro-Atlantic) presence and pressure in the Middle East to decline.
5. Theoretically and in accordance with historical precedents, the US can emerge from the crisis either through war or through global economic integration. By winning the war, the US can preserve unipolarism. Economic integration presupposes the acceptance of multipolarity.
6. For the moment the USA seems to have adopted the first solution. This option ignores the fact that in the current global power relations (the global balance of power), the US can only win local wars at most, and that only from a military point of view, without being able to impose order after military victory. The US can still win wars, but it cannot win the peace.
7. At the same time, the US has become economically dependent on the resources, labor and markets of the emerging powers. In this context, China holds the first place. At the same time, with China, as well as with other Asian states, the US has lost or is about to lose the race of scientific and technological creation.
8. Isolating China, for now through economic sanctions, is in fact a form of self-isolation, undermining the US’s chances of solving its domestic economic problems and reducing its rising domestic poverty levels. In this context, the shift to trading in yuan, and especially trading oil in a currency other than the dollar, will lead to the elimination of the dollar as the global reserve currency, the de-dollarization of the world economy, and the collapse of the American economy.
B. The Chinese alternative
1. China’s rise as an emerging world superpower is taking place against this background. This does not mean the end of globalization, but the replacement of American-style unipolar globalization with a multipolar globalization, in which peace is ensured not by the military power of a supreme global gendarme, but by the balance of the poles from the point of view of economic development. The “balance of terror” that characterized the bipolar world order system and ensured peace between the Northern powers during the Cold War (of course at the cost of local wars fought, mainly by proxy, in the post-colonial South) would be replaced of the “balance of development” (and development opportunities), already successfully experienced as a factor of peace in Western Europe, from the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, to the establishment of the European Union.
2. China is emerging as a soft superpower. Which is not a power without teeth. A soft power is the power that, unlike hard power, promotes: i. peace through development; ii. development through joint projects; iii. joint projects through solidarity of interests; iv. solidarity of interests through respect for diversity; v. respect for diversity by de-ideologizing international relations. The policy of such a power is essentially economic and social; therefore demilitarized. The military solution is not excluded, but it is the last resort and has a subsidiary character.
3. Unlike the US, China is an Asian power and understands from the inside the culture of other Asian peoples, no matter how great the differences between them. China also shares with other Asian peoples the sense of humiliation engendered by European and American dominance in previous centuries, and their thirst for dignity and greatness rooted both in the memory of that humiliation and in that of their old pre-colonial glory days. This may be a criterion of Asian/Oriental federalization or, more so, of a collective South (which also includes Africa and Latin America, together with Mexico) able to successfully challenge the supremacy of the collective Euro-Atlantic West.
4. If the US tied its security to investments in the military-industrial complex, China tried emancipation through sustainable investments in the economic sector. That is why the Chinese world order project is an economic one and not a military one. Even in recent years, the US has spent, in relative terms, on strengthening its military power about as many resources as China has spent on strengthening its economic power. In this sense, we are dealing with the competition between the military order and the economic order, between the strategy of escalating wars and the strategy of consolidating peace, between geopolitics and geoeconomics.
5. In the 20th century, the US used its power to correct the imbalances between European powers and thus restore and maintain peace in Europe. Instead, in the Middle East and in general in the Asian East he resorted to the strategy of “divide and rule”. The endless wars that still ravage Asia are the result of this strategy. With its own characteristics enrooted in its cultural traditions, China is using the power it has attained to do in Asia what the US once did in Europe with the Marshall Plan and the encouragement of German-French reconciliation. The China-mediated normalization of the relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a case in point.
6. The essential difference is that the US acted in the asymmetrical logic of unilateralism, while China acts in the logic of symmetrical multilateralism / multipolarism. This has its origin in their cultural differences, as well as in those related to the way in which they have built their power and to the structure of their respective power.
7. As things stand, China is, from a geopolitical point of view, a defender of the status quo. (The US was, at least during its rise to global power status, a revisionist power.) Therefore, China does not come to the Middle East with guarantees of military security. Instead, it provides guarantees of economic security. Likewise, it does not export ideologies or impose political conditions.
8. Thus China can facilitate the overcoming of chronic conflicts between the states of the Middle East. Under the influence of China, they began to understand that they can have more profits from collective and cooperative security, rather than from the war waged with the “generous” means made available by the Euro-Atlantic powers.9. Consolidating peace through development is also conceived through regional and global initiatives that involve the realization of large infrastructural interconnection projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative. Of course, the success of such projects will also depend on the participation of other Asian states, which will make them co-owners of the results.
C. The risks of escalation of the Sino-American conflict
1. The Chinese alternative described above remains, for the time being, mostly at the level of potentiality. It offers the Middle East, but also Central and South Asia, the Gulf states, but also the Southeast Asian states and those of the Far East, a much more attractive perspective than the one offered, in the „Asian century”, by pax Americana’s unilateralism. The process of establishing a pax sinica or a pax asiatica at least on the Asian continent has begun, but it has not reached full maturity and is not irreversible.
2. The main risk is that, in the process, China could transform itself from a soft power to a hard power, from a pacifist power to a belligerent power, from a multilateralist power to a unilateralist power, from a integrative into an exclusivist one, from an egalitarian power into an inegalitarian one, from a tolerant power into an intolerant power, from a de-ideologized power into an ideologized power, from a conservative power into a revisionist power, from a legitimist power into a revolutionary power. All these claims and caveats refer to China as a global power (which no longer exports revolution) and its behavior as such (which is de-ideologized), not to its domestic political regime, although the two are, inevitably, in a certain interdependence.
3. Such an unfortunate transformation, dangerous for the whole world, and not only for Asia, can be reached by the escalation of the Sino-American conflict (which involves the USA and the EU states).
4. China’s evolution towards the status of a global superpower has its natural rhythms, correlated with the rhythms of its internal social and economic transformations, dependent on the people’s ability to assimilate changes imposed both by internal and external factors of an objective nature. This development is congruent with the historical traditions, the culture and the mentalities of the Chinese people. Any acceleration forced by the need to face arbitrary external challenges of a geopolitical nature corrupts these rhythms and may lead to a change in the character of the final destination. Thus, the road that led to a certain type of power (pacific power) will keep leading to the targeted global status, but to another type of power (warrior power). China must not reach global superpower status before it is fully prepared for it.
5. China’s involvement in military or quasi-military conflicts may induce changes in its policy causing it to leave the path of economic development in favor of warlike confrontation. On such a path, internal social harmony, capable of being transferred to an order of global harmony, can be lost in favor of militarism, and Chinese universalism can turn into a national populism that goes all the way to expressions of chauvinism.
6. A militarized chauvinistic Chinese superpower would pose a global danger. That could be reached as a phenomenon of reaction to the militant Sinophobia of the USA and its allies (the AUKUS group – , as well as Japan and South Korea), which are trying to promote an “Indo-Pacific strategy” (otherwise without a chance of success) aiming at the military encirclement and economic isolation of China.
7. If China’s rise to global power status cannot be stopped, it is preferable that it take place with the acquiescence and assistance of the old global superpowers, now in decline (the US and Russia), rather than against them (and implicitly, against their allies). Russia appears to have adopted the association formula after decades of opposing China. The US opted for armed opposition after decades of partnering with China in an attempt to counterbalance Russia’s power.
D. What can the Middle East do to avoid risk?
1. The states of the Middle East (but also those of South Asia or Central Asia) must define their interests and plan their future in the context of a new multipolar world order. In this sense, they should review their strategies and reform their institutions, taking advantage of both the political breathing room provided by the reduction of the American presence in the region, and the Chinese economic offers. To these favorable factors should be added the gradual normalization of relations with Israel and the guarantees offered by the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership.
2. At the same time, the mentioned states must settle their disputes, controversies and conflicts, as well as by adopting neutrality in relation to wars waged in their region by powers from outside it or by refusing to enter into such confrontations. To this end, they are given the chance to capitalize on the guarantees that even if China cannot provide alone, it can provide them together with Russia, as an effect of their deep, comprehensive and multi-vectorial alliance.
3. Likewise, the respective states must fully assume the identity of regional actors, able to propose, individually and together, solutions for the security of the region; security that must be seen / conceived as indivisible. This implies the refusal to act as spokesmen or as intermediaries (proxies) of global powers from outside the region.
4. Finally, the states of the Middle East, together with the states of the other Asian regions, individually and collectively, must use their relations with the US and all the influence they can exert on the US to warn the US administrations about their errors of perception and judgment in relation to them (especially to China) in the new „Asian century”, pointing out that misguided US policies not only create problems for the targeted states and their neighbors, but are likely to eventually explode in the very face of those who promote them. A structured and consistent dialogue on such topics, aimed at stimulating America’s common sense and making it to realistically accept a new multipolar world order, in which it could be one of the poles, is required.
About the author:
Prof. Adrian Severin, Ph.D., is a Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Romania, Former President of AP-OSCE, Former MEP