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Making the current system work for everyone

2024-07-01 11:11:22Source: BEIJING REVIEW
A sports and art gala held at Kasemeri Primary School in Karamoja, northeast Uganda, on June 20 in appreciation of Chinese food aid. In April, China, through the UN World Food Program, allocated $2 million for the provision of meals to more than 165,000 children in 315 schools in the region (XINHUA)

June 28, 2024 -- China's participation in international affairs has been increasing in recent decades. Its emergence as a leading voice among Global South countries has led many in the developed world to speculate about its intentions, assuming that China is orchestrating the overthrow of the current system and the establishment of a new one.


However, China has largely been a beneficiary of the established, UN-centered international order and has no intention of trying to replace it. But while it's strongly committed to upholding this order, China, along with many other nations, seeks to make amendments that would make it fairer. By pursuing these amendments, China hopes to promote greater balance within the international system, so that it better reflects the interests of all nations, particularly developing ones. 


Beijing Review recently spoke to Ma Bo, an associate professor at the School of International Studies at Nanjing University, and Evandro Menezes de Carvalho, a professor of international law at FGV Law School in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to better understand China's stance on the international system. Edited excerpts follow:


Beijing Review: What is your understanding of China's attitude to the international order? 


Ma Bo: China's stance is not about overthrowing the existing international order as it too has been a beneficiary of the system—which includes the basic norms governing international relations based on the purposes and principles of the UN Charter—over the past four decades. Instead, China aims to amend these norms to make them more inclusive and equitable—maintaining the core framework while addressing its deficiencies. This approach is rooted in a desire to promote a more balanced international system that reflects the interests of all nations, particularly developing ones.​


Can you give examples of the aspects of the international system that need to be addressed? In what ways does the system lack balance and fairness?


Ma: China has identified several areas within the international system it believes need to be addressed. It advocates reforming institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to better reflect the economic reality of the 21st century. China feels that these institutions are currently dominated by Western countries and do not adequately represent the interests of emerging economies.


Also, on trade and economic policies, China supports reform to the World Trade Organization (WTO) that would address perceived imbalances and unfair trade practices. It argues for the protection of developing countries' rights within the global trade system and seeks to ensure that the trade policies are fair and do not disproportionately benefit developed nations at the expense of emerging economies. This includes addressing issues like agricultural subsidies in developed countries and over-protection of intellectual property rights.


Last but not least, on climate change and sustainable development, China emphasizes the need for more equitable climate policies that take into account the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. It argues that developed countries should take the lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and provide financial and technological support to developing countries. It seeks to balance its economic development needs with environmental protection, advocating international cooperation in green technology and sustainable practices.


How do you see the evolution of the international order in recent decades?


Evandro Menezes de Carvalho: Since the end of the Cold War, the world has embraced the idea of globalization with the promise of a free circulation of goods and people across borders. The emergence of the Internet as we know it and the creation of the WTO in the 1990s were driving forces of this ideology and, above all, of the liberal economic order.


The most important thing was that multilateralism was gaining ground, regardless of each country's political and economic regimes, in line with the spirit of the UN, which does not discriminate against states because of their governmental regimes or economic models. But the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City in 2001 and the 2008 financial crisis reversed the positive expectations fueled in the 1990s that seem increasingly distant now. Multilateralism has begun a stage of retraction aggravated by the U.S.' difficulty in dealing with China's economic rise. This scenario has led the U.S. to take protectionist and unilateralist measures that raise questions about its commitment to the economic order it once ardently defended.


And this scenario continues to worsen. The U.S. began to question the rules of the international system that it had defended before. Also, since the war in Iraq in 2001, the U.S. has shown signs of privileging NATO over the UN when it believes the matter is of supreme national interest and aligns with its goals of expanding its power.


This expansion and how it is being carried out worry many countries. It suffices to note that the vast majority of, if not all, countries in South and Central America, Africa and Asia have refused to impose sanctions against Russia in its current conflict with Ukraine, contrary to the expectations of the U.S. and other NATO countries.


We are not saying those countries are against the U.S. and NATO, but they do not want a unipolar world. They disagree with submitting multilateralism to the interests of only a few powerful Western countries. So, it is time to urgently readdress the future of the UN and its reform and support initiatives that strengthen multilateralism.


What are the major inequalities that exist in the current international system?


Carvalho: There are two main structural inequalities in the international system. The first is economic. The concentration of economic power in the hands of a few companies and developed countries significantly reduces the effective exercise of sovereignty by many poor or developing countries. Because they have fragile or almost non-existent economic sovereignty. Many of these countries rely on aid from foreign governments or external investments, which often impose draconian conditions on the governments of those poorer countries, resulting in little improvement in the living conditions of the affected population. The concept of an international system based on sovereign equality between states is increasingly becoming a work of fiction.


The second inequality is political and military. An example is the recurring preference of the U.S. and the United Kingdom for NATO—and no longer for the UN—to resolve issues that serve their exclusive national interests. The U.S. and the UK are showing systematic signs that the UN is an obstacle to overcome so that they can move forward with their national interests. If this continues, we will have an international order that is increasingly monitored and controlled by NATO. NATO threatens the survival of the UN, that is, of the global order as we have understood it since the end of World War II.


How do Brazil and other Latin American countries view China's actions to make changes to the international order?


Carvalho: China has taken up the defense of the reform of international organizations, such as the UN, the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. These organizations are experiencing a crisis of effectiveness in the 21st century. China's defense of the reform of these organizations aims to recover their role in maintaining the stability of the international system and promoting the economic development of all countries.


The Chinese Government has expressed that, when promoting the reform of the international order, it does not intend to replace it with a completely different one—especially because China has benefited from the current international order. The scenario is entirely different from the Cold War period when two great powers disputed different conceptions of the international order. That's not the case now.


China has advocated a reform that strengthens current institutions by promoting inclusive multilateralism, that is, a reform of the international order that can allow greater participation of developing countries in international decision-making processes. In other words, China advocates a democratization of the international system. However, this proposal for the democratization of the international system is met with resistance from Western powers—and precisely those who claim to be democratic.


This Chinese foreign policy agenda is considered very welcome for Latin American countries. Brazil shares this Chinese vision. This fact increases the importance of BRICS Plus [BRICS is a 10-member group of emerging economies originally consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—Ed.) for strengthening multilateralism through greater democratization of international relations and maintaining the UN as its core. 


Copyedited by G.P. Wilson