Abstract. This article considers the countries of the so-called “Big Three” and the relations among them today. An attempt is made to predict the places and roles of the three countries in reworking the world order, based on the views they hold and features of the existing and future world order. Recommendations are made for their optimization and building harmonious relations capable of establishing a durable and long-lasting peace.
In recent years, relations between China, the United States, and Russia – the countries of the so-called “Big Three” – are under constant scrutiny not only by political scientists but by wide circles of the international community as well, for a number of reasons.
This is primarily due to their constituting the trio of the largest world powers, each of which differs objectively and uniquely from the world’s other countries. The United States has the most modern economic, scientific, and technological potential. China has unparalleled demographic resources. Russia has the largest territory and the most extensive mineral reserves. Due to these and other special properties, the above countries aspire to a leading global role. In their desire to claim leadership, each one strives to rely on the characteristic approaches and ideological values unique to it.
The United States counts on the principles of a market economy and democracy to cover its frequent intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries, making them subordinate and spreading a political order that corresponds to American interests.
China, in expanding its now universal penetration of developing and developed countries on different continents, calls for creating a global “common destiny community,” based mainly on strengthening trade and economic ties.
Russia, while rejecting the old Soviet ideology of socialism and communism, nevertheless continues its often paternalistic approaches toward building relations with some of its partners, though it does try to do so on a case-by-case basis.
The collapse of the earlier bipolar system that had lasted four decades, a fundamental reason for which was undoubtedly the progressive Soviet-Chinese discord of the 1960s, made the problem of reworking the world order especially relevant, down to creating a new system of international relations.
This process has been unfolding since the early 1990s. It has passed through several stages, from the establishing of monopolarity, when the United States as the winner of the Cold War tried to dictate its will and conditions of existence to the rest of the world, to the current efforts of China and Russia to undermine the American monopoly on world hegemony and promote alternative plans for global development.
Under these conditions, the United States, which even a decade ago imagined its hope of world leadership and dominance was guaranteed, began to reexamine its earlier position, moving away from the trends of globalization it had so recently initiated and in which it was an active participant, replacing them with economic nationalism. This would eventually lead to a renewal of the celebrated trade war with China, essentially marking the start of a battle to alter the existing world order.
All three of the leading world powers are thus rejecting the archaic former international structure in one way or another and favor reworking it, though each one has its own idea of what is required for it.
For the three considered countries, 2019 was a jubilee and (in some sense) culminating year. For China, it was the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, the 40th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations with the United States, and the de facto 50th anniversary of the start of American-Chinese rapprochement, which dates from Richard Nixon’s arrival at the White House in 1969.
For Russia, it was not only the 70th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China,1 but the 50th anniversary of the bloody events in the island of Damansk, which marked the culmination of the Soviet-Chinese conflict and the peak of hostility in relations between the two countries, which threatened to grow into a full-scale war between them.
For the United States, Richard Nixon’s coming to power fifty years ago is associated with both the normalization of relations with the People’s Republic of China and the simultaneous start of American-Soviet détente.
Considering 2019 to be a year of culmination enabled China, the United States, and Russia to dispel illusions. China was forced to recognize that in contrast to its economic ascent, which the United States views with relative calm and restraint, its geopolitical and technological growth evokes outright displeasure in Washington and could have the most negative consequences not only for Chinese-American relations but for the global situation as a whole.
The idea that its chances for preserving and maintaining a monopolar world are nowhere near as great or indisputable as it thought ten years ago has penetrated deeply into the United States. It, therefore, must rework not only its tactics but its strategy as well.
Among Russia’s political elite (though far from all of them), the illusory faith in their country and China having a “single path and common goals, and all we need do is form an alliance with it; or if worst comes to worst, do even more to develop ties of partnership, and we have nothing to fear,” since such cooperation brings purported “rapid and abundant benefits,” has begun to crumble.
Recent events in bilateral relations, including Xi Jinping’s last visit to Russia, have actually shown that despite the great enthusiasm expressed in the state media, both countries must still make enormous efforts to ensure their current reconciliation is not opportunistic but genuine and productive.
The year 2019 also became a virtual landmark on the road for each of the three countries to achieve the goals set by their leaders. Let us recall that during his election campaign, US President Donald Trump promised to “make America great again.” Chairman Xi has spoken repeatedly about hopes to realize the “dreams of the great rebirth of the Chinese nation” by the middle of the 21st century, and promised to provide the world “global leadership with Chinese specific features.” Vladimir Putin’s statements about Russia’s desire to regain the great power status that the Soviet Union had in its day have also struck a chord with his fellow countrymen.
These highly ambitious aims have nothing to do with one another; instead, they fully correspond to the aspirations of all three countries, which are obviously based on shoring up the baggage they accumulated earlier.
After the end of World War II, America inevitably emerged as one of the world’s leading powers, first in a bipolar world, and then, after its collapse, on a global level.
Beijing is attempting to comfortably apply the Han civilization’s ancient principle of “Sinocentralism,” according to which China is destined to be at the focus of world consciousness. Since it is “surrounded by barbarians,” it must “constantly clash with them” to ensure its own survival and subsequent rebirth.
As the largest country in the world, Russia finds it disgraceful to be satisfied with the status of a mere interregional power, since it has a nuclear arsenal comparable to that of the United States and is the legal successor to the Soviet Union.
It is clear, however, that great power ambitions must be based not only on past achievements but the corresponding defining criteria as well. As is well known, for any country to claim superpower status it must have supremacy (or at least parity) with its rivals in most of the four following spheres: economics, modern science and technology, military might, and geostrategic status and influence.
Only the United States currently meets all of these criteria. China is comparable to it in economic and (to some extent) technological parameters. Moscow can compete with Washington only in the military aspect.
China has a high global economic rating, gained after many years of acting as “the world’s factory” with cheap labor. In return, it has acquired state-of-the-art Western technologies and broad access to trade, along with the economic benefits granted to developing countries by the WTO.
Russia, initially recognized under Yeltsin as a full partner with the West and then finding itself completely subordinate to it (and virtually one step away from losing sovereignty), began its own rebuilding under Putin with a reexamination of “partner roadmaps” and the restoration of its lost military might, which it has largely succeeded in doing.
However, neither China nor Russia has yet managed to surpass America in all of the above criteria. The main common factor in their efforts to reach global heights remains agreeing that multipolarity is in their view the only acceptable future world structure, but their visions of the roads leading to it do not at all coincide.
China, which holds leading positions in the world economy while firmly denying it has any desire for hegemony, has actually demonstrated an indefatigable wish to confirm its status as a global (rather than regional) power, with its subsequent transformation into a superpower. Its plans, set forth in many Chinese government and Party documents, testify to this directly and obliquely.
The trade and economic policies followed by China in recent decades eventually gave the country a real opportunity not only to catch up to the more economically developed Western countries but to join the ranks of the world’s leaders in technologies and industry. The media in the Western countries now talk increasingly about how the United States and Europe lag behind in developing new technologies. “Robotechnical systems based on artificial intelligence, automated learning, quantum calculations, or intellectual mobility, are all being created in China, and not the United States.”2
It is well known that Chinese supercomputers are some of the fastest in the world. Also, the world’s largest radio telescope is in China. Finally, China intends to dominate the next generation of informational technology, including the world’s 5G networks.
The United States and China are not only competitors and rivals in this, but mutually dependent partners as well. The United States depends on China in a number of key areas, from inexpensive consumer goods to loan obligations totaling more than $1 trillion. China depends in turn on preserving the ability of American consumers to buy Chinese goods, and on current American technologies in certain key areas.
To achieve its set goals, China is taking a number of determined steps in the political, military, social, and demographic spheres, in addition to economics and other areas of equal importance. As was indicated in Xi Jinping’s report to the 19th CPC Congress, one of these is achieving “world leadership in omnifaceted national power and international influence” by the middle of this century.
China is taking active measures in this direction. Along with military reform to bring the combat and organizational structures of the People’s Liberation Army into line and equip it with new types of weapons, it is increasing its participation in different regional and international missions.
China is strengthening its military and strategic positions in adjacent waters and in the Asia-Pacific Region as a whole. Under certain conditions, its execution of the Belt and Road concept could make it easier to improve not only its trade and economic position but its strategic efforts as well, and on the global level.
In the last two decades, China – which not so long ago was closed to and had essentially isolated itself from the outside world – has sharply expanded and intensified its international ties, having strengthened its influence and authority in practically every region of the world through trade and investment.
The special Chinese approach to developing countries frequently compels the latter to believe that only Beijing is capable of adequately understanding the problems and difficulties they have and providing effective support and assistance.
Remarkably, the available data show that the export of Chinese capital in the form of direct investments, including those made in the developing world, grew 53,300% between 2000 and 2017, while the export of goods only tripled.3
China’s efforts and resources for improving its geostrategic position nevertheless are still inferior to the abilities and means available to the United States for such purposes, let alone the two countries’ comparative strategic military potentials. Even if we consider the nuclear missile component, the scale of which Beijing is actively increasing (while carefully hiding it from others) but still does not meet that of the Americans, the United States’ advantages over China in military might remain secure today.
It is thought that China recognizes this and is refraining from rash actions. Although the rivalry between the United States and China has already gone beyond pure economics, it has still not (in my opinion) reached the stage where war is the only way of settling their dispute. At the same time, the past unthinkability of such a war was categorically denied in a report from the respected Rand Corporation’s analytical center in the summer of 2016.4
The results from the continuing rivalry between the two countries in economics, trade, high technology, and the strategic military sphere will determine in the long run if America can maintain its leading positions in these areas, or if it will be pushed into second place by the energetic and rapidly developing Chinese Juggernaut.
In contrast to the friction between America and China, which is classified as “regulated,” Russia’s leading political analysts consider their country’s bipolar relationship with the United States to be “unregulated.”5 This is not, however, indisputable.
Russia’s relations with the United States did not deteriorate all at once. They spiraled downward gradually over a bit more than ten years. While applauding globalization and declaring in the early 1990s that Russia would join in the process, the country’s leadership at the time either did not notice or lost sight of its reverse side simultaneously being the ubiquitous transplant and spread of proverbial American stereotypes and ideological values, the Russian people inevitably adjusting to them, and increased dependence on and subordination to the United States.
The first signs of Russia’s dissatisfaction with the world order established by the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the place allocated to the country within it, emerged as early as the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, in the actions of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. His famous turnaround over the Atlantic, and the dropping of Russian paratroopers into Priština, showed that Russia would not swallow any Western line silently and without question.
Vladimir Putin’s February 10, 2007 speech in Munich was a sharp rebuttal to the Western dictate that, it is true, only aggravated the situation and reinforced the negative perception of Russia and its leader in Western society. By that time, however, Russia and countries friendly toward it had already taken the first steps toward creating structures (e.g., the SCO, BRICS, RIC, and the EAEС) destined to lay the foundations for a future multipolar world order that would be an alternative to Western monopolarity. All of this proceeded virtually in parallel with the Turn toward the East campaign, under the slogan “Catch the East Wind in Your Sails!”
A result of Russia’s future actions, the most important of which was the annexation of the Crimea, was its exclusion from the G8 in March 2014. This marked the beginning of the true crisis in its relations with the West, which started to grow in totality as it deepened. This systemic crisis, which unfolded against the background of a number of serious domestic quarrels in Western society, became even worse with the arrival of Donald Trump’s administration in the United States.
By the middle of summer 2018, Russian-American relations could not have been worse. Many compared them to the Cuban Missile Crisis, with Secretary General António Guterres in particular saying there was a new Cold War.6 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was even more categorical, saying that the situation was more critical than in the distant past, since “there were then channels of communication, and today there are none.”7
The first communication occurred on July 16, 2018, when talks between Putin and Trump were held in Helsinki. Assessments of these ranged from restrained pessimism to cautious optimism in the Russian media, and from paranoid spyomania to accusations of “betraying national interests” coming from one element of the American Establishment. The second was heard recently, during the Osaka meeting of the G20.
Why did Russia’s fifteen years of moving toward the West and its efforts to make their relations more comfortable and trusting end with its de facto isolation and locking out?
At the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, US President Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire.” This was meant to be offensive and insulting, but the average Soviet citizen liked hearing the word “empire” even in that negative context, since it meant they were not alone; rather, they were surrounded by allies of a sort – or at least by satellites.
The Russia of today is far from being an empire, but the collective, coordinated efforts of the West have for a minimum of five or six tears been aimed at pushing it into the company of such “rogue states” as North Korea, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and others like them.
It is also true that Russians feel more alone in the world than before, despite the new types of advanced and supermodern weapons their country now seems to have, and the heralded great technological breakthroughs in the military sphere proclaimed by President Putin. The term “strategic solitude,” toward which respected Russian political analysts are inclined more favorably than negatively, has even emerged.8
“We must become stronger economically, and then others will come to us. But who is coming to us now? Those who come to us with their hands out, and we are unable to spoon-feed them caviar. We must provide for ourselves.” These words were spoken by General of the Army Vyacheslav Trubnikov, former Director of the Foreign Intelligence Service and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.9 There is nothing more to add.
A country with a strong developed economy, capable of not only providing for itself but offering the rest of the world a wide variety of its own products in addition to raw materials and weapons, can hardly remain in the vacuum of isolation. Neither can it be confounded by the task of seeking doubtful allies while attracting them by issuing obviously unrecoverable credits that will have to be compensated for later with “domestic resources.”
Unfortunately, the Russia of today has virtually no truly effective treaty allies. Of the former Soviet republics along the perimeter of the Russian Federation, it has official alliances with only the five other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, which it has pledged to defend at any cost “down to the use of nuclear weapons,” based on the obligations of collective defense. In reality, however, nuclear aggression against these countries is, according to prominent international experts, “hard to imagine.”10
Russia’s relations with another six former Soviet republics (Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, and – to some extent – Estonia and Moldova) are downright hostile, or close to being so. With the remaining three (Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan), they are neutral or restrained. It is clear that with such relations inside the former Soviet Union, we should not expect a separate monopolar system grouped around Russia to be created in the future.
As noted above, China, which long ago positioned itself as Russia’s “trustworthy strategic partner,” undoubtedly has power and influence around the world. Talks on transforming the partnership relations between Russia and China into a formal alliance have been held for many years, primarily under pressure from representatives of the military and security services, who are only vaguely aware of the specifics of the issues. They could be reactivated once again after a recent high-level Russian-Chinese meeting.
However, China will never become a true treaty ally of Russia, mainly because it is fundamentally opposed to entangling itself in alliances. It believes that any alliance obligations are accompanied by a partial loss of sovereignty, especially in the military field.
Today, Russia itself should have to be apprehensive about such an alliance with China. First of all, some of its sovereignty would hypothetically lie in China’s hands if one were concluded. Russia would have to think carefully about building an alliance with a country whose population is ten times larger than its own, while its GDP is only several percent that of China’s. Neither should it forget that Chinese investment in Russia comes exclusively through government channels, and not from China’s private businesses.
Second and most important, Russia’s positions do not always agree fully with China’s, and on some issues they differ markedly. Each side has its own priority interests. It is worth remembering the differences between the two countries’ views on the economic development of Central Asia, and the activities of the SCO, and other regional structures. The statistics on Russia and China’s voting in the UN Security Council and General Assembly are interesting, as they reveal the dissimilarity in their approaches to assessing important international problems.11 China holds a “special position” on the Crimea and Russia’s territorial dispute with Japan, and is inclined toward solidarity with the United States where the Arctic is concerned. Beijing scrupulously follows all of Washington’s financial and economic sanctions against Russia and does not wish to participate in multilateral talks on disarmament.
At times it seems that China sees Russia not so much as an economic and political partner but as a kind of counterforce capable of working with it to oppose American actions in the Asia-Pacific Region and worldwide over against the Chinese interests. Such an important factor as the compatibility of national psychologies should obviously be considered in creating treaty alliances. If it is ignored, the results from such efforts could be unpredictable.
It is difficult to imagine not even an alliance but a single Russian-Chinese pole in the coming world architecture, since the problem of “leader and led” would inevitably arise, given the two countries’ ambitions, and this could aggravate existing disagreements. Nevertheless, current Russian-Chinese relations must be cultivated by every means possible. Attention should be given to strengthening ties and finding ways to stimulate interest in them among the Chinese.
It was noted above that despite its still intact superpower status, the United States is dissatisfied with its current position in the world. The reason for this is not merely its waning hopes of world domination but its dashed dreams of increasing its supremacy and advantages by initiating the process of globalization, in which America was to be an active participant. Instead, the levers of globalization have easily been taken over by the Chinese.
The universality of globalization was zealously defended and upheld by the team of Democrats headed by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who in America represented the interests of the international speculative financial and oligarchical elite. While affecting the political climate inside the United States, the departure of “globalist” Obama and the arrival of “antiglobalist” Donald Trump at a difficult moment of turbulence in the world led simultaneously to interference in foreign affairs as well.
The changing of the guard in Washington was not limited to the traditional party-based shuffling of officials. Instead, it was key to a shift in priorities on the path of American society’s development and the shaping of domestic and foreign policy.
Moving to strengthen domestic markets, revive and expand the industrial base within the United States, restrict the influx of immigrants, withdraw from international trade agreements that could result in economic losses for America, reject speculative deals, increase the production of domestic oil and gas while limiting imports and simultaneously trying to force Europe and the rest of the world to buy expensive American shale oil instead of cheaper Russian petroleum, and similar steps taken by the new president both altered the situation inside the country drastically and provoked an international reaction that included such statements as “the United States risks losing its role of world leader,” and “the traditional internal bipartisan unity in foreign politics is virtually on the brink of collapse.”
The situation worsened when Trump was accused of conspiring with Russia to ensure his victory in the presidential elections. It was largely due to this factor that relations between the two countries became tense and difficult. Even if Trump’s desire to improve them was sincere, he could not openly display his amicability toward Russia, since he had already positioned himself in the American media as something akin to an “agent of the Kremlin.”
Characteristically, the main reason for the deterioration of Russian-American relations was not so much the events in Ukraine or Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, which merely provided an excuse for maneuvering by the United States. The prime cause was that during the January 2009 change in administrations, the Democrats and Republicans failed to notice the demise of monopolarity and, believing the consequences of the collapse of the bipolar world system had finally been put to rest, dismissed Russia as a global player.
The pragmatic Vladimir Putin’s return to power in 2012 upset the deck for the Americans, shattered their division of the world according to interests, and led to a renewal of a whole range of conflicts that brought a gradual worsening and finally the complete deterioration of Russian-American ties, long before the events in Ukraine. The American reaction to these, and to Russia’s role in them, appeared to be one manifestation of the United States’ resistance to the first steps toward laying the foundations of global multipolarity.
A chain reaction of anger toward Russia traveled from the United States to the European countries, expanding the policy of sanctions and producing countersanctions. This led to infringement of Russian rights to normal activity within international formats, including participation in a number of forums. The West closed ranks against Russia for one reason and one reason only: It had no desire to watch Russia’s rebirth as a great global power, which ran counter to their plans and frightened them more than anything else.
Russian-American ties are perhaps one of the most difficult problems of the new US administration. Russia is itself largely to blame for this, since many of its politicians, political analysts, and media figures began to exaggerate “Trumpomania” immediately after the elections,12 expressing unfounded optimism in hopes of a rapid improvement in relations with America. None of these proved to be justified. The rise in optimism observed in the days immediately after the renewal of high-level Russian-American contacts is now void of any real content and cannot be taken seriously. In the opinion of many American analysts, expressed even before Trump was inaugurated, it is highly likely that the state of Russian-American relations will depend largely on what happens in Moscow and Beijing.13
Where the last is concerned, experts believe there has long been a viewpoint within the American strategic community that “the United States must prevent China from becoming a world power by instigating domestic unrest and, if this does not help, by resorting to preemptive war.”14
Even having normalized relations with Beijing in 1972, Washington has in reality kept its ideological intolerance and strategic goals of its policy toward China, which are to eventually replace its political structure and social system and install a regime friendly to the United States. This, as is confirmed by war games in so-called Chimerica and other things, is one of the main reasons for the buildup of conflict potential in American-Chinese relations.
Considering its plans for modernization in the first half of this century, aggravation of the conflict with the United States would be a disaster for China, one capable of slowing the country’s development and returning to its original position. Until recently, relations between the two countries were, therefore, described in China as “a combination of cooperation and competition,” but with no elements of confrontation.15 At the same time, Beijing has never agreed to act as the United States’ junior partner.
Trump’s intention to restore the grandeur of America on a new, stronger foundation, could not help but reflect on the character of American-Chinese relations. Even under Obama, China, having become the world’s second (and according to some indicators, first) economy, was increasing its participation in global management, expanding it from economic to security affairs and thereby announcing it aspires to the role of a global leader.
This possibility was unthinkable not only for Obama, who tried to prevent China from strengthening its position in the Asia-Pacific Region. It turned out to be unacceptable to Trump as well, despite his proclaimed inclination to favor Chinese initiatives for expanding cooperation with the countries in the region.
The United States could not tolerate China’s dominance in the APR, since the loss of Pacific Asia would deprive the Americans of a platform underpinning the foundations of their global leadership. At Trump’s initiative, a new area has thus emerged in the geopolitical sphere: the Indo-Pacific region, or the so-called Indo-Pacific.
While continuing to call relations between the United States and China “the most important bilateral relationship in the world,” Washington listed China among its main strategic rivals for the first time in the 2017 National Security Strategy. It drew back from two important postulates in the previous administration’s policy toward Beijing:
- Maintaining the earlier balance of power in the APR and East Asia could contain China’s drive to alter the established American order in the area.
- In the hope of subsequent liberalization of China’s regime from within, there should be no further attempts to integrate China into the general world order created under US patronage.
In the political and legal sphere, the United States charges China with the militarization of the South China Sea, increasing its pressure on Taiwan, violations in the field of human rights and freedom of religion, cyberespionage encouraged by the authorities, modernizing Chinese military installations by stealing American technology through hacker attacks, and expanding its geopolitical ambitions.
In the financial and economic sphere, Beijing is traditionally accused of (among other things) manipulating the yuan exchange rate, establishing and taking advantage of discriminatory trade barriers, dumping goods leading American industry to ruin, introducing restrictions on trade with the United States, and constantly demanding that China have access to new American technologies in exchange for allowing US companies onto its markets.
Although the United States was first to announce it was in a trade war with China, Washington maintains it began with Beijing challenging America. At the same time, reasons for the outbreak of the war offered by Russian analysts range from accusations that China ignited it (consciously or unconsciously) by failing to observe generally recognized rules of international trade, to the United States being at fault for not wanting to accept China’s efforts to acquire global power status.
In this context, Trump’s actions are viewed as deliberately restraining China’s technological development in order to slow its advance toward that goal, particularly by upsetting the Made in China-2025 program, since the main targets of US protectionist measures are precisely those industries given priority under its provisions.
The very existence of the current American-Chinese conflict attests to the emergence of some fundamentally new points in relations between the two countries:
- Close trade and economic ties and a huge volume of trade turnover are no guarantee that the disputes between the United States and China will not grow into a major confrontation, and perhaps result in all-out conflict.
- Trade disputes are levers not only of economic pressure but of political pressure as well.
- China’s status is changing in its relations with the United States. It is being transformed from a competitive partner to one of America’s geopolitical rivals, confrontation with which could easily spread from economics to other spheres.
- Mechanisms of dialogue between the United States and China, the effectiveness of which has been muted by the deterioration of their relations, should be restructured or revived.
- Conflicts of an ideological and humanitarian nature in matters of, e.g., democracy and totalitarianism, rights and freedoms, and the definition of the rule of law are clearly growing in relations between the two countries.
- New conflicts have emerged: US demands for the need to include China in Russian-American negotiations on the topic of nuclear missiles met a sharply negative response from the Chinese.
- The difference between approaches to organizing the future world order remains: the Chinese advocate multipolarity, while the United States continues to adhere to the idea of a monopolar world.
What will the future world order be? It is difficult to predict this, though it can be outlined in more detail if we consider the aims of the countries in the trio and the current situation in their relations with one another.
The stipulated deadlines for settling the trade and economic dispute between the United States and China are constantly being extended, and the parties’ negotiations have obviously reached a dead end. This strongly indicates that even if there is an eventual agreement between them, the fundamental conflicts that have built up in Chinese-American relations will not be fully resolved. The confrontation that began as a trade war threatens to grow into a permanent state of mutual hostility, to which the two countries’ strongly expressed intention not to give in to each other attests.
Obviously not expecting a quick and amicable resolution of its economic conflict with the United States, Beijing has characteristically abandoned the restrained and diplomatic rhetoric it was using not so long ago, and now intends to “get tough” with America and “achieve peace through struggle.”16 Each country has its own version of the truth. China believes it has subsidized the American economy for decades by loaning the United States money and supplying it with industrial goods, so it can easily cause it to implode by cutting off such support.
The United States does not believe this approach will harm only it but China as well, since the growth of the Chinese economy was guaranteed over the same decades through preferential access to American technologies, capital, and markets. Washington is, therefore, confident that cutting China’s economy off from the American system (if events lead to a total embargo and dollar sanctions) “cannot help but deal China a rather painful blow it will have to ameliorate with prolonged and difficult reforms.”17
China’s dumping of US bonds, which would bring serious grief to the average American, would, therefore, play into Trump’s hands, since it would weaken the dollar and simultaneously help reduce the country’s trade deficit with China.
To overcome the emerging conflict, China was prepared to
(a) increase imports from the United States by substituting unfinished American goods for products from other countries,
(b) agree to reforms in the area of intellectual property and making its economy more open, and
(c) make concessions in sectors dictated by the very logic of economic reform.
This did not, however, satisfy the United States. It additionally insisted on denying the Chinese government support from high-tech industries and curtailing other forms of subsidization. For China, this was obviously a black mark it could not overlook. It would seem Xi Jinping himself forbade any further Chinese concessions to the United States.
At the same time, it is thought that after indulging the Mueller Commission, Trump no longer had to strike a quick deal with China. Though this might have been a tactical success, it could have seemed a strategic failure in the policy of making America “great again” in the runup to the 2020 presidential elections.18
Viewpoints differ as to the prospects for the American-Chinese conflict growing in the future. One of these is that the current American administration clearly intends to pressure China as far as it can, since the question of whether the United States will retain its status as the world’s monopole in the 21st century is being settled. Escalation will continue so long as its consequences are not intolerable to either China or the United States. Chinese leaders are in turn clearly counting on their people having a higher threshold of pain, and their system being able to endure more than their opponents’.
Another opinion is that Beijing has given up on finding a solution to the problem with the Republican administration and will do everything it can to encourage the return of the Democrats to the White House in 2020, especially since the son of their potential candidate Joe Biden has ties to Chinese business.
It must be admitted that Trump’s policy is gradually reducing the United States’ trade deficit with China, due primarily to the drop in Chinese exports to America, which in 2018 was already as great as 2.4%.
The United States has drastically limited direct Chinese investments in its strategic industries, especially in the sphere of developing artificial intelligence and 5G standards. It is also pressuring its partners and allies to refrain from participating in the Belt and Road initiative, and to step up their military activities where China is concerned. These include patrolling the East and South China Seas better to guarantee freedom of navigation.
However, we cannot exclude the possibility of the Chinese leadership disagreeing over the future course of relations with the United States against a background of outward “monolithic unity.” Testifying to this is the divergence of opinion among China’s expert community, which is seriously influencing the evolution of Beijing’s policy. While members of the “progovernment bloc” (Beijing and the northeastern part of the country) advocate increasing resistance to America on nearly all fronts, the business-oriented and prosperous regions of southeastern and southern China (Shanghai, Guangdong, and others) insist on seeking “channels of communication.” This is hardly surprising when we consider the income they risk losing.19
So far, Beijing has taken measures in response to the United States raising duties on Chinese imports from 10% to 25% in May, to the tune of $200 billion. Starting on June 1, 2019, China raised its tariffs on 2,493 goods imported from the United States from 10% to 25%. Tariffs on another 1,078 goods were raised from 10% to 20%. All American claims against China were simultaneously denied, including demands for US access to Chinese markets in return for technology transfer, which the newspaper Renmin ribao dismissed as “pure fantasy.”
American claims against China in the nuclear missile sphere were also denied. Beijing’s position is that the countries with the largest nuclear arsenals ought to fulfill their obligations for disarmament, continue observing arms control agreements, and extend the corresponding treaties.
China itself, which has ostensibly promised “not to be the first to use nuclear arms against other countries” while an estimated 80% of its strategic arsenal consists of intermediate-range weapons, claims its nuclear missile forces are kept “at the minimum level.” It will, therefore, not participate in any negotiations on trilateral agreements for them. Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army has already begun to build aircraft carriers and establish foreign bases.
China’s refusal to participate in such negotiations is nevertheless not the worst thing that could happen in relations between the quarrelling rivals. Beijing’s current program to internationalize the yuan and crowd America’s hard currency out of China’s domestic market threatens to have even more serious consequences. Having accumulated reserves of US dollars up to 2014, China changed its strategy five years ago, preferring to make hard-currency investments abroad. China’s plans are to cease using the US dollar in international trade in the future, after which its economy will need no longer fear foreign sanctions.
What would this mean for Russia and the rest of the world?
In its trade relations with China, Russia has agreed to expand the practice of paying in national currencies. So far, as much as 76% of the two countries’ trade is conducted in US dollars, and a full transition to the yuan and ruble would entail definite risks. The devaluation of the yuan due to the trade war with the Americans results in losses for those who hold them. This happened to the RF Central Bank in 2018, bringing the share of yuan in its hard-currency reserves to 15%.
Where world consequences are concerned, the problem is that the US economy, while laboring under a $20 trillion national debt, still manages to stay afloat, largely because of the dollar’s use as the world’s main currency, so long as Washington issues it. The de-dollarization of the international economic system, one of Beijing’s main goals, could upset its coherency and produce viable independent issuers that rely on the yuan, gold, or some other standard, and are controlled by forces authorized to make political, economic, and other such decisions.
Other isolated financial systems of global importance might emerge alongside new issuers. This could provoke a new Cold War, but on financial and economic (rather than political and ideological) grounds. It could also launch a new stage of de-globalization – or at least fragment the world economy. Fighting harder for the future restructuring of global markets does not exclude the possibility of the economic Cold War turning hot in the long run.
Ninety-six-year-old Henry Kissinger, the main architect of American-Chinese relations and initiator of the two countries’ rapprochement, believes there is no way out of the situation in which they find themselves today, that is free of conflict. The confrontation is further exacerbated by the divide separating America and China continuing to follow ideological lines to which they have from time to time tried to turn a blind eye.
It follows from Kissinger’s assertion that the probability of “soft” alternatives to the harsh variant, in which the rivals might grope toward agreement, is practically zero. At the same time, the possibility of the two parties both realizing the consequences of escalating the conflict between them, and what it would mean for the global community and security, keeps alive the hope they will not dare go so far. It would, therefore, be desirable for the future development of the current situation if they sought peaceful solutions, regardless of how long and intricate they might be, through compromise and concessions. The end result could be the creation of a new bipolarity – or a flimsy structure on the brink of collapse.
What are Russia’s place and role in these searches? Today, it is caught between Atlantic Europe and China, which are already prepared for the transition to the next technological era and a new level of digitization. Russia’s choice of its political orientation could thus also become the path of its future technological development. Or, it could be the other way around – technologies might determine its policy. In light of today’s overwhelmingly confrontational paradigm, the temptation of siding with China is quite great.
Prominent politicians Igor Ivanov and Dai Binguo called for the creation of a bilateral Russian-Chinese pole at the last joint forum held under the aegis of the Russian Council of International Affairs in Moscow in May 2019. This proposal was definitely applauded by those in Russia who say categorically that “in league with China, we’re an indomitable force.” This formula, indisputable at first glance, is dangerous because it aims to maintain the permanence of confrontation and the inevitability of armed conflict, and could play a negative role. However, there should be no permanent confrontation.
Those who today advocate a hasty consolidation of friendship with China down to reviving the old slogan “Russians and Chinese – brothers forever!” should remember certain aspects of China’s national mentality, where talk frequently differs from actions, and the zigzags and nuances in the 70-year history of their relations with each other. They should also consider the comparative statistics of China’s trade and economic ties with Russia and the United States.20
In addition, the Russian media recognize that the same emotional component which was present in Chinese-American ties when official diplomatic relations were established between the two countries nearly fifty years ago is playing a large role in today’s Russian-Chinese rapprochément.
Political relations between Russia and China are today better and more extensive than their economic collaboration, while Chinese-American trade and economic ties, despite the growing conflict, are still deeper and stronger than relations in the political sphere. Unfortunately, Russia now seems to be the weakest member of the trio in terms of economic parameters, geopolitical weight, and international influence.
The confrontational paradigm will continue to dominate so long as the Americans strive for hegemony, while long-term plans for creating a new international order to replace the Brussels-Washington system prevail among Russia and China.
It, therefore, follows that the most important factors in moving toward a new world system are switching from a paradigm of confrontation to one of cooperation; from perceiving the world as a combination of problems and conflicts to recognizing the need for it to develop along lines of collaboration; and replacing the principle of a balance of power with one of a balance of interests.
This does not mean, however, that in moving along this path to collaboration with China, Russia should indulge it wherever possible and act exclusively in its interests while ignoring its own. Above all, it is not in Russia’s interest to try to reconcile China and America. The classic formula of relations in a trilateral format, where those of one side with each of the other two sides are better than those among all three, could turn out to be best for Russia.
Russia’s foreign policy priority should consequently be establishing ties with the United States, which would require a major reworking of the practices, forms, means, and approaches of Russian diplomacy. For Russia, key points along this path would be seeking support from a number of economically important, politically neutral, and militarily strong countries other than China, and finding grounds for compromises with the United States in areas that are acceptable to both sides.
The recently floated idea of holding an EU-RF-PRC-APR forum on problems of peaceful coexistence and reworking the world order is, therefore, interesting. It would be useful to invite representatives from the United States to participate in such a forum as well.
Ideally, the parties to the conflict should understand the need to reach agreement on constructive ways of managing their rivalry, in which cooperation in some spheres should proceed simultaneously with healthy competition in others. It would then be possible to build a new international order based on the understanding that any rising power must play a definite role in shaping global rules and institutions.
Such approaches once guided China in proposing principles for managing the situation in the South China Sea to the United States. They could form the basis for dealing with the consequences of the old Cold War era – the lines of demarcation on the Korean Peninsula and in the Taiwan Strait.
- By “Russian-Chinese relations,” the author means the bilateral ties between the Soviet Union/Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China since October 1, 1949.
- Tressel Leon, Kitai ne ostavlyayet Amerike ni odnogo shansa [ China Leaves America No Chance]. URL: https://svpressa.ru/economy/article/ 228252
- See: Otyrba, A., O chyom kitayskiye vlasti signaliziruyut Rossiyi? [What Is the Chinese Government Signaling to Russia?], May 23, 2019. Firefox HTML
- Batyuk, V.I., Rossiya i Kitay v strategiyi administratsiyi Trampa [Russia and China in the Trump Administration strategy], Perspektivy mnogostoronnego sotrudnichestva ShOS s mezhdunarodnymi strukturami v interesakh razvitiya strategiyi Organizatsiyi [Russia and China in the Strategy of the Trump Administration: Prospects for Multilateral Cooperation between the SCO and International Structures in the Interests of Developing the Organization’s Strategy], Institute for Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 2019, p. 31.
- Said by V.N. Garbuzov, Director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for US and Canadian Studies, at a joint seminar for scholars of the Institute for Far Eastern Studies and the Institute for US and Canadian Studies, held at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies on March 26, 2019.
- URL: https://russian.rt.com/world/news/505979
- BBC interview on April 16, 2018.
- Karaganov S., Svoboda v vybore puti [Freedom in Choosing a Path], Rossiyskaya gazeta, July 7, 2018.
- Argumenty u fakty, # 24, 2018.
- Ibid., # 11, 2018.
- See: Vystupleniye A.Ch. Mokretskogo na ‘kruglom stole’ po problemam rossiysko-kitayskikh otnosheniy [Address of A.Ch. Mokretsky at the Round Table on Problems of Russian-Chinese Relations], Problemy Dal’nego Vostoka, # 3, 2019, pp. 17-18.
- In January 2017 alone, Trump was mentioned 202,000 times in the Russian media, as compared to 147,700 times for Vladimir Putin, who had been in power six of the preceding years. Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 1, 2017.
- Ibid., January 10, 2017.
- Ibid. (Scenarios), # 12, 1998.
- Xiandai guoji guanxi, ## 1-2, 2002, p. 93.
- URL: https://news-front.info/2019/05/16
- URL: https://profile.ru/columnist/govorit-ne-o-chem-141566
- This was made clear in addresses by Chinese analysts during the 5th International Conference “Russia and China: Cooperation in the New Era,” held in Moscow under the aegis of the Russian Council on International Affairs on May 29-30, 2019.
- China’s exports to Russia in 2018 totaled $45.8 billion; imports from Russia, $56.5 billion. China’s exports to the United States totaled $456.5 billion; imports from the United States, $147 billion. In 2018, Russia accounted for 1.9% of all Chinese exports; exports from Russia accounted for 2.8% of all Chinese imports.
Translated by Terence C. Fabian