As never before seen, the US, Russia and China - representing three different world views and practices - are competing head-on in shaping the norms and values of modern international system that has seen operating since the end of World War II.
Never mind the old practices that has kept the world at peace or at bay – sometimes at political precipice – as currently we are living in the real world where actions, tough actions in particular, speak loudest and are likely to determine the outcome and overall situation on the ground. The United Nations for the past six decades have done well to save the world but it is still unable to stop superpowers from engaging wars.
The US, which has been the superpower with a global reach militarily, remained unchallenged for decades since the collapse of Berlin Wall. Now that is no longer the case as the US is not in the prime position as before. Washington’s policies and words are not sacrosanct, yielding instant international acknowledgements and later on served as templates for the rest of the world. Washington’s contrived leadership and economic troubles at home have greatly diminished its strength and effectiveness abroad.
Throughout the Cold War, the former Soviet Union challenged the US predominance at all levels: ideologically, economically, technically and socially. The US has been able to sustain its capitalism, democracy and continued to reign in existing global systems. After the collapse of former Soviet Union with several new countries surfaced – suddenly friends become foes next to its huge frontiers. This feature has become more dramatic in the world today as nations, big or small, are looking for strategic partners that would fit into their present condition, even though temporary.
Russia’s diplomatic strength today rests on of President Vladimir Putin’s current leadership and energy-driven economy. Beyond that, Russia wields counterbalancing forces against the US. His preponderance to use strong measures are quite appealing for some foreign leaders sharing similar traits. Ironically, President Barack Obama is a more genteel leader than his predecessors.
Strange as it may see, the current global system allows nations to forge multiple and fragmented relationships. Some call them realpolitik while others prefer to use the term multilateralism. It is no longer either-or dichotomy – a pro-US or pro-Russia ally – that we are used to during the Cold War. Such polarization – or rather put one’s egg in one basket – does not help as less powerful or smaller nations want more leeway and security guarantee amid fast changing strategic environment. Their approaches are more issue-oriented and highly time-sensitive – at time even sporadic.
As the US and Russia are wooing for new supports and strengthening old links, China is being left unchallenged. Beijing has patiently constructed the Sino[KC1]-centred regional order with a hope that one day it would turn into an international norm. It has pursued a more practical course befitting strategic thinking of developing countries near and far. As the world’s second economic power, China is bolder these days asserting itself in global arenas. President Xi Jinping has already consolidated his power at home to transform China into a strong country with powerful military might couple with prosperous economy. Under him, China is no longer passive.
As a new contender in the superpower’s brinksmanship, China’s views and positions on global issues and international system are still find wanting. While Beijing’s support of UN-related activities and endorsement have increased, other policies and perceptions are still outside the international radars. Above all, China has yet to lead an international endeavours with global appeals that go beyond self-interest.
However, the prolonged US-Russia rivalries as demonstrated over the Ukraine crisis would allow China to readjust and craft out its role and influence in current fragile international system. Beijing would need a new level of engagement and commitment with the regional and international community.
For the time being, China’s growing economic and political clouts have yet to be tested in ways that would enhance stability and well-beings at both regional and global levels. The disputes in South China Sea could serve as a barometer of how China handles other equally sensitive security issues. In case a solution is found that rests on an international practice, China’s prestige would be further enhanced.
In the near term, the US will remain the world’s predominated power but it has to share its influence with others, depending on issues and timing. To many countries in Latin America, Africa, Middle East and Central Asia, Russia is still a reliable partner. Moscow’s unwavering support of the Assad regime in Syria, the Iranian government over the nuclear crisis and even to the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has won kudos.
In a similar vein, China’s proactive and less passive policies have also found new friends and strengthened old links. With its widespread networks of new entrepreneurs – big and small – as well as networks of diaspora, China’s positions would have to be a moderated one overtimes. Indeed, China’s growing clout is not shaped by traditional power’s configuration as enjoyed by the US or Russia.
In the new paradigm, the power’s game is also about “mutual respect” between the power-that-be and the rest of the world. If the smaller and weaker states feel they have the respect from their Brethren, they would be more willingness to cooperate as the case may be. Today they have many choices as the big three have inherit strengths and weaknesses. Flexible but firmed policies would win friends. This enables all concerned countries to calibrate their positions before a decision is being made.