Does China-US confrontation meet Russia’s interests?

By Andrey Kortunov Source: Global Times Published: 2020/7/17 10:13:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Presidential election campaigns in the US usually have a detrimental impact on the consistency of US foreign policy. This is because the national leadership is distracted by domestic partisan clashes. Election campaigns also put immediate personal political considerations ahead of long-term national interests. The incumbent president seeking reelection has to demonstrate to the electorate that he or she is strong, tough and decisive in dealing with foreign partners and, especially, with foreign adversaries. His or her opponent tries to make the opposite point, accusing the incumbent of being soft, weak and too accommodative to American foes, rivals and competitors. As a result, the outside world is exposed to a waterfall of hawkish statements, symbolic manifestations of the "US toughness," and even to abrupt changes in US behavior.

However, this explanation of the recent tensions in the US-China relations should not obscure a broader vision of the historic trajectory of this very complex and difficult relationship. The long story short is, the spectacular rise of China caught the US unprepared. The American political culture has never been particularly apt dealing with foreign adversaries as peers. After the end of the Cold War, the triumphant US foreign policy establishment enthusiastically endorsed the "unipolar world" way of thinking. Old habits die hard and today we witness a very precarious, painful and incoherent process of the US adjusting itself to a new global balance of powers. The COVID-19 pandemic turned out to be insult to injury for Washington - it revealed a higher-level efficiency of China's ability to cope with coronavirus compared to that of the US. The apparent inability of the American public health system to stop the spread of the virus had to be explained to the public - both domestic and foreign. China turned out to be a convenient scapegoat; making Beijing responsible for COVID-19 was like pouring oil on already burning US-China fire. 

Can we expect a radical shift of the US approach to China after the November elections? Unfortunately, this is not very likely. If Joe Biden replaces Donald Trump in the White House, there will be a clear change in US foreign policy style and rhetoric, but much less in its fundamental goals and aspirations. President Biden might be more inclined to reach tactical truces with Beijing and more reluctant to flex US military muscles, to drum-beat his chest and throw ultimatums at the Chinese leadership. On the other hand, the Biden administration will try much harder to put together a united Western anti-Chinese coalition by courting US allies and friends in Europe and in Asia. Biden is also going to put more emphasis on human rights in China, including such sensitive issues as Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet. More importantly, only a very strong US president can fix relations with China. Such a President should enjoy the full support from the US society and the US political class. Under President Biden, the US will continue to be divided along many lines, and these divisions will continue to be a major obstacle on the way to a coherent, consistent and long-term strategy toward the world in general — and toward China in particular. 

Many in Russia believe that a protracted US-China confrontation meets Russia's foreign policy interests since this confrontation raises the importance of Moscow for Beijing and makes China more interested in further strengthening its strategic partnership with Russia. This might be true to some extent, but the Russian-Chinese cooperation should have its own foundation, not a common enemy. Besides, an unmitigated US-Chinese confrontation contains multiple military, geopolitical and economic risks for Russia - ranging from a devastating global recession, which would severely damage the fragile Russian economy, to a large-scale military conflict, which Russia might be dragged into against its will. At the same time, Moscow cannot be an "honest broker" between Beijing and Washington since US-Russian relations today are hardly better than US-Chinese relations are. 

Is there any light at the end of the tunnel for ongoing US-Chinese confrontation? I tend to believe that we should not underestimate the power of the economic interdependence between the two nations. If China stops to be the major locomotive for the global economy, the US would be the first country to feel the pain. If the US implodes, China would be deprived of its most lucrative foreign market. Eventually, these realities should prevail over shortsighted political calculations or antiquated ideological instincts. However, in order to put its relations with China back on track, the US political establishment will have to go through a complete generational change. Such a change will not happen earlier than in 2024, and the next couple of years will be a bumpy road for US, for China, and for the rest of us.     

The author is director general of the Russian International Affairs Council.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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