But what exactly are the values that are meant to bind the democracies together to solve the world’s problems? In a speech at the US State Department on February 4, just two weeks after his inauguration, Biden told foreign-service officers that the US could not handle the biggest global challenges alone and “must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity”. Critics of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) usually cite transparency as another important value of an open society. (Contrast these attributes with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration in his June 11 interview with NBC News of the US that “predictability and stability” are the “the most important value in international affairs”.)
The Biden/Stoltenberg argument is that China does not share any of these values. Whether this is true is certainly an appropriate and important debate to have, especially given the economic, social and even political progress that China has made in the last four decades. Key wedge issues today are freedoms and human rights (Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang at the forefront), the treatment of Taiwan, respect for international law particularly in maritime disputes, technological innovation and cyber security.
Yet, the fact is that when it comes to all those accelerating global challenges, as Biden has put it, “from the pandemic to climate change to nuclear proliferation”, the solutions must involve China. The Biden administration certainly acknowledges this. It has laid out a schema for relations with Beijing that would accommodate that inconvenient truth. In his first speech as US secretary of state on March 3, Antony Blinken said that “China is the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system”. Washington’s approach to China, he explained, would be “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be”.
That described well what has become the working framework for most countries – the US and other Western nations, but even some perceived to be in Beijing’s thrall – to deal with China. There are three lanes in the relationship – collaboration, competition and confrontation. An issue such as climate change would fall in the collaborative lane, while matters for confrontation (rhetorical, not necessarily military) would surely include Xinjiang, human rights and freedom of navigation. Technology is a tough one because, say, artificial intelligence, 5G and cyber security could go into both the competition and confrontation lanes, possibly even the collaborative one if conditions were right.
If multilateralism is to work for the middle class and those who might feel that globalization left them behind, then the collaboration lane with China has to become the widest of the three. But a values-based multilateralist agenda, as pursued by Washington and those supporting a liberal order, would preclude this. Take the initial steps of the revived and rapidly upgraded Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the Quad. The priorities outlined by the leaders of members Australia, India, Japan and the US at their virtual summit in May were the pandemic and vaccine distribution to developing countries, climate change, cyber security, infrastructure and supply-chain resilience – the first three issues that arguably cannot be resolved without Chinese participation or contribution.
The G7 has cobbled together the Build Back Better World (B3W) plan that the US has cast as an answer to China’s BRI. It will be “values driven”. As the White House described it, the focus will be “infrastructure development carried out in a transparent and sustainable manner – financially, environmentally, and socially – will lead to a better outcome for recipient countries and communities. We will offer countries a positive vision and a sustainable, transparent source of financing to meet their infrastructure needs.”
B3W, which is meant to be propelled mainly by the private sector, appears to be an amalgam of various infrastructure development assistance programs that each G7 member has already been pursuing. Japan, for example, has its Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (PQI). The B3W would fall into the competitive lane. While that might spur improvements in infrastructure development in developing economies (because of a race to higher standards, particularly in transparency), it may do little to make the values case against the BRI. But why not consider it for the collaborative lane?
Given the apparent lack of zeal for any grand global gathering to redesign the mechanisms of multilateralism, if there is to be a “new” rules-based international order (RBIO) that will make globalization work better for the middle classes, such a world operating system (OS) is likely to emerge only through whatever reforms might be able to be made in the existing organizations and the creation of new “applications” to get specific things done.