Is China’s behaviour a sign of global movement towards anarchy?
Wolf warrior diplomacy in a post-COVID world
The liberal world order, led by the United States, is showing signs of losing its global dominance. This is not because of ineffective leadership, but because the non-Western powers of Asia and the Pacific – namely China and India – are on the rise, and seeking to flex their muscles by challenging the existing world order.
This move towards realism and a more anarchic and multi-polar world could be sped up by the chaos associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, and China may be seeking to take advantage of this.
Consider this change in world politics from a realist perspective. Realism represents the world as greater and smaller powers operating under anarchy. The world under anarchy doesn’t necessarily mean chaos, but simply that the world’s nations aren’t subject to a supreme power that sets a widely accepted agenda.
For nation-states, a world under anarchy can mean a wider range of ways in which they can behave, but one core assumption underpins that behaviour: that they will seek to become more powerful. With that said, realist perspective might be defined slightly differently by different observers.
A pessimist might see anarchy in international relations as dangerous and potentially violent, when bigger powers, backed with advanced military capabilities and strong economies, are less restricted in using their power to demand things from less powerful neighbours.
For instance, China’s assertive behaviour in the South China Sea and North Korea’s ongoing nuclear program, both of which continue despite international pressure, illustrate the dangers of states behaving outside an agreed set of global norms.
An optimist, on the other hand, might think that while an anarchical world is an opportunity for some states to behave assertively and secure more power, a righteous power could use it to achieve common good and address global challenges. A powerful country might set a good example for others, be an ethical world leader, or make efforts to help develop less powerful members of the world community.
However, it is also possible that neither the optimists nor the pessimists are correct. In fact, the contemporary world is neither too violent nor too peaceful. Instead, it reflects the rationality and pragmatism of those nation-states that are actively involved in international affairs.
The anarchical world has resulted in a handful of powers remaining in balance, all aiming to stay afloat while fulfilling their national interests in the whirlpool of world politics, rather than behaving aggressively, or focusing on ethical global leadership.
In times when multi-polar balancing characterises global politics, the most important aspect of strategy for international players – if they hope to achieve their national interests – is successful diplomacy.
Diplomacy is by no means a new concept. Despite changes in historical circumstances and a number of rising and falling states, the nature of diplomacy has changed very little.
Negotiation between representatives of all parties with a stake in an issue remains the core of how states communicate with one another.
The role of diplomacy is only increasing in the contemporary world when the existing geopolitical architecture is challenged, but a renewed focus on diplomacy may be approaching.
The countries of Asia, particularly China – to which the centre of gravity of world political decision-making is gradually moving – shouldn’t undermine traditional diplomacy of negotiation and representation, but this is exactly what they are doing.
China, as an increasingly powerful country in Asia, challenges the traditional norms, understanding, and practice of diplomacy. China’s ‘Wolf warrior diplomacy’, a term for the bullish rhetoric it has engaged in recently, has led to speculation about the origin of COVID-19, and resultingly marred the world community, while in the throes of global crisis, with a burst of growing distrust.
United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already accused China of this, and an earlier example of China’s non-diplomatic behaviour was in 2016, when Beijing refused to participate in the arbitration of the international tribunal in the Hague that backed the Philippines in the case of the disputed waters in the South China Sea.
China’s behaviour undermines diplomacy, and deliberately or not, is contributing to a new normal. However, a disregard for diplomacy is not new, nor is it normal. It is dangerous. Given the potential costs, including the possibility of escalation to conflict, why is China behaving in a way that undermines traditional diplomacy?
If it’s because the administration in Beijing has adopted a pessimistic view of the world under anarchy, and is seeking to maximise its power, it might just lead to escalation and even another global conflict.
Leaving aside this pessimistic possibility of a dangerous scenario, the world’s leading powers, China included, must make functional, positive, and respectful diplomacy a priority in inter-state communication, at all levels.
The world is certain to change in the coming years. But, if the world’s major powers overcome obstacles in inter-state relations and build trust, even between those states who are adversaries, or who have different political systems, the resulting stability may just make the transition a little bit less painful.
As published at APPS Policy Forum of the Australian National University on 19 May 2020.