China is in the midst of a fierce battle to salvage its reputation.
Under fire for their part in the pandemic and reproached for their move to assert control over Hong Kong, the country’s officials are in firefighting mode. Their approach has two parts. First, sell the China story — emphasizing its success in the fight against the coronavirus and glossing over its initial errors. Second, attack those who seek to tarnish the country’s image.
President Xi Jinping has left this battle to his subordinates. As the United States falters and the world spins into crisis, he has a bigger campaign to occupy him: taking over the international institutions, like the World Health Organization and the United Nations, that manage the world.
The plan bears a suitably benign and innocuous title — “Community With a Shared Future for Mankind.” First proposed by Mr. Xi in 2013 and introduced at the United Nations two years later, the concept revolves around the importance of consultation and dialogue, of inclusivity and consensus, of win-win cooperation and shared benefits. It is, in short, entirely vague. It contains no specific action points and no tangible outlines of a new world order.
That’s the point.
Contrary to speculation, China has always said it is not seeking to overthrow the global order. We should listen. Why would China go to the trouble of capsizing the global order when it can simply take it over, whole and intact?
After all, China is the biggest beneficiary of globalization. It has systematically used Western-led multilateral institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, to advance its interests and influence. Though still fighting for greater control of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, it has determinedly captured the leadership of four key United Nations agencies that set international rules and standards. (It almost claimed a fifth, the World Intellectual Property Organization, this year.)
No surprise then that China is now the second-largest financial contributor to the United Nations: It has steadily been building up its influence in international institutions for years.
Far from opening up a new battleground, China’s plan is to fight on familiar territory. Its message to the world is simple: China is ready to pick up the slack, as the United States retreats from its global responsibilities. For a world exhausted and impoverished by the pandemic, it’s a seductive proposition. Anybody who takes the reins will be good enough; few will ponder its significance for the global order. Development and stability, not China’s ambitions to lead, are the priorities for most countries.
There’s good reason for the gamble. The pandemic may have exposed shortcomings of China’s system, but it also uncovered many deficiencies of the West. The United States and Europe, each burdened by political difficulties and social challenges, are struggling to contain a virus for which they were unprepared. The global institutions they created and nurtured after World War II are directionless. The rest of the world has been left to fend for itself as best it can.
China stumbled at the start of the pandemic, true. But the West appears to be losing the moral high ground. By the time the United States chooses its next president, after what is sure to be a divisive campaign played out against a backdrop of domestic disorder, China hopes to have regained the confidence of the world. It will then firmly have the advantage.
It’s hard to remain sanguine at such a prospect. The world needs balance — at the moment, no country other than the United States has the means to ensure it. At a practical level, its leadership is indispensable.
But it’s more than that. The world needs American leadership to remind it that respect for freedom and human dignity provides the best path to a shared future of humankind. The Beijing model — where an authoritarian party-state single-mindedly exalts economic betterment over free political choice — may look attractive to some. But it cannot be widely emulated. Dependent on China’s unique culture and history, the method can work only there. Democracy, by contrast, is based on universal principles that can be followed everywhere, by everyone.
“Sit tight in the fishing boat,” a famous Chinese saying goes, “despite the rising wind and waves.” China, we can be assured, intends to ride out the storm.
And if the West can’t recover its faith in the universal power of democracy — from India to Indonesia, Ghana to Uruguay — China could then take the world, as it is.
Vijay Gokhale, a former foreign secretary of India, served as the country’s ambassador to China from January 2016 to October 2017.
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