China was on everyone's lips at numerous summits and international gatherings in the last days and weeks, writes Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed for commonspace.eu. "China will be among the key world players throughout the 21st century; it will be the number one economic power, and all have to accept and adapt to this reality. Many are not happy with this prospect and would like to prevent it from becoming a reality, but no one has the necessary capacity to contain China, despite the fact that many want to, for the moment for doing that has passed."
While many states make efforts to eventually overcome the outcomes of the COVID 19 pandemic through a large-scale vaccination process, and seek to return to the pre-2020 life, geopolitics, somehow pushed to the corner by the disease, returns to the spotlight. Recent weeks saw a chain of global summits – G7, NATO, and the USA-Russia meeting. The world leaders discussed many topics – climate change, the restoration of the transatlantic alliance, relations with Russia. However, the most repeated word in all these gatherings was China. “Rise of China”, “China's challenge”, “assertive China”, “China-led world order”, “China hegemony in Asia” – this is perhaps not the complete list of China-related phrases. The key driver behind these discussions was the US, and there there are few if any differences between the Trump and the Biden administrations. President Trump launched a trade war against China and started decoupling, especially in the digital world. Sanctions against Chinese tech giants, Huawei and ZTE, were harbingers of the coming technological wars.
Back in 2011, the Obama administration launched its 'Pivot to Asia' policy seeking to balance growing Chinese influence on the continent. However, despite all efforts by the US to prevent or significantly slow the economic development of China, Beijing continued its astonishing growth. In 2014 China surpassed the US in GDP PPP, and most probably will overtake the US in nominal GDP in 2026-2027.
The rise of China and some other powers – Russia, India, and Brazil – triggered the transformation of the post-Cold War world order. The US enjoyed its 'Unipolar moment" in 1991-2008, a period marked by absolute American hegemony. During this period, the US pushed forward the "Grand strategy of liberal hegemony." The EU and NATO enlargement were the key pillars of this strategy, which resulted in the inclusion of almost all former Socialist bloc states into Euro-Atlantic institutions. The US supported China to become a WTO member in December 2001. The US establishment was confident that economic growth and the emergence of a middle class in China would eventually bring about political reforms. The US supported liberal reforms in Russia in the 1990s, hoping to bring Russia closer to the West. However, chaos, the rise of criminal activities, widespread poverty, and rampant corruption prevailed in Russia during Yeltsin's presidency. This discredited the liberal idea in Russia, and the period became synonymous with oligarchs, criminals, and corruption. The rise of Vladimir Putin significantly changed the Russian course, and in February 2007, Putin shocked the West with his Munich Security Conference speech. The world economic crisis that followed, the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, and the Ukraine crisis of 2014 ruined Russia-West relations and brought them to their lowest point since the end of the cold war. These events forced the US to refocus its attention back to Europe by launching the European Deterrence Initiative, and deploying additional NATO troops in Eastern Europe. However, since 2017 the US has again shifted its attention towards China. The December 2017 US national security strategy declared the return of the great power competition and depicted both Russia and China as revisionist powers acting against US vital interests.
The impressive growth of China and the assertiveness of Russia, in parallel with US failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, marked the beginning of the end of US absolute hegemony, and the emergence of a multipolar or polycentric world. This process may take years or even decades, but its key features can be seen now. Given the anti-Russia and anti-China rhetoric of President Biden and his emphasis on the upcoming crucial battle between democracies and autocracies, one may assume that the US will seek to fight simultaneously against China and Russia and restore its absolute hegemony. It seeks to rally around this idea its NATO and EU allies, Japan, Australia, and probably India. However, in reality, the American establishment understands that the US cannot prevent Chinese further economic growth, or the emergence of the multipolar world. The critical task is to adapt the US to the new realities and secure the US vital national interests. China may soon surpass the US by its nominal GDP, but the Chinese military is still far behind.
On the other hand, Russia is not an economic powerhouse, but it is an equal competitor with the US in the military sphere, and in some spheres, such as hypersonic missiles, even left the US lagging behind. The potential transfer of these Russian modern military technologies to China is the US nightmare, as it will significantly increase the military capabilities of China and make Chinese military a peer competitor for the US armed forces. Russia-China relations grew pretty quickly and now are characterised as a comprehensive strategic partnership. The key motto of their relations is "not always together, but never against each other." The US has no illusions that it may drive a wedge in Russia-China relations or establish an alliance with Russia against China, but it wants Russia not to share critical military and cyber capabilities with Beijing. To do that, the US needs to stop the further deterioration of US-Russia relations. The key goal of the Biden-Putin summit was to fix the bilateral relations, prevent their further decline and convince Russia to be more cautious in its military relations with China.
Meanwhile, despite the apparent happiness of the European leaders with the election of President Biden, not all of them are ready to rally behind the US and start a cold war against China. Many European countries, especially Germany, have growing and profitable economic relations with China and are not ready to sacrifice them for the US. Meanwhile, the so-called "Old Europe" – France and Germany – wants to re-start a dialogue with Russia. They welcomed the Biden-Putin summit and proposed to organise a Russia-EU high-level meeting. Some European states rejected this idea, and there will be no EU-Russia summit, but Europe needs to adapt to the emerging multipolar world, and not all are ready to play the role of being the US junior partner.
Despite the complexity of the situation and non-linear processes, one pattern is clear. China will be among the key world players throughout the 21st century; it will be the number one economic power, and all have to accept and adapt to this reality. Many are not happy with this prospect and would like to prevent it from becoming a reality, but no one has the necessary capacity to contain China, despite the fact that many want to, for the moment for doing that has passed.