I.On the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s widely publicized meeting with Xi Jinping before the Winter Olympics in Beijing seems to have crystallized opinion in the West. In the United States and its allies, political leaders, commentators, and journalists are now portraying a monolithic authoritarian bloc that seeks to destroy a rule-based order that has protected peace and democracy for decades.
According to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, “a new arc of autocracy is instinctively lined up to challenge and reset the world order in its own way.” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, described the joint communiqué, which emerged from the meeting between Putin and Xi, as the goal of establishing “the strongest government”. [over] the rule of law, intimidation instead of self-determination, coercion instead of cooperation ”.
Such statements coincidentally ignore the profound differences between Russian and Chinese interests, motivations, and visions of the global order. By equating Putin and Xi, Western leaders risk abandoning opportunities for international cooperation, opening up deep Sino-Russian cooperation that they fear already exists, and putting the world on the path to a much broader geopolitical conflict.
However, the leaders of Russia and China share a common set of security claims against the US-led bloc, fearing both internal subversion and external restrictions on their regional aspirations. However, while Putin’s goal is simply to eradicate these threats, Xi has formulated an ambitious positive vision of the world that goes beyond the desire for great power status through regional domination and instead intertwines the interests of the Chinese people with the common global good.
Central to this vision is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a free framework for a wide range of investments, loans and construction projects that have brought hundreds of billions of dollars to the developing world in the form of infrastructure, health care. and digital communication. These substantial investments have been neglected by Western investors and development agencies for decades, so they are eagerly welcomed in the global south.
According to the Chinese government, the BRI is motivated by the universal right to development and Xi’s slogan of building a “human community with a common future” in which developing countries will be more involved in global governance, while the international community guarantees global public goods such as vaccines. against Covid-19. Not surprisingly, the impetus for BRI is not humanitarianism, but narrower interests: surplus Chinese capital is looking for productive outputs, Chinese firms are looking for new markets, and Chinese producers are looking for secure supplies of raw materials. Corruption and labor rights violations are common in these projects, and the environmental impact has sometimes been negative. But Chinese lenders are adapting by setting higher standards, and “greening the BRI” is now a top priority. Although much needs to be done to improve the BRI, it is important to recognize that China’s interests coincide with those of developing countries – and what sets it apart from Russia.
China’s global vision in a sense challenges the power of rich countries and the principles of a free market of a liberal international order, but it also promises to address some of the most intractable and destabilizing challenges facing humanity. Far from imposing a new global order, China is inviting the West to work together to reform the status quo. On February 28, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for expanded cooperation between the United States and China to expand global access to vaccines, coordinate economic policies and address the climate crisis. In particular, he invited the United States to participate in the BRI and offered to coordinate with the US-led Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative. France has shown the way by recently signing an agreement with China on cooperation in seven infrastructure and green energy projects, most of which are located in Africa, worth more than $ 1.7 billion.
However, in line with the framework of Manichaean democracy against autocracy, the United States is deviating from such steps and putting forward initiatives in a developing world as a choice between the two countries. The Biden administration positions B3W as a “high-quality” alternative to BRI, although its much lower levels of funding are unlikely to be involved in such projects. Members of the administration continue to condemn China’s foreign projects as part of a sinister “debt trap” aimed at seizing control of strategic assets, a claim that has been repeatedly refuted. The U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), which was easily passed by the Senate last year, shows the BRI as part of a far-reaching attack on both the U.S. and the “future peace, prosperity and freedom of the international community.” It includes a provision requiring the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), a multilateral development bank focused on Latin America and the Caribbean, to prohibit borrowers from taking loans from Chinese institutions.
Developing countries will be the first to pay the cost of such a choice or-and, and they resist it. Mia Motley, a senior Barbadian prime minister, has opposed criticism of China’s economic ties, arguing that her country hopes to be “friends of all and sundry” and welcomes any foreign investment that serves the needs of its people. Similarly, Pacific island nations sought to “avoid involvement in strategic competition” between the United States and China, and Southeast Asian countries were wary of new alliances such as the anti-Chinese Aucus (Australia-UK-US).
But the U.S. approach also has much more terrible and systemic dangers. The American vision of zero-sum competition between the BRI and B3W initiatives is just one aspect of an overall strategy aimed at curbing China’s growth. The main focus of Biden’s foreign policy was the organization of US allies – most of the world’s richest countries – into an economic and military bloc united around this deterrence strategy.
This encourages China to similarly seek its own economic and military bloc to ensure continued economic growth and military security. It also heightens angry and resentful impulses in Chinese politics, fueling China’s own brand of destructive nationalism with zero amount. This is the dynamic that led to the infamous Putin-C meeting. Chinese leaders are concerned that they have no choice but to strengthen China-Russia relations because they believe the US-led bloc is already seeking to undermine China’s rise, which seems to leave them with two options: face big the U.S. and European states alone, or next to Russia as a peer-to-large power, which in turn exacerbates China’s tensions with the U.S. and its allies in Europe. If the growing spiral of confrontation, uncertainty, nationalism and bloc formation continues unchecked, it threatens to unleash a global conflict that will undermine liberal values on both sides even more confidently than current fears about the alleged “arc of autocracy”.
But it is not too late to choose another path. Cooperation between China and the West combined with the adoption of China’s peaceful rise would increase China’s sense of its options and its willingness to take risks in line with other Western priorities. This may include pressure to limit Russian aggression. Wider cooperation between the United States and China on infrastructure and other global public goods would benefit developing countries and would show a fair, sustainable, and peaceful alternative to escalating rivalry between great powers. We need to take China’s openness to this seriously.
Tobita Chow is the director of Justice Is Global, the People’s Action Project and the People’s Action Institute
Jake Werner is a global Chinese postdoctoral fellow at Boston University’s Center for Global Development Policy