Sovereignty, autonomy and interdependence: the reordering axis of the 21st century

Sovereignty, autonomy and interdependence: the reordering axis of the 21st century


Both the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in the world with its effects on flows of health equipment and on economic and social developments, as well as the tendencies to create security blocs and economic protectionism and, more recently, the war in Ukraine, have put on the table a central question in the international reordering: what are we going to understand by sovereignty, autonomy and interdependence in the 21st century world, when globalization as it was understood is left behind? In many ways, we know the visions that the United States, the G7 and the European Union are developing. We know less about how China looks for answers to such questions. Advancing in it is the purpose of this text.

When President Xi Jinping spoke in April 2022 at the Boao Forum on security and relations between countries, he put a reordering principle in the debate: “we seek a balanced, effective and sustainable security architecture, and not that each one seeks its own security at the expense of others”. From this logic, the construction of security in the new international interrelationships must be understood as the result of a task where all countries and pertinent political and social actors concur, with equal respect and desire for cooperation. This dialogue, consequently, must generate conditions of balance and permanence of common concepts of security, which promotes new dynamics in the forms of interdependence in the 21st century.

Interdependence is, by essence, a dialogue of interests of each country, from which each one relates to the others from its sovereignty. And this requires respect for the diverse development models under which each country seeks to advance its growth goals. “We respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries. We adhere to non-interference in the internal affairs of others and equally respect the path of development that each one chooses for his country”, Xi said during his speech[1].

The experience of an accelerated globalization starting in 2000, with an unprecedented growth in commercial exchanges and an expansion of value chains in production processes, originated for some the thesis of a less solid sovereignty. In reality, what became evident was the reformulation of the concept of autonomy: economic developments were marked by strong transnational experiences. The States, meanwhile, participated in various international treaties and signed multilateral principles such as those established in the World Trade Organization. At the same time, there was a recognition of the challenges where national action becomes decisive for the global: for example, actions against climate change and the plans of each one within the framework of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The 2008 crisis highlighted the effects of an economy that, from a national crisis to a collapse due to financial excesses (the collapse of Lehman Brothers), led to a global financial crisis. But, in that case, China was a major factor in Asia escaping the global financial crisis relatively unscathed. An enormous effort was made when the big four commercial banks, together with the government’s development banks, were particularly aggressive in granting loans equivalent to 25% of 2008 gross domestic product (GDP) in the first half of 2009. Yu Yongding, a former member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the People´s Bank of China, has said that the turning point in China´s growth occurred in September 2008, after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. According to him, in 2007, China´s GDP growth rate was 13%. In 2008, after the Lehman Brothers fiasco, GDP fell to 9% in the third quarter and to 6.8% in the fourth quarter. In the first quarter of 2009, China´s growth rate fell even further: to 6.1%. But the Chinese government “moved quickly”, says Professor Yu, by introducing a massive stimulus package that not only helped stabilize and revive China´s economy, but became a lifeline for the rest of Asia[2].

In 2022, the resurgence of the pandemic in China and the impact in various cities, but especially in Shanghai, determined – now in the opposite direction- greater international effects from the unavoidable measures taken at the local level. Due to the spread of the Omicron variant, Shanghai, with 25 million inhabitants and a vital weight for the country’s economy, had to experience periods of harsh quarantine to contain the spread of the virus. But since this metropolis is not only a global financial center, but also one of the most important freight ports for international trade, there were repercussions in different latitudes. In 2021 it accounted for 17% of China´s container traffic and 27% of China´s exports, and has been the world´s largest port for the past 10 years. The jamming of ships and containers caused concern, for example, in Latin American countries. “There is a lot of concern that exports will be affected and also of the inflationary impact in the world, including Latin America, which is a large trading partner of China”, said Alicia García-Herrero, Chief Economist for Asia Pacific at Investment Bank Natixis[3].

By placing these two examples – that of 2008 and 2022 – what we wish to illustrate is how contemporary reality calls for distinguishing three concepts from which international relations in the 21st century will take shape:

  1. Sovereignty. – The basis of the concept has evolved in the last three centuries, linking the exercise of the power of authority to its relationship with the citizenry. In this framework, a sovereign state, according to international law, is a legal entity represented by a centralized government that has sovereignty over a certain geographic area. International law defines sovereign states by four fundamental conditions: having a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the ability to establish relations with other sovereign states. It is the recognition of other States that gives presence and political identity to a country on the international stage.
  2. Autonomy. – Within the framework of an interconnected world and frequent chained global processes, the idea of autonomy emerges as the “ability to act autonomously when and where necessary, and with relevant partners whenever possible”. Autonomy is linked to the ability to make decisions and execute, without this generating subjugation or sanctions from abroad. In the European Union, the debate on “strategic autonomy” is very current, referring to defense issues (especially with the war in Ukraine), but for some years now there have been analyzed other technological or social fields. “Strategic autonomy has been extended to new areas of an economic and technological nature, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown”, said Josep Borrell, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs[4].
  3. Interdependence. – As Henry Kissinger pointed out in his book “The World Order”, in 2014, the world is experiencing a situation with tendencies towards chaos “along with an unprecedented interdependence” between countries. On the one hand, the globalization of the world economy has been based on an exercise of commercial and productive exchanges never seen before. And that persists as a trend, despite the new confrontations like the ones that Washington has promoted against Beijing: trade between both parties grew by 28.7%[5]. Another example: the commercial relationship between Chile and China has copper as its main product of exchange: it is the link between the main copper producer in the world and the main consumer of that metal on the planet. China´s relationship with Ukraine regarding the acquisition of wheat was another example of positive interdependence, before the conflict in that European country.


In recent years the full validity and mutual respect in these three areas has been disturbed. There are the measures taken by the United States regarding the sale of chips to China. In September of 2020, shares of China´s Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC) fell by more than a fifth after US sanctions were announced against the chipmaker, causing a US$4 billion loss in its market value. Such a measure, promoted by the United States Department of Defense, followed the same pattern of those imposed by the United States on Huawei Technologies, which prohibit American companies from selling products and technology to the Chinese smartphone manufacturer. SMIC trailed rival Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co Ltd in production volume, and like the latter relied on a number of US-based companies, such as Applied Materials, for key production equipment[6].

However, China´s advances in the technology sector are growing. In August of 2021 it was reported that China has surpassed the United States and is positioned as the first world power in the development of the main technological engine of the planet, the key to industrial and social development in this century and those to come: Artificial Intelligence. And it wasn´t the Chinese government that said it, but Stanford University. A report from this highly prestigious academic entity indicated that, in 2020, 20.7% of all academic citations on Artificial Intelligence were on Chinese research against 19.8% of American scientists[7]. This reality is part of the statements made at the Obama/Xi Jinping meeting in June of 2013: in some areas we are going to cooperate, in others we are going to compete. But this was understood in a relationship of interdependence of mutual respect and where trade and investment were one thing, while military strategy had its own channels. After the Trump government, this changed and President Biden´s proposals have followed the same perspective, of creating blocs and strategic confrontations as his predecessor.

A concrete expression of this is what the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, Janet Yellen, said at a conference in mid-April 2022 in Washington: “We must modernize our existing institutions – the IMF and the multilateral development banks – so that they are adopted in the 21st century, where the challenges and risks are increasingly global. An affirmation that could find broad consensus. But the parameters of this modernization – with some inside and others not, alien to what emerged in 1944 at Bretton Woods – point to a setback and an option to build confrontation blocs. The British newspaper, Financial Times put it this way:

In the future, US trade policy will no longer be about leaving markets to their own devices, but rather will uphold certain principles, from national sovereignty and rules-based order to security and labor rights. According to her, the goal of the United States should be not only “free trade, but also safe.” Countries must not be allowed to use their “market position in key commodities, technologies or products to have the power to disrupt our economy or exert unwanted geopolitical influence.” That was a clear allusion to Russian petropolitics, but it could also refer to chip manufacturing in Taiwan or hoarding of rare earth minerals in China or, during the pandemic, personal protective equipment… The United States would now favor the “friend-shoring of supply chains for a large number of trusted countries” that share “a set of norms and values ​​for how to operate in the global economy.” It would also seek to create principled alliances in areas such as digital services and technology regulation, similar to last year´s global tax deal (which she led)[8].

These approaches do not coincide with the positions of China and its principles of international politics. President Xi himself pointed this out on that occasion before the Boao Forum, where he said that China remains “committed to the principles of the United Nations Charter” and opposes “Cold War mentalities, unilateralism and confrontation of blocks”. The crisis in Ukraine, derived from Russia´s military action in that country, showed that China would move autonomously and from a policy of principles in the face of international developments, as well as in the decisions that come at the end of that crisis.

At the same time, with almost no coverage in the Western media, the Conference of Foreign Ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation took place in March 2022, with the presence of representatives of its 57 member countries. The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, attended a meeting inaugurated by the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, as a special guest. The conference reaffirmed the fight against Islamophobia and discussed strategies to counteract the effects of climate change, inequality in the distribution of vaccines and the erosion of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. After that international meeting, Minister Wang Yi went to New Delhi for a meeting with his counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. Beyond the differences over border issues and a dialogue that had not taken place for more than two years, both agreed to promote a multipolar order in the world. Both India and China, for various reasons, abstained in the vote presented in the Security Council after the entry of Russian troops into Ukraine, just as they did in the General Assembly resolution. From Washington, the Secretary of the Treasury threatened with future actions to those who did not vote for the condemnation promoted by her government.

In post-pandemic times and further the derivations that arise after the end of the conflict in Ukraine, the current tension promoted by the United States against China will persist. Is another scenario possible? According to Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean official, career diplomat and internationally highly respected academic, the United States should approach China with humility and respect for its longer history despite current obstacles and difficulties. “China is not threatening the US. China is not staging a military invasion of the US. China is not sending troops to the US border or naval ships near the US”, Mahbubani said, in an article published online by Newsweek. “China has been around for 5,000 years. The United States has been around for 250 years. And it is not surprising that a young country like the United States is having a hard time dealing with a wiser and older civilization”, said Mahbubani, who served as a diplomat for Singapore for 33 years[9].

China´s outlook on the future of its relations with the United States and common work on the global stage was clearly expressed in Minister Wang Yi´s speech at the conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of the issuance of the Shanghai Communiqué. Given the international circumstances after the crossing of the Ukrainian border by Russian troops, that act and that speech on February 28, 2022, did not receive adequate attention in the media of the United States and other Western countries. There they recalled the enormous international impact that the Communiqué issued half a century earlier had had at the end of Richard Nixon´s visit to China and his conversations with Mao Tse-tung, which brought a substantial change in the relations between the United States and China.

At the commemorative ceremony, the principles to keep in force were pointed out: “The Shanghai Communiqué highlights that all countries, regardless of their social systems, must seriously abide by the principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all States, non-aggression against other States, non-interference in the internal affairs of other States, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence”. In turn, after recalling the mutual commitment to the “one China” principle in dealing with the Taiwan issue, Minister Wang Yi stressed what the Asian country expects from the mutual relationship:

China and the United States are two countries with enormous differences in terms of social, historical and cultural systems, among other various aspects. Both parties should approach bilateral relations with a broader vision and a more inclusive attitude, adhere to dialogue rather than confrontation, seek cooperation rather than conflict, uphold openness rather than enclosure, as well as practice integration rather than the disassociation. China respects the US social system, never bets on the US losing, and hopes that the US will maintain openness and self-confidence and continue to develop and progress. The United States, for its part, should also respect China´s path of development, welcome a peaceful, stable and prosperous China, discard the myth of the zero-sum game, put aside the obsession with containing China, break the shackles of so-called “political correction”, and really see China as a partner in the development process, rather than an enemy in the power game[10].

After highlighting the opportunities for an increase in productive fields, investments and mutual trade, the Chinese Foreign Minister stressed that both countries today have to fulfill the responsibilities of their size and influence and “provide more public goods to the world”. Then he made an explicit reference to how both countries should act in the Asia-Pacific area. Along with calling for cooperation, the high Chinese representative rejected the block or segmentation policy promoted by the US government in this area. For this reason, it is a very explicit text of China´s position regarding recent bloc proposals promoted by the United States, such as the QUAD group (United States, India, Australia and Japan) or the pact called AUKUS by which the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom attend a security agreement to share advanced technologies, which includes support for the development of nuclear submarines by the Australians, as part of measures to counter China in the Indo-Pacific. Foreign Minister Wang Yi noted:

In the Shanghai Communiqué, China and the United States jointly declared that “neither of them should seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region”. China has never and will never seek any hegemony, and the United States must do the same. The Asia-Pacific region should be a demonstration ground for the two sides to build mutual trust and cooperation, and not a backyard for one side to seek sphere of influence; much less can it be a battlefield destined for antagonism and confrontation between the two countries. It is incumbent upon the United States to stop engaging in inter-bloc antagonism and form small exclusionary circles in this region, and work with China and other countries in the region to jointly create a great Asia-Pacific family marked by openness and inclusiveness, innovation and growth, interconnectivity, and cooperation for shared gain.

The vision that China has regarding the three concepts presented here is clearly reflected in that speech: sovereignty (one China); autonomy (the validity of different development models, with mutual respect); interdependence (cooperation and shared developments to achieve more innovation and growth). Behind such a perspective are the concepts of Confucian harmony and, even more so, the philosophical elaboration that has led to the rescue of the contemporary significance of the ancient Chinese concept of Tianxia (“what is under the sky”). It is that proposal of political understanding that emerged 3,000 years ago under the Zhou dynasty, which established an order accepted by all the tribes (that is “the world” by then), in which each one maintains its identities, but at the same time they inscribe their existence and development in the rites and norms accepted by all parties. Being the Zhou a small state compared to the others, its strength was in generating a concept where each one found its space in the group and saw that its interests benefited from that: the key was to “conceive a system based on general cooperation that would be recognized in the long term by all States[11]”. From the West, it seems necessary to study much more what constitutes the philosophical foundations from which contemporary China seeks to build its relationship with the world, when this country emerges as a power with global responsibility.





[5] The commercial exchange between China and the United States reached 755,645 million dollars in 2021, according to the General Administration of Customs of the Asian country. Exports from China to the United States increased by 27.5 percent in annual terms, reaching 576,114 million dollars, while shipments from the North American country to the Chinese market grew by 32.7 percent, totaling 179,530 million.






[11] Zhao Tingyang, “Tianxia: una filosofía para la gobernanza global”. Editorial. Barcelona. 2021


Autor Fernando Reyes Matta
Edición 2022