Tuesday, August 4, 2020 12:05 pm
By Chidi Amuta
The architecture of a new world order may just be sketching its untidy outlines. Today’s axis of strategic equilibrium is a deformed triangle with two and half sides. The two sides are the United States versus China with a supporting undefined half role for Vladimir Putin’s neo-Tsarist Russia. But by far the more consequential axis of relevant engagement or even possible confrontation is the Washington-Beijing axis. The original episodes of sporadic friction between the United States and China over trade could have been passed off as an offshoot of Donald Trump’s bullish economic nationalism. But lately, matters have spilled over into the treacherous territory of conflicting claims of national security infringements by both sides. This is where diplomatic showmanship ends and toying with unintended strategic accidents begins.
Perhaps it is fortuitous that less than 100 days to the US presidential election, relations between the two major contending global powers is assuming a more gritty texture. From frequent squabbles over trade and tariffs, the rhetoric of rivalry has included conspiracy theories over the origins and itinerary of the corona virus as well as the politics and international economic implications of its spread. Only last week, the unease degenerated into reciprocal diplomatic bad behavior and even outright nastiness.
The US shut down the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas and sent the diplomats there packing home. In a toned down disproportionate reciprocity, the Chinese closed the US Consulate in the south western city of Chengdu. Given the very temperamental disposition of today’s White House, the possibility that there will be more drama in relations in the days ahead can be expected.
The ramping up of tension between Washington and Beijing falls squarely into the predictable diplomatic habit of the United States. American foreign policy and domestic politics always need an external adversary to animate them and conveniently divert attention from serious worries at home. When there is no enemy in the horizon, Washington creates or simulates one. It is a rare stretch in American history when there is no adversary. It could be Chile under Salvador Allende or Libya under Muamar Ghaddafi. It could even be Manuel Noriega’s Panama or Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela.
The real underlying unease of the current situation is the possibility that for the first time in history, the outcome in two consecutive US presidential elections could be determined not by the power of American voters but possibly by the machinations and meddling of contending powers, namely, Russia (in 2016) and perhaps China (in 2020). Unlike in the Cold War years when Soviet subversion of US power took the shape of direct arms competition and ideological disinformation, the target today is the bedrock of America’s global credibility: its democratic foundation as embodied in the electoral process whose highest point is the election of the US president. The new instrument of choice is ironically information technology and cyber espionage, an area where the US ought to be the undisputed global leader.
However, unease about the possibility of Chinese meddling in the forthcoming US presidential elections may be far fetched and could miss the point. It does not capture the entirety of what is at stake between Beijing and Washington. In many ways, Mr. Trump has merely put the inevitable confrontation with China on fast forward. Whether we like it or not, a face-off between the two powers remains permanently inevitable. The only way that the US can maintain its present hegemony is by sabotaging China’s economy or distracting China diplomatically just to frustrate or delay China’s imminent prevalence.
Correspondingly, China’s road to global pre-eminence can only lead through rapid economic ascendancy and constantly feeding off America’s known vulnerabilities, namely, its appetite for credit driven consumerism and new found incremental retraction from the global stage. In every sense, then, both powers are feeding off each other’s present vulnerabilities and weaknesses.
The United States is busy with a public health pandemic with equally apocalyptic economic consequences. It has had added to its plate a far reaching social and historical civil unrest. Fired by Trumpian divisiveness, America’s long standing and systemic anti black racism has returned to haunt it. All these are happening hot in an election year in which America’s first populist demagogue and elected autocrat is seeking re-election. Modern democracy has never faced a more grave existential test and threat in its best exhibition place.
For China, this may indeed be the season of the ‘good cat’. As the late Deng Xiaoping, author of China’s liberalization and opening up once remarked: ‘It doesn’t matter if it is a white cat or a black cat. As long as it catches mice, it is a good cat.” Therefore, while the United States is busy with its major existential complications, China has literally gobbled the hitherto autonomous province of Hong Kong after 22 years of semi autonomy and relative freedom.
A draconian national security legislation has been drafted overnight and decreed into effect from behind closed doors to make Hong Kong a legal part of mainland China’s communist dictatorship. A new regime of restrictive laws against free speech and assembly have been pushed into effect, making misdemeanors like riding a motor bike with signs that demand freedom for Hong Kong residents violations of national security. Those who breach the new legislation are likely to be repatriated to mainland China to be tried and viciously punished.
In similar vein, Chinese troops have exchanged fire with Indian troops at their common border for the first time, ending 42 years of uneasy peace and diplomatic skirmishes on a testy border relationship. While America is busy, China has once again been flexing its military muscle in the South China Sea and frightening its Asian neighbours in what is clearly a neighbourhood scaremongering exercise. Similarly, Chinese authorities have tightened their repressive tactics around the ethnic Yuguirs whose freedoms are being curtailed through a less than transparent forced encampment policy. Clearly, China has defined its sphere of influence and signaled its global aspirations. It has the money, the demographic gravity and apparently a clearly defined foreign policy strategy to step into the yawning gap being created by America’s newfound isolationism and retreat into bullish nationalism.
Prior to the current quagmire of health and economic pandemics in the United States, Donald Trump had embarked on a programme of serial dismantling of the post -World War II global order and its architecture of multilateralism and global co-operation on major challenges. He had taken the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord, the World Trade Organisation and very lately the World Health Organisation. He had similarly thrashed the Iran Nuclear agreement as well as major trade agreements. Even in the midst of the pandemic, he is threatening to reduce or totally withdraw US troops stationed in Germany and parts of Europe since the end of the Second World War.
Similarly, US support for NATO has been reduced to a transactional equation in which some book keepers at NATO headquarters tally the contributions of individual nations and decide on who is falling short on contributions. No one can say how this will affect Article 5 in the event of an armed attack on any NATO member. In the process, the original trans-Atlantic alliance on which the security of Europe and the West has been hinged for the past 75 years has been exposed to the idiosyncracies of individual national leaders.
It is shocking that in dismantling the subsisting liberal international order, it did not occur to Mr. Trump and his inchoate ideological handlers in the White House that other ambitious aspirants to global power pre-eminence would be waiting to fill the vacuum thus created. It is an elementary law of big power supremacy politics that no hegemonic power voluntarily goes into self remission. Secondly, when a pre-eminent power declines as a result of its own internal contradictions, it leaves a vacuum which is quickly filled by other rival powers.
China ,which is the supreme contender for global pre-eminence to the United States, has seen in America’s present challenges a further opportunity to push its advantages and accelerate its advancement. Prior to the current covid-19 and other convulsions in the United States, China would appear to have designed a policy that steps in wherever America misses its steps. Chinese official support for Huawei, the leading manufacturer of 5G equipment, has continued to unsettle the United States. Even as recently as the United States decision to pull out of the World Health Organisation, China was on hand to fill the vacuum. Total US annual financial commitment ot the WHO is estimated at about 1 billion dollars. Bill Gates alone supports WHO with $500 million annually. The Chinese have stepped in with a pledge o f $2 billion in support for the WHO over another 2 years, thereby cushioning the effect of the US withdrawal. The rest is history.
The jury is still out on whether the onset of the corona virus pandemic in China was an accident, a natural development or an act of programmed biotechnology warfare designed to advance China’s economic advantages. While the corona pandemic is still raging everywhere else, China has largely got the virus under control except for occasional negligible outbreaks here and there. In the meantime, it has secured tremendous economic advantages as the leading global manufacturers and exporter of testing kits, respirators, ventilators, medical protection gear, reagents, therapeutic drugs and possibly a vaccine.
The confrontation between Washington and Beijing has more far reaching implications and meanings. Clearly, the authoritarian communists have proved more efficient managers of the Covid-19 emergency irrespective of where the virus originated from. It would appear that the regime of stiff controls enabled the Chinese to quickly lock down and isolate affected provinces. They deployed an army of contact tracers and most significantly, deployed their new found technological advantage in developing apps that use the footprints of individual cell phones to trace persons who may have been infected or who have visited locations of likely infections. They erected hospitals overnight, mass produced personal protection equipment, deployed a combination of western and Chinese therapeutics and generally regimented the virus into remission and retreat in the shortest possible time.
What is more remarkable is that the Chinese have been able to convert the adversity of this pandemic into an economic advantage. As first movers in the technology of testing, protection gear and basic therapeutic products, the Chinese have received the largest orders from governments around the world for covid related imports. At the height of the covid crisis in Europe, the Swiss government ordered supplies worth $500 million from China. Similarly, Jack Mar, the Chinese founder of Alibaba ordered in excess of 2 million sets of personal protection gear and ventilators from Chinese firms for shipment as gifts to different African countries in aid of their Covid-19 emergency efforts.
As it were, then, both China’s authoritarian political system and state dominated capitalism would seem to have fared much better than western democracy and private equity dominated capitalism especially in the United States in dealing with this virus. No amount of propaganda can disguise this fact especially with the continued bungling of the corona virus challenge by the United States administration.
The Covid-19 emergency may have provided an opportunity to place the confrontation between China and the United States in bold ideological relief. But it does not of course exhaust the strategic contests at play. Prior to the Covid-19 challenge, the Chinese penetration of the global landscape had been systematic and apparently programmed. China has provided infrastructure loans to African countries at concessionary rates. These loans have often come with Chinese expertise and loads of manpower. Chinese lenders have avoided the usual conditionalities that imprisoned African economies in debts that were difficult to service or pay. In many cases, the Chinese have steered clear of meddling in the internal affairs of countries where they do business except in selling arms to the side that must, in their estimation, win in a conflict situation.
For us in Nigeria, the frost between Beijing and Washington has only tangential diplomatic implications but vastly consequential economic import. With massive Chinese infrastructure loans to fund our rail and airport modernization programmes, Nigeria will become increasingly tethered to the global economic stranglehold of an ambitious China. We already owe China an estimated $80 billion in various categories of loans and concession arrangements. Already, China’s competitive advantages have made it the most attractive destination for Nigeria’s small to medium scale business travellers and new contracts.
Even after Donald Trump, it is unlikely that the United States will ever regain a priority of place as either a source of international finance outside the Bretton Woods circuit or of direct bilateral assistance. Its position as a strategic ally will last for the remaining short tenure of fossil fuels as a global energy source. Clearly then, the future of our national interest is best served by the prospects of an expanding China than a retreating United States. It is a choice between two hegemonies, one declining and the other ascendant.
Barring an accident of tragic bad judgment by either side between now and November, relations between China and the United States will survive the US presidential election. This assurance derives from the sheer quantum of money at stake in that relationship. Curiously, China’s long term interest is better served by a Donald Trump continuation in the White House. The more America pulls back from the world, through isolationism and nationalism, the more space there is for China to fill the abandoned space.
The reversal of the nationalist trend by a Democrat victory will restore some of the threatened global liberal order, bring back some of America’s global involvements and thus stall China’s expansionist roller coaster ride. For China, then, Donald Trump may be a short term economic irritation but he is a long term strategic asset. For the United States, on the other hand, China may provide immediate campaign season distraction in a season of domestic catastrophe but still remains a formidable economic partner.
The present drama between the two super powers is only a dance of competing jealous lovers on the world stage. The real strategic engagement lies several decades ahead, when China is fully ready both diplomatically and militarily.
–Dr. Chidi Amuta, academic, writer, journalist and public relations expert is Chairman, Wilson & Weizmann Associates (Nigeria). E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org