Modern Diplomacy
Russia, the US and China in the Long Confrontation of the 21st Century

The world will still be global and interconnected, with a common foundation for development—but that foundation will no longer be linked to the dollar or backed by American carrier strike groups, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.

A year ago, it seemed to many that the confrontation between Russia and the West in Ukraine would be intense, but short-lived. Twelve months later, it has become clear that these calculations were strategic illusions. The conflict in our neighbouring country has entered the stage of a protracted confrontation, and its dynamics can be compared to a marathon. This is a protracted standoff — for the right to be a free and sovereign subject in a polycentric world order.

This confrontation is rooted in the events of twenty years ago. March 20, 2003 was the highest point of American power and the unipolar world order: the US invaded Iraq. Exactly two decades after this event, on March 20, 2023, a summit which brought together the leaders of Russia and China was held in Moscow — this meeting symbolized the formation of a new, multipolar world.

Previously, the United States presented itself to the world as a guarantor of globalisation, a solidary international community, a country that creates comfortable conditions for the development of other states. The infrastructure of American influence, particularly the currency and financial system, was presented as a public good. On February 24, 2022, the US began to use the resources, which had allowed it to be a leader for the public good, as a weapon. Thus, America has dramatically changed the nature of its participation in world politics: from leadership based on positive incentives to hegemony based on prohibition and isolation from public goods.

In the long-term strategic interests of the United States, the Ukrainian crisis for some time retained the significance of a local, Eastern European conflict. Washington believed it had freedom of choice: if US dominance in Europe and the blockade of Russia were “bought” at too high a price, the conflict could end quickly and according to Washington’s will. For example, in 2021, Kabul’s government fell only a few months after the moment Joe Biden decided to end direct American participation in the Afghan conflict. If the conflict had ended within six months, the United States might have been able to retain the role of provider for the “common good”.

But the “local conflict” has lasted a year and still continues. Moscow is ready to accept the American bet: the history of Russia shows the high effectiveness of Russian actions in a long protracted confrontation. In parallel with the pressure on Russia, the Americans began to put pressure on China — through Taiwan, through a series of sanctions targeting sensitive Chinese goods and industries, and through the persecution of high-ranking entrepreneurs. As a result, Beijing joined the “high-stakes game.” At some point, the American idea “either you are with us or against us” resonated deeply in China. Beijing makes its position unambiguous: a future settlement must also affect Chinese interests. If we analyse the content of the 12 points proposed by Beijing as a peace plan for Ukraine, we can see why they caused such discontent in the West. This is a systematic presentation of the principles of a polycentric world order, which does not correspond to American plans. The US sees this as a threat because it recognizes that China’s weight in international affairs is such that it only needs to take half a step to convert its weight into real political influence.

The common interests of Russia and China extend from the economy and energy to the military sector. This situation is a historical anomaly, unthinkable in terms of the behaviour of two neighbouring great powers. However, at this stage, the strategies of China and Russia are linked by a common goal to end the unilateral dominance of the US. The world will still be global and interconnected, with a common foundation for development—but that foundation will no longer be linked to the dollar or backed by American carrier strike groups. Since China is the main trading partner of most countries in the world, including American allies, the transition to yuan trading, which has now accelerated, is a completely natural process.

The participants in the new edition of the long-term confrontation have high stakes. On the one hand, Russia has put at stake its vital interests as a great power and a conductor of multipolarity. China, having joined the confrontation, cannot afford to rewind time and return to the position of a minor player acquiring the benefits of Western globalization. On the other hand, the United States did not realize that, by moving to the position of hegemon, it puts the existence of the US financial system at risk in this confrontation as an unshakable basis of their global influence. There is a danger in this situation: now the US cannot afford to lose and will seek to have the initiative, escalating tension in different parts of the world.

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