With the decline and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the world hurriedly embraced Western liberal democracy as the “final form of human government.” However, John Fairbank, a renowned historian of China at Harvard, contested this prevailing “end-of-story” narrative, asserting that “no foreign model could fit the Chinese situation.” He believed that the Chinese people would need to carve out their own path.
Now that path has been defined. Beijing has formally introduced a concept known as the “Chinese path to modernization.” This concept serves not only to recount China’s past, but also establishes a guiding framework for the nation’s progression in the years to come.
This is a watershed moment. China, viewed as the United States’ “strategic competitor,” claims its model of modernization provides a solution to aid “the exploration of a better social system for humanity.” However, this increasingly popular political catchphrase has been perceived by many as Beijing’s attempt to challenge the existing global order, which is often associated with U.S. influence.
The question then arises: Will Beijing’s promotion of a unique “Chinese path” lead to global divergence, with two camps once again embarking on competing paths of development?
While some may draw parallels between today’s geopolitical disposition and a Cold War-style rivalry, the ideas Beijing advances in the name of the “Chinese path to modernization” are actually set to break through the entire paradigm of global confrontations between value-based blocs.
Since the end of World War II, the multilateral order has predominantly been shaped by the United States and its Western allies. The 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 foundation of the liberal world order. These institutions were strategically crafted to tackle a range of challenges encompassing security, trade barriers, and poverty alleviation. However, in recent years, security concerns in the Indo-Pacific region have led to the creation of “minilaterals,” such as the Quad and AUKUS. Rather than promoting peace and cooperation, these minilaterals risk exacerbating divisions and escalating great power competition.
On the contrary, Beijing advocates for a multilateral system that emphasizes independent choice and non-alignment. Expanding on China’s approach to modernization, 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 that are in the best position to tell what kind of modernization best suits them.” The importance of respecting each nation’s autonomy and choices is emphasized, with Chinese-style modernization demonstrating that the Western approach is not the sole path to progress.
Actively participating in the process of globalization, China has consistently resisted a headlong plunge into neoliberalism. Instead, it has initiated experimental policy reforms to induce incremental changes. As the second-largest economy in the world, China has grown to be the biggest trading partner of over 120 countries and regions, and the only country in the world to host all the industrial categories included in the United Nations’ industrial classification.
The exemplary effect is striking. More developing nations have been inspired to participate in globalization and seek out a development path that suits their unique needs. Brazil, for instance, has experienced significant economic advancements through social and economic globalization. The country’s economic growth has been driven by foreign investments, international trade, and the prominence of its sports platform.
Many countries recognize that an emphasis on ideological differences is not conducive to global peace and development. Instead, they should attend to their own developmental realities, prioritizing their unique needs and circumstances. As Chilean President Gabriel Boric Font put it, reflecting a sentiment widely shared, “We have to stop creating organizations based on the ideology of the governments of the day.”
As the ideological divide becomes less salient, a multipolar world is taking shape. This prompts 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 truly at odds?
The fact is, as argued by Stephen Walt, a unipolar order no longer exists. With the global power dynamic inevitably shifting toward a multilateral, or even multipolar, order, the world is coming to accept a variety of governance models. These models are so diverse that no single one can confidently claim to be the standard. The “Chinese path to modernization” might well provide a stabilizing force in the aftermath of U.S. hegemony.
First, both development models strive for peace and progress. As one of the five pillars of the “Chinese path to modernization,” peaceful development will continue to be Beijing’s guiding principle in dealing with foreign affairs. Recently, Xi reaffirmed the country’s commitment, stating, “No matter what level of development China achieves, it will never seek hegemony or expansion.” This suggests that China not only advocates for a multipolar order, but also prefers a peaceful evolution in that direction.
Second, the two models emphasize the importance of openness and contribute to the process of globalization. Kristalina Georgieva, head of the International Monetary Fund, has predicted that China is expected to account for one-third of global economic growth in 2023. “China’s economy is important not only for itself, but for the world,” she stated. The key document outlining the “Chinese path to modernization” underscores a proactive strategy of opening up. This will help facilitate the free flow of goods, capital, information, and other elements to spur the post-COVID global economic recovery. With the resurgence of the cross-national interdependence, the world is less likely to be divided into factional camps that hinder the process of multipolarization.
Third, China, much like many developed countries, is an important provider of global public goods and is committed to global development. It is estimated that emerging economies will need $66 trillion for infrastructure investment by 2030. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has already taken the lead in the global infrastructure development, with the total value of related projects reported at $4.3 trillion as of 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 the global economic recovery and the achievement of sustainable development goals in the post-pandemic era. China’s choice of development is not causing a divergence in the world, but rather hastening 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 evident in the China-U.S. trade war and technological restrictions. The root cause lies in the lack of clarity regarding each other’s intentions and strategic misjudgments. To mitigate the conflict and enable these two major nations to drive global development, it’s crucial for both sides to maintain active and regular communication. Both nations must reaffirm their commitment to jointly uphold the multilateral order and respect diverse development models.
The multilateral order is something that China, the United States, and other countries around the world strive to jointly maintain. Modernization is a global issue that transcends national borders. Countries across the globe, including China and the United States, must not only consider their own unique realities but also respect the diversity of development paths. They should adhere to principles of peace and openness, and actively contribute to the realization of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.