Here now is the predictability of geopolitics coming to the top of the news cycle: when you are top dog, you don’t take kindly to anyone trying to tear you down.
In the last week the United States, an empire in all but name, has struck back against its chief rivals. The first occurred in the disputed South China Sea where Beijing has constructed whole islands right in the middle of heavily-trafficked and potentially resource-rich waves. China’s plan was to extend its sea claim outwards from these islands, but the United States thwarted that scheme by sending a warship directly into China’s no-gone zone.
Meanwhile, in Syria’s murderous civil war, Russia’s deployment of bombers and tanks has now begun to be matched with the public announcement America is sending forces to fight in Iraq and to train allies in Syria.
Chinese president Xi Jinping’s state visit to the United Kingdom this week inspired much handwringing about the island nation renouncing its liberal values and alliances, including with the United States, in favor of a closer relationship with the Asian power.
For Israel to exist, so the early Zionists argued, it needs support from a powerful patron. They first looked to the Ottoman Empire. That didn’t work out. Then the British came. The results were… mixed. Now, Israel is allied to America.
Quite what would have happened if the Zionists had aligned themselves with the Palestinian population against whatever imperial hegemon happened to be dominating the region we will never know.
That isn’t as far fetched as it may sound. After Israel’s foundation, left-wing Zionists proposed to arm the Palestinians in the West Bank to strike at the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan.
Jewish and Arab fighters against the common enemy: British imperialism and its Hashemite stooges. If there’s one thing Zionists and Arab nationalists can agree on it’s probably a distrust of perfidious Albion.
Alternative history aside, Israel now has a special relationship with the United States that is extremely beneficial to it.
If America misinterprets the nature of Sino-Russian relations, it could follow a policy that ends up strengthening rather than weakening its two rival powers.
Jacob Stokes and Alexander Sullivan, both fellows at the Center for a New American Security, recently argued in Foreign Affairs magazine there is a high risk the country will because American commentary tends to either underestimate or overestimate the threat of a alliance between China and Russia.
On the one hand, they point out, scholars like Joseph Nye claim that the relationship is fatally flawed and riven with mistrust. This school of thought holds that China and Russia only cooperate when it suits both their interests, not out of a sense of shared destiny or because they have any grand strategic designs.
On the other hand are those who believe there is a strategic design. Stokes and Sullivan call this the “mighty axis” school. It tends toward the view that China and Russia are building a lasting partnership to challenge American dominance.
The reality is somewhere in the middle.
The authors admit that some areas of Sino-Russian cooperation threaten American interests.
Beijing and Moscow have, for instance, joined forces to normalize “cyber sovereignty,” that is, to increase national governments’ power over digital activity within their borders and thereby further fracture the free and open Internet. Likewise, Russia’s sale of the advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile system to China has the potential to seriously complicate American military planning in Asia-Pacific.
But other types of cooperation either do not affect the United States or are actually beneficial. China and Russia were both parties to the recent nuclear agreement with Iran, for example, and they have a radical Islamist threat in common with the West.
If Sino-Russian cooperation is a “mixed bag,” the policies prescribed by those who are either sanguine or alarmist about it will fall short.
Those who see the relationship as fatally flawed will argue that the United States need only stand aside for China and Russia to inevitably fall out.
Those who see the relationship as an immediate danger to American power will advocate containment — which is more likely to push China and Russia closer together than pull them apart.
The Atlantic Sentinel has cautioned against such a policy, arguing that if the United States are unable to accommodate a rising China that naturally expects a greater influence in East Asia or — worse — if China gets the impression that America intends to block its ascendancy, it could decide that the benefits of an alliance with Russia outweigh the costs and risks after all.
The United States need a better approach, write Stokes and Sullivan, one that focuses on isolating China and Russia together rather than trying to pry them apart.
Unlike during the Cold War, when the United States could form a quasi-alliance with China against Russia, triangulation is not an option. At the time, China was the weaker power and resentful of Russia’s attempts to run it like a communist puppet state.
Today Russia is the weaker power, China does not attempt to run it and the [Vladimir] Putin regime gains strength from both its ideological stand against the West and its growing ties with China.
There is little the United States can offer China to make it give up or rein in Russia because the more headaches Russia causes in Eastern Europe, the more the United States’ focus is drawn away from Asia.
Similarly, since Russia annexed the Crimea and the West imposed economic sanctions, there is little hope of drawing Russia back closer to Europe and the United States.
What the United States can do is push back against bad Chinese and Russian behavior on its own merits.
Both powers say they want the world order to shift away from American domination and toward multipolarity. In reality, they want the freedom to throw their weight around, as Russia has done in Ukraine and China is doing in the South China Sea.
America — and by extension the West — needs to resist Chinese and Russian bullying wherever it occurs. It needs to call out their “anti-hegemonic” proposals for what they are: efforts to replace America’s soft hegemony with a more authoritarian variant of their own.
Some smaller nations may be attracted to a vision of a less Americentric world. They ought to be reminded that their prosperity and security are much safer under the liberal world order of the United States than anything China and Russia can offer.
China’s and Russia’s leaders announced a range of new deals on the eve of Russia’s seventieth celebration of its victory in the Second World War on Friday. This increased cooperation between the two powers hardly amounts to a new alliance but American strategists should nonetheless start thinking about how to avoid such an alliance from coming about.
America’s overriding strategic goal must be to prevent any one power or bloc from dominating the Eurasian landmass. The United States are secure in the Western Hemisphere; only a united Eurasia can produce a rival to what is still the world’s superpower.
This imperative compelled America’s involvement in World War II, when Germany and Japan threatened to split up the largest continent between them, and informed its policy of containment during the Cold War, when communist regimes were driving free and liberal states into the sea.
The specter of a Sino-Russian condominium should therefore be taken seriously. Both are authoritarian powers that want world order to shift away from American domination and toward — they say — multipolarity. Read more “There Is No Sino-Russian Alliance — Yet”
If Narendra Modi can convince India to break with its nonaligned past and ally with the Pacific’s democracies instead, American president Barack Obama may yet succeed in counterbalancing China’s rise.
Since it was announced in 2011, the American “pivot” to Asia appears to have done little to affect Chinese behavior. Rather, the military component of what was later renamed a “rebalancing” strategy exacerbated China’s fears of encirclement. By raising troop deployments in the Western Pacific, the United States inadvertently confirmed the Chinese in their worst fears: that America intended to block their reemergence as a great power.
China and the United States announced a landmark agreement on curbing climate change on Wednesday. While significant in its own right, the biggest takeaway from the deal might be that the world’s two biggest economies are still able to get thing done in spite of the American “pivot” to Asia and Russia’s own burgeoning relationship with China.
The climate deal, which includes new targets for carbon emissions reductions and a commitment from China to stop pollution from rising after 2030, was announced by Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping in Beijing where the leaders had gathered for the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
Chinese premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Berlin this weekend — the third time in just six months leaders from both countries met — not only underscored the huge commercial relationship between two of the world’s largest exporting nations; it also pointed to a burgeoning strategic partnership that Germany hopes can put pressure on Russia.
According to the Financial Times, Chancellor Angela Merkel hopes Li, who visits Moscow next, “can help mediate with Russian president Vladimir Putin over the crisis in Ukraine.”
“Germany’s top priority is the Ukraine and stabilizing relations with Russia,” Sebastian Heilmann, president of the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, told the British newspaper. “For Berlin, China has become a very important partner because Russia will listen to it. It’s a new diplomatic configuration that we are seeing here.” Read more “Merkel Seeks Chinese Support Against Russia”
Visiting South Korea on Thursday, China’s president, Xi Jinping, appeared to distance himself from his country’s longtime communist ally North Korea, telling his South Korean counterpart, Park Geun-hye, that China took an “impartial” view to situation on the peninsula.
According to Chinese state media, Xi said, “All parties concerned should jointly and properly manage and control the situation, avoid causing tension, prevent the situation from losing control and creating no more stirs.”
He added that China believes “all sides should be treated in a balanced way,” suggesting a shift away from Chinese support for the North Korean regime which just a day before Xi’s visit launched two rockets off its east coast in a show of force. Read more “Xi Seen Distancing China from North Korea”
China’s revisionist maritime claims and aggressive policy toward its neighbors in Southeast Asia suggest the country’s “peaceful rise” has come to an end. If that is the case, America’s strategists would be wise to advice increased engagement — to reassure allies in the Pacific and prevent China from challenging its supremacy there.
However, China’s policy may not be a calculated one. If America “responds” with a show of military force, it could inadvertently exacerbate China’s sense of encirclement and encourage the sort of aggression it believes China started.
In recent months, China has moved a deepwater drilling rig into waters that are disputed by Vietnam, rammed Vietnamese fishing boats in the South China Sea and deployed three nuclear missile submarines to the same area, engaged in a standoff with the Philippine navy over the Scarborough Shoal and declared an Air Defense Identification Zone over Japan’s Senkaku Islands — which America immediately challenged by flying two bombers through it unannounced.
It is hard not to see a more belligerent China in these moves but Robert E. Kelly, who is an associate professor of international relations at Pusan National University in South Korea, cautions at The Interpreter, the Australian Lowy Institute for International Policy’s blog, not to “attribute to conspiracy that which can be just as easily explained by incompetence.” What looks like a larger plan to push the United States out of East Asia may be far less organized and coherent, he writes — “the outcome of a series of domestic factional battles in a new administration rushing to establish itself, control its military and legitimate itself to a cynical population.”
One explanation for recent Chinese behavior may lie in the leadership change that was finalized in March last year when Xi Jinping became president. Kelly believes he almost certainly made promises to the army as part of a factional power struggle within the ruling Communist Party — which “is arguably the most hawkish, anti-American faction in the government.”
Xi’s governing philosophy taps into a resurgent Chinese nationalism as the mere promise to deliver growth that was made by his predecessors no longer placates either the army or the population at large.
The Communist Party made a basic compact with the Chinese people: It would deliver growth while the people gave it a monopoly on power.
That compact has largely held up but could start to fray once growth inevitably slows down. What Kelly calls “naval nationalism” could be designed to maintain popular support once it does — and simultaneously keep the generals happy.
For now, the Communists have delivered prosperity and pulled China back to the global esteem it believed it enjoyed before the “century of humiliation” that began with the First Opium War in 1839 and only ended when they took over in 1949.
Ironically, the Communist Party “has succeeded to the point where it is longer necessary,” writes Kelly.
Specifically, China is at the point where single-party rule for developmental purposes can no longer be really justified. China is not really a poor country anymore. The “Asian developmentalist” argument that democracy obstructs growth no longer holds. China is either now, or will shortly, be ready for democracy: its citizens are educated and wealthy enough that paternalist arguments for party guidance no longer make sense (if they ever did).
This provides another possible reason for China’s behavior toward its neighbors. “Better tension than transition,” as Kelly puts it. The Communist Party’s priority is staying in power, even if it comes at the expense of scaring its neighbors and risking a standoff with the United States.