From Ekspert, April 12, 2021, p. 19. Complete text:
Editors’ Note. – The intensification of the US-China standoff, which under [US President Joe] Biden could become even more tense and explosive, is bringing the world’s security and trade system into entirely new territory. If the US seeks to rally its allies into a united front to oppose China, the latter will launch a massive offensive – both diplomatic and economic – to strengthen its position and get the US to squander its resources.
A years-long conflict of attrition is unfolding. Where could it be heading, and how might the relationship between China and Russia change? Ekspert talked about this with Vasily Kashin, head of the International Military-Political and Economic Problems Department [of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies] at the Higher School of Economics.
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Question. – Is it possible to say that China is already changing its strategy toward the US in light of the actions by the Biden administration? By building new relations with allies, or new economic agreements, for example? Or is it still premature to talk about significant changes in this area?
Answer. – I think that there is now an acceleration of changes that began a long time ago. The contradictions between the US and China had been increasing gradually for a very long time. But they burst onto the scene under [former US president] Donald Trump in 2018. A trade war began, followed by mutual sanctions and various military measures.
When the  presidential election started in the US, the Chinese generally understood that under [President] Joseph Biden, relations could not fundamentally change. But there was hope they would at least partially stabilize simply because the Biden administration was thought to be more traditional, and therefore more comfortable. [The Chinese thought] that it would be possible to use traditional methods of work, for example, through business lobbying or cooperation on some local issues.
Once Biden was in office, China almost immediately began sending signals, offering to resume dialogue. As you know, Biden and [Chinese President] Xi Jinping had a telephone conversation on Feb. 11. And after that, [two] different and very strange official statements about the outcome of these negotiations went out. The Chinese said the two leaders agreed to speak to each other, but the Americans wrote that all Biden did was make demands. Apparently, the Chinese only heard what they wanted to hear.
But there was more after that. The two countries have a traditional “2+2” consultation mechanism. As part of this format, the Chinese [Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Politburo member Yang Jiechi] went [to Anchorage] to meet with US envoys [Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan], which escalated into a full-blown scandal. And for the Chinese, considering the peculiarities of their political culture, public scandals are very painful. They really dislike them. And since it came down to a public scandal, we can talk about a real turnaround in the relationship.
Q. – And what exactly happened that was new?
A. – It was hoped that once Trump left, China and the US would have room for diplomatic work. But it is now very clear that whatever changes in American domestic policy take place, it will not bring any relief. Not in four years, not in eight. That is, China has arrived at a situation of complete certainty.
That’s why the Chinese took a tougher stance. They came out swinging. For example, the European Union has imposed sanctions against them. [The Chinese] imposed sanctions on the same day against twice as many European businesses and individuals. So, I guess it’s certainly a turning point in their relationship where everyone has cast their illusions aside.
Q. – In this sense, does the announcement of a major deal between China and Iran, as well as [Russian Foreign Minister] Sergei Lavrov’s visit to China [see Vol. 73, No. 13, pp. 19‑20] fit into this “new certainty” of Beijing?
A. – Of course, the deal with Iran was in the works for a long time. But certainly, looking at Biden’s actions, it was diplomatically and propagandistically framed very powerfully. As for Sergei Lavrov’s visit, in this case, of course, there is synchronicity. On the one hand – the Anchorage scandal, and on the other – Biden’s insult to our president and the Russian ambassador to the US getting called back to Moscow [see, respectively, Vol. 73, No. 12, pp. 3‑8 and Vol. 73, No. 13, pp. 3‑6,]. All this played a role and was reflected in the programmatic joint declaration following the diplomatic meeting.
Fascinatingly, there was a joint statement on global governance issues. And Wang Yi even said, with regard to Russia, that there is no limit to deepening our cooperation. This is a significant change in Chinese rhetoric toward Moscow. Yes, we know that the 2001 treaty between Russia and China [the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation, which settled most outstanding territorial disputes; see Vol. 53, No. 29, pp. 1‑2 – Trans.] will simply be extended, not modified. But it will surely be accompanied by a powerful joint political declaration.
Q. – If we’re talking about the confrontation intensifying between Beijing and Washington, then to what extent can this process escalate?
A. – The main front of this war is currently economic, and the main battleground is the EU. For the US, the main task is to drag Europe into this sanctions agenda, to knock Chinese high-tech companies out of the European market, to get Europe to strictly tighten export standards control, followed by severe restrictions on Chinese investment in the European high technology sector. If this happens, it will have the most serious consequences, since the EU is China’s main trading partner.
You need to understand that since the US tightened the screws, the EU is China’s main source of modern technology and management experience. Europe is where significant scientific cooperation and substantial industrial cooperation are taking place. China has been working there a long time. It has a relatively good understanding of all the features and institutional weaknesses of the EU, and it’s trying to use them to strengthen its influence.
But at the same time, I think, a similar game will be played around Japan and South Korea. Although with these countries, the situation looks somewhat different. First, these are individual states with unified foreign policies. Secondly, they are carrying out more well thought-out policies, and they understand that it is not in their interest to be caught in this storm. So they will maneuver very delicately between Beijing and Washington.
The Chinese will also try to increase cooperation with Iran, and they will support countries such as Venezuela, for example. For [China], these areas are important because they allow it to spread American resources in different directions, weakening the US and preventing it from focusing on China alone. But overall, global offensives are becoming more active and tense everywhere.
Q. – Some people think that in the future, the confrontation between China and the US might bring about not just two world [ideological] systems, but two technological ecosystems, totally separate from one another. How real does such a prospect seem to you?
A. – Such a discussion is really taking place. The discussion is about decoupling – i.e., the disengagement of China and the US – and the formation of two isolated political and economic systems. But there is one key factor here: time. Of course, we’re seeing a trend in this direction. However, the complexity of modern process chainsand their interconnectedness is such that in purely technical terms this separation will take many years, more than a decade.
It should be understood that China is, among other things, the country with the largest and most powerful system in the world to train blue-collar workers. You will not find such a pool of skilled industrial workers anywhere else in the world. And when you go to another developing country, you need to immediately put aside time for training. And this process, as you understand, cannot be accelerated for any amount of money. So the disengagement, if it happens, will be very gradual. So, for quite a while, it will be reversible.
Q. – To turn the conversation toward Russia, don’t you think, from the point of view of developing our relations with China, there is potential for creating a common antisanctions bloc? An alternative to the [bloc] that exists in the West?
A. – In fact, we are already moving in this direction. Moscow tried to promote this kind of cooperation with Beijing after 2014, but the process went slowly, since the Chinese did not feel very powerful pressure from the US. In fact, the strongest shift in this direction occurred in 2020, when Trump began making direct accusations against the Chinese that they were responsible for the [COVID‑19] pandemic. And there was a whole raft of sanctions that were no longer limited to Huawei and isolated organizations. Hundreds of companies belonging to all branches of the Chinese economy have come under restrictions. Now there may be more [Chinese] companies under sanctions than Russian ones.
And from that moment, Beijing began to gradually change its policy toward Moscow. Because before there was some Chinese company that operated, say, on the American or European market and could, in theory, easily afford to sacrifice the Russian [market]. Now it needs to think about life under new conditions. And in these conditions, the Russian market becomes promising.
Q. – It just seems to me that such a unified sanctions-free platform is a great opportunity for further deepening relations, because, on the one hand, it does not obligate [Russia to do] anything serious and, on the other, it relates to common interests and allows follow-up steps to be taken, for example, in the area of collective security.
A. – In fact, in the future, it will lead to a major deepening of mutual obligations. Because if we have joint production chains and we refocus on common suppliers, it will be very difficult to break such ties. That is, the exchange of assets, close cooperation – all of this may quite strongly unite China and Russia. And such a scenario cannot be ruled out.
Q. – At the same time, I heard that the New Silk Road is an increasingly inefficient project, both in terms of cargo transportation and from the point of view of the participating states. However, based on what you said before, its significance also becomes even more important.
A. –It is a myth that One Belt, One Road has become an inefficient project. It’s outlined in the published new Chinese five-year plan, which means that it will undoubtedly be developed. Moreover, there is a special emphasis on the fact that this project will be completely transparent for all participants. What the Chinese side guarantees is that the social and environmental aspects of the regions will be given due attention.
Q. – Could other countries become connected to it in the future? Central Asia, for example, or Iran?
A. –These countries are already participating in the One Belt, One Road initiative. Central Asia is an important area of this initiative. But if we talk about its transit potential, it is rather auxiliary in relation to traffic flows going through Russia. And I think that’s how it will develop further. You only need to expand the bottlenecks. Namely, this means Poland’s road network. But the Poles don’t want to do anything about it, simply for political reasons.