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Concurrent time factors

As the world searches for certainty amid the growing uncertainties, consensus is needed on how to respond to the various determinants of change

By ZHANG YUYAN | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-12-22 08:00
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As the world searches for certainty amid the growing uncertainties, consensus is needed on how to respond to the various determinants of change

Humanity is once again standing at the crossroads of history. Today's world is unstable and fraught with unprecedented common challenges, especially the deficits in peace, development, governance and security.

The renowned French historian Fernand Braudel argued that history can be perceived on three overlapping levels: the long term, the medium term and the short term, each with key factors influencing human progress.

The long term, also known as structural or environmental time, refers to patterns of slow, almost imperceptible change over centuries.

The medium term, also called conjunctures or social time, is concerned with cycles and structures that form over a certain period, such as changes in demographics, price and production.

The short term, events or political time, is about sudden transformative phenomena, such as revolutions, wars and earthquakes.

This analytical framework can be used to examine global changes.

Factors that had remained unchanged or had changed very slowly in the long term are now undergoing profound transformation. A prominent example involves the geographical climate. Climate change and environmental pollution have become pressing issues that humanity must respond to.

The medium term usually spans a period of several decades or even one or two centuries. On this time scale, key variables include technological progress and certain institutional arrangements, especially those related to global governance.

Influential short-term factors include the recent COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing conflicts between Russia and Ukraine and between Israel and Palestine, natural disasters and major historical events.

There is one more short-term factor to add: technological breakthroughs. The advancement of technologies such as ChatGPT and artificial intelligence will shake the world.

Today, key factors on all time scales are happening concurrently. To make things even more complex, long-term factors are showing short-term effects and vice versa, bringing huge uncertainty and unprecedented challenges to humanity.

What has remained the same for thousands of years — the environment, climate and ecology — are now rapidly changing and have raised alarms that the challenges posed by the changes must be addressed immediately.

Medium-term changes involve output, which is relevant to shifts in the balance of power among major nations. Rapid growth in emerging economies including India, Indonesia and China has led to changes in the global power dynamics and consequently affected the international order, challenging the creators of the existing order to accommodate and respond to the new developments.

Technological progress used to be considered as a medium-term factor. But the influence of breakthroughs in the internet and artificial intelligence are being felt in the short term.

ChatGPT, a short-term technological breakthrough, has had vast and profound impacts across various aspects of human development, including education, the labor market, and the way people communicate.

In more than two decades after the Cold War, economic globalization was facilitated by common economic principles, that is resource allocation based on costs and benefits. It fueled global growth and led to the formation of an open world economy.

However, as the economic power balance has shifted, the strategic competition between major powers has escalated, forcing the economic principles to take a back seat to power and politics. Global integration has turned into global fragmentation.

The world has become increasingly factionalized, marked by various "small yards with high fences", as well as regional organizations or collective arrangements with specific targets. This summer, the International Monetary Fund used the term "discriminatory regionalism" to define today's world in its namesake report of "the rise of discriminatory regionalism". Although it would be arbitrary to label this trend as "wars", there is no doubt that our world is moving toward greater fragmentation.

Global economic growth will take the first hit. In June, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies of the United States published an article, saying that the US Commerce Department added some Chinese companies to its unverified list last October, restricting them from accessing semiconductors and other technologies used to make chips. This was considered a declaration of economic warfare against China. In the joint statement of the G7 Summit held in Hiroshima this year, the term "de-risking" was officially introduced and China was identified as a source of risk.

An article in the bimonthly magazine Foreign Affairs decoded the goals of de-risking: first, to limit China's abilities in strategic sectors; second, to erode China's dominance in certain essential inputs, including critical minerals; and third, to diversify the economic exposure of US and other Western companies, reducing the potential costs of a sudden disruption in trade between China and other economies, primarily those of the West.

Faced with the uncertainties in the changing global landscape, peace and stability have become one of the fundamental pursuits of humanity in today's world. A concern for everyone, peace is much more than the absence of hot conflicts. When talking about peace, we often think of it as the opposite of war on battlefields. However, a broader perspective is needed to truly understand what peace is. We need to look beyond conventional war and peace, and see them in other forms, including wars in trade, technologies, finance and culture. These non-conventional wars are integral to the ongoing strategic interactions among nations, which is distinctive in today's world.

Humanity needs to establish a global consensus. In particular, the developed and developing countries should align their understanding on certain major issues. It is only by means of consensus can specific solutions be identified, followed by execution by dedicated institutions.

It is everyone's responsibility to contribute to overall peace, rejecting both hot wars and non-hot conflicts in other forms. As humanity seeks certainty in an uncertain world, joining hands to address common risks is a must-do.

The author is an academic member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, director of the Institute of World Economics and Politics at the CASS and chief expert of the National Institute for Global Strategy at the CASS. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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