After U.S. President Barack Obama cancelled his trip to Asia, an Asian diplomat in Beijing quipped: “There’s just one problem with the U.S. ‘pivot-to-Asia’ strategy. The U.S. is not part of it.”
Due to its divided Congress, the world’s sole superpower is struggling to make decisions. As the era of a single world power looks to be coming to an end, voices in China have begun calling for a new global order, one less dominated by the U.S. What kind of world does China foresee?
Stuck in the middle
The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office sits on a quiet hill in Jerusalem. On the desk of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are two letters, one from Washington and the other from Beijing. Both are on the same topic.
Seven years ago, a 16-year-old Jewish American was killed in a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. The fundamentalist group Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack, and it later emerged that China’s state-owned Bank of China was one of the banks used by the organization to transfer money.
The boy’s relatives and numerous other victims of terrorist attacks in Israel have filed lawsuits in the U.S. against the Bank of China for providing services to known terrorist organizations such as Islamic Jihad. This spring, as Netanyahu planned his second trip to China, the Chinese side made it clear that an invitation would only be extended if the court case against the Bank of China was prevented from proceeding further. According to Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office gave its promise, and the visit went ahead in May.
Fast-forward five months. Earlier in October, Netanyahu received a letter from Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chair of a U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee and a staunch Congressional ally of Israel. “Dear Mr. Prime Minister,” she wrote. “I am writing to respectfully request your assistance to support joint initiatives in the war on terrorism, by permitting the U.S. legal process run its course in the case against Bank of China.” The language was polite, but the message was clear.
The letter from the Chinese government that arrived soon after is said to have been much harsher in tone: it reminded the prime minister that he had made a promise and that the Chinese government expected him to keep it. China’s frustration that the case was still in process – five months after Netanyahu’s visit – was clear.
During his visit to Beijing, Netanyahu had discussed various infrastructure projects with Chinese leaders, the grandest of which was a high-speed railway that would run the length of Israel. The Israeli leader was extremely pleased with the project, which would link the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, and form an alternative route to the Suez Canal. Also on his mind was the hope that long-term economic cooperation and friendship might encourage China to one day disengage from Israel’s No. 1 enemy, Iran.
But further progress in the court case threatened to negate any gains that had been achieved by the trip. “By giving contradictory promises to the Chinese government, to his friends in the American right wing and to the court in the U.S., Netanyahu has become personally entangled in this affair,” the Yedioth newspaper wrote.
In the past, it was unthinkable that China could come between the iron-clad relationship between Israel and the U.S. Congress. But cases like this could become common in the future. “As the disparity between Chinese and American power shrinks, their interests will increasingly clash,” said Prof. Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University, in a recent speech in Beijing.
A commentary published by the state-run Xinhua news agency on the evening of Oct. 13 sent ripples across the world, including Israel. Addressing the U.S. government shutdown, it suggested that it is perhaps a good time for the world to start considering building “a de-Americanized world.”
The commentary continued: “Under what is known as the Pax-Americana, we fail to see a world where the U.S. is helping defuse violence and conflicts, reduce poverty and displaced populations, and bring about real lasting peace.” Instead, it said, “a self-serving Washington has abused its superpower status and introduced even more chaos into the world by shifting financial risks overseas, (and) instigating regional tensions amid territorial disputes.”
It called for a “new world order” in which “the key interests (of) all nations, large and small … are respected and protected on an equal footing.” The editorial made three specific proposals: that all military actions require a UN mandate, that developing and emerging market economies be given more say in major international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and that a new international reserve currency be created to replace the dominant U.S. dollar.
Yan also talked of “new international rules” in his speech. “We should develop new international norms to maintain world order and bring collective power to bear on countries breaking these rules,” he said. It would be a world order, in other words, where the U.S. cannot impose its own rules on others.
New order and new rules seem to be a hot topic among Chinese leaders these days. Making the most of Obama’s absence at the recent East Asia Summit in Brunei, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang made a shrewd analogy in his speech. “Many East Asian countries use chopsticks. Anyone who uses chopsticks knows you cannot eat with a single chopstick – that you need a pair. And if you bundle chopsticks together, they are hard to break.”