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US must learn to share global stage with China and adapt to the reality of a diverse, multipolar world

September 8, 2021 GMT

With the last flight out of Kabul, America ended its longest war and ill-fated attempt to nurture a democracy in the ” graveyard of empires ”. This accelerated closure is calculated to free the United States to zero in on defending living democracies in the Asia-Pacific region.

But to blame China for the ills afflicting liberal democracy is likely to see America become mired in yet another intractable conflict. Instead, the US must accept the reality of a multipolar world order and learn to coexist peaceably with China.

Despite the bungled exit, there is near consensus that the US had to leave Afghanistan. Twenty years and trillions of dollars later, Americans are done with any illusion of nation-building in faraway lands.

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Still, this setback does not spell the end of the American commitment to liberal democracy. The White House has vowed to continue standing up for the rights and freedoms of the oppressed.

The new pivot to the Asia-Pacific is framed as a tactical shift, a strategic step back from building to defending liberal democracy. Indeed, Taipei is not Kabul. Unlike Afghanistan, Taiwan is a thriving democracy.

US President Joe Biden has warned that America will not stand idly by if any allies come under attack from any hostile force. The White House’s words notwithstanding, it is questionable whether Americans are ready for another military expedition in yet one more far-off land.

For Francis Fukuyama, the greater risk to democracy lurks at home and US global effectiveness will depend on its ability to fix its internal problems. Without question, restoring America’s ailing democracy is crucial to protecting democratic values around the world, for there is no greater soft power than the transformative power of exemplary leadership.

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On that note, the US response to China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia is unduly militarised. With the Belt and Road Initiative, China hopes to generate socioeconomic uplift across the region. Under the banner of the ” health silk road ”, Beijing is putting in place a medical ecosystem to better prepare Southeast Asia for the next pandemic.

By contrast, aside from vaccine donations to countries such as Malaysia, US vaccine diplomacy is seen as ad hoc and piecemeal. Launched by the Group of 7 this summer, it is uncertain if and when the ” Build Back Better World ” programme will make its presence felt in this part of the world.

What is apparent now, however, are the US’ and like-minded allies’ naval displays in the South China Sea. If liberal democracy cannot be built at the point of a gun, neither should it be defended by the grandiose display of hard power alone.

China’s rise does pose some serious challenges, but to see these as existential threats trained at subverting the free world is a misdiagnosis that will increase the risk of open conflict. To begin with, the US-China rivalry is not Cold War 2.0. Unlike the Soviet Union, China has no inclination to propagate its communist ideology.

Confucius Institutes, for instance, are not a Trojan horse. Rather, they are China’s attempts at correcting what it believes is the world’s lack of understanding and misrepresentation of Chinese civilisation.

The current great power conflict is actually a clash of two civilisations with distinct belief systems. A monotheistic religion, Christianity believes in the existence of the one true God and a singular pathway to heaven. The American faith in liberal democracy as the apex of human political progress is a secular adaptation of this theological world view.

By contrast, the ancient Chinese were polytheistic, worshipping a multitude of gods and pursuing a variety of versions of the ultimate good. Modern China inherited this polytheistic view of the universe, convinced there are many ways to govern the human family.

The ” Asian values ” debate of the 1990s was an early episode of the clash between these contrasting world views. In pushing back against Western values, Mahathir Mohamad and Lee Kuan Yew were defending Asian’s prerogative to develop culturally contextualised interpretations of human rights.

Today, the leaders of China are making similar arguments. Like Malaysia and Singapore, China wants to establish its own style of governance, with Chinese characteristics, but there is a difference.

Unlike the Southeast Asian states, China is a world power with corresponding global ramifications. How Beijing legislates its increasingly globalised digital economy, for example, will have an impact on the privacy rights of citizens in other parts of the world.

By virtue of its global presence, China’s authoritarianism could affect other peoples’ way of life. Beijing must acknowledge this fact and mitigate these justifiable concerns.

On the other hand, the US has to realise that, while there are universal values binding us all, the inherently multicultural, multireligious human family also has diverse ways of conceptualising the good.

With the exception of extremists and fundamentalist sects, most monotheistic traditions today have sidestepped their exclusive world view to embrace an inclusive coexistence with other religious faiths.

The US should likewise move past its monolithic vision of a world order centred on liberal democracy in the interest of recognising the legitimacy of other models of governance.

The Afghanistan debacle has once more laid bare the limits of military power in effecting nation-building. To transform the world, it is crucial that America restore its once-formidable soft power.

But even as Washington stays committed to defending democratic values across the globe, America must also come to a reckoning with an inconvenient truth: the US is not the only “shining city upon a hill”. America must lose its sense of manifest destiny and learn to share the global stage with a rising China in an invariably multipolar world.

Peter T.C. Chang is deputy director of the Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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