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Mutual Gains, Not Shared Values: The New Normal In International Relations?

POLITICS / WORLDVIEWS / March 21, 2017

By Lucio Blanco Pitlo III

Much talk about the evolving global political and economic landscape largely ignores the major underlying factor driving this transformational shift, namely the growing emphasis on mutual gains rather than shared values as a fundamental basis for state relations. Shared values is losing its appeal and several reasons account for it.

 

Recent talks about the changing nature and character of global political and economic institutions tend to emphasise the role of certain emerging powers, notably China, as active players intent on pushing the envelope, encouraging if not compelling such institutions to reform lest they be challenged by the creation of parallel or competing institutions. Much space was also given exploring the geo-economic or geopolitical agendas behind this push. However, though this focus seems to provide a convenient lens by which to examine evolving international dynamics, it overlooks a major underlying factor driving this transformational shift, namely the growing emphasis put on mutual gains rather than shared values as a fundamental basis for state-to-state interaction. Furthermore, stress on the agency paradigm overly assumes a passive and pliant role for non-rival states.

Shared values, like commitment to democracy, human rights and free market capitalism, used to define the foreign policy conduct of many states but later developments suggest significant change. For long, states that share similar political and economic values, developed comprehensive, deep-seated and robust relations, while interface with states that harbour different values were severely constrained, if not virtually nonexistent. This is most acute during the Cold War where political values determined state allegiance and alignment, putting states into a tight bind ready to enter war to promote political causes or counter the spread of a rival ideology. Since then, developmental impetus took centre stage and has come to reshape the landscape of international relations in ways unthinkable in the past with states crossing political lines to obtain economic gains. Democratic and authoritarian states of varying levels of economic development expanded and deepened trade and commerce with one another. China has become the largest trading partner of the US and Japan and second largest trading partner of the EU. The US and Japan, in turn, had become the first and second (discounting Hong Kong) largest trade partners respectively of China. Russia is the third largest trading partner of the EU, while the EU is Russia’s biggest trade partner. From a closed economy pre-reform, China became the world’s largest recipient of foreign direct investments (FDI), attracting capital from democracies in Asia, the US and Europe. The US and Australia, in turn, have become the top two destinations of Chinese outbound investments. Economic stimulus, thus, accelerated the dismantlement of walls that long bar East-West contact.

 

Mutual gain, particularly economic, is becoming a crucial criterion, if not determinant, in the relations of states. BRICS, for instance, groups emerging regional economies across the political line; the Belt and Road connectivity initiative passes by more than 65 states with varying forms of government and political traditions and; the 57-strong Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank includes established European democracies as members.

 

Indeed, mutual gain, particularly economic, is becoming a crucial criterion, if not determinant, in the relations of states. BRICS, for instance, groups emerging regional economies across the political line; the Belt and Road connectivity initiative passes by more than 65 states with varying forms of government and political traditions and; the 57-strong Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank includes established European democracies as members. Several factors could help explain this. One is that socio-cultural idiosyncrasies facilitated varying degrees of indigenisation of foreign-inspired politico-economic models which made for significant differences in the nature and dynamics of institutions among states that are supposed to share similar values. The US and Nigeria are both democracies and China and North Korea are both authoritarian states, but tremendous disparities between these pairs exist despite being in the same camp. This made the appeal of shared values hollow and superficial. In fact, today, the absence of shared political values no longer serves as an effective impediment in expanding economic ties with states across the political fence.

 
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About The Author

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a Lecturer at the Chinese Studies Program of Ateneo de Manila University, Board Member of the Philippine Association for China Studies and is a Contributing Editor (Reviews) for the Asian Politics & Policy Journal. He obtained his Master of Laws from Peking University and his Bachelor degree in Public Administration from the University of the Philippines. He writes on China-Southeast Asia-US affairs.











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