US - China relations
US - China relationsiStock

Many speak of the emergence of a new world order from the crisis caused by the COVID-19 epidemic. Most analysts agree that China and Russia will play a key role in this system. The hallmarks of this system seem to be on the horizon even before the crisis abates, even before there are signs of an end to it.

There is no evidence yet to suggest a decline in viral infections, or the establishment of an international cooperative formula to produce, distribute and supply vaccines to all countries. The evidence confirms that the tug-of-war continues between the US and some of its European allies on the one hand, and China and Russia on the other.

President Joe Biden called his Russian counterpart a “criminal,” an attitude that surprised the Kremlin, which retorted sharply to the name-calling. But the White House quickly came around, calling for a US-Russian summit meeting in a third country.

And this despite the fact that the American side did not respond to President Putin’s proposal in March to hold a virtual meeting with President Biden to discuss bilateral issues. If this is the atmosphere in US-Russian relations, relations between Washington and Beijing are equally edgy.

The meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, in March, attended by US Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Chinese Communist Party Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Yang Jiechi, made plain just how wide the gap is and how deep the crisis in relations between those two countries is.

The US Secretary of State accused China of threatening global stability. The Chinese minister, meanwhile, called for an end to the “Cold War mentality,” stressing that his country would not engage in American-style democracy. The Chinese explained that their sharp tone at the meeting was in response to a “groundless attack on China’s domestic and foreign policies, provoking disputes.” “This is not the way to treat guests, nor is it in line with diplomatic etiquette and protocols.”

The US is in no position to talk down to China and Chinese people won’t tolerate this, Chinese chief negotiator Yang Jiechi said. We are two big countries in the world and we should avoid confrontation, he added. “The US should stop its interference in China’s internal affairs.”

“We do not seek conflict, but we welcome stiff competition, and we will always stand up for our principles, for our people and for our friends,” for his part, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said at the start of the talks with his Chinese counterparts. These words failed to absorb Chinese anger, as they did not deny the US’ quest to impose its value model on the Chinese dragon.

The Biden administration views China in particular as the most serious threat to US global influence. The administration’s foreign policy strategy document reads, “China is the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system.”

But no one can say that the two powers are headed for a direct confrontation. The conditions for such a showdown are far from being in place given the intersection and overlap of strategic interests. It is indeed difficult for one of the parties to win a decisive victory over the other without suffering serious setbacks. It is also hard to say that there could be a clash between the new international poles or blocs.

Despite the heightened tensions, the disincentives are huge. It is mainly a question of military capabilities of each side. These ensure that there is a balance of terror and mutual deterrence that makes it difficult for either party to consider dealing a blow to the other. The Biden administration’s ground rule for policy toward China is “cooperate where possible, compete where needed, confront where necessary.”

On another note, the growing strategic cooperation between China and Russia does not mean that they can be seen as a full-fledged bloc or a true anti-Western camp, as was the case with the Communist bloc during the Cold War.

China does not seek to get down this rabbit hole, which runs counter to its strategic interests, being the most influential economy and the most integrated with that of the US.

The leading Western military bloc, NATO, does not see China as a threat. Moreover, the alliance suffers from cracks and fractures that are difficult to remedy, such as the situation with Turkey. The latter is realistically out of NATO’s calculations, although its membership continues. Turkey, a NATO member with its second largest army, cooperates militarily with Russia, which NATO considers the main threat.

Greece, also a NATO member, refuses to cooperate in imposing sanctions on China. Then there is Germany, a major NATO power, which entered into long-term contracts to buy Russian gas after the construction of the northern pipeline, despite EU demands to reduce its dependence on Russia as an energy source.

Some argue that China’s taste for power, growing nationalism and miscalculations about the end of the American era and the beginning of the demise of the superpower dominating the world order, all of these factors may prompt China to accelerate the confrontation to take over the leadership of the global order.

But a realistic analysis of Chinese behavior completely invalidates these speculations. China is in no hurry. That is, even if it is showing a growing sense of defensiveness in the face of any American pressure, or what Beijing sees as interference in its internal affairs. The US might have been wrong, in my view, to apply pressure simultaneously to its main adversaries, China and Russia.

The recent alliance between the two forces cannot be understood in isolation from US policy. The latter helps to bridge ideological and political differences between Beijing and Moscow and pushes them to cooperate and coordinate their roles beyond ideology. Washington’s relations with Beijing and Moscow are certainly far more important and serious than the complexity of their conceptual characterization.

Whether it is a Cold War or not does not detract from the serious effects of any clash or confrontation between the three powers. The US is not deteriorating in the manner and at the rate that some would like to picture by way of wishful thinking.

Russia, which has replaced ideology with nationalism, wants to reclaim its power and global role. China does not want a confrontation that could disrupt its march towards becoming the leader of the world order. It has proven its ability to manage crises during the coronavirus epidemic.

It has also shown how much it needs to build global confidence in its technological and scientific capabilities, having already achieved a remarkable superiority in this area. But this superiority may take time, whether to prove itself and gain a foothold or to respond to counter-propaganda.

My opinion is that the next one will be primarily a technological, scientific and economic conflict. No ideological battle, no arms race. Coexistence between the great powers is the only path that is less costly for all parties, provided that a formula can be found that guarantees that there will be no winners or losers.

Salem AlKetbi is a UAE political analyst and former Federal National Council candidate