America is finally back, thanks in no small measure to Mr. Putin’s ventures in the Ukraine. But a rising China poses a potentially great threat than a declining Russia.
Under president Trump, The US took a holiday from its leadership position in the international order it set up after WWII. Arguably, it not only took a holiday, but actively sought to sabotage much of the machinery of that very order.
America is finally back, thanks in no small measure to Mr. Putin’s ventures in the Ukraine. But a rising China poses a potentially great threat than a declining Russia. The war being currently waged in the Ukraine represents for the US an unwelcome divergence of both resources and manpower that it could have done without. But all is not bad news. On the 24 of February the Europeans finally woke up from their slumber post- WWII, and are now committed to an increase in defence spending, the very thing the US has been asking for since the Obama presidency and pivot toward Asia.
There is no quick fix to what was undone by Trump and President Biden will face some domestic push-back to a more aggressive US foreign policy. However, his recently announced budget proposal, which requests $813,3 billion in national security spending – a 4% increase from 2021, clearly reflects growing security concerns abroad. As he himself said: “Budgets are statements of values,” and with this budget he hoped to send a clear message.
Public opinion has been mesmerised by President Zelensky’s appeals to the free world, shocked at both the plight and courage shown by the Ukrainian population, that overnight, saw their lives upended and their country being slowly ransacked by Mr. Putin’s wish to turn back the clock on history. But as history has shown time and time again, popular identification with the Ukrainian people will not be endless, especially as the economic costs of a prolonged war are increasingly felt in the West. Generosity tends to run its course when it effects people’s pockets.
Washington is also aware that its greatest rival is not a weakened Russia, but a rising China. It cannot afford to take its eye off the game. The next decade may prove to be decisive as to which power will dominate the future. The world may be headed towards an epic battle between the US and China, one that will make the Cold War years look like child’s play.
Shortly after Biden’s inauguration, Chen Yixin, the secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, a close confident of President Xi Jinping, stated that “the rise of the East and the decline of the West has become (a global) trend and changes of the international landscape are in our favour.” This echoes the view of most of China’s foreign policy establishment. Time is on their side, and China is known for its patience.
In all fairness, things don’t look to good for America these days. Its quick withdrawal of Afghanistan and handover to the Taliban, was disastrous in the least, and did not bode well for America’s commitment to its allies. Domestically, Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the elections, the polarisation of the political system, and the culture wars being fought over racial and gender issues, has led some powers to believe that America’s day in the sun is over. Stark economic inequalities and lack of opportunities have left many Americans feeling disaffected. Mr Putin, at least, was banking on that.
The problems don’t stop there. The Biden administration faces intense budgetary constraints, as well as pressure from some factions of his own Party to reduce military spending to boost social welfare programs. For Biden’s strategy to be seen as a credible counterweight to Beijing he will need to stay the course on aggregate defense spending and possibly redirect some of the military resources away from Europe and towards the Indo-Pacific. Mr Putin has been of some service in this area since he managed to achieve what Presidents Obama and Trump never did – to unite the Europeans and to force them to increase their own military spending.
President Biden’s speech last week in Poland, made it very clear that the world had changed. He was not only referring to the Russian-Ukrainian war. For Biden, the world had changed on the 24th February, and will long remain changed even after the last gun is silenced in the Ukraine. The war there, according to Biden is symptomatic of a more general war of freedom loving nations vs. autocracy – “the darkness that lights autocracy is no match for the flame that lights liberty and freedom loving people everywhere.”
The war will not be over after Ukraine. This has become a larger war, a war where democracies must combat autocracies, where rule of law must hold its own against brute force. America sees itself, as it always has, at the forefront of the defenders of democracy and freedom, the proverbial “shining city upon a Hill” acting as the “beacon of hope” for the world, that other nations can, and should look to, for moral guidance.
One would have thought that after the Iraq and Afghanistan debacles those days were over. Not so. Russia has once made them alive and well and helped drive home the message that in the international system, where no higher authority exists, “might” often makes “right”. Just what the Americans needed to galvanise democracies the world over.
It just so happens that this came at a good time. Democracy was becoming unfashionable. What was once hailed as “The End of History”, when the Soviet Union collapsed and left the USA the sole superpower of the world, has been proven to be wrong in the last two decades, implying that history has more staying power than one may think. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, only 6.5% of the world’s population live in “full democracies”. Most people, almost 55%, live in hybrid or authoritarian regimes.
Great powers have always used grand narratives. For America this is the “American Dream”, for China we now have the “Chinese Dream”. But behind these great narratives is a quest for power and dominance. International politics is a nasty and dangerous business, and no amount of goodwill can dampen the intense security competition that sets in when an aspiring hegemon appears on the scene.
China aims to be dominant in Asia, just like the US has always sought and maintained its dominance in the Western hemisphere. The US entered WWI in April 1917 when Imperial Germany looked like it would win the war and rule Europe. In the early 1940s, President Franklin Roosevelt went to great lengths to bring the US out of its splendid isolationism and to manoeuvre it into WWII, to thwart Japan’s ambitions in Asia and Germany’s ambitions in Europe. After 1945, American policy makers made certain that both countries would remain militarily weak. Finally, during the Cold War, NATO was to thwart Soviet ambitions of dominating Europe.
Great powers don’t like peer competitors. It puts their security at risk, and in a world of anarchy security concerns trump all others. Some analysts have argued that all this is pure paranoia. US military spending is still almost four times that of China’s, and China only boasts one military base abroad, in Djibouti. However, this discrepancy in military spending does not mean that the American military is four times as powerful. China appears to be more advanced in certain areas. It already has the biggest navy and is reputed to have the largest cyber forces in the world. As Ukraine has shown, the era of traditional tank warfare is over. Cyber forces will play an increasingly greater role, and cyber is closely allied to artificial intelligence, whose role in the military remains completely unregulated. Putin once famously said that “whoever wins that competition (artificial intelligence) rules the world.” Lucky for us and the Ukrainians, he did not rise to his own challenge.
To avoid a conflict, America could, and should, accommodate a rising China. For one thing, both powers need each other if they are to tackle climate change, nuclear proliferation, regulation of military applications for artificial intelligence, financial stability and global pandemics.
Accommodation does not mean the end of intense competition. Instead, it means the powers learn to coexist with one another, cooperating when need be, competing at other times. To avoid a war, both powers would need to establish certain hard limits on each other’s security concerns and conducts – red lines that cannot be crossed – whilst at the same time allow for full competition in the diplomatic, economic and ideological realms.
Washington must accept that military primacy is no longer possible in Asia; Beijing will need to accept that the US will remain a resident power in its own backyard and maintain a web of alliances with other powers in the region that also fear the rise of China. Taiwan and the South China Sea are likely to be the most significant challenges. China has made no secret of its intentions in relation to Taiwan. The two great powers could theoretically make a tacit agreement not to unilaterally alter the status quo, and after Ukraine, China may be less inclined to. Beijing would also need to seize to “reclaim” and militarise more islands in the South China Sea and respect freedom of navigation and aircraft movement without challenge.
Both the US and China are currently in search of a formula to manage their relationship. Whatever transpires, be it conflict or accommodation, the point remains that to keep the peace and to ensure its own security, the US needs to be actively involved in world affairs. Being active globally is the new nationalism. Biden has realised that and is slowly starting to steer his party in that direction.
Predictions of the future are always fraught with inaccuracies. Let us hope that America will find a way to accommodate this rising power and avoid conflict. However, one thing is for certain: America is back on the scene and we all should be grateful for it.