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Yan Xuetong says digital space is even more important than people realize
China's preeminent IR scholar says that's why China and the U.S. won't enter a new Cold War - and they have no intention of war over Taiwan.
Yan Xuetong, Director of The Institute of International Studies, Tsinghua University is one of China’s preeminent scholars on international relations. Every July, his institute organizes the World Peace Forum, the first high-level international security forum initiated by a Chinese institution.
On Tuesday, June 20 Yan holds a press briefing on the coming event, where he talked about the upcoming World Peace Forum (July 1-3), made a speech on the changes in the international relations situation from the perspective of the digital era, and then answered journalists’ questions.
The institute has kindly shared with me a transcript of the press briefing, based on which Pekingnology has published his Q&A with journalists, touching on Blinken’s China visit, Taiwan, the war in Ukraine, etc. Today, The East is Read publishes his speech followed by the World Peace Forum’s TENTATIVE program. - Zichen
This year, I would like to introduce to you my personal views on the changes in the international relations situation from the perspective of the digital era.
Why do we discuss this issue today? In fact, there is currently a debate in academic and policy circles about whether humanity will return to the state of Cold War, known as the so-called "New Cold War." What we see is that both the Chinese and American governments have explicitly stated that they are not willing to engage in the New Cold War. However, this does not mean that it won't happen just because we are unwilling. The willingness to engage in it and whether it will happen are two separate matters.
Within the academic community, there are two perspectives. One perspective asserts that the world is presently in the midst of the New Cold War. Conversely, another viewpoint maintains that the New Cold War has not yet unfolded and even suggests that it may not come to pass.
Allow me to explain the first perspective. Why do they believe it is a New Cold War? Currently, there is a bipolar structure between China and the United States, just as there was between the United States and the Soviet Union in the past. They consider this bipolarity as a Cold War. However, I personally believe that this view may not correspond to the actual situation. I believe that the world has not entered a Cold War yet, and it is impossible for the world to enter a Cold War in the digital age.
Here, let me add something. The concept of the New Cold War didn't just emerge today. The concept of the New Cold War originated in the last century when Ronald Wilson Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and it was referred to as the New Cold War. In 2014, this concept resurfaced. People started searching for its starting point because, during the previous Cold War, there was a speech in Fulton that mentioned the "Iron Curtain" descending. So, everyone has been looking for the equivalent event that marked the beginning of the New Cold War. Since 2014, people have been searching every year to find the event that marked the beginning of the New Cold War, similar to Winston Churchill's speech.
Let's talk about recent events during the Trump era. There were two instances. The first was a speech by his Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, stating that it was similar to the Fulton speech. Then, less than a year or two later, a speech at the Nixon Library of his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was also considered the Fulton speech. Later, a speech by then Vice President Pence was regarded as the Fulton speech as well. In reality, this phenomenon tells us that if there are frequent references to the Fulton speech, it means that a New Cold War will not occur because it cannot always be “new.” Since this repeatedly happens, it actually implies that a New Cold War has not taken place.
So, what is the reason for the absence of a New Cold War? In the digital age, strategic competition differs from the Cold War era, primarily due to the changing environment. Just as a classroom is for teaching, a restaurant is for dining, and an operating room is for medical treatment, each has its own distinct nature. Let's examine the differences between this era and the Cold War period.
Firstly, it is the issue of the space of international politics. Humanity has created a new living space called cyberspace. The space we inhabit, before the existence of cyberspace, was created by nature, whether it was on land, in water, in the air, or even in outer space. These are all-natural spaces. However, humans have created cyberspace, and initially, people did not realize its significance. But gradually, they entered this space and started living in it. It's like having a room and then building another room outside, and people live in both rooms simultaneously.
How far has life in cyberspace progressed? For many individuals, the content of their lives in cyberspace exceeds that in natural space, excluding eight hours of sleep. Many people spend more than eight hours in cyberspace, which is more than half of their remaining waking hours. What do I mean by this? It is a real-life experience, not a virtual one. It is no longer like the past when the internet was considered virtual, imaginary, and unreal. Nowadays, we realize that in cyberspace, people engage in activities such as online shopping, online dating, cyberbullying, cyberattacks, and the digital economy, and all of these aspects of life exist tangibly within cyberspace.
In this space, international politics differs from international politics in the natural space, and its operating principles are not the same. However, humans now live in both spaces simultaneously. What does this mean? It's like humans used to live on land, but later they started living not only on land but also on the ocean. This significant change altered human life. Now we understand the impact of this new space on us.
What is the first impact? It's the economy. Since ancient times, the economy has been a crucial part of human life. Now, the digital economy intensifies the polarization. The resource in the digital economy is data, which is different from all-natural resources, such as oil, coal, or other natural resources. The amount of natural resources is decreasing. However, the principle in the online space is the opposite; the more it is used, the more it grows. There is no concept of data becoming scarce with increased usage. Everyone's activities contribute to the growth of data, leading to an infinite expansion of data volume.
As data becomes a resource, how do we utilize it? It relies on technology. You need to process the data and analyze it so that the data can transform from a resource into something valuable. It's like turning wood into a table. The table can be used for placing things, writing, and it becomes useful. However, being useful doesn't equate to wealth. When these tables are not sold and are merely stored in a warehouse, they have no value; they only have utility. Why is the pace of chip iteration getting faster and faster? It's because the speed of data growth requires it. At this point, another technology is needed to monetize the data, to turn it into wealth, which means selling it to create products and services. The most typical example is Didi, which sells data about passenger names, pickup locations, etc., to taxi drivers, allowing them to earn money by picking up passengers. When a driver picks up a passenger, the data increases, and thus, a new form of wealth is created.
How fast is it? Since 2015, the growth rate of the digital economy has been 1.5 times that of the overall global economy. This means that the speed at which the digital economy accumulates wealth for humanity exceeds that of the non-digital economy. It also means that the proportion of wealth attributed to the digital economy will continue to increase. In major countries, the broad digital economy's wealth is already approaching or surpassing 50% of GDP, or even exceeding it in some cases. This means that those involved in the digital economy accumulate wealth at a faster pace, while those who are not involved experience slower wealth growth, leading to inevitable wealth polarization in society. Of course, the government can use various methods to balance taxation, as that is their responsibility, but the economy itself exacerbates this phenomenon. Moreover, since the advent of the digital economy, overall, it favors the younger generation and disadvantages the older generation due to differences in digital skills. Therefore, in this process, we can observe various forms of social polarization between those with higher education levels and stronger digital skills compared to those with lower education levels and weaker digital skills. This occurs at the individual level.
At the national level, since wealth primarily comes from the digital economy, and the growth rate of the digital economy depends on digital technology innovation, competition among nations in digital technology becomes extremely fierce. We have witnessed the "small yard, high wall" policy adopted by the United States, which aims to suppress China in terms of digital technology and maintain a technological gap with China, preventing China from reaching the same level as the United States. If you cannot catch up with me technologically, your wealth growth rate will lag behind, and the gap between you and me will not narrow.
This differs significantly from the Cold War period. During the Cold War, the main source of wealth growth relied on natural resources, leading to conflicts among major powers over access to these resources. The focus was on geopolitical strategies to control natural resources, especially after the acquisition of nuclear weapons when controlling rare resources became crucial. However, today, what resources are major powers seeking to control? We are talking about data resources, and controlling data. The concept of data security has emerged, and competition among major powers in this domain is increasingly intense.
Due to the digital economy being the primary source of wealth, cybersecurity has become critically important in the digital era. Economic security has become a key aspect of national security. What is the situation with cybersecurity? It means that a country used to believe that as long as it maintained territorial sovereignty, it would be secure. However, with the advent of the internet, an adversary can attack you without physically entering your natural space. This is evident in the ongoing war in Ukraine. Russia has an absolute military advantage in the physical domain, but in the cyberspace, their digital capabilities lag behind those of NATO, resulting in the current state of the war. Although NATO is not directly involved in the conflict and hasn't entered the territory of Ukraine, it effectively participates in the war through cyberspace. However, there are currently no regulations that classify such cyber involvement as direct participation or define it as an act of war. This is why discussions about cybersecurity often revolve around issues of cyber norms and cyber sovereignty.
In the digital age, we have witnessed the increasing importance of cybersecurity, to the extent that it now holds equal significance as territorial sovereignty. In fact, personally, I believe its importance has even surpassed that of national territorial security. Why is that? Because attacking a country's physical facilities through the internet is feasible. For example, the United States launching a cyber-attack on Iran's nuclear laboratories can be accomplished without physically sending troops but solely through cyberspace. As a result, we can observe the growing prevalence of cyber attacks. The UK, for instance, reports that on a daily basis, their bases experience thousands or hundreds of cyber attacks, most of which are executed by automated systems, with around ten instances being deliberate actions by human actors. Unlike scam calls, which can be automated, these attacks are deliberately targeted and occur multiple times a day. Therefore, we can see that the significance of cybersecurity have reached a level where they are at least equally important, if not more important, than the security of a country's physical territory.
Moreover, a new issue has emerged within this context. Since the US presidential election and Donald Trump's victory, an increasing number of people have come to realize that cybersecurity also relates to the security of a nation's political power. In the past, to change national policies, individuals had to physically gather. However, it has now been discovered that through the internet, political change can be prompted without people physically mobilizing. The spread of information on the internet, even a mere sentence as a rumor, has become a strategic tool or method. It has become so severe that, in my understanding, at least 80% of the information we encounter in our lives is false, consisting of rumors. In other words, humanity has entered an era where it is necessary to possess the ability to discern which information is true and which is false.
The advancement of digital technology has given rise to social media. The biggest difference between social media and traditional media lies in their modes of communication. Traditional media operated in a top-down manner, much like rainfall, where information flowed from the top, such as major television stations or the government, down to the masses. It was a process of initially informing a minority, followed by the majority, like small streams converging into a river, eventually forming powerful waves. This was the traditional mode of dissemination. Now, with social media, it is a bottom-up approach. It is more like fog, rather than rain. In the past, traditional media poured information down like rain, inundating everyone with messages. But now, it rises from the ground, spreading like fog. A single individual can create a rumor online, and it can immediately impact the entire society. The dissemination of such rumors comes at zero cost, and those who spread them do not bear any responsibility, even if the official refutes the rumor. This leads to the gathering of societal discontent, which can potentially directly result in a change of a country's political power.
Cybersecurity has now reached two levels. It is not just a matter of security between nations but also involves internal affairs, concerning the security of regime change. In the digital age, strategies used by major powers to compete and change a country's political power through proxy wars are considered outdated. It is akin to having WeChat but still insisting on sending telegrams. In the digital era, the strategies employed are different from those during the Cold War.
We have discussed cyberspace, the digital economy, and social media. These are what we see in the digital economy.
Lastly, I think this point is extremely important because, in the digital age, there has been a shift in ideology. From my personal understanding, there is an increasing sense of fear and hostility toward the outside world. Various rumors attribute various societal and national issues to external factors. For example, some countries claim that their problems arise from an excessive number of foreign immigrants who have taken away their jobs, and disrupted their order, traditions, and culture. Others attribute issues to foreign capital. They fear that foreign capital has come in and gained control over their country's economic lifelines, with many strategic sectors being controlled by foreign investment, which is also causing fear.
Another type is now the most typical. When we engage in international cooperation with foreign countries, they suppress us and cut off the industrial chains, making it impossible for our production to proceed normally. Even the European Union has stated that economic cooperation should not be expanded further, and international dependence should be reduced by concentrating industrial chains within the EU, minimizing economic cooperation with external entities for the sake of economic security. They attribute their own shortcomings to external influences, resulting in a mentality of fear towards the outside, which, in my opinion, is the rise of populism. Populism initially emerged in Europe, then spread to the United States, and later expanded to other developed countries, eventually reaching a vast number of developing countries. Currently, I believe populism prevails in both developed and developing countries. It views any cooperative relationships between nations as a threat, leading to an increasing number of conflicts in international cooperation.
Here is an example. In the digital age, the competition between the United States and China revolves around digital technology, focusing on a specific product, namely, the chip. During the Cold War, you would never see the Soviet Union or the United States introducing legislation for a specific product due to competition. However, today, the United States considers the core of the competition to be centered around this product, the chip. From my understanding, this signifies that in this era, the driving force of competition is no longer ideological but rather the advantage in technological innovation. To be more specific, it is the advantage of digital technology innovation.
Some professionals in the United States have a broader view of this research, as they believe it is not just about the chips. With the continuous iteration of chip technology, it is actually a problem of technical standards. The difference between 3 nanometers and 24 nanometers is a matter of technical standards. In May 2023, the United States released "The United States Government’s National Standards Strategy for Critical and Emerging Technology," which shows that the conflicts or competition between major powers are increasingly focused on technology. Now, it has deepened to the level of technical standards, specifically, whose standards can gain the widest global application. Once a standard is widely adopted and work is done according to that standard, a path dependence naturally forms, meaning that it becomes incompatible to change after applying the standard.
In conclusion, international politics in the digital age differs from the Cold War era. In the digital age, the motivation for competition between major powers lies in gaining technological advantages and achieving universal acceptance of technical standards by the international community. One important factor here is the degree of acceptance of your technology. This period is not about ideological expansion. The Chinese government has made it clear that they do not export values, ideologies, or general models, and they support countries in choosing their own paths. Although the United States organizes some countries to confront China using an ideological approach, they also state that they are not expanding their ideology; they are defending it. Why? Because the greatest ideological challenge for the United States lies within its own borders—the political divisions within the country pose the biggest challenge to their liberal ideology. Populism - not communism or socialism - challenges liberalism. This is the first distinction—different motivations.
The second distinction is the content. Now, as technology keeps iterating, having innovative technology is not the only concern; there is also the issue of price. Alongside technological innovation, consideration must be given to how to reduce prices, in order to capture the international market. This differs from the ideological competition of the Cold War era.
The third distinction is the strategy. The strategy adopted by the United States is "small yard, high wall." The logic behind the this is that the United States brings together countries with strong technological capabilities in a small-scale technical cooperation, which is the "small yard." What is the "high wall"? It is to prevent China from participating in international technological cooperation. This is the high wall. This way, the United States can maintain a faster pace of technological innovation. In response to the U.S. strategy, China is establishing an autonomous industrial chain, known as the internal circulation. Internal circulation means that China strives to participate in the international community but if excluded by the United States and unable to participate, China must have alternatives, and that is the internal circulation.
Neither the United States nor China wants to engage in proxy wars, and they have no intention of doing so. Therefore, we can see from the recent visit of Blinken to China that both sides have reached a consensus on preventing war between them. We need to manage crises and prevent them from escalating into war. Whether it is in the Taiwan Strait or any other region, both China and the United States do not want to engage in proxy wars.
Finally, we can see that compared to large-scale global wars, proxy wars are considered progress as they result in fewer deaths. Although the death toll in proxy wars is smaller than in global wars, it has been increasing rapidly compared to the post-Cold War period. After the Cold War, there were also many wars, but most of them resulted in death tolls below 100,000, with some even having only a few thousand casualties. However, a phenomenon has emerged now where the death toll and scale of wars are on the rise. For example, in Ukraine, from February of last year until now, the death toll between Russia and Ukraine is at least 100,000 or more - as many as 200,000. This means that within a year, we are witnessing a recurrence of phenomena where the death toll exceeds 100,000. We can see that the era of counter-globalization is a historical regression. However, this regression is not likely to reach the level of the Cold War. How many people died in a war during the Cold War? Millions. The death toll in the Korean War and the Vietnam War, for example, is not comparable to the present. So, although we understand that there is a regression in today's world, personally, I don't believe it will regress to the level of the Cold War. The nature of competition, strategies, and the outcomes of competition will not reach the same level as during the Cold War. Therefore, major powers are competing while maintaining conditions for social interactions.
Therefore, as you can see, the six consensuses reached between China and the United States include maintaining personnel exchanges.
Despite the competition, conflicts, and even confrontations between China and the United States, we still need to increase the dispatch of students and personnel exchanges between the two sides.
I don't know if any of us here have been to Alexanderplatz in former East Berlin. There is a clock on the square that shows the time in different regions of the world for 24 hours. It was a clock people designed during the Cold War to symbolize how much people wanted to travel around the world. However, the Berlin Wall blocked it, and countries controlled the movement of people, preventing free travel. During the Cold War, it was believed that isolation would lead to winning the competition, but now it is considered disadvantageous to isolate oneself from other countries.
The last point is the pressure faced by small and medium-sized countries. I have seen many small and medium-sized countries saying that they cannot choose sides in the competition between major powers, which has led to the concept of the "Global South." The "Global South" is somewhat similar to the non-aligned movement during the Cold War, but it is different. The non-aligned movement had an organization, a form, an institution, and a conference. The "Global South" does not have such an organization, institution, or conference. It simply means that as intermediate countries, how can we better survive in the increasingly intense competition between major powers. So, this is different from the non-aligned movement during the Cold War, where the core condition was whether you were an ally or not, and now this issue does not exist.
Lastly, let's go back to the initial statement that the Cold War was a matter of order, not the form of the international structure. If we look at the 40 years of the Cold War, the dominant values at that time were the competition between communism and capitalism. The international norms were based on the sovereignty norms with the United Nations as the mainstay. Then, two superpowers emerged and competed for international dominance. That was the Cold War.
In the 30 years after the Cold War, which we call the post-Cold War period or the liberal order, liberalism had the upper hand in terms of dominance, although other ideologies still existed. The idea that human rights are superior to sovereignty emerged during this period. Many international norms were established, such as R2P (responsibility to protect), protection of individuals, constructive intervention, and humanitarian intervention. Human rights became more important than sovereignty. At that time, the United States had international dominance in establishing the system of the international order.
In 2016, I personally believe that the beginning of a new international order was formed, which was the Brexit of the United Kingdom. The UK's exit from the European Union marked the beginning of global counter-globalization, where global international cooperation was no longer pursued. I call this "uneasy peace." The main content of this uneasy peace is peace, but it makes everyone uneasy and fearful. So, at this time, there is competition between populism and liberalism, which is evident globally. The international dominance is starting to differentiate, and the absolute dominance of the United States is weakening.
I believe that this situation will last for at least ten years, and it might even last longer, possibly for twenty years. So, I say that this era is different from the Cold War era and the post-Cold War era. These are three different orders. Thank you all.
【TENTATIVE program as of Tuesday, June 20 SUBJECT TO CHANGE】
The 11th World Peace Forum
Stabilizing an Unstable World through Consensus and Cooperation
Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs
July 1-3, 2023
July 1 (Saturday)
10:00-17:00 REGISTRATION (Liaoning International Hotel)
14:30-17:30 ROUNDTABLE: China-India Relations (Room L, 7F) (By Invitation)
16:00-17:45 JOINT PANEL: Climate and Multilateralism (Room A, 7F)
July 2 (Sunday)
08:00-09:30 REGISTRATION (Main Building, Tsinghua University)
09:30-10:00 OPENING CEREMONY (Lecture Hall, Main Building)
10:00-10:30 TEA BREAK
10:30-11:30 PLENARY (Lecture Hall, Main Building)
Theme: A New World Order in the Making
11:30-12:30 TRANSFER TO LIAONING INTERNATIONAL HOTEL
12:30-14:30 LUNCH MEETING (Conference Hall A, 8F) (blue/purple passes only)
14:30-15:30 PLENARY (Conference Hall B, 8F)
Theme: The Evolution of Multilateralism
15:30-16:00 TEA BREAK
16:00-17:45 PANELS (Conference Rooms, 7F)
1. Security in the Asia-Pacific: Challenges and Solutions (Room M)
2. Advancing Strategic Mutual Trust between China and Europe (Room L)
3. Promoting Green and Digital BRI Cooperation (Room A)
4. The Middle East: Geopolitical Transformation and Peace in the Region (Room C)
5. Nuclear Non-proliferation in an Unstable World (Room B)
6. The Balance between Economic Security and International Economic Cooperation (Room G)
18:00 BUFFET (1F) (blue/purple/rose passes only)
July 3 (Monday)
09:00-10:45 PANELS (Conference Rooms, 7F)
1. Shaping a New Framework for a Stable China-US Relationship (Room M)
2. Advancing BRICS Partnership for Global Development (Room L)
3. China-Africa Cooperation: Toward High-Quality Development (Room B)
4. The ASEAN Centrality and Regional Order (Room C)
5. Major-Power Collaboration in Managing Global Problems (Room A)
6. The GPT Moment and Artificial Intelligence Security (Room G)
10:45-11:15 TEA BREAK
11:15-12:45 PLENARY (Conference Hall B, 8F)
Theme: Major-Power Relations in Transition
13:00-14:30 BUFFET LUNCH (Conference Hall A, 8F)
14:30-16:00 PLENARY (Conference Hall B, 8F)
Theme: Regional Cooperation in Reform
16:00-16:30 TEA BREAK
16:30-18:15 PANELS (Conference Rooms, 7F)
1. The Search for a Political Solution of the Ukraine Crisis (Room M)
2. Practical Cooperation of the SCO: Chances and Challenges (Room C)
3. Latin America in a Changing World (Room B)
4. Supply Chain Reset and the Future of Globalization (Room G)
5. Security in Northeast Asia: New Trends and Challenges (Room L)
6. Common Security and International Cooperation in the Digital Space (Room A)
18:30 BUFFET (1F) (blue/purple/rose passes only)
From several days ago