Months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 that brought America into the second world war, President Franklin Roosevelt had already begun contemplating the post-war global order.
He knew that securing a lasting peace would be as challenging as winning the war. To realise his vision, the US president would have to split paths with staunch ally Winston Churchill and outfox scheming Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
Central to Roosevelt’s new world order was a reformed global council under the “trusteeship of the powerful”. Four major powers – known as the Four Policemen – would constitute this new international body and guarantors of world peace and stability.
Other than the obvious three, the American president had a surprising choice – China for the remaining seat.
Most parts of China were then occupied by the Japanese army. Domestically the country was struggling to maintain a paper-thin peace between the nationalist government and the insurgent communists. The Chinese government was corrupt and inefficient, its economy weak and disintegrating.
Roosevelt’s plan was met with ridicule and suspicion. Churchill bluntly told US Secretary of State Edward Stettinius that the inclusion of China was “nonsense”. The British prime minister said he had little confidence that the Chinese – “the pigtails” as he called them – were capable of uniting after the war or would be of any value as keepers of post-war peace. Including the country as a pillar of the new world order was “adding a pigtail to the tripod of great powers”, he said.
Churchill was suspicious of Roosevelt’s move, seeing it as an American scheme to supplant British influence in the Far East. He was particularly incensed by Roosevelt’s suggestion of returning the sovereignty of Hong Kong to China and then internationalising it as a free port.
Stalin, who wanted a weak and divided China, was equally against the idea. He remarked that “the Europeans would resent having China tell them what to do”, and said the country “would not become powerful in any event”.
Churchill and Stalin preferred to settle the post-war world in old realpolitik fashion. In 1944, Churchill proposed to Stalin the controversial “percentage agreement”, which would carve eastern Europe into spheres of influence among the victors. The same principle would be applied elsewhere.
But Roosevelt stuck to his guns. He explained to Churchill that while China was weak and of little value for now, the country would rise to become a great power “in 30 or 50 years’ time”. The future global order would be safer with China as a core member than having it as an outsider, he reasoned.
At the president’s insistence, delegations from Britain, the Soviet Union and China joined their host at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington in 1944. They drafted the proposal for the UN and its executive arm, the Security Council. France was later added as a permanent member at Britain’s suggestion.
Today, as China and the United States lock horns over the South China Sea, this history seems distant. Yet in many ways it is still relevant.
Seven decades since the second world war, we still live in a world shaped by Roosevelt’s vision. Thanks to his foresight – regardless of the motive – China was integrated into the core of the world order, decades before it acquired a strength to match that status. By providing room for China’s rise, Roosevelt left a safer world for posterity.
Had the victors chosen Churchill’s proposal, we would have set off on a more confrontational path. Instead, China emerged as a major beneficiary of the post-war order.
This has provided a good basis for China’s “peaceful rise” – which is still far from being certain.
When China marked the 70th anniversary of the end of the war last year, President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) stressed that “all countries should uphold the international order and system underpinned by the UN charter”. He then immediately followed this with “a new type of international relations must be built”.
To some ears, this may sound contradictory. But for Beijing, the two messages are consistent.
For once in modern history, a rising power is a beneficiary of the status quo rather than an envious outsider. The balance of power has shifted tremendously, and international order has to keep evolving to reflect that. But unlike Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany or Imperial Japan, China has no reason to wish for a total change of the existing structure. It seeks to reform, not to completely rewrite, the world order.
Whether China can achieve this peacefully is largely in Beijing’s hands. China’s reaction to The Hague tribunal rejecting its maritime territorial claims to the South China Sea make some wonder if it is going to cast away international rules when they become inconvenient.
Watch: What has happened so far in the South China Sea?
But this should not be the case. Beijing indeed reacted angrily to the ruling and said it would not accept it. But in the same breath, it also said it was willing to carry on negotiations with the Philippines under the international rules – including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
To China, the tribunal’s ruling is a misuse of the international justice system and forced arbitration. Beijing still sees itself as a status quo power rather than a revisionist. Convincing others will be its challenge.
This fortnightly column looks at patterns from the past to understand the present. Chow Chung-yan is executive editor of the South China Morning Post, overseeing daily print and digital operations