There can be little reasonable doubt today that the People’s Republic of China will dominate the world in the 21st century. The country’s rapid economic growth, strategic potential, huge internal market and enormous investment in infrastructure, education, research and development, as well as its massive military buildup, will see to that. This means that we are entering an East and Southeast Asian century.
Lest we forget, the outcome for the world would have been far worse if China’s ascent had failed, but what will this world look like? We can foresee the power that will shape its geopolitics, but what values will underlie the exercise of that power?
The official policy of “Four Modernizations” (industrial, agricultural, military and scientific-technological) that has underpinned China’s rise since the late 1970s has failed to provide an answer to that question, because the “fifth modernization” — the emergence of democracy and the rule of law — is still missing.
Political modernization faces massive opposition from the Chinese Communist Party, which has no interest in surrendering its monopoly of power. Moreover, the transition to a pluralist system that channels, rather than suppresses, political conflict would be risky, though the risk grows the longer one-party rule (and its endemic corruption) persists.
Ideologically, the rejection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law by the Chinese leadership is based on the contention that these supposedly universal values are a mere stalking horse for Western interests and that repudiating them should thus be viewed as a matter of self-respect. China will never again submit to the West militarily, so it should not submit to the West normatively either.
At this juncture, we return to the concept of “Asian values,” originally developed in Singapore and Malaysia, though three decades after its introduction, it is still unclear.
Essentially, the concept has been used to justify collectivist-authoritarian rule by aligning it with local tradition and culture, with autonomy defined in terms of otherness — differentiation from the West and its values. Thus, “Asian values” are not universal norms, but rather a self-preservation strategy harnessed to identity politics.
Given the history of Western colonialism in Asia, the desire to maintain a distinct identity is both legitimate and understandable, as is the belief in many Asian countries — first and foremost China — that the time has come to settle old scores. However, the effort to preserve one’s power, the need for a distinct “Asian” identity and the desire to settle historical scores will not solve the normative question raised by China’s emergence as the century’s dominant power.
How that question is answered is crucially important, because it will determine the character of a global power and how it deals with weaker countries. A state becomes a world power when its strategic significance and potential give it global reach. As a rule, such states then try to safeguard their interests by imposing their predominance (hegemony), which is a recipe for dangerous conflict if based on coercion rather than cooperation.
The world’s acclimation to a global hegemonic structure — in which world powers guarantee international order — survived the Cold War. The Soviet Union was not ideologically anti-Western, because Communism and Socialism were Western inventions, but it was anti-Western in political terms. Ultimately, it failed not only for economic reasons, but also because its internal and external behavior was based on compulsion, not consent.
In contrast, the US’ and the West’s economic and political model, with its individual rights and open society, proved to be the sharpest weapon in the Cold War. The US prevailed not because of its military superiority, but because of its soft power, and because its hegemony was based not on coercion (though there was some of that, too), but largely on consent.
Which path will China choose? Beijing will not change its ancient and admirable civilization, but it does owe its re-emergence to its embrace of the contemporary Western model of modernization — the huge achievement of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) more than three decades ago. However, the decisive question of political modernization remains unanswered.
Clearly, national interests, and sometimes pure power, play a part in how the US and other Western countries apply values like human rights, rule of law, democracy and pluralism, but these values are not mere ideological window dressing for Western interests; in fact, they are not that to any significant extent. They are indeed universal, and all the more so in an era of comprehensive globalization.
The contribution of Asia — China in particular — to the development of these universal values is not yet foreseeable, but it will surely come if the “fifth modernization” leads to China’s political transformation. Beijing’s course as a world power will be determined to a significant extent by the way it confronts this question.
Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice-chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader in the German Green Party for almost 20 years.
Copyright: Project Syndicate / Institute for Human Sciences
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