Facing the Global South: Building a New International System by Yang Ping

“If you raise [the development of the BRI] to the strategic level, there are countries where … you will have to lose money and there are countries where you will be free to make money.”

by Thomas des Garets Geddes, Sinification

Dear Everyone,

How to respond to the growing political divide between China and the West marked by partial decoupling, security alliances, and the risk of sanctions, amongst other things, continues to be a major topic of discussion among China’s intellectual elite. As already evidenced in previous editions of this newsletter, opinions vary considerably. Those presented here so far have ranged from Da Wei (达巍) stressing the importance of preserving if not strengthening ties with the West and Shen Wei (沈伟) arguing in favor of reforming the WTO and building up a network of free trade agreements to Ye Hailin (叶海林) emphasizing the need for China to demonstrate its military might to demobilize U.S. allies and Lu Feng (路风) calling for self-reliance and greater assertiveness in the field of tech. A certain amount of overlap certainly exists among these perspectives but the differences are nonetheless striking.

Today’s edition of Sinification looks at a speech made last month by Yang Ping (杨平), head and editor-in-chief of the highly regarded Beijing Cultural Review (文化纵横, hereafter BCR). Yang is also director of the Longway Foundation (修远基金会) which publishes BCR. The foundation describes its publication as “the most influential magazine of intellectual thought and commentary in China” and sees itself as having a key role in helping shape the direction of intellectual debates in China (“议题的设置就是意识形态斗争成功的一半”). Indeed, BCR often republishes old articles at key junctures as so often highlighted by David Ownby’s wonderful Reading the China Dream.

The following are excerpts from an edited transcript of a speech by Yang made at an event hosted by Renmin University’s Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, which was attended by China’s Vice-minister of foreign affairs Xie Feng (谢锋). In his speech, Yang advocates building a new international system led by countries in the Global South (which, of course, includes China) rather than the West. His ideas are not particularly novel but are nevertheless noteworthy in that they represent yet another viewpoint in the ongoing debate over how China should respond to the increasing tensions that characterize its relations with the U.S. and other Western countries. Next week, I will be sharing a somewhat longer piece that proposes a way of protecting China from the growing threat of Western sanctions.

Yang’s speech in a nutshell:

  • Capitalist politics” are no longer in line with “capitalist economics.” The former now undermines globalization, while the latter supports it.
  • Sanctions, export controls, friend-shoring and alliance-building are damaging the world economy and further alienating China from the current U.S.-led international order.
  • China must respond to this growing trend by building a “new type of international system” with other countries in the Global South.
  • BRI projects should be increasingly focused on achieving this goal and thus allow more room for loss-making endeavors.

Capitalist politics ≠ Capitalist economics

“Since 2022 and the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, our main focus and topic of discussion has been China’s construction of a new type of international system.

“The most important feature of today’s world is the beginning of a separation between capitalist politics and capitalist economics. The capitalist political order and the capitalist economic order do not support each other [any longer].

“We have witnessed two typical manifestations of the separation of politics and the economy and the impact of politics on the economy:

  1. The first is the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and the West have reached unthinkable, abominable [令人发指] and unimaginable proportions. Under established international rules, it was understood that such sanctions could not possibly occur, but now they have. These include the fracturing of the financial system, the expropriation and seizure of Russian private assets and the freezing of Russian foreign exchange reserves. These are all abominable and unimaginable forms of confrontation. At the same time, the Russo-Ukrainian conflict has led to serious disruptions in global food and energy systems and supply chains, with massive food ‘shortages’ and soaring food prices, particularly in developing countries. Sanctions and political repression [政治打压] have severely disrupted the [world’s] economic order.
  2. The second is the conflict between the U.S. and China. Since the Trump era, the U.S. has been engaged in a trade war against China, mainly by raising tariffs. Basically, this was simply about balancing trade [with China] and used mainly economic means. But under Biden, it [has become] a war that mixes politics with economics. Biden’s strategy towards China can basically be summed up in just a few words: one, friend-shoring, [i.e.] only allowing friendly countries into [parts of] its supply chains; two, alliance politics, [i.e.] continuously forging an alliance system involving NATO, the European Union, Japan, AUKUS and the four Asia-Pacific countries [I assume he is referring to South Korea, Japan, New Zealand and Australia taking part for the first time in a NATO summit last year] and constantly opposing China [不断应对中国]; three, its so-called ‘precision strikes’, [i.e.] its radical crackdown on China’s high tech [industry], especially our chip industry.”

China is being pushed out of the U.S.-led international system

“The information I have seen so far is that the number of Chinese companies included in the U.S.’s ‘entity list’ has risen from 132 under Trump to over 530 now. The scope of such point-to-point [点对点] precision strikes is constantly expanding. With such a political impact on the economy, we can feel the [world’s] economic order being disrupted across the board. The world is moving inexorably in the direction of decoupling. The phenomenon of politics affecting the economy and the capitalist political order no longer upholding the capitalist economic order are extremely striking.

“In such a context, the challenges now facing China are extremely serious and varied. We have the pressures of dealing both with containment in the Indo-Pacific and with the U.S.-led politics of alliances across the world. More importantly and fundamentally China faces the strategic task of building a new type of international system [新型国际体系] … The existing Western-dominated international system used to be one in which we tried hard to blend [so as] to become one with it. During this process, we [sought to] absorb the West’s advanced technologies and management [practices] and thus complete our mission of industrialisation and modernization.

“But once you enter the existing international system, he [who is already inside] does not want to play with you, and even wants to drive you back out. He wants to divide both supply chains and the economic system into two parts [搞成两套] and desperately wants to contain and suppress you. This is not something that can be determined by your own subjective preferences. He has made up his mind: you have already become his ‘fated opponent’ [命定的对手]. He has to suppress you and drive you out of the existing system.”

Building a new international system with the Global South

“It is at this point that China is faced with the task of constructing a new type of international system that is not dominated by the West. In today’s so-called strategic quadrangle consisting of the U.S., Europe, Russia and China, how to construct such an international system appears particularly difficult [逼庂 literally means ‘narrow’ or ‘cramped’ rather than ‘difficult’].

“But if we look a little further south, we will find a vast number of developing countries, the Third World and the countries of the global South. They should be our strategy’s depth [我们的战略纵深]. That is to say, [we should] build a new type of international relations and a new type of international system that has strategic depth and in which China and the countries of the global South are jointly integrated. [This] is, in my view, an important strategic task for China’s international relations in the coming decades.”

BRI projects: Strategy trumps profitability

“For China today, especially for businesses and governments at all levels [within China] that are currently working hard to develop BRI trade, there is a very important point to which they should be alerted or reminded about: the development of the BRI has to go beyond mere business, beyond the general export of [China’s excess] production capacity, beyond the partial thinking of industry and the partial thinking at the regional level, or the simple economic way of thinking of business. The development of the BRI should be considered at the strategic level. That is, it should be included into China’s strategy when thinking about Africa, South America, Southeast Asia and Central Asia.

“If you raise [the development of the BRI] to the strategic level, there are countries where you won’t be able to make money and will have to lose money, and there are countries where you will be free to make money. You have to unite the two within your organic strategy.

“The strategic task of building a new type of international system is, in my view, a strategic proposition that Chinese think tanks and research institutes should pay very close attention to with regards to international relations.

“Time is limited today. I just wanted to make a start here. I hope to receive your corrections and criticisms. Thank you!”

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The recessive importance of the Global South was previously explored by Richard and his partner Larry, with input from Supratik Bose, many decades ago as shown here.