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Impact of the US-China Conflict on Greater Eurasia. A New Cold War is Looming?

Beijing must be prepared for the demise of the original framework of engaging Washington, and the volatility of the relationship that follows. It should consider a return to Deng Xiaoping’s original admonition to curb its global ambitions, and re-evaluate the entire Belt and Road Initiative, writes Valdai Club expert Xiang Lanxin

Is a New Cold War looming?

Up until recently, Beijing had considered the greater Eurasian region to be a safe conduit for China’s entry into global competition with the United States. Improved relations with other developing powers are always central to China’s long-term goals. China has been active in a ‘Eurasian process’, pursuing a nuanced version of functional multi-polarity in Eurasia to reduce tensions with the United States and at the same time consolidate relations with Russia. It is an ambitious project, given that global cooperation has eluded both Washington and Moscow for decades despite the end of the Cold War. However, one must ask if China’s newly-acquired ‘Eurasian footprint’ is sustainable if the US-China relationship becomes worse than the one between Moscow and Washington. In other words, will China’s Eurasian strategy allow the country to become a leading power while avoiding the same security dilemmas and pitfalls that have accompanied other global power transitions in world history?
The US-China relationship is in free fall.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Nixon Library speech signals the de facto, if not de jure, end of the framework for maintaining stability between the two countries for almost five decades. There’s no doubt that hawks like Pompeo are anxious to see a new cold war, or even a hot one. To win the election, a desperate President Donald Trump could even invent a war presidency, having missed the chance to take such a role in the battle against the pandemic. An “October surprise” in the form of a limited military clash with China is no longer unthinkable. Indeed, the hawks must be eager for a new Berlin crisis in the East (whether in Taiwan or the South China Sea) so as to fully institutionalise a military posture for a new cold war.

Moreover, narcissists tend to escalate even trivial rivalries into confrontation. We are witnessing today a strange scene in Washington: the chief diplomat behaves like a chief propagandist (a la Goebbels), and his president is so erratic and buffoonish that it makes Mussolini pale in comparison. But the Washington hawks are on shaky ground here. Their two key arguments – that the West should have put an end to China’s economic growth, which lifted hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty, at the beginning, and that China’s rise has benefited only China – are both morally and factually wrong.

Finally, there is strategic hubris. There are those in Washington who believe that democratic values will prevail in this cold war, like they did last time.

This view fails to take account of the source of legitimacy in Chinese politics, which has been operating according to its own logic for thousands of years. The Cold War strategy of not recognising the legitimacy of the Communist Party’s rule cannot work unless the majority in the country concur.
The projection that the party has already lost the “Mandate of Heaven” is both premature and antihistorical.

Challenges on Greater Eurasia

The American challenge is global and one leading target is China’s Eurasian strategy, in the form of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Generally speaking, the principal challenges China has faced in greater Eurasia since before the US-China fallout have stemmed from situations in which clear choices have been undermined by incompatible trade-offs. For example, Beijing’s efforts to maintain good relations with Russia while having to pit itself against the policy agendas of most Western countries, especially the United States. Another problem is that the internationalisation of Chinese firms and manufacturing requires a truly diversified, globalised and knowledge-based economy, which is not compatible with political autarky and one-man rule in many BRI host countries. Another dilemma is the risk of unfreezing dormant conflicts. China’s economic relations with Eastern Europe and Central Asia, despite being positively received by national governments in the region, may complicate historical disputes such as Transnistria, a ‘frozen conflict’ in the post-Soviet space, or the Wakhan Corridor, which was a contested area during the ‘Great Game’ of the nineteenth century. If used by the Belt and Road Initiative, it may become an important transit link from China to Pakistan. However, there is a danger that zero-sum thinking may be revived by other regional players, such as India or even Russia.

Can the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) continue to function well under the new Cold War conditions to help China avoid traditional security dilemmas in Eurasia? The original mission of the SCO was to combat the ‘three evils’ of terrorism, separatism and extremism. It has since expanded the scope of its security cooperation, but is still far from being a serious “security community”, for it does not have binding collective-security agreements, nor has it ‘moved securely into the realm of preventive diplomacy or dispute resolution’.
A solution to this weakness might be for the SCO to couple with the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which was founded by Russia and most Central Asian republics after the fall of the Soviet Union – and which, unlike the SCO, has binding collective security agreements.

So far, military cooperation between the CSTO and SCO has remained limited, perhaps because of concerns regarding who would become the dominant security provider regionally, and due to the different legal and normative frameworks of the two organisations. It seems clear that China will have to tread its path to Eurasia very carefully. Any return to geopolitical rivalry in the region would not be in the country’s interest.
The SCO and the Transformation of Modern Political Processes
Ulugbek Khasanov
The heads of government of the SCO, who met in early November 2019 in Tashkent, adopted a new version of the SCO multilateral trade and economic cooperation programme until 2035. It aims to strengthen the positive dynamics of the member states’ development in such segments as banking and finance, industrial, technological, transport and logistics, scientific and educational, social, information and digital technology.
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Moreover, China must rethink the geopolitical consequences of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global development strategy first proposed by China in 2013. It had been mostly dismissed in the United States as unworkable until the administration of Donald Trump elevated it to a high-stakes challenge to its ‘America First’ world view. It is no surprise the alleged Chinese geopolitical ambition has alarmed not only Americans and Europeans, but some players in greater Eurasia, including Russia. In the Western media, the key concepts of China’s BRI are often presented as propaganda masking sinister aims: the concept of ‘connectivity’, (hu lian hu tong) for example, which the Chinese actually borrowed from Europe, is twisted into something analogous to a modern version of colonialism. 

Beijing must be prepared for the demise of the original framework of engaging Washington, and the volatility of the relationship that follows. It should consider a return to Deng Xiaoping’s original admonition to curb its global ambitions, and re-evaluate the entire Belt and Road Initiative. The global pandemic actually provides a good and morally justifiable argument for Beijing to start radical strategic retrenchment regarding territorial disputes and Taiwan, while cutting BRI commitments in a significant way.
US-China Relations: Trade Wars or Countervailing Powers?
David Lane
The Western powers have to acknowledge the rise of China and either include the country in the hegemonic core or be prepared for the emergence of a counter hegemonic power, writes David Lane, Emeritus Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge University.
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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.