Author: Shin-wha Lee, University of Korea
The international community has faced an unprecedented social and economic shock from three ‘big bangs’: increasing strategic competition between the US and China, the fourth industrial revolution and the COVID-19 crisis. These three big bangs are interlinked and pose important challenges and implications for global trade, regional stability and the future of the liberal international order.
First, the trade dispute and strategic competition between the US and China, which began in earnest in 2018, stemmed both from a sense of crisis in the United States over China’s unfair trade and industrial espionage and rapid economic growth, advanced technological development and strengthening of military power achieved by them.
Faced with an increasingly fragile global supply chain due to COVID-19, countries rushed to reorganize their supply chains to bolster security. As the link between technology and security became more important, the US enacted a ‘Special Act on Semiconductors’ and accelerated the ‘internalization’ of the semiconductor industry. The reorganization of China-centric global value chains is restructuring the global economy and trade. The United States and other developed countries are stopping offshoring to China to cut costs and instead reshore, nearshoring or alliance. The trend to shift value chains away from China is based on the view that leadership in advanced technology is the only means of maintaining strategic hegemony.
Second, the pandemic confirmed that the post-war world order is unraveling. While the global organizations and standards that have guided international affairs and the economic order for the past 75 years still exist, their practical role and binding force are diminishing. New organizations and standards are unlikely to emerge to fill the gap, and the great powers show no sign of global leadership. Instead of working together to fight the pandemic, the United States and China exacerbated mutual mistrust and antagonism. The relative decline of the United States and growing international distrust of the Chinese leadership has led to a ‘G-Zero’ era, in which the existing global governance centered on the superpowers has reached its limits and there is increasing instability and uncertainty .
Third, while the United States and China both advocate multilateralism; the two nations have different strategic goals, methods and approaches for its implementation. In their strategic competition, they mobilize any multilateralism as an instrument of mutual exclusion. US President Joe Biden has criticized Donald Trump’s “America First” policy, declaring alliances and multilateral cooperation his top foreign policy priorities. But at the heart of Biden’s multilateralism, like Trump’s, is the separation and containment of China. This reflects how the United States cannot handle the rise of China alone. Beijing criticizes Washington’s multilateral approach as “closed and exclusive” and seeks to strengthen anti-Quad solidarity by strengthening traditional relations between North Korea and China-Russia. Beijing wants to form a ‘coalition of sanctioned states’ with Iran.
The accelerating confrontation between the US and China is forcing the middle powers to reevaluate their strategic positioning. On an international level, middle powers protect the interests of small and medium-sized countries and provide a third area to weather the storm of fierce competition for power. If a middle power chooses one side, it risks retaliation or exclusion from the other – the limits of the strategic base and capabilities of the middle powers are now clear.
Collaboration between democratic middle powers is important because they share norms, values and the rule of law to establish economic and technological norms that help counter China’s dishonest and predatory behavior. In relations with China, however, there are “temperature differences” between many allies of the United States’ middle power. What if they are ‘like-minded’, but not quite ‘in the same situation’, when considering their respective national interests and priorities?
For example, Australia cites its close relationship with the United States and Europe as an important reason to strive for greater solidarity with the United States. That middle power seems determined to defend its values and abandon China despite strong trade retaliation. How then should we explain Germany and France, equally traditional democratic allies of the United States, and their ambivalence towards the two superpowers? They are closely linked to China through trade and technology and also seem hesitant to fully invest themselves in technology coalitions such as the US-led Democratic Alliance and Clean Network. South Korea is in an even more difficult position to make the binary choice between the United States and China. Unlike Australia – which is rich in natural resources and has the advantage of geopolitical distance – South Korea faces a strategic dilemma that risks being abandoned by both if it joins the United States for security. and China for the economy.
There are doubts that South Korea’s diplomatic and strategic concerns about China’s growing influence can simply be allayed by joining democratic alliances. Yet, despite China’s growing strength, cooperation with like-minded countries increases the likelihood of upholding liberal values and standards in trade and technology, ultimately serving the national interest. The United States must therefore understand the unique position of Korea and other middle powers facing the dilemma of this choice and devise measures to compensate for the damage it may inflict.
Middle powers may have often been dissatisfied with the framework of the post-war US-led liberal international order. At the same time, their participation in this order enabled them to maintain security and to pursue a market economy, democracy and multilateralism. Their preference is to improve and innovate, rather than eliminating or replacing the status quo. Given the technological capabilities of the United States, many countries are likely to remain dependent on American semiconductors, software and other advanced technologies for some time to come.
The international community doubts the sincerity of China’s multilateral initiatives. Beijing’s predatory behavior in the South and East China seas, trade retaliation against South Korea and Australia, and human rights issues in Hong Kong and Xinjiang are some of the reasons for this skepticism.
Middle powers can play a leading role in solving problems important to the international community, such as vaccine research, climate change and maintaining open trade. They may also have some chance of influencing the great powers through numerical superiority and a unified vote.
A coalition of middle powers may not exert enough influence to challenge the dynamics of major power politics. But if a coalition of middle powers can fill the gaps in the multilateral system and serve as a bridge connecting the economic or security interests of the US and China, both powers will recognize its usefulness and give it prestige. The future of the liberal international order no longer depends solely on the ability and willingness of the United States to continue to provide global public goods, but also on the ability of the middle powers to maintain and develop the order. to ensure.
Shin-wha Lee is Professor of Political Science and International Relations, Korea University and Chairman of the Academic Council of Korea on the UN System (KACUNS).