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An Apocalyptic Narrative: The Emergence of a Multi-Polar World?

Nicholas Ching

Walking through the streets of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, I could see first-hand the benefits of China’s economic power. In Uzbekistan, newly built high-speed railways are initiated by Chinese contractors and in Kazakhstan, many people are now using Huawei or Xiaomi phones. As China’s economic and technological influence only continues to grow, many Western media outlets are quick to argue that a US-led hegemony is being supplanted by a multi-polar world dominated by ‘unstable’ China and its allies. The Washington Post, for example, reports: “China’s multilateralism lacks depth, and it relies on stroking egos and dangling bilateral deals”. A key example of this is the fact that Chinese investment was ten times as much in Bosnia than in Croatia. Bosnia, unlike Croatia, is not part of the E.U. and is thus subject to its regulations. This is a scathing assessment of China’s increasing power, and portrays China as a direct threat to a seemingly already stable world order. Though just how accurate can this portrayal be proven to be? The Washington Post is by no means the only news source which has been highly sceptical of China’s growing power, but a number of caveats arise as one looks deeper into history and views China’s recent actions in a broader light.

A world dominated by more than one country is a political power equation that we are all familiar with. Not too long ago, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were still fiercely competing with one another. Back then, at the height of the Cold War, the world was prepared for another world war with the two nations coming very close to blows. Now, another war is imminent, but one of a very different kind. In our own times, the billions of dollars worth of tariffs between the US and China are bound to have economic consequences, but nothing comparable to the potential global nuclear fallout during the Cold War. The US and China together account for 33 percent of the whole world’s economic output, so a fully-fledged trade war is bound to impact the world if it were to occur. Nonetheless, fortunately nowadays the risk of nuclear war is much lower. All countries know that launching a nuclear warhead is effectively suicide.

A popular notion is that a struggle between an established world power and a rising one tends to end in military conflict. This phenomenon is called the Thucydides Trap, a term coined by the American political scientist Graham T. Allison. Allison assessed the past 500 years and concluded that 12 out of 16 such situations ended in military conflict. However, times have changed and the world isn’t what it used to be. We live in a world of extreme interconnectedness as a result of globalisation. Constant dialogue between the US and China can tend to be taken for granted. We shouldn’t forget, for instance, that until Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, diplomatic relations between the two nations had been completely frozen. Moreover, the current interdependence of the two countries on each other shouldn’t be underestimated. Nations which previously fell victim to the so-called Thucydides Trap were not nearly as closely tied as the US and China are now. In 2006, the total value of US trade with China amounted to 343 billion USD. That figure has almost doubled in the span of just over ten years: in 2017, the total value was 636 billion USD. Not to mention that before 1978 and Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door Policy, that number would have been next to nothing. The relatively recent emergence of a nuclear deterrent is also significant in preventing the world’s superpowers from engaging in battle. Some may believe that the apocalyptic narrative fostered by some news agencies is just a gimmick because the bilateral relationship between the PRC and US is so extensive that it almost precludes this. In any case, it is clear that this is only one facet of a bigger question.

A picture of a multi-polar world with the U.S. and China being the overarching power players is becoming clearer and clearer, and Russia’s alignment with China will only further spread China’s influence.

China’s “bullying” of smaller countries is often also pinpointed. According to the previously mentioned Washington Post article, China’s considerable loans to Sri Lanka to fund the construction of an airport, a port and a cricket stadium were ill-advised because there is no way that Sri Lanka will be able to pay back the money. China’s involvement in Sri Lanka is part of its larger Belt and Road Initiative, a project that is designed to increase cooperation and connectivity in Eurasia. Although it does not seem as if BRI has been very successful in Sri Lanka, this isn’t true for many other countries. Clearly the loan situation isn’t as bad as it is in for example, Kazakhstan, where loans from China only make up nine percent of sovereign debt. Moreover, in Kazakhstan, the number of Chinese labour workers has been steadily increasing, from around 3000 in 2011 to almost 14000 in 2015. This increase in Chinese workers is testament to the increased multi-lateral cooperation between the two countries. Kazakhstan is just one of many countries that have benefited from China’s investment. According to a Deloitte report, in sectors as wide-ranging as agribusinesses, health business and tourism businesses, China has had a profoundly beneficial impact. One example of this is that Australia has a relatively low level of domestic investment in agriculture, which means that Chinese investment has become one of the most important sources of investment for domestic producers.

A key component of anti-China rhetoric stems from identifying China as a totalitarian, corrupt state in contrast with the democratic and liberal US. However, flaws in the American political system are constantly being exposed by the tenure of President Trump. A picture of a multi-polar world with the U.S. and China being the overarching power players is becoming clearer and clearer, and Russia’s alignment with China will only further spread China’s influence. As Allison states in his principle of the Thucydides Trap, the new China-U.S. world order will have to face many new obstacles--albeit, as can be shown by this article, nothing potentially apocalyptic. This gradual shift in power should not be stylised as anything novel. If anything, in this world of extreme connectivity, after overcoming some initial struggles, the rise of China may herald in a new world order of increased collaboration and innovation by providing the Western world with a fresh new perspective.

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