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On December 2, 2020 Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) hosted an online round table titled “Future of the International System: Chinese and Russian Visions.” The event aimed to assess the current international environment for Russia and China, highlight their systemic roles and try to extrapolate the existing trends into the future.

Andrey Kortunov, RIAC Director General, and Zhao Huasheng, Professor at the Institute of International Studies of Fudan University, delivered opening remarks. Dr Kortunov asked the participants three overarching questions: How can the current trends be described? If Russian and Chinese scholars agree on the set of trends, how long and sustainable do they seem to be? Where is the world heading overall and what models and concepts are best suited to analyze it?

The round table collected distinguished experts in the field.

On December 2, 2020 Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) hosted an online round table titled “Future of the International System: Chinese and Russian Visions.” The event aimed to assess the current international environment for Russia and China, highlight their systemic roles and try to extrapolate the existing trends into the future.

Andrey Kortunov, RIAC Director General, and Zhao Huasheng, Professor at the Institute of International Studies of Fudan University, delivered opening remarks. Dr Kortunov asked the participants three overarching questions: How can the current trends be described? If Russian and Chinese scholars agree on the set of trends, how long and sustainable do they seem to be? Where is the world heading overall and what models and concepts are best suited to analyze it?

The round table collected distinguished experts in the field.

Ivan Timofeev, RIAC Program Director; Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and Editor-in-Chief of the Russia in Global Affairs, RIAC Member; Sergey Utkin, Head of the Group for Strategic Assessment and Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Situational Analysis of the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations of RAS; Alexander Lomanov, Director of the Center for Asia-Pacific Studies and Deputy Director for Scientific Work at the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations of RAS; and Alexey Maslov, Acting Director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of RAS, RIAC Member, were among Russian discussants.

The Chinese views on the present and future of the world order were expressed by Ren Xiao, Professor and Director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Foreign Policy; Zhang Guihong, Professor and Director of the Center for the United Nations and International Organizations; Ma Bin, Assistant Professor at the Center for Russia and Central Asia Studies; and Zhao Minghao, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Studies (all – Institute for International Studies, Fudan University).

The experts touched upon such issues as the growing tensions between China and the United States, similarities and differences of Moscow’s and Beijing’s international agendas, recent economic initiatives of the great powers (BRI, EAEU) and stressed the importance of Russia–China cooperation while addressing global transformation of power.

Ksenia Kuzmina, RIAC Program Manager, moderated the discussion.

Summary of the discussion

World order: structural trends

  • Some experts see the so-called new bipolarity as the axis of the future international system whereas others argue that regionalization is the key process, with the now forming regions being likely to further consolidate. Another viewpoint supports neither bipolarity nor regionalism, suggesting that the world is going to experience the most archaic and unruly form of order amidst re-nationalization of global politics.

  • An idea was expressed that in the current circumstances there are all reasons to doubt the relevance of the very notion of polarity. Poles are believed to attract minor actors and be able and willing to project their own agendas, automatically serving as centers of gravitation. Now all countries are preoccupied with how to stop and decrease such gravitation and minimize incoming risks, being thus instinctively repulsive to polarity.

  • According to some assessments, the world is entering the “post-hegemony” period, “G-0 world” as Richard Haass puts it. The term “multicenter” could better describe this structure than “multipolar”. It’s also inaccurate to use the word “deglobalization”, because new multilateral treaties and formats keep appearing, so “new globalization” is a better term.

  • Theoretical debates per se do not uncover the essence of what is going on in the world. Regardless of how the scholars call it, the U.S. – China rivalry, initiated by Washington, is a fact of today. Another fact is that Cold war-style alliances have become harder to establish. There still exists the Western system of alliances, but they so far cannot be characterized as substantially anti-Chinese. There are signs of Europe’s moving closer to the U.S., despite that the EU leadership claims to pursue an independent path in relations with Beijing.

  • Even if there ever briefly was a unipolar order, today the distribution of power is changing and the U.S. is at best the first among equals. At the same time, it is early to speak about a fully multipolar world too.

  • Notwithstanding the Trump’s “America first” agenda, American global leadership has declined. There are more and more emerging powers, middle powers also play increasingly important roles in regional and global issues. For instance, from the political point of view, in addition to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany, Japan and India are gaining more clout. In the military field, the United States and Russia remain superpowers. In the economic field, China and the U.S. are the largest players, with the EU and Japan also playing an important role.

  • For China the main challenge is how to position itself in a new world and deal with uncertainties, balancing the U.S.’s economic influence, political and military engagement. It is not willing to be a superpower, rather to promote a multipolar model.

  • China will hardly keep calling itself a developing country after 2025. That might change Beijing’s overall posture in the international affairs. China’s growth cannot be boiled down to the economic realm. To understand the emerging world order, paying attention to its cultural and military background may also be of help.

  • In the future there may not be a single world structure, but many sub-structures on various levels and in different spheres. Some experts called such a structure “interconnected fragmentation”.

  • The challenge to adapt to the irreversible changes that we are seeing today will be the main priority for all responsible actors, regardless of the size, and this adaptation should start with domestic situation. Great powers used to attempt to shape the system, make it more governable and bring it in line with their ideas, now more effort should be put into shaping environment at home. This is why their foreign policies are likely to be dictated by inner reasons.

  • The prospects for the liberal world order are seen as gloomy, not least because of an illiberal populism wave within the West.

  • An idea was put forth that mid-term and long-term global development trends depend on two factors: coalitions and capabilities.

The U.S.–China and U.S.–Russia relations

  • Although Trump’s and Biden’s governing styles and policy details might differ, they both are rather symptoms of systemic changes in the U.S, not causes of them. So, notwithstanding the fact that president-elect Biden is more professional and less emotional than his predecessor, the overall course of the U.S.–China relations will hardly change. Some experts suggest that American containment strategy towards Russia and China will be more moderate as Biden is a multilateralist, and Trump was a unilateralist, but there won’t be any constructive dialogue with the two rising powers.

  • By 2035, the U.S.–China relations will become more challenging. There is a consensus inside the U.S on China, especially given that the latter will soon surpass the former. The core question for China is the possibility of compatible coexistence with the US.

  • The next U.S. President will try to consolidate the West, bringing Europe and Canada closer together along with other pro-Western countries and reestablishing the club of democracies. Biden wants to restore transatlantic ties as a tool to exert collective pressure on rivals. In case he succeeds, deterioration of the world situation as a whole is inevitable.

  • Geopolitically, the US is pushing forward the Quad-plus mechanism and is fully engaged in the competition of narratives with China. Biden’s term will be critical to determine how this trend may develop further. It is unlikely that his approach will be milder than Trump’s. Some experts expect a Cold-war-style confrontation as Biden is building coalition of democracies to counterbalance China. The U.S.–China dynamics are very complex and increasingly confrontational.

Russia–China partnership

  • Russia and China are both seen by the West as revisionist powers. There is no military alliance between them. Moreover, potential of the bilateral relations is not fully realized (in the spheres of human capital, economy, military cooperation). Even if Biden would take a milder approach towards China, Moscow–Beijing partnership will remain long-lasting as it is based on long-term interests. However, some experts believe that Russia and the U.S. may have reasons to cooperate in the future in order to contain China because of China’s growth.

  • There may be divergences between Russia and China, e.g. in Central Asia, because of the power distribution among them.

  • If the newly consolidated West speaks with one voice, will other countries be able to consolidate an alternative voice? Moscow and Beijing’s task is to prove that it is possible. What their common voice will be actually saying needs to be discussed more often through various non-Western platforms. Russia and China both play important roles in structuring modern elites, but in different ways. While China seems to have a very clear understanding of the desired construction of international institutions, Russia has not articulated its vision yet.

  • Russia and China should work together to bring India closer as well as to build stronger ties in Africa to promote a common vision of the international order.

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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
 
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