The future of China and the international order

When Hillary Clinton announced the U.S. New Silk Road initiative in October 2011, the idea was to build a web of economic and transport connections across South and Central Asia with a hub in Afghanistan, with the goal of creating a prosperous future for this country and the region as a whole.

At the end of August 2016, cargo trains left two Chinese cities, Nantong and Yiwu, for Afghanistan on newly opened routes to destinations in Afghanistan, crossing Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan on the way. In this way Afghanistan became part of China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, which some call the real New Silk Road.

The Clinton announcement in 2011 was described as a metaphor, a trope, an ambitious vision. On the Chinese side, the different parts of the Belt and Road initiative have over the past few years been announced as part of a major strategy with different implementation stages.

The different ways of conceiving of the new Silk Road illustrate fundamentally approaches to strategy development and planning, but also to diplomacy.

To understand these different approaches and appreciate their consequences requires the ability to work with different strategic lenses and different timeframes – which is what we in the strategic foresight community try to do.

The recent return to the UK of a former Chinese Ambassador came as a reminder of this need, and of the urgency of countries such of ours finding a way to engage with countries such as China on the same strategic plane.


When, on July 6th, Fu Ying, China’s Ambassador to the UK from 2007-2009, addressed a large audience at Chatham House, she was not making an announcement, but explaining an approach, a strategy.

With the reputation of a relative hard liner, it was likely that her messages would be direct, and on this Fu Ying didn’t disappoint. Challenges from the Philippines and Japan during questions were expressed politely and dealt with expeditiously.

The former ambassador even indulged in some gentle mocking, notably when recalling a UK diplomat at the time of the Arab Spring saying “the river surging forward will soon reach Beijing.” She pointed out that in fact the summer of 2011 was marked by rioting in London.

Below are the principal messages I noted. None of them original, but grouped together and confidently exposed by this visitor to London they form a clear challenge to many aspects of the foreign policy of the UK and several other countries.

  • The international order, including the UN, is something China supports and does not want to see unravel, but the international order is not equivalent to the current U.S. world order, which reflects U.S. security interests and values that China finds alienating. The international order must be fairer to all countries
  • The ‘war on terror’ has led and is still leading to the creation of terror states. The Arab Spring led to a mass exodous of refugees from the region
  • The growth of developing countries has not led to a shift in the international order. The UN Security Council should be reformed
  • The AIIB (which the U.S. already regrets not being a part of) is part of the international order, as is the Silk Road
  • One hundred years ago the U.S. changed its military focus from land to sea and established its supremacy there. Which is why it is now upset by China’s naval focus
  • China’s concern is sovereignty, and it is sensitive about territory, having seen its capital occupied by imperial armies. Its disputes over islands in the South China Sea are part of this concern. Eighty percent of its trade and 90% of its energy needs pass through these waters. It seeks a code of conduct process, that recognises common interests between the U.S. and China
  • On the Thucydides trap… “who knows?” On relations with the U.S.… “we trust them with all our money!”
  • The AIIB is open, but the bar for the TTIP is set too high, “It is hard not to be open in this world.”
  • U.S. interests are placed ahead of all others. But China will extend its economic success to the world, notably through the “One Belt, One Road” and maritime Silk Road strategies
  • The Chinese political system is healthy. The world should make an effort to understand it, as China tries to understand the workings of the U.S. Congress (!)
  • China has incorporated human rights in its constitution since 2004. UN values should not just be Western values, they should be universal. What is universal? Values are rooted in our own cultures… including that of 1.3 billion Chinese
  • North Korea has a problem with the U.S., not China. It is now a lock with no key, the U.S. having thrown it away


Some of these messages we will reject, some we would challenge, others we may agree with at least in part. The point is, even in the case of the messages we reject, we may in some cases already understand what underlies them and would gain from understanding this in all cases.

As long as we leave debates on issues such as these to diplomatic channels, with conclusions amplified by traditional and now new forms of media, it is unlikely much progress will be made – in fact, it is likely that misunderstandings and antagonisms will grow.

We need to find better ways to identify what we can agree on, what are common goals and shared values, as well as understand better the sources of mistrust and grievances.

Foresight approaches, being both structured and open, expert and participatory, and which seek to understand both the long term direction of change and its consequences for action today, should be a central element of more imaginative approaches to increase mutual understanding between countries such as the UK and China.