Results of the Year: USA as a Catalyst for China’s Global Strategy

The uncertainty underlying US-China relations has reached a critical level of severity which has affected the way China will react to such tactics in the future, writes Andrey Sushentsov, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club.

The key international phenomenon of 2019 was the strategic inconsistency of the United States, which began to exert frontal pressure on China, thereby stimulating Beijing to focus on improving its own global strategy. The United States, through its abrasive military, political and economic pressure, essentially spurred Beijing to develop its own global vision, aimed at creating an alternative international order. Washington forced China’s reluctant hand in making a final choice, choosing from the available options and thereby limiting its own manoeuvrability.

Obviously, in international affairs, China takes a defensive position. It is aware of its own domestic fragility and asymmetrical development compared to some regions; it also understands the intermediate nature of its own achievements in terms of economic development. The Chinese elites did not seek to destroy the country’s economic symbiosis with the United States but were forced to take that path insisted upon by the United States.

China also does not offer an alternative ideology in its rivalry with the United States. The ideologemes voiced by Chinese leaders most often offer a new way of pursuing common goods. For example, the initiative to create a region of joint economic prosperity in Asia or the Belt and Road project, which Chinese leaders see as an unconditional common good.

American King Kong and the Law of the Jungle
Andrey Kortunov
Why is Russia, with its annual military spending of $50-60 billion considered as America’s most dangerous rival in the 2020 budget? Why is China perceived as a strategic challenge, despite spending only a third what the United States does on its defence? And why is the same President Trump stubbornly twisting the arms of his NATO allies, demanding more and more allocations to maintain the security of the West? Is the budget of $738 billion not enough?

Of course, China benefits from the open nature of global trade and acts opportunistically. The Chinese investment strategy is active in Europe and meets mutual interest there from local governments. So, Hungary chose in favour of a proposal to have the Chinese develop its 5G networks. In Germany, the discussion on this topic reached the level of the Chancellor and the President. At the same time, Germany is opposed to American pressure, as Washington has prompted Berlin to block technological cooperation with China. Beijing has also strengthened its mutually beneficial partnership with Russia.

Until recently, all these initiatives lacked a clear strategy and vision. Probably the main common denominator for all Chinese initiatives is the principle of pragmatism, and not providing charismatic leadership in the 21st century in a way that would be comparable to America’s approach. Moreover, it is pragmatism that makes it easier for China and Russia to find a common language.

It is obvious to experts that China’s key vital interests are purely regional in nature. This concerns the situation in the East and South China Seas, as well as Taiwan, which plays a key role in the security of China. Beijing sees itself as a predominantly maritime power whose welfare depends on maritime trade. And since this trade primarily flows through the Pacific Ocean and the surrounding seas, Taiwan is at the very centre of the key trade flows of the Chinese economy. Control over Taiwan will be a vital goal of any Chinese government. This has encouraged Beijing to build up its merchant fleet and navy to protect maritime communications.

At the same time, China has no experience in projecting its power abroad; its strategic culture has not been developed in this direction. Building experience handling military strategy is characteristic of classical European powers, which have a rich track record of engagement in conflicts and negotiations. The ongoing growth of Chinese power can be compared more aptly with a pot overflowing with liquid than with a conscious strategy. That is probably why the process of obtaining the experience necessary for a great power will not come quickly.

Properly, the pressure of the US, which intends to deter China, has driven Beijing to formulate a global strategy. By adding trade barriers and sanctions to its political pressure on China and its closest allies, the US is actually prompting Beijing to articulate its development goals more clearly, without relying on favourable external conditions.

Greater Eurasia: What Is Yet To Be Done?
Timofei Bordachev
Five years after the emergence of its predecessor – the idea to align the EAEU and the Belt and Road Initiative – the Greater Eurasia concept remains rather vague so as to raise concern but not cause tension among potential participants. How long it will remain this way depends on the intentions of the most important regional states.

The Americans have placed particular pressure on the technological cooperation between China and its allies, as well as on the production of rare-earth metals, which play a key role in microelectronics. So far, there are no serious financial sanctions against the Chinese economy. But as soon as they are seriously considered by the Americans, China will take steps to create an alternative financial system, which, of course, Russia will quickly join.

The uncertainty underlying US-China relations has reached a critical level of severity which has affected the way China will react to such tactics in the future. So far, Beijing has maintained the previous line that globalisation is for the common good and China is its defender. This line corresponds to the principle metaphor of Chinese power – the archetypal image of a benevolent ruler, who is not visible to citizens, but creates conditions in which the economy flourishes and there are no conditions for a crisis. The Americans are forcing China to leave this natural comfort zone, and we still have to find out what the reaction of the Chinese authorities could be. Due to limited strategic experience, China’s transition between a “benevolent ruler” model and one where crises necessitate a sharp and radical reaction could be very quick.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.