Biden’s dual assault on China and Russia may backfire as it is pushing Beijing and Moscow closer together
With Joe Biden keen to reaffirm old American alliances, there is added incentive for China and Russia to work more collaboratively together than ever before. And there is every indication they will be prepared to do so.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to China on Monday was hugely significant, as he called for common collaboration between Moscow and Beijing to push back against the West’s “ideological agenda.”
Lavrov suggested Russia and China do this by “bolstering our technological independence, by switching to payments in our national currencies and global currencies that serve as an alternative to the dollar.”
His comments follow a tense summit in Alaska between the top diplomats of China and the United States, where a war of words overshadowed the first dialogue between the two powers under the Biden administration, which has also sought to pursue a tougher policy against Moscow since the departure of Donald Trump.
One thing is for sure: Russia and China’s diplomatic relationship is becoming more comprehensive, and the areas of strategic collaboration are growing. This trend did not coincide exclusively with Biden coming to power, but his decisions have accelerated things, particularly through his own reaffirmation of ‘alliance politics’.
Although there are some noticeable differences between Moscow and Beijing on certain geographical regions, they are nevertheless being bound informally together as an alternative to the West, as framed by the US, under the mantra of the ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’.
International relations work on a principle of equilibrium. You might compare it vaguely to the fundamentals of physics. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and likewise the exertion of a given force generates resistance against it. The theory of realist politics certainly sees the world in this way, mapping out relationships between countries on the measure of ‘the balance of power’.
This means that in an insecure international environment, states are sensitive to their capabilities relative to other countries and, in response to certain threats or developments, naturally seek to create balance against them.
Whilst this is most prominently understood on military terms, ‘power’ extends to something much broader in practice, especially in today’s world. We don’t just think in terms of bombs or tanks, but everything which pertains to the strength of a state including technology, the economy, industrial assets, infrastructure, currency and so on.
The new competition between the US, its allies and China is different to the original Cold War, in that it is premised on all of those things. This isn’t about who simply has the most nuclear weapons, it’s a ‘Cold War of globalization’ of sorts, where everything contributes to the outcome of who dominates.
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And this very much explains Biden’s policy when it comes to China. The US wants to maintain not just military supremacy over Beijing, but economic, commercial and technological superiority too. Everything has become strategic. Therefore, according to this principle of ‘equilibrium’, how does Beijing inevitably react to this changed environment? The answer is that it works together with a state such as Russia, which is also in competition with the US. They hedge towards each other as they identify a common space in countering the ideological and strategic challenge posed by the US.
Lavrov’s comments identify a number of these common areas. Firstly, there’s technology. China and Russia have a common interest in developing new strategic technologies as the US strives to maintain hegemony over them and contain China’s development.
Both countries need to be less reliant on the West. Russia has its own scientific tradition; China is leaning on that more, while providing resources, as the scope for Western collaboration narrows. As a marked example of this, the two sides are now collaborating to build the first moon base in history. It’s a project of huge strategic significance that the US and its allies would be unwilling to work with either on.
Currency is also important. Both sides have a pressing interest in diversifying away from the US dollar to weaken the power of American sanctions over them, as well as new payment systems. China is already far ahead on this matter, with the development of its own digital currency a revolutionary creation which will be the first in the world of its kind. Russia, meanwhile, has already reduced the proportion of US dollars in its own treasuries while increasing the proportion of Chinese Yuan to 15%. A path to de-dollarization has been carved out, and Moscow is eager to speed that up.
And then there’s diplomacy and the military to consider. Biden’s reaffirmation of US alliances has strengthened the scope for Russia-China collaboration, although it’s in this area that the most differences remain. Chinese strategists see the diplomatic and military role of Russia as important in restraining the influence of the Quad (the US, Australia, India and Japan), especially when it comes to dealings with the latter two. With the US now trying to undermine the India-Russia relationship by trying to strongarm New Delhi against buying Russian arms, there’s a clear common interest for Beijing and Moscow to work together.
Given all this, it’s no surprise there is growing collaboration between Russia and China, who see increasing strategic gains by leaning on the other against a common adversary. It may be premature to describe the situation as an emerging ‘alliance’, but as the geopolitical context consolidates. that idea is becoming less absurd over time.
Nonetheless, the point is that actions have consequences. As the US strives to build a coalition of countries, the basic principle of international relations dictates that those targeted will do that too. And this inevitably precedes the transformation of the international system from one once exclusively dominated by America into a multipolar world with several strategic blocs.
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