Wang Jisi, “Abandon the Conventions of Great Power Relations to Grasp the Framework of International Trends”
Introduction and Translation by David Ownby
Wang Jisi (b. 1948) is a professor in the School of International Studies and president of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Beijing University. He is honorary president of the Chinese Association for American Studies, and was a member of the Foreign Policy Advisory Committee of China’s Foreign Ministry from 2008 to 2016. He was been a visiting scholar or visiting fellow at Oxford, Berkeley, Michigan, and Princeton, among others. A partial CV (available here in Chinese) is full of impressive publications treating especially American foreign policy and Sino-American relations.
The text translated here is something quite different, in that Wang chooses to set aside hot-button issues and focus on the longer-term world trends that concern him. Thus rather than examining Mike Pompeo’s latest pronouncements or what China is threatening to do about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, Wang looks instead at population growth and decline, trends in the movement of people throughout the world, the variable impact of aging on different societies, among many other things. The text is not without interest in that is also a reflection on the nature of the discipline of international studies, which often focuses on the headlines of the day and neglects longer-term issues, and for those that are reassured by such reflections, it is reassuring to know that there are Chinese researchers who think this way as well.
That said, it is not clear to me why the text appeared when it did. Indeed, while the text was published online on November 14, 2020 on Wang’s Aisixiang page, I wonder if is not recycled from some years back: he mentions Biden’s visit to China, the most recent of which, as far as I can tell, was in 2013, as if it had just happened; and he references AIDS when discussing the epidemiological dangers of the rapid movement of people throughout the globe, while it seems to me that there is another example somewhat closer to hand. There is also the curious observation that: “If an event like the 2005 hurricane happens again when the economy is depressed and unemployment high, it is not impossible that the United States will experience a certain turmoil.” Well, yes. It seems to me that one of the lessons to draw from Wang’s text may be to be careful with sources coming from the Chinese internet, where things are not always clearly sourced and verified (of course this is true for the internet in general, but there is a “Wild West” side even to the online publications by Chinese establishment intellectuals which I assume is less pronounced in the West).
“The problem of aging in developed countries means that they will lack people, so they will be forced to loosen controls on immigration, however tightly controlled Europe and the US appear to be at present. The population of North and West African countries is expanding rapidly, and many people are risking their lives to be get into Europe illegally. I've seen figures that by 2025, 20% of the European population will made up on be Middle Eastern and North African immigrants, and that 42% of those living in Brussels will be immigrants, overwhelmingly Muslims. This is one explanation for the recent riots in London and in Germany, and the social unrest in other European countries, including Russia, is very worrisome.”
“What are the new areas of economic growth? A viewpoint articulated in the books I've read is that the world has been driven by a new invention for a certain amount of time ever since 1200, and we’re now at the ninth great invention. The last big one was electrification in the early 20th century, and before that, mechanization and steam engines in the 19th century. Now is electronics, the information age, the Internet, etc., which has another 10-15 years to go before it plays itself out. But cell phones are already quite advanced, and no matter how “super” the “super Internet” is it will still be the Internet, so one wonders what areas of new economic growth will push the developed countries forward? It could be something like low-carbon technology, clean energy, etc., but the development of technology is hard to predict. Another possibility might be innovations in biotechnology focused on aging, for example; some people would surely be willing to pay a million yuan for a drug that would allow to live another ten years. As long as there is a breakthrough on this front, economic growth will follow. But whether there will be such a breakthrough is hard to say.”
“The mainstream view in Chinese academia is that the decline of the West, the decline of the United States, together with the rise of developing countries, means good times for us. But will China's main challenges in the future come from political and military pressure from developed countries? My own humble observation is that if the future is not rosy, it may not be primarily because of Western pressure on us, but because kinds of turmoil that become contagious. We are not ideologically, materially, or institutionally prepared for such things. Domestic governance issues, in fact, involve global governance issues, and are all interconnected. Be careful about celebrating the bad things that happen to other people, because the same things may well happen to you. Of course, Western countries take pleasure when bad things happen to us. Changes occurring here because of migrant workers and labor mobility are the same as what we see throughout the world, and we cannot separate the two. The domestic and international situations are linked, and we find many similarities in China and abroad.”
The reason I want to talk about this topic is because I have been traveling abroad recently and talking with people in addition to reading things, and I have a consistent feeling that there is something wrong with the direction of our research in international studies. Isn’t the subject of our research a bit off, with the focus always on relations between major powers? For example, in the past couple of days, reporters have been chasing after the U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and disputes in the South China Sea, which is not the focus of international events at the moment.
I would like to focus on what the current global trends are, including those that are relatively certain and those that are not. I won't talk about the relations between major countries or related considerations, which we all know about already. Finally, I would like to make some comments on the international opportunities and challenges we face, and what kind of adjustments may be needed in related theoretical perspectives and research.
Relatively Certain Global Trends
Among relatively certain global trends are declining population growth rates and the aging of the population. The "population explosion" is no longer worrisome, and we are instead more concerned by issues of aging and migration. The global population is now 7 billion, but it is growing very unevenly, with developed countries having smaller populations in real and relative terms, while the population of developing countries continues to rise, but at a somewhat slower rate than before. Japan's population has declined in absolute terms. Russia's population is also declining, despite the arrival of new immigrants. Europe's population is now declining. The population of Africa is still increasing at an annual rate of 2%.
The problem of aging has already emerged in China, and American Vice President Biden has addressed the question of how China and the United States will deal with the issue. I've read up on the question, and we are somewhere between the United States and Europe in terms of the severity of our aging problem, with Europe being the worst, and the United States having virtually no problem at all on this front. India, with its relatively young population, has an advantage in this respect. There's also a lot of talk right now about whether China will adjust its family planning policy. But from an international perspective, people are not that worried about the problem of China’s population growth, and instead more concerned about the problems caused by the lopsided male-female ratio. Similarly, people seem unconcerned about India's ability to feed its population, although a significant part of India's growth potential comes from its population growth.
The challenges of aging include increased spending on pensions and other safeguards for the elderly and public health, increased burdens on social welfare, and a labor shortage that leads to lower economic growth. There are also political issues related to the elderly that people like us, who are involved in politics, seem to be more focused on, and which are largely ignored by younger people.
Aging has other effects as well, and society as a whole tends to become more conservative. From a positive perspective, there are fewer radicals, fewer people who want to go to war, and fewer people who actually can go to war. One factor that makes Americans still eager to go to war is that it has a large foreign population, and the people who are really fighting wars on foreign soil are illegal immigrants who want to become citizens but have been unable to, in addition to African-Americans, Latinos, etc., in other words they are often seen as second-class citizens. Aging will also stimulate health-related technological innovation and the diffusion of these technologies.
The opposite of aging is the growth of the youth population. I have just been to Iran, where more than 50% of the population is under the age of 30, and the streets are overflowing with young people. High youth unemployment leads to social unrest and political violence, trends visible in many places, from the Latin American Andes and sub-Saharan Africa, to Middle Eastern countries and parts of India.
The wealth divide between high- and low-income countries continues to widen, and the lure of high incomes and benefits in wealthy countries transcends national borders, making many people want to emigrate. The total number of people living in countries other than their country of birth, has now reached 210 million, or 3% of the world's population, and will continue to grow. Three percent may not sound like much, but these are the world’s most dynamic people.
The problem of aging in developed countries means that they will lack people, so they will be forced to loosen controls on immigration, however tightly controlled Europe and the US appear to be at present. The population of North and West African countries is expanding rapidly, and many people are risking their lives to be get into Europe illegally. I've seen figures that by 2025, 20% of the European population will made up on be Middle Eastern and North African immigrants, and that 42% of those living in Brussels will be immigrants, overwhelmingly Muslims. This is one explanation for the recent riots in London and in Germany, and the social unrest in other European countries, including Russia, is very worrisome.
The massive movement of people brings about the constant spread of dangerous infectious diseases, and an outbreak anywhere can spread the virus around the world in a matter of hours or days. The AIDS epidemic is so severe that the number of cases and death rates have surpassed the devastation caused by war and conflict.
Moreover, shortages in resources are growing increasingly acute. For the foreseeable future, mankind's demand for natural resources will continue to increase, while the global supply of resources, especially non-renewable energy sources, will be increasingly constrained. There is so much data on this that I will speak only in broad outlines. For example, in terms of water resources, regardless of the angle from which you look at it, we are using more water in agriculture, in industry, and in our homes, and global urbanization is also an irreversible trend. By 2025, 3 billion people worldwide will face water scarcity. The problem of water pollution, water scarcity and pollution triggered by international and domestic disputes, including conflicts in China's Mekong River basin and other regions, will only increase.
The food problem, for which I have not looked at the most recent research, is that the world will need to produce 2.25 times as much food in 2050 as it does today, based on current per capita needs, which is almost impossible. The shortage of resources in water and arable land, in turn, is a constraint on food production, which means that higher prices for food and other agricultural products seem to be inevitable, as will be food shortages. As for fish, everyone knows we are overfishing, and how can we continue to consume as much seafood as we are currently eating? With two-thirds of the demand for non-energy minerals coming from developing countries, the issue of so-called resource nationalism comes into play, including the concern of certain foreigners with rare earths.
The problems with oil are well known. The demand for electricity is growing very rapidly, and problems with nuclear power mean new problems with electricity. The effectiveness of fossil fuels ensures that their prices will go up. Oil prices have risen more than coal and natural gas. And there is civil unrest again in many oil and gas-rich, high-yield countries, such as Libya. This is a problem of resource constraints.
In addition, we also see the rise of ethno-separatism and religious revival. Whatever we may think about Huntington’s idea of the clash of civilizations, it has been proven true at least to some extent. The ethno-religious problem is serious, and will become all the more so over the next 10-15 years, with many countries splitting apart for reasons linked to religion or ethnicity. The Muslim population is increasing rapidly. Christians were originally mostly Caucasians, but now non-whites are gradually becoming the majority. Extremist forces in other religions, such as Sikhism and Hinduism, are also growing.
It's interesting to note that in the developed world, only in the United States is the majority of the population religious. In Europe, many are non-believers, but believers are increasing in the developing world, including in China, yet another irreversible trend. It is hard to predict which "fragile" countries will split up and when, but new countries will emerge, and there will be many international conflicts in this area.
My sense is that the West's willingness and commitment to keep intervening in ethno-religious conflicts and national divisions in the developing world will weaken because the declining military expenditures, accelerated aging, and internal social contradictions in the developed countries will make it difficult for them to muster the strength to intervene everywhere, as they did in Libya. They will not intervene in Syria, for example, if something happens there. I'm afraid the United States will be more cautious about intervening in foreign affairs in the future. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that the international community not intervene in the internal turmoil of certain countries? Is someone taking care of problems better than no one taking care of problems? All in all, turmoil in some countries is inevitable.
Another inevitable trend is that globalization will continue to deepen the global economic imbalances it has itself produced. Globalization will also lead to the development of information and Internet technologies, etc., but the shift in the focus of global economic growth to emerging economies is irreversible, as is the shift of manufacturing, capital, technology, and jobs from developed to developing countries.
At the same time, the globalization of the service sector is also developing, with the West still leading this sector, and manufacturing becomes ever more important in developing countries. This stimulates developed countries to invest in education, health care, etc., which in turn attracts investment from developing countries, as well as immigrants. The growth in the strength of emerging economies is mainly in terms of economic output, market size, foreign trade, manufacturing, natural resource development, etc., but in terms of software, technological innovation, institutional innovation, high-end human resources, commercial brands, and financial products and credit, the developed countries are still far ahead.
Among developing countries, the so-called emerging powers may be moving forward, but there are many countries that are lagging far behind and that are unlikely to improve in the future. For example, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Chad, and Sudan will not be able to move up in a short period of time. The gap between rich and poor will continue to widen globally and within individual countries, with cheap goods in Europe and the United States being produced in sweatshops. It is a big question mark whether there will be new technological breakthroughs and new areas of economic growth that can maintain the relatively high speed of world economic development.
What I have just described are global trends that I think we can be almost certain will not be reversed, and what follows are some trends that I find less certain.
Uncertain Global Trends
The issue of climate change is very controversial, with some question whether it is the result of human activities, but in my view what is clear here is that global greenhouse gas emissions are increasing and extreme climate events are occurring more frequently; it’s just that people have different understandings of what is happening. Developing countries, on the other hand, are vulnerable to climate change and are more affected by it than are developed countries.
What are the new areas of economic growth? A viewpoint articulated in the books I've read is that the world has been driven by a new invention for a certain amount of time ever since 1200, and we’re now at the ninth great invention. The last big one was electrification in the early 20th century, and before that, mechanization and steam engines in the 19th century. Now it is electronics, the information age, the Internet, etc., which has another 10-15 years to go before it plays itself out. But cell phones are already quite advanced, and no matter how “super” the “super Internet” is, it will still be the Internet, so one wonders what areas of new economic growth will push the developed countries forward? It could be something like low-carbon technology, clean energy, etc., but the development of technology is hard to predict. Another possibility might be innovations in biotechnology focused on aging, for example; some people would surely be willing to pay a million yuan for a drug that would allow to live another ten years. As long as there is a breakthrough on this front, economic growth will follow. But whether there will be such a breakthrough is hard to say.
I’m not going to talk about international or military issues. As for the democratization of the world, it is almost irreversible. If we sum up everything I’ve just mentioned—on the one hand, the increase in the number of educated people, and on the other, the increase in world inequality, population movements, awareness of individual rights, etc.,—there is no doubt that the quest for democracy and freedom will be universally recognized in the world.
The quest for fairness is also universal, and the rise of small groups and individuals as a force for political participation has led to the almost inevitable decentralization of state power. A variety of identities, such as ethnic, cultural, and religious identities, as well as identities growing out of ecological and public health concerns, are also on the rise. There is talk of a global rise in nationalism, but the term nationalism can readily lead to confusion. I find it worrisome that cultural and ethnic identities surpass national identities. Nationalism in China often does not refer to the consciousness of being Chinese; it is actually a cultural identity, the consciousness of the Han Chinese. At the same time, if Tibetan consciousness, or Uighur consciousness, rises faster than their consciousness as Chinese, there is a danger of the country splitting apart.
So let me wind this up. Why am I not focused on great power relations at the moment? I think the relationship between the major powers is generally stable under present global trends, and the possibility of a war is very small, be it the possibility of a war between the U.S. and China over the next decade, or a dispute between China and Japan, between China and Vietnam, or China and the Philippines, it seems to me that the possibility of any of this is slight. We have built aircraft carriers, and the Americans argue a lot. But if there is a military conflict between the two sides, they will seek a solution quickly and will not rush into a large-scale war.
The political situation in China’s neighboring countries is a real concern, as turmoil in North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Myanmar, etc., seems inevitable in the next few years. Will North Korea be stable in the next decade? If not, what international interventions or conflicts may arise? In general, our conflicts with neighboring countries may increase.
In conclusion, I would like to say that processes such as the unstoppable movement of population throughout the world, urbanization, the increasing gap between rich and poor, and ethnic and religious conflicts will lead to frequent urban riots and violence and even civil wars in some countries, and not even the developed countries are immune. Can the United States avoid something like the London riots? I saw the 1992 Los Angeles riots with my own eyes. After this incident in London, the UK said it would learn from the experience of Los Angeles, but can the US guarantee that there will be no riots? It's hard to say. If an event like the 2005 hurricane happens again when the economy is depressed and unemployment high, it is not impossible that the United States will experience a certain turmoil.
There are also shortages of energy, water, and other natural resources, food security, and other related issues. Financial security is also a matter of cross-border interactions. The movement of financial products is much, much faster than trade and much faster than GDP growth, and the destabilizing factors associated with this issue are many and large.
International Opportunities and Challenges We Face
Looking ahead to China's future international environment, will things ever be as good as they have been in the last decade or two? Since September 11 and the end of the Cold War? This was a great period in that we basically didn't have any major problems in our foreign relations. If the good times continue, everyone is of course happy, but if the future is not clear, where might the most serious external challenges be coming from?
The mainstream view in Chinese academia is that the decline of the West, the decline of the United States, together with the rise of developing countries, means good times for us. But will China's main challenges in the future come from political and military pressure from developed countries? My own humble observation is that if the future is not rosy, it may not be primarily because of Western pressure on us, but because kinds of turmoil that become contagious. We are not ideologically, materially, or institutionally prepared for such things. Domestic governance issues, in fact, involve global governance issues, and are all interconnected. Be careful about celebrating the bad things that happen to other people, because the same things may well happen to you. Of course, Western countries take pleasure when bad things happen to us. Changes occurring here because of migrant workers and labor mobility are the same as what we see throughout the world, and we cannot separate the two. The domestic and international situations are linked, and we find many similarities in China and abroad.
There is much to be done to promote the study of international issues at home. How do we teach our students? What will they have learned at the end of the day? Most of the students will become diplomats and experts on international issues. Sometimes I find it hard to be a professor and I don't know what to tell my students. We still know very little about foreign countries, even the United States, Europe, let alone Africa, so we only study some simple version of great power relations, and we know very little about current affairs. Our discipline desperately needs interaction with other disciplines. When others look at our research on international issues, they may they may not find much of a “discipline.” When we look at other disciplines, we don't think very highly of them either. So there needs to be communication and exchange between disciplines.
Society's interest in international issues has a lot to do with the kind of knowledge we produce. If we don't produce respectable results, then society as a whole will only pay attention to the news of the day, such as Biden's visit to China or U.S. arms sale to Taiwan. We should turn our attention more to international trends and practical issues that are closely related to the future development of Chinese society, instead of following the news media and making useless grand statements.
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