January 3, 2019

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Belt and Road Initiative (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Belt and Road Initiative (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The roundtable discussion on the history of global shifts began with something that could easily fit in one’s pocket — the smartphone.

Adam Tooze, the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of History at Columbia University, explained how the ubiquitous device represents the nexus of the ever-growing innovation and integration of the global supply chain. That a product of unprecedented technological sophistication has become readily accessible to people across the globe, he said, underscores that Western powers no longer have a monopoly on advanced technology. Is the smartphone, then, the harbinger of a “post-Western” world?

Experts from across the world gathered at Columbia on November 30 to discuss and compare the post-World War II Marshall Plan to China’s current Belt and Road Initiative. The event, which offered a critical historical analysis of building international influence from the mid-20th to the early 21st century, was sponsored by the Columbia-Harvard China and the World Program, European Institute, Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy (ISERP), and Department of History. Maison Française inside Buell Hall was still crowded after the all-day series of panels.

Jack Snyder, Columbia’s Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations, followed up by saying that the success of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) largely hinged on whether China’s governance model is a viable alternative to liberal democracy. BRI — an ambitious project to spend $150 billion annually in development, trade, and infrastructure of over 68 countries — was launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013.

Almost all modern nations have reached high-income status by enhancing the rule of law, democratization, and marketization, but China’s “meritocracy” and “administrative efficiency” are now seen as advantages over liberal democracies, Snyder said. He was as skeptical whether it was possible for any system to stay meritocratic without clear checks and balances.

Chu Shulong, a professor of political sciences and international relations at Tsinghua University, argued that China is “not trying to compete, but catch up” with the West. The economic size of the U.S.-led Western bloc still outmatches China’s, while the latter’s ideological power is still weak. China views its disputes in the Taiwan Strait, Hong Kong, and South China Sea as domestic, not international issues. He also did not think it was in the interest of Russia to compete with the West; China was being “smarter” for not directly challenging the Western order.

SIPA’s Thomas Christensen, a professor of international and public affairs, rejected the term “Western” because many of the characteristics associated with it have truly become “international;” democracy is thriving in Taiwan and other parts of Asia that had traditionally been under Chinese influence, while North Korea has mastered physics, which started in the West. He said China once tried to export its model under Mao’s rule but is more focused on economic benefits and silence of criticisms. Instead, China has largely adopted the models of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank for its own international projects such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and Chiang Mai Initiative. China’s BRI makes deals with the governments that others shun but such risky moves could come back to haunt China unless the latter gets paid back with its borrowers’ natural resources.

Christensen posed the following questions underpinning the BRI — how much of China’s economic behavior is related to its economic activity? Can any of the BRI projects reap benefits for China, or are they mostly bad deals made just to please the leaders in the Communist Party?

Oliver Steunkel, an associate professor of international relations at Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, argued that China’s efforts to build international institutions are complementing the Western-centric existing ones. There is much anticipation in Latin America that China will come to finally fulfill their dreams of peaceful development. Western powers have long been regarding their own system as benign and underestimated non-Western powers’ abilities to create and manage international institutions. But he pointed out that the Haitian Revolution was the first of its type to grant equal status to every citizen, not the French who were still holding onto slavery after its own revolution. He also highlighted the irony of the most Western-centric leader today, Vladimir Putin, as also the most antagonistic to the Western order.

Charles Maier, Leverett Saltonstall Professor History at Harvard University, argued for a new geographical perspective by saying the world is experiencing “the end of the North,” not the West. He said international systems and capital movements have always been important to empires and hegemons. He said that, “Hegemony is hard, but it’s also fun.” China for centuries took it for granted that it was the moral center of the world as the Middle Kingdom. He attributed the recent rise of authoritarianism to corruption of institutions, not populism. He was not sure what would come of the trend; after all, the Third Reich had “only lasted 12 years”.

The panel debated whether China is the new hegemon. What constitutes hegemony today differs from the traditional sense because power and wealth no longer necessarily translates to the ability to shape behaviors and trends. China is by far the strongest nation present in its region, but it has had difficulty resolving the nuclear issue of its weaker neighbor and only ally North Korea. The panel did say that the scope of national interests will likely to grow as the country expands its power. They have observed that Chinese institutions have been moving towards centrality through technological breakthroughs. There was a consensus that China may be a regional, but not global hegemon.

Through initiatives like the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Europe after World War II, the U.S. used its post-war hegemony to build alliances and institutions aimed at preventing major conflict and fostering global cooperation. China has been one of, if not the largest beneficiaries and stakeholders of the order. But as the U.S. increasingly withdraws itself from international affairs, China is far from ready to assume the role of global leadership due to its own serious internal challenges. The world may not even be post-Western order but just not orderly.

The bigger question is not whether the U.S. and China are engaged in another catastrophic conflict for hegemony, but whether both nations can overcome their respective challenges. The lesson from the smartphone is that the world wants to move toward increased integration and advancement instead of chaos and degradation.

— Jeenho Hahm MPA ’19