Multipolar world on the horizon

Updated: 2012-05-04 08:47

By Andrew Moody (China Daily)

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 Multipolar world on the horizon

Shi Yinhong believes China needs to become more of a global citizen, but the country still has problems of its own. Feng Yongbin / China Daily

Multipolar world on the horizon

Foreign policy expert believes that as US power wanes, several nations will pick up the baton

Shi Yinhong, one of China's foremost foreign policy experts, believes we could be moving into an era where the world is dominated by three or four powers and not just the United States. The 60-year-old professor of international relations and director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University of China, is convinced the writing is on the wall for American hegemony.

"I think if the US continues to borrow so much money and at the same time interfere so widely in this world, it will meet with a typical empire's fate and reach a tipping point. Everything has its end."

The foreign policy guru, who is also a counselor of China's State Council, is the author of 12 books, including the most recent Global Challenges and China, published two years ago. He is also a popular and charismatic lecturer much in demand across Europe and the US, making more than 20 overseas trips in the past year.

Unlike some commentators, he does not believe it will be just China that inherits the US' global dominance but several nations with Washington still being part of the mix. "What we are seeing is a symbol of declining American power, not necessarily of power switching to China. China has its own problems.

"The new era might not just be one power but two, three or four."

He says Europe looking to rising powers like China and not the US to solve its current debt crisis could prove to be a historic turning point.

"I think in 50 years' time, historians will find this a symbolic turning point of American decline. For the past 100 years - since 1914 - whenever Europeans have been in great financial trouble, they have turned to the US but now America seems irrelevant."

Shi is the product of a middle class background whose father was a chief engineer of a locomotive plant, employing 10,000 people, and mother, a deputy dean of a middle school. Like many of his generation, he was sent to work as a peasant in the countryside during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). He did manual agricultural work and then worked on a production line making tools in a commune enterprise.

"It was very tough. You found a world that was so different from the textbook world. You learn a lot about life working with normal citizens of China and Chinese peasants."

His personal experience has left him with mixed feelings about Chairman Mao Zedong, the architect of the revolution, who he believes gets to a fundamental truth in his works, particularly On Practice, published in 1937. "I think that Mao is our greatest Chinese philosopher of modern times. He said what was important was not theory but your practice, what you were doing in a particular time and place in China. That is true knowledge.

"Mao is still my hero, although a complex hero. When you look at Mao, we feel he possessed something that we should all have but we do not."

All this may appear abstract to current foreign policy debates but Shi believes it is central. He says US foreign policy is based on a principle of universalism, that what is best for America and the West is best for everyone. "The French empire of the 19th century, the British and the Americans have this idea that what is best for them is best for others. Mao was opposed to this kind of universalism.

"Even in China before Mao, the mainstream philosophy was universalism - Confucian universalism. But how would this Confucian thought apply to people of different cultures in Egypt or Argentina now? It would be nonsense."

After his period in the countryside, Shi went to study at Nanjing University where he eventually earned his PhD. He then began a career as lecturer, progressing from Nanjing University to Beijing, where he now holds his prominent post at Renmin University. Along the way, he has been a visiting fellow at Harvard University, a visiting fellow at the Federal Institute for Eastern European and International Studies in Cologne and also a Fulbright research visiting scholar at the University of North Carolina.

Shi says China now needs to compete more effectively in its diplomatic efforts in East Asia with the US, which the Barack Obama administration has made a priority.

"We must re-examine and review our diplomatic performance in the past two or three years. We have not done our best," he says.

He believes China needs to take advantage of its natural closer ties with its near neighbors. "If you look at the geographic situation, they are our immediate neighbors, not those of the US. If we go to Hanoi, if we go to Tokyo, it costs much less for us than the Americans to buy an air ticket. Culturally, I think we are at an advantage because we understand our neighbors more than the US."

Shi is concerned about some of the anti-China rhetoric coming out of the US, particularly during the current presidential election. He believes this is based on the US' increasing insecurity due to its weak economic position following the financial crisis.

"The bad economic and financial situation in the US has created this bad-tempered approach toward China. This is not our fault. It is actually their fault that they have a distorted view about us.

"We have a situation where China and the US actually spoil each other. We lend too much money and the American government and people use this money to have an unhealthy mode of life. This is not a direct conscious choice. These are structural facts."

Shi says that when China emerges as a stronger economic and political power, it will not mark a return to the Cold War since modern China is a very different animal to the former Soviet Union. "I think there is a huge difference. The Soviets were much more aggressive while China is much more moderate. Sometimes China is so soft, it often takes for the Chinese people to complain their government is too soft."

He says China still favors a non-interventionist foreign policy unlike the US and its allies, although it is perhaps adapting a more pragmatic stance. "I think you can say China prefers a non-interventionist rather than interventionist principle. I think the position has slightly changed since China took a strong stance against intervening in Kosovo in 1999. This was evidenced in Libya recently when China did not use its veto."

Shi recognizes the need for China to become more of a global citizen but the world itself has to realize China has problems of its own.

"China is the No 1 emissions country in the world. This is an undisputed fact. The kind of international responsibility China should bear for this, should not be dictated from the outside, however. It needs to be decided by China itself after consultation with the international community.

"Every government has to take care of its own people first before taking care of those outside, but China is increasingly aware of its international responsibilities."

(China Daily 05/04/2012 page24)