Martin Jacques (File photo)
At the beginning of 2018, uncertainty dominated the outlook for the future.
As we can now see with great clarity, the Western financial crisis of 2007 to 2008 proved the most important turning point in the West since 1945.
For a decade, the Western economies have been mired in varying degrees of stagnation, not least with regard to living standards. And it was the Great Recession that led to the Great Populist Uprising in 2016.
The latter signaled the end of the hegemony of neo-liberalism in the West, which began in 1980 with the arrival of Reagan and Thatcher and was characterized by hyper-globalization, privatization and a huge growth in inequality.
The uprising was driven by large swathes of the population in both the US and Britain whose living standards had more or less stagnated for four decades. It was a popular revolt against the governing elites by those who felt left behind and who held these elites responsible for their deteriorating situation. Politically the new mood was articulated most clearly, though not solely, by the right, notably Trump in America and the Brexiteers in the UK.
Sino-US ties become more important with China's rise
While 2017 did not witness anything as dramatic as 2016, we also were not witness to any kind of reversal. On the contrary, Trump, far from retreating from his election campaign rhetoric, has essentially been true to it: ditching TPP, TTIP, threatening to do the same with NAFTA, distancing himself from Europe and adopting a belligerent tone towards it, building the wall on the border with Mexico and much else.
The obvious exception is that he has not, as yet, embarked on a trade war against China that he advocated during his campaign. Not least as a consequence of very skillful diplomacy on the part of China, the US-China relationship has remained relatively friendly and warm, with neither trade relations nor North Korea souring the atmosphere.
But this should not mislead us into thinking that there is not a chasm between Trump’s view of the world and China’s. Where Trump rejects the idea of multilateralism and the need for multitudinous forms of global cooperation – instead advocating the jungle law of nation-states, where the writ of the strongest (the US) reigns supreme – China propounds new forms of global collaboration, as exemplified by the Belt and Road initiative, and the idea of a community of shared destiny, as the way of the future.
Ever since the beginning of the reform period it is doubtful whether the philosophies of the US and China have ever been so diametrically opposed. The two countries now speak entirely different languages and seem to occupy what could only be described as parallel universes.
It is this divergence that represents the greatest source of danger and instability in the world as we enter 2018. The US-China relationship is by far the world’s most important bilateral relationship; and it has grown even more important with China’s rise.
Development China's strongest appeal
The shift in US foreign policy under Trump has undoubtedly served to enhance interest in and support for China’s global outlook and approach. We should remember that 2017 dawned with President Xi Jinping’s speech to the Davos Summit last January.
Never before in modern history had the speech of a Chinese leader been so eagerly awaited by a global audience, not least in a Europe plunged into uncertainty about the future of the transatlantic relationship. The central tenets of his speech suddenly moved to the center of the global stage and began to assume something of a normative status and even emerge, dare one say it, as the new global common sense.
It set the tone for what became a growing tendency in 2017, namely rising global interest in what China had to say and offer.
Previously, China’s appeal had been largely confined to being a source of trade and investment, its attraction overwhelmingly economic, often almost exclusively so. 2017 saw an important and subtle shift following in the footsteps of China’s growing willingness to become a proactive player with regard to the global economy and polity.
From climate change and globalization to peace and development, China’s profile and appeal steadily grew. China could no longer be pigeon-holed as simply an economic phenomenon, but was increasingly seen as having something to say and offer on a broad range of global issues. China came to be seen by much of the world for the first time as a global power, its gravitational attraction enhanced accordingly.
Undoubtedly China’s strongest appeal is development. As a developing country, it has an intimate knowledge of the problems of development and a powerful affinity with other developing countries.
In the mid-1970s it accounted for only one-third of global GDP; today that figure stands just shy of 60 percent. The shift in the global center of gravity from the rich world to the developing world, is transforming both the global economy and the global polity. And the axis of this transformation is the relationship between China and the developing world.
The quintessential expression of this relationship is the B&R initiative, which, over the course of the last year, has made significant progress, the highlight being the B&R initiative Summit in Beijing last May. The size of the conference, combined with its representation and diversity, spoke to the novelty and timeliness of the initiative.
The B&R initiative is a metaphor for the relationship between China and the developing world. From Southeast Asia and South Asia to Central Asia, West Asia and the Middle East, and beyond that North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, not to forget Latin America, the relationship between China and developing countries is in the process of transforming the world.
Even the continent on the western edge of the Eurasian landmass, namely Europe, is slowly but steadily being drawn into the possibilities of the B&R initiative, led by its least developed part, central and eastern Europe. It will not be easy for western Europe, which has looked westwards across the Atlantic for the last three centuries rather than eastwards towards Asia, to abandon such a deeply rooted mentality but its long-term future, in terms of prosperity and influence, will surely depend on its willingness to pivot 180 degrees eastwards.
Development – together, of course, with global peace – is the message of our times. China is the leader of the former and the key to its successful dissemination across the world.
The Chinese experience cannot be copied by such a huge number of diverse countries, all of which are profoundly different from China, but the basic tools of the transformation are the same: economic growth, infrastructural investment and an activist and competent state.
The growth of a multilateral institutional framework to support development is essential and steadily taking shape. Over the last year we can point to the B&R initiative Summit, the BRICS summit in Xiamen and also the High Level Global Dialogue of Political Parties in Beijing in December, 2017. If the latter acquires a more permanent and institutionalized form, it would help to widen and deepen the network of communication, interaction, mutual learning and sharing of experiences.
Korean Peninsula crisis thorniest question facing the world in 2018
As we look forward to 2018, the thorniest question facing the world, and China in particular, is finding a peaceful resolution to the crisis in the Korean Peninsula. The alternative could lead to nuclear war and death and destruction on a scale far worse than ever witnessed before in human history.
The problem is that the US president believes that this option is a serious one and should remain on the table. It cannot and should not. The overarching strategic challenge is that posed by development. Over the last several decades, the developing world, led by China, has made enormous progress but the task ahead remains huge with global poverty still a grave problem.
Now, however, we can see the possibility of making major advances. The danger is that the world could become divided and balkanized in a manner that echoes the 1930s. We live at a time of great opportunity – and danger.
Martin Jacques is a currently a senior fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies, Cambridge University.