GREAT POWER Confrontation
Russia and China vs. the United States
There has been plenty of buzz in the foreign policy world about the possibility of a new Cold War between the US and China. If anything, that 20th century term fails to encapsulate the breadth of the contested issues and the fact that unlike the Soviet Union, the rising Asian power is embedded in the global economy. Moreover, it has a resurgent Russia on its side. For many observers, the Sino–Russian relationship is predominantly shaped by the pressures exerted on those two states by the US. The normative dimension of Russo–Chinese joint opposition towards the West, and the US in particular, has become increasingly relevant in light of the ruling elites in both states placing greater emphasis on corresponding national identity narratives.
Of late, US relations with its two biggest geo-political rivals, Russia and China, are facing severe tests as President Joe Biden tries to assert America’s place in the world and distinguish himself from his predecessor. Airing myriad complaints, the Biden administration, recently, took an extraordinarily tough line with both its rivals. A simmering feud with Russia escalated when Biden blasted Vladimir Putin as a “killer” in an interview with a news channel, promoting the stung Russian strongman and his aides to brand the new US commander-in-chief old and senile. In Alaska, meanwhile, there were extraordinary exchanges in front of the press between US and Chinese officials. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke of “deep concern” he had picked up about China’s behaviour during a tour of Asia and condemned China for breaking rules that keep at bay a “more violent world.” National security adviser Jake Sullivan defended the US from Chinese critiques by saying it had “secret sauce” that helped it mend its imperfections — in a clear slam of China’s authoritarian state rule. China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi then further shattered the normally choking protocol of US-China talks by asking: “Is that the way that you had hoped to conduct this dialogue? Well, I think we thought too well of the US.”
The exchanges — the diplomatic equivalent of a head-to-head quarrel that will reverberate across the Pacific — prompted a senior US official to accuse the Chinese of arriving “intent on grandstanding, focused on public theatrics and dramatics over substance.”
Another striking development in this regard came when Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, embarked on a key visit to China on March 22. In an interview with Chinese State media, ahead of his talks with his counterpart Wang Yi, Mr Lavrov said that the international situation is undergoing profound changes, with new centres of economic, financial and political influence growing stronger. “However, these objective developments, which are leading to the formation of a truly multipolar and democratic world, are unfortunately being hindered by Western countries, particularly the United States,” he said, adding that “they seek to continue to dominate at any cost on global economy and politics and impose their will and requirements on others.”
During this visit, Beijing and Moscow agreed to stand firm against Western sanctions and boost ties between their countries to reduce their dependence on the US dollar in international trade and settlements. Lavrov also said, “We both believe the US has a destabilising role. It relies on Cold War military alliances and is trying to set up new alliances to undermine the world order.”
Though Biden’s undiplomatic comments about Putin may have been unscripted, the impact has nonetheless been profound. Together with the harsh tone of the US-China foreign ministers meeting in Alaska — also provoked by the US side — it is clear there has been a major change in the atmosphere of US-China-Russia relations.
China and Russia consider themselves great powers, and there is agreement in both Beijing and Moscow on cooperating to limit or constrain America’s ability to dominate international relations and challenge their sovereignty. Moscow and Beijing are committed to multipolarity and a ‘spheres of interest’ approach, where each state can regulate its periphery without US interference. This close partnership will likely continue as long as Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin remain in office, and it is probably durable enough to survive if either (or both) of these leaders steps down or dies. Both have arranged for their rule to continue—indefinitely in the case of Xi, and to 2036 in the case of Putin, assuming he decides to stay in office that long. Each regime is acting as a pragmatic, nationalist great power, and each sees its interests as far more compatible with the other power than with the United States. The two often vote together in the United Nations, for example, using their veto to counter US and European countries’ Security Council resolutions on Syria.
Beijing and Moscow are critical of the dominance of US dollar in the global economy and are increasingly trading goods via barter arrangements or using national currencies. The US dollar still accounts for 80 percent of all global transactions, but in 2019 only 51 percent of Sino-Russian trade was in US dollars; this declined to 46 percent in the first quarter of 2020. Chinese trade and the renminbi are becoming increasingly important for Russian firms that since 2014 have sought to avoid US sanctions and the possibility of being excluded from the swift financial messaging service.
Both Russia and China are signalling they will only deal with the West where and when it suits them. Sanctions no longer worry them.
The two powers are also showing they are increasingly comfortable working together as close partners, if not yet military allies. They will step up their cooperation in areas where they have mutual interests and the development of alternatives to the Western-dominated trade and payments systems.
Countries in Asia and further afield are closely watching the development of this alternative international order, led by Moscow and Beijing. And they can also recognise the signs of increasing US economic and political decline.
It is a new kind of Cold War, but not one based on ideology like the first incarnation. It is a war for international legitimacy, a struggle for hearts and minds and money in the very large part of the world not aligned to the US or NATO.
The US and its allies will continue to operate under their narrative, while Russia and China will push their competing narrative. This was made crystal clear over these past few dramatic days of major power diplomacy. The global balance of power is shifting, and for many nations, the smart money might be on Russia and China now.
The writer is a member of staff.