Commentary RESEARCH

China and the world between autonomy and mutual interdependence


2022-09-15 12:00

Paolo GerBaudo
Chinese Social Sciences Today

We stand at a passage between two different historical eras and between two different globalizations. First is the old neoliberal globalization. It has run into serious difficulties, since it hoped to reduce the autonomy and sovereignty of different countries, to engulf them in a common global market. The second globalization is sometimes described as a multi-polar globalization, which is more respectful of countries’ differences, autonomy, and sovereignty. For the global market to flourish, it was necessary to eliminate all forms of state barriers and state controls, all those mechanisms to manage the economy, and ensure the economy does not create disorder and chaos. But this had consequences. This globalization was premised on an idea of complete openness, and all control was a problem. Thus governments should renounce all the instruments of protection and control that are fundamental to allow political authorities to ensure the flows are for their society’s good. 


This old globalization is facing problems. After the 2008 financial crisis and during the 2010s, a decade marked by austerity policies in the West, economists noticed that European countries and the US were undergoing a process of “slow-balization,” a slowing down of globalization. Global growth slowed, foreign investments dipped, and even global trade, which has been taken as an indicator of global interconnectedness, receded. The coronavirus only intensified this tendency, producing a dip in global trade. The upsetting of global supply chains also leads to growing economic protectionism. Globalization has run into serious political problems, as it lost consensus in many Western countries. Examples include policies of right-wing populist politicians such as Trump. They accused globalization of being responsible for the loss of well-paid and stable jobs in their countries. The rise of BRIC countries has often been met with jealousy and suspicion. The rise of China, which according to economic indicators, is either about to, or has already surpassed the US in terms of GDP. This has created some degree of suspicion and resentment. 


Besides growing protectionism in the West, other regions have also been moving towards a different economic paradigm, where some of the ills of the old globalization are reconciled with countries’ need fulfillment. Instead, some attempts to balance the internal and external economy are found. One example in China is the “Dual Circulation” policy adopted in 2020, which precisely aims at balancing internal circulation and external circulation, production for internal consumption and production for exports. The idea is to improve the capacity of the Chinese economy in strategic sectors, such as technology, while ensuring food and energy security. These Chinese policies speak to a more general global awareness that the idea of a unified global market engulfing the entire world can limit countries’ internal development, and be an obstacle for their security and their political autonomy. 


Europe, for a long time, followed complete open globalization with no forms of control or industrial policy. European Union policymakers are now discussing the need for strategic autonomy, which aims at achieving more control and more self-sufficiency in the technology sector. These changes in policy and attitude speak to long standing discussions that are well represented in philosophy. This need to balance internal and external autonomy and exchange is reminiscent of Aristotle’s discussion of self-sufficiency as a precondition to the good life of a polity. For Aristotle, self-sufficiency meant having a complete supply and lacking nothing, it was important to be self-sufficient. Not just for economic purposes, but also for political purposes. Without self-sufficiency, countries were not really autonomous. They would be subject to the influence of others. 


Keynes drew inspiration from Aristotle’s discussion of self-sufficiency. For Keynes, there were goods and services, such as ideas and science, which by their nature could not be brought under complete national control. Thus they should be produced and exchanged at an international level. Yet there were many other goods and services that could instead to be produced and consumed internally. Keynes said, let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible, and above all, let finance be national. He proposed an increased national self-sufficiency policy, not as an ideal, but to direct the creation of an environment where other ideals could be safely and conveniently pursued. Self-sufficiency was important for countries’ freedom and autonomy, but ultimately it was also important for peaceful coexistence. These considerations seem similar to ideas developed by Chinese philosophers like Confucius. Confucius discussed the importance of autonomy—both personal and collective—as the basis for real mutual respect, because countries and individuals can only respect one another if they are equal. If an internal sphere of self-determination is allowed, there can be an external sphere of mutually beneficial exchange and collaboration. 


This need for self-sufficiency doesn’t mean countries should engage in autarky—the idea of closure and complete economic autonomy. This idea is incompatible with the Chinese dual circulation policy, and policies of many countries in the West. Neither is it what Western citizens want. People know that complete autarky ultimately leads to misery. For example, China has engaged in large investments as part of the BRI, whose aim is precisely to increase trade in different areas of the world. China and Europe can both benefit from this. The goal is to move beyond pervasive interconnectedness, moving past the outdated idea of globalization as a force eliminating sovereignty as pursued by neoliberals during the high globalization phase. 


A different idea of international relations is enshrined in the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence. These key principles of Chinese policy show the path we may pursue going forward. In fact, this comes close to what many progressive forces are demanding in Europe and in the US. 


If we are to build a different globalization that acknowledges different countries’ sovereignty, autonomy, and their international equality, we need to balance the legitimate desire to achieve self-sufficiency in areas that are strategic for their autonomy and security, in food, energy, and technology. It is necessary to engage in forms of exchange that are mutually beneficial. This will improve life quality and guarantee peaceful coexistence. The world has an interest in prosperity and in peaceful coexistence. This will not be achieved by complete openness of neoliberal globalization or by retreating into complete anarchy. Absolutes are not useful for policy. What is required is a world where internal and external, domestic and international economy are balanced, and where national sovereignty is reconciled with international exchange in the common interest. 


Paolo Gerbaudo is the director of the Centre for Digital Culture at the King’s College London, the United Kingdom. This article was edited from his video speech submitted to the forum.



2022-09-19 01:56
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