There can be no doubt that the world system which determines the relations of nations to one another has dramatically changed over the last 30 years. The United States of America, the superpower that completely dominated the world stage following the collapse of Soviet socialism, is manifestly retreating from its role as a global leader that sets the agenda for nearly everything that matters in the world.
China, which began its phenomenal economic rise in the 1980s, achieving in a span of only three decades what has taken nearly a century for Western Europe to accomplish, is now being cast in the role of a dynamic leader poised to occupy the space vacated by America. This narrative is nowhere more palpably felt than in Asia.
This shift reinforces a view of world events as nothing more than a global circulation of elites. Sometime ago, it was Europe that set the pace, then it was America’s turn. Today, China seems unchallenged in its penetration of Africa, which was once Europe’s domain, and in its incursions into Asia, which was once America’s playground. If you are a small country, therefore, prudence and pragmatism dictate that you should side with the rising power.
This simplistic view of global developments ignores the fact that China has become a world economic power, not by pursuing an independent socialist course, but by entering the circuits of global capitalism in a big way. Unlike small countries, however, China managed its entry into the capitalist world very tightly. Armed with a long view and an experimental attitude, it copied various models that had been tried in other countries, always determining for itself what worked and what didn’t. The costs in human terms are probably unimaginable to people like us who have tried vainly to accomplish often conflicting objectives at the same time.
Whatever one might say about the resilience of its economic model, China’s success today cannot be sustained outside of the global market economy in which it flourished. Despite its huge domestic market, China simply cannot withdraw unto itself if it wishes to maintain a decent growth rate. It has to continue drawing strength from its integration into the world capitalist economy, even as it tries to keep a certain degree of autonomy in its dealings with the key players of the global capitalist system.
This strategy may be gleaned from its efforts to strengthen existing trade relations with the United States, offering to correct the massive trade imbalance that has long favored China and accepting sanctions against Chinese corporations that have tended to ignore intellectual property rights. China has repeatedly warned Donald Trump, who won the US presidency on a platform of economic nationalism, against the disastrous consequences of an isolationist policy. No one would have foreseen that China would one day find itself coaxing the United States not to diminish its presence in the world economic stage because that would be bad for the world as a whole.
The difference between then and now is that while Trump is withdrawing from economic alliances that were painstakingly forged by his predecessors, Chinese President Xi Jinping is busy creating new economic partnerships and global initiatives that involve as many countries as possible. China’s confidence that it holds the key to sustained global cooperation and prosperity is infectious. It desensitizes its partners to the military threat it poses in crucial places like the South China Sea.
But, worse, China’s rise is read by regimes like that of President Duterte as a signal to change masters. To those with the mentality of vassals, an independent foreign policy — one that autonomously positions a nation’s interests in the shifting tides of a complex global order—is nothing more than a pipe dream. For them, the only practicable strategy for small nations to follow is to pivot at the right time from one dependent relationship to another.
This is the only way one could make sense of Mr. Duterte’s off-the-cuff remarks last Tuesday, May 15, while he was aboard BRP Davao del Sur off the coast of Casiguran in Aurora province, to mark one year of the renaming of Benham Rise to Philippine Rise. He was struggling to explain what he understood as the imperative of an independent foreign policy in the face of what he sees as a “deteriorating” United States “that cannot stand hardship.”
He then proceeded to recount what China’s Xi had supposedly told him in one of their meetings: “We will not allow you to be taken out from your office, and we will not allow the Philippines to go to the dogs.” This incredible statement that Mr. Duterte attributes to Xi is so contrary to China’s avowed policy of peaceful coexistence and noninterference in the affairs of other countries that it is doubtful the Chinese leader would publicly affirm saying this. Be that as it may, it is utterly naive, if not treasonous, for Mr. Duterte to take it seriously. Only vassals revel in such assurances.
Does the President need to be reminded that the Philippines is not a tributary of China, and that the affairs of the Filipino nation are for Filipinos alone to decide? That no leader of a free people in his right mind would ever intimate, let alone boast, that the head of another country had promised to protect him? And that a genuinely independent foreign policy must be founded on the conviction that even as we seek only peace with other nations, we are not afraid to defend our rights and to decide our destiny as a free people no matter what it takes to do that?