With the decline and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the world was quick to embrace Western liberal democracy as the “last form of human government.” However, John Fairbank, a renowned historian of China at Harvard, challenged this prevailing “end of history” narrative, stating that “no foreign model could be adapted to the Chinese situation.” He believed that the Chinese people would have to make their own way.
Now that path has been defined. Beijing has formally introduced a concept known as the “Chinese road to modernization.” This concept not only serves to recount China’s past, but also sets a benchmark for the nation’s progress in the years to come.
This is a defining moment. China, seen as the “strategic competitor” of the United States, claims that its modernization model provides a solution to help “the exploration of a better social system for humanity.” However, this increasingly popular political slogan has been perceived by many such as Beijing’s attempt to challenge the existing global order, which is often associated with US influence.
The question then arises: will Beijing’s promotion of a single “China path” lead to a global divergence, with two camps once again embarking on competing paths of development?
While some may draw parallels between the current geopolitical set-up and a Cold War-style rivalry, the ideas that Beijing promotes in the name of the “Chinese path to modernization” are actually meant to break the entire paradigm of global confrontations between value-based blocks.
Since the end of World War II, the multilateral order has been shaped predominantly by the United States and its Western allies. He multilateral institutions and agreements, such as the United Nations, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have played a crucial role in establishing the foundations of the liberal world order. These institutions were strategically designed to address a variety of challenges spanning security, trade barriers, and poverty alleviation. However, in recent years, security concerns in the Indo-Pacific region have led to the creation of “mini-laterals”, such as Quad and AUKUS. Instead of promoting peace and cooperation, these minilaterals run the risk of exacerbating divisions and escalating competition between the great powers.
Rather, Beijing advocates a multilateral system that emphasizes independent election and non-alignment. Expanding China’s modernization approach, President Xi Jinping introduced the Global Civilization Initiative in March, calling for respect for the diversity of civilizations. He reiterated: “It is the people of a country who are in the best position to say what kind of modernization is best for them.” The importance of respecting each nation’s autonomy and choices is emphasized, and Chinese-style modernization shows that the Western approach is not the only path to progress.
By actively participating in the globalization process, China has consistently resisted falling headlong into neoliberalism. Instead, it has initiated experimental political reforms to induce gradual changes. As the world’s second largest economy, China has grown to become the largest trading partner of more than 120 countries and regions, and the only country in the world accommodate all industrial categories included in the United Nations industrial classification.
The exemplary effect is amazing. More developing nations have been inspired to participate in globalization and seek a development path that suits their unique needs. Brazil, for example, has experienced important economic advances through social and economic globalization. The country’s economic growth has been driven by foreign investment, international trade and the prominence of its sports platform.
Many countries recognize that an emphasis on ideological differences is not conducive to world peace and development. Instead, they must attend to their own development realities, prioritizing their unique needs and circumstances. As Chilean President Gabriel Boric Fountain He expressed it, reflecting a widely shared sentiment: “We have to stop creating organizations based on the ideology of the governments in power.”
As the ideological divide becomes less prominent, a multipolar world is taking shape. This raises the question: Are the divergent paths of these key global players as conflicting as they seem? Are their development models and views on the multilateral order really contradictory?
The fact is, as he maintains stephen walt, there is no longer a unipolar order. With global power dynamics inevitably shifting towards a multilateral, or even multipolar order, the world is coming to accept a variety of governance models. These models are so diverse that no one can say for sure that it is the standard. The “Chinese path to modernization” could well provide a stabilizing force after US hegemony.
First, both development models seek peace and progress. As one of the five pillars of the “Chinese road to modernization,” peaceful development will continue to be Beijing’s guiding principle in dealing with foreign affairs. Recently, xi He reaffirmed the country’s commitment and stated: “No matter what level of development China reaches, it will never seek hegemony or expansion.” This suggests that China not only advocates a multipolar order, but also prefers a peaceful evolution in that direction.
Second, both models emphasize the importance of openness and contribute to the globalization process. kristalina georgieva, head of the International Monetary Fund, predicted that China is expected to account for a third of global economic growth by 2023. “China’s economy is important not only to itself, but to the world,” she said. The key document outlining the “Chinese path to modernization” underscores a proactive opening-up strategy. This will help facilitate the free flow of goods, capital, information and other items to fuel the post-COVID global economic recovery. With the resurgence of transnational interdependence, the world is less likely to split into factions that hinder the process of multipolarization.
Third, China, like many developed countries, is a major provider of global public goods and is committed to global development. It is estimated that emerging economies will need $66 billion for infrastructure investment by 2030. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has already taken the lead in global infrastructure development, with the total value of related projects reported in $4.3 trillion starting in 2020. The ambitious plan is set to help change the global division of labor, which has traditionally been largely in favor of the developed world.
It can be seen that the modernization paths of both China and the United States are globally compatible, and both will contribute to global economic recovery and the achievement of sustainable development goals in the post-pandemic era. China’s development choice is not causing a divergence in the world, but rather accelerating the emergence of a viable multipolar order in the post-hegemonic era.
The recent rise of China has led to the United States feeling threatened and challenged, leading to tensions between the two nations, as evidenced by the Sino-US trade war and technological restrictions. The root cause lies in the lack of clarity regarding the intentions of each and strategic misjudgments. In order to mitigate the conflict and allow these two great nations to drive global development, it is crucial that both parties maintain active and regular communication. Both nations must reaffirm their commitment to jointly defend the multilateral order and respect the various development models.
The multilateral order is something that China, the United States and other countries in the world strive to maintain together. Modernization is a global issue that transcends national borders. Countries around the world, including China and the United States, must not only consider their own unique realities, but also respect the diversity of development paths. They must adhere to the principles of peace and openness, and actively contribute to the realization of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.