Breaking the global mould
The Biden administration has been meticulously choreographing its Indo-Pacific policy.
It set up a leaders’ meeting of the alliance of Australia, India, Japan and the United States, known as the Quad, and senior officials visited key allies in Japan and South Korea.
Then came the acrimonious Alaska summit with China, where Beijing’s most senior diplomats made a calculated display of giving America a public reprimand, thus setting a chilly atmosphere for the talks behind closed doors.
In that respect, the summit has proved invaluable for global stability. It made clear the divisions between the two superpowers and exposed the paradox of holding staunchly opposite values, coupled with the need to work together without conflict.
Within days, the US and other Western democracies imposed sanctions on Beijing because of its Uighur policies in Xinjiang. At the same time, the two governments were working together on climate change.
But it was China that broke the mould in Alaska, offering fresh ideas and calling for reform of the global system in a way that, at some stage, America needs to address in full, however unpalatable it might be.
The US challenge now is to come up with a fresh approach and avoid wrapping what it sees as its global mission in the old language that has taken it into wars in Vietnam, Central America, Iraq and elsewhere.
In initial telephone calls to Asian leaders, President Biden reiterated American commitment to what is described as a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’.
During the frosty exchange in Alaska, Secretary of State Antony Blinken used a familiar bundle of flashpoints – Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea – to point out Beijing’s wrongdoing in areas of international law and human rights.
China, on the other hand, trod new ground both for itself and for America.It abandoned a long-held tradition of asking foreigners to travel to the Middle Kingdom for an audience. Instead, its senior diplomats made the journey to American territory. Gone, too, was the opacity and coded language that so often accompanies negotiations with China.
The diplomats confronted the Americans in public, exposing themselves to the world’s media, thus risking what is often referred to as ‘loss of face’.
PolitburoForeignPolicy Chief Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi slammed their cards firmly on the table, even commandeering the concept of democracy itself, arguing that there were Chinese and American systems of democracy and the Chinese one was better.
‘Our values are the same as the common values of humanity. Those are: peace, development, fairness, justice, freedom and democracy,’ said Yang.
Blinken dismissed the picture China painted of itself, saying that, after a hundred conversations with counterparts around the world, ‘I’m also hearing deep concern about some of the actions your government has taken’.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan argued that America’s ability to ‘look hard at its own shortcomings’ and to constantly seek to improve had given it the confidence to become what it was today.
But there, America is far from alone. China, too, makes a point of learning from past mistakes.
Any visitor to the Opium War Museum in Humen can see how China’s building of military bases in the South China Seas has been determined by its study of the past. In 1839 British troops breached Chinese southern coastal defences at Humen and Beijing has pledged such humiliation will never be allowed again.
The nub of the Chinese argument in Alaska is that what the US refers to as the rules-based order is, in fact, an outdated set of rules made by a small, unrepresentative group of countries, and it needs to change. The order that China is challenging was forged in the 1940s in the aftermath of the Second World War and written hurriedly by the victors after the horrors of the Holocaust and widespread catastrophe.
China is right to call for reform aimed at designing global structures to survive into the next century.
Most nations with developing political systems and economies do not want to be forced to choose, as they had to during the Cold War. Regional institutions such as the Organisation of African Unity, Latin America’s Mercosur and Asia’s ASEAN are more robust and assured than they were in the 1980s.
Many countries that have long received lectures about American values may have been quietly cheering the Chinese initiative in Alaska and these voices are growing louder in the UN General Assembly.
America would be wise to take note.
It would be dangerous to wait too long until conflict creates new victors who will re-write new rules as they see fit. It would be far better to hold a pre-emptive conference now on world order reform, one that would be driven not by the aftermath of war but by the desire to underpin peace.
History may record the Alaska summit as being the start of this process