Illustration: Craig Stephens
Dominique de Villepin
Dominique de Villepin

China must become a central player to stabilise crumbling world order

  • China is the embodiment of an alternative to the liberal-democratic, free-market model championed by the West
  • As such, it must help shape a new order through trust and cooperation and by remaining open to dialogue, particularly with the US and Europe, to end the spiral of war and crises

To say that the world is changing quickly is both a cliché and an understatement. More often, however, the focus of global change is on the progress it brings – how new technologies and ideas enable an increase in growth, efficiency, understanding and standards of living. But, too often, the darker side of change – namely, the increase in global disorder as new challenges come into play – is ignored or downplayed.

Turmoil, both international and domestic, is nothing new and major crises have been occurring with greater regularity since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. September 11, the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the 2008 global financial crisis, Arab spring, war in Syria, Sahel, Crimea and Ukraine – the acceleration of global disorder is plain to see.

The growing speed and severity of these crises is, in large part, due to the decades-long weakening of the pillars that support international order. Every time a new crisis emerges, the international community despairs, increasingly unable and/or unwilling to cooperate for a solution. The result is that more crises are unresolved, further weakening the reputation of organisations such as the United Nations, World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Today, the internationally agreed rule of law and informal “common rules” of global politics have never looked so shaky. Never has the established order been so heavily contested, criticised and distrusted.

Like nature, geopolitics abhors a vacuum. When the established order is challenged, competing models will emerge. China, with its historic rise to power and prosperity, is the embodiment of an alternative to the liberal-democratic, free-market model championed by the West. Its rise shows the efficacy of a model characterised by strong economic development through a construction/infrastructure-oriented approach, backed by a powerful central government.

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This competition of ideologies – liberal democracies vs authoritarian governments, the West vs the rest, etc – is bound up in so many of today’s crises. The Ukraine conflict aptly demonstrates this. Many geopolitical experts blame the lack of global leadership (principally the increasing isolationism of the US) for prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin to try his luck in Ukraine, throwing two competing ideologies into the deadliest of contests.
This growing conflict, this increasingly polarising competition between ideologies, goes against the idea of liberal globalisation and its ability to create true economic interdependencies, and a single, harmonious world.
If this idea fails, as it appears to be doing, a new world order must come to fruition or global disorder will continue to grow. This disorder is manifest in the increasing number of failed states (Syria, Somalia and Yemen, for example), the resurgence of international terrorism groups, and the increase of nuclear proliferation as individual nations lose faith in the UN’s ability to protect them.

Again, the war in Ukraine highlights this last risk. Ukraine renounced its nuclear capability in 1994 in exchange for security guarantees from Russia, the US and Britain. Today, they face war and destruction. This has prompted the terrible idea to all countries that perhaps they are safer with nuclear weapons than without.


‘A nuclear war cannot be won': UN talks non-proliferation as North Korean test looms

‘A nuclear war cannot be won': UN talks non-proliferation as North Korean test looms

If the old international order is falling, that means we are in a historic transition. Previous centuries have witnessed similar moments, such as the opening up of the Americas and the dissolution of Europe’s old monarchies. We are witnessing the historically momentous rise of China, and its challenge to US dominance.

History teaches us that when a descending power (the US) faces an ascending power (China), the risk of war increases. As both sides entrench their ideological positions, dialogue becomes more difficult. However, this is not merely a bilateral competition – a “strategic triangle” exists between China, the US and Europe.
While China settles into its relatively new role as a global superpower, and the US reorders itself politically and economically, Europe is an increasingly important moderating influence. As China takes on more global responsibility, and potentially more of a leadership role, it must remain open to dialogue, particularly within this strategic triangle.
If the global community is to reverse the spiral of crises and frozen conflicts turning hot, then the international rule of law must be strengthened reputationally and enforced fairly. Of course, the rule of law is not a neutral entity and is open to interpretation. This highlights the crucial need for dialogue, trust and understanding.

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To stabilise the world order, China must become a central player in forging common rules and norms with its friends and competitors around the world. This is the first step. From it, peace becomes more attainable and sustainable. From peace, global economic growth can flourish.

Growth is essential to giving people hope and the perspective of progress in the form of jobs, good living standards, secure property and the like. Growth is essential to giving populations the means to face emerging challenges. This kind of growth on a global scale is impossible without trust and cooperation. Hence, the world’s challenges, and the most viable solutions, are becoming increasingly interconnected.

This represents a heavy responsibility for China. However, despite a policy of keeping various crises at arms’ length, China cannot avoid taking part in matters of global import. From the raging climate crisis to the overheating of the global economy, China’s chosen direction matters greatly. Where it goes, others are increasingly inclined to follow.

China has the capacity for leadership in envisioning radical, world-changing economic ideas based on cooperation and mutual benefits. If this capacity is realised, it may prove decisive in prompting more of a global focus on tackling issues such as wealth inequality and securing sustainable economic growth.

Dominique de Villepin is former prime minister of France and a current distinguished professor at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS).