Top Read: International Risks and Challenges Facing China in 2023 by Zheng Yongnian
"When it comes to international political risks, the US's domestic problems have to be placed at the top of the list."
Zheng Yongnian (郑永年) should be a familiar figure for most China watchers. A well-known Chinese political scientist and prolific political commentator, Zheng has held a number of posts abroad and is currently the director of the Institute for International Affairs at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). The following paper drew my attention for reaching the top spot of Aisixiang’s (爱思想) most-read articles (over a 30-day period), just four days after being published. Aisixiang is a well-known Chinese aggregator of articles by scholars and think tank analysts. I am still unsure how politicised Aisixiang’s rankings tend to be, but should Zheng’s paper have been artificially promoted to the top spot, this would be interesting in and of itself. His article is entitled “Ten critical shifts in international politics in 2023 and their prospects” and is an extension of an interview conducted by CUHK’s Institute for International Affairs. Excerpts are provided below.
Ten risks and challenges facing China in 2023 according to Zheng:
The US’s political polarisation, domestic tensions and their potential repercussions on the world and China.
The war in Ukraine and the risks posed by a nuclear war.
The ‘NATOisation’ of Europe and NATO’s increasing interest in the Indo-Pacific.
The growing risk of a nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula.
Rising tensions in the Middle East and their potential impact on China.
India’s rise is exerting greater geopolitical and economic pressures on China.
Latin America’s political polarisation creates uncertainties for Beijing.
China’s unhappiness in the UN’s continued marginalisation in world affairs.
The repeated occurrence of humanitarian crises poses a challenge to China and the world.
The delicate balance to be found between confrontation, competition and cooperation with the US.
Sinification is looking for volunteers to help with the translation of some of its texts. If you are a student or recent graduate, a small remuneration will be provided. Contributors will be credited as co-authors. Requirements: 1. Advanced level of Chinese; 2. Native level of English.
1. The US's domestic crises are creating externalities
“When it comes to international political risks, the US's domestic problems have to be placed at the top of the list. For many years, US research institutes have tended to regard China as the greatest ‘threat’ to the world based on ideological considerations. But in reality, and empirically speaking, it is the potential risks of spillovers resulting from the US’s domestic crisis that pose the greatest threat to the world.”
“As also forecasted by international organisations including the World Bank, US-based economists, think tanks and others, all largely believe that a US-led recession in the West as a whole is highly likely in 2023. The United States is currently facing an increasingly severe polarisation of its political landscape. From Donald Trump's two presidential campaigns to the recent difficulties in electing the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the political divide between the two parties in the US has become increasingly serious and vividly embodies the partisan politics of ‘opposition for the sake of opposition'. The polarisation of politics between both parties is both the result of a highly divided American society, but also the cause of its exacerbation. Political strife and populism have already fallen into a vicious circle.”
“The internal divisions within the United States are the US’s own domestic matters. However, as the number one economic and military power, the US’s internal divisions produce huge externalities that have far-reaching effects on world politics.”
“Historically, economic recessions coupled with geopolitical changes and conflicts have often led to local wars, or even world wars. This was the case for World War I and for World War II. In some respects, the US has already transferred its current domestic conflicts [内部矛盾] to the international level. This is mainly manifested at the economic level. For example, [looking at] the Federal Reserve's interest rate hikes, every increase in its interest rate comes as a major shock to the world economy. Such shocks do not only hit major powers such as China and Europe, they are even more lethal to smaller countries. So, will a transfer [of the US’s domestic tensions] occur at the military level? This is even more worrying. Countries must guard themselves against this [各国不可不防].”
2. The Russo-Ukrainian war creates greater uncertainties
“The Russo-Ukrainian war is still underway in Europe and it is impossible to know when it will end and by what means. What we can be sure about is that the Russo-Ukrainian war is not a war between Russia and Ukraine, but a war between Russia and the West, and in particular between Russia and the United States. Ukraine is merely a proxy. This war is a complete proxy war [这场战争是完全的代理人战争].”
“For Russia, when conventional warfare is unsustainable and at the same time there is no response [from the other side] to compromise, there is concern as to whether Russia might resort to using strategic nuclear weapons.”
“Although most countries, including China, India and Turkey, all want an early end to the war, they are not the main actors in this war and cannot decide its future. Will this war develop into a nuclear war? This is what many people are worried about.”
3. The NATOisation of Europe
“Europe is showing a trend towards NATOisation. Several factors are driving the acceleration of this process.”
“The first is the US-led international 'united front' [against Russia]. As US President Joe Biden has said, the Russo-Ukrainian war has fostered unity between the US and Europe. [On the other hand,] the war did not lead to European unity, and if it did, it was temporary. However, the war did indeed lead to a high degree of European military dependence on the US. Whether actively or passively, Europe and the US have formed a 'united front' against Russia.”
“The second is the internal contradictions within Europe. European countries, France in particular, have been stressing European autonomy and even advocating the formation of a European army as well as reducing [their dependence on] NATO [淡化北约]. However, European autonomy so far appears still to be just an ideal, if not an illusion. Objectively speaking, France is currently not strong enough, or well enough equipped, to ensure Europe's military security, while Germany is still highly dependent on the US for its national security and defence. Although France is more independent and autonomous than Germany, following the enlargement of the EU, more member states are either consciously or unconsciously dependent on the US’s military protection. The road to European autonomy [remains] a long and difficult one.”
“On the one hand there is the US's 'united front' strategy, on the other there is a trend towards internal rifts within Europe. The process of Europe's NATOisation is accelerating. Now it seems that even if Russia were to collapse, NATO would not be disbanded. In fact, NATO is not only expanding to the east, but also to the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions. Some East Asian countries have already been invited to take part in NATO affairs. Thus, we need to analyse NATO carefully. In future, NATO has the potential to become a leading supra-regional force.”
4. Deepening of the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula
“For countries in East Asia, the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula not only exists but is worsening, It is only because there are so many other problems, and so serious are these, that the crisis on the peninsula has not been given enough attention.”
“In spite of the fact that the geopolitics of the peninsula are undergoing profound changes and that the risks are increasing dramatically, China will not abandon its practice of ‘non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries’ on the issue of [North] Korea. Thus, there will be no drastic change in [our] policy towards [North] Korea.”
“Japan and South Korea can be said already to possess 'nuclear weaponry' capabilities [‘核武’能力]. Even without 'nuclear sharing', Japan's nuclear technology is powerful in its own right. For the US, it can still take advantage of the particularly tense atmosphere [剑拔弩张的紧张氛围] on the peninsula to help turn its bilateral alliances with Japan and South Korea into a multilateral alliance. At the NATO summit in June last year, NATO invited Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and other Asia-Pacific partner countries to take part for the first time. It also arranged two small summits between the US, Japan and South Korea, and between Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia. For the US, this was a powerful step towards enabling the ‘Asia-Pacification’ and ‘Indo-Pacification’ of NATO [对美国而言，这是促成北约亚太化、印太化的有力抓手]. This trend is accelerating because of the crisis on the peninsula, which is exerting enormous geopolitical pressure on China.”
5. Chaos in the Middle East returns
“In 2021 the US withdrew fully from Afghanistan and shifted its strategic focus to the Indo-Pacific in order to deal with China, thus leaving a huge power vacuum in the Middle East. As a result, countries around the Middle East, such as Turkey and India, have stepped in to compete in the Middle East.”
“The waning of US power is also intensifying conflicts within the Middle East, mainly in the form of strained relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine, Libya and Iraq, etc. Following the decline of the US’s influence in the Middle East, countries in the region appear at first sight to have more autonomy and more options, but in reality there are [many] more new problems.”
“Although China will not proactively intervene in the Middle East's geopolitical battles, we must take precautions against their [potential] impact on us. That is because China is also developing close economic ties with countries in the region. As mentioned above, these geopolitical battles are not only between countries within the Middle East, but also, and to a greater extent, between major powers outside the region.”
6. India’s accelerated rise
“India's rise has accelerated due to its comparative advantages in such areas as its economy, policies and the international situation [国际形势].”
“At the economic level, its huge and growing population gives it a demographic dividend and a workforce advantage. India has a large market, and although its middle- and low-income population is large, ‘poverty gives rise to a desire for change’ [穷则思变] – people have a strong desire and sufficient motivation to move up the social ladder.”
“In terms of its policies, Prime Minister Modi has been seeking to become India's version of Deng Xiaoping [印度版的邓小平] since coming to power [in 2014]. His reform push has been continuously intensified and, although there have been some failures along the way, this trend towards reform has been sustained. India's modernisation process has been very effective [颇有成效]. While vigorously pursuing reforms on all fronts, it has also protected its domestic market and supported local manufacturing through its pursuit of import substitution. [Moreover,] its policies are becoming increasingly pro-business and pro-investment. Particularly during the devastating pandemic, India has presented the Chinese market with a certain degree of competition in terms of attracting Western capital.”
“In terms of the international situation, the United States views China as its main competitor. In order to deal with China, the US has focused its attention on developing a substantive relationship with India. From the perspective of business, both Western governments and Western capital are consciously helping India to transform and upgrade its business environment. They have been investing more resources into talent development, technology transfers, intellectual property protection and rule-making. From a geopolitical perspective, the US and Western countries have strengthened the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) mechanism with India and established a new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) based on so-called ‘democratic values’. These external forces have all contributed to India's influence on the international stage.”
“However, India will not become a vassal of the US, but will attempt to become an independent pole of power. Supported by the West, India’s determined rise will put considerable geopolitical pressure upon China.
First, Pakistan, as China's close neighbour and friend, will be faced with a more powerful India. India-Pakistan issues will become increasingly complex.
Second, China's Belt and Road Initiative, especially its ‘Maritime Silk Road’ which runs through the Indian Ocean, will also face more complex challenges.
Third, with India's rise, its perception and identity as a great power will change. As a maritime nation, its geopolitical influence will spread across the whole of the Indian Ocean, especially the northern part, which is a strategically important region. If its maritime influence can develop in such a way, the China-India border conflict will, needless to say, [also] have a negative impact on Sino-Indian relations. In recent years, India has from time to time provoked border disputes and skirmishes. As its power grows, such actions will only intensify. Therefore, India's accelerated rise is also a major challenge to China. How to manage Sino-Indian relations will be an important question for us study.”
7. Latin America’s continued polarisation
“As far as the diplomacy of Latin American countries is concerned, both Russia and China occupy marginal positions.”
“The United States is seeking to encourage the polarisation of Latin America and is more than happy to see Latin America’s political polarisation continue. For the United States, as long as there is a polarisation of political parties, it can strengthen its control over the region by intervening in its internal affairs. But for China, the polarised politics of Latin American countries such as Brazil (a BRICS country) or Venezuela create great uncertainty in its relations with Latin America. The difference is that the US can interfere in the domestic politics of other countries and even put their presidents on trial, while China pursues a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. Therefore, China should pay all the more attention to multilateral diplomacy and strengthen cooperation with BRICS countries.”
“Given the importance of lithium resources to the new energy vehicle industry, and at a time when demand for lithium resources exceeds supply globally, China has to manage its relations with Latin American governments effectively amidst the political polarisation, so as to pave the way for a stable supply of lithium.”
8. The UN system continues to be marginalised
“The marginalisation of the existing UN-centred world order continues apace … China is the biggest advocate and supporter of the UN system. How to repair or even rebuild the UN system is the challenge we face. The UN has become a forum, and although all countries can [still] express their views [there], the United Nations itself is no longer an actor. Despite the enormous difficulties that have [recently] arisen, there is currently still no plan for an international organisation that could replace the United Nations. For those countries that still need the UN, especially the developing countries, saving it is a matter of great urgency [当务之急].”
“As a major power, China must not only do its utmost to save the United Nations, but also, and even more importantly, continue to practise [a type of] multilateralism that is open and inclusive and that does not target third countries. This form of multilateralism, although also presenting a regional dimension, goes hand in hand with globalisation. [Comment: ‘相向而行’ is often used by Chinese officials and international relations experts and is often translated as ‘meeting someone/something halfway’. However, its exact meaning has been subject to some debate. I assume that what Zheng actually means here is that ‘Chinese multilateralism’ and globalisation do not contradict each other and are essentially both moving in the same direction]”
9. The repeated occurrence of humanitarian crises
“Today, with the uninterrupted occurrence of climate change, nuclear proliferation, public health crises, marine ecological degradation, wars and hunger, it is as if the world were returning to a Malthusian world. This is truly a tragedy for humanity.”
“China wants to encourage cooperation between major powers and has both the ability and desire to provide more international public goods. However, if China ends up being the only major power to launch initiatives and there is a lack of cooperation between major powers, [Chinese initiatives] will not be sufficient to address the world’s humanitarian crises.”
“But even so, as a responsible power, China must continue to show a spirit of internationalism and do its utmost following the outbreak of a humanitarian crisis.”
10. China-US relations are marked by confrontation and détente
“The US's attitude towards China will not change significantly in the foreseeable future. Today, the only existing bipartisan consensus in the US is on countering China. Although opposition between the US and China will continue for a long time to come, it is important for China to remain calm and rational.”
“First, we must 'fight but not break ['斗而不破']. Like the US’s policy towards China, with the US, we should adhere to the principle of fighting [斗争] where we should fight, competing where we should compete, and cooperating where we should cooperate. 'Fighting without breaking' implies strengthening international cooperation and, on the basis of avoiding harmful competition, engaging in healthy competition [良性竞争] … In terms of competition, we will not engage in a pernicious military race with the United States, but rather advance the legitimate modernisation of [China’s] national defence in accordance with our own needs for military modernisation.”
“Second, we should ‘fight but not go to war’ [斗而不战]. On the South China Sea and Taiwan issues, we must avoid conflicts [冲突] and do our utmost to avoid war. Taiwan is the core interest of China's core interests and China has no room for compromise. In the event of a crisis, we will use the whole of the nation’s strength to defend our core interest.”
“With regard to the US's domestic affairs, the confrontation between the US and China over Taiwan will continue to intensify. In this age of populism, the powers of the US's president and administration have been weakened. Congress as well as individual politicians now have a greater say [拥有了更多话语权]. On Taiwan, the US as a whole can be said to have 'lost its bottom line and control' [‘失去了底线与控制力’]. Its Taiwan policy has not only been politicised [党派化] and localised [地方化], but also personalised [个性化] and individualised [个体化].”
“One can expect that, under a period of détente, the US will still want to ‘take a mile when given an inch’ [得寸进尺]. In such a situation, China will have to fight a battle of wits and courage with the US [跟美国斗智斗勇]. Just as the Chinese mainland launched military exercises directed at Taiwan following Pelosi's visit to the island, China should think about how to turn a crisis into an opportunity when it comes to Taiwan. f
“However, on the Taiwan issue, China should not, and will not, remain merely reactive to the US. When dealing with the United States, it is also possible to turn a crisis into an opportunity. Not only will China not be led by the nose by the US, but it should achieve the reunification of the motherland according to its own established policy. As China's modernisation progresses, and particularly the modernisation of its military [国防的现代化], the possibility of it achieving peaceful reunification is becoming more and more realistic.”
“Most importantly, China must handle its relationship with the US from the perspective of a great power. China has to deal with the United States as a country, as opposed to dealing with the few anti-China politicians and anti-China political forces [within the US]. We have to have the profile of a responsible great power and, with our goal of reshaping the world order in mind [围绕着重塑世界秩序的目标], use our wisdom in a particularly rational manner to manage Sino-US relations.”
For a slightly different outlook on the world’s current political landscape and its implications for China, see recent interview with SISU professor Huang Jing (黄靖):