Even as the U.S. and China stare each other down, China is bridging conflicts in regions the U.S. once dominated. Are we looking at a new world order?
Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, left, hold hands with his Saudi Arabian counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, right, and Chinese counterpart Qin Gang in Beijing, 6 April 2023. (Ding Lin/Xinhua via AP)
Angered at what it sees as U.S. efforts to contain, suppress and encircle it, China has stepped up a sweeping drive to reshape the global order.
U.S. President Joseph Biden’s administration has placed defending and strengthening the “rules-based” global order at the heart of its efforts to counter Beijing’s growing assertiveness on the world stage.
“China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to do it,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in May. “Beijing’s vision would move us away from the universal values that have sustained so much of the world’s progress over the past 75 years.”
The latest chapter began in February when Beijing published a vague 12-point peace plan for Ukraine. While the blueprint stopped short of explicitly calling for Russia to pull out, it helped frame Chinese leader Xi Jinping as a potential peacemaker, at least in some eyes, given his close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
France welcomed China’s effort to find a negotiated end to the war. President Emmanuel Macron of France also lauded Xi’s goal of a “multipolar” world, code for world in which the United States no longer calls the shots worldwide.
“I know I can count on you to bring Russia back to reason and everybody to the negotiation table,” Macron told Xi during a three-day visit to China in early April.
He was accompanied on the trip by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who warned Xi against supplying arms to Russia.
China scores a diplomatic coup.
In March, Beijing brokered a restoration of full relations between Gulf rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, a surprise achievement in a region long subject to extensive U.S. strategic involvement.
The breakthrough followed years of hostility that had threatened Gulf stability and security and had helped fuel conflicts in the Middle East from Yemen to Syria. In contrast, the United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran.
“It was a diplomatic coup for China,” said Kenneth Katzman, a Gulf expert at the Soufan Center, a research group on global security issues. “But fundamental differences haven’t been resolved.”
U.S. groundwork in Saudi Arabia going back years may have set the stage for the Saudi-Iran agreement. But China’s achievement demonstrated that the United States is no longer an indispensable power in the region alone uniquely equipped to broker peace deals.
“China has in recent years declared that it needs to be a participant in the creation of the world order,” former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said in a published interview last month. “It has now made a significant move in that direction.”
Can China and Russia reshape the world order?
In Moscow last month for their 40th meeting, Putin welcomed the 12-point Chinese overture but signaled that the West and Kyiv were not ready to deal.
He praised Xi, a self-described “dear friend” who has provided reliable diplomatic support to Russia in the face of coordinated pushback against the invasion of Ukraine by the United States and its European allies.
Xi told Putin he believed China and Russia were on track to overhaul the global geopolitical landscape, which seemed to refer to their shared distrust of U.S. strategic intentions.
“Right now there are changes, the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years,” he told Putin through an interpreter March 21 on the Kremlin steps after a state dinner. “And we are the ones driving these changes together.”
Xi’s parting words after a state visit reflected a Chinese Communist Party view that the United States is a sick, fading power — beset by political hyper-polarization, mass shootings, racial injustice, capitalist inequities — while China has continued to rise after a “Century of Humiliation.”
China and the U.S. have clashing interests.
Shortly before his trip, the Chinese leader lashed out at the United States — for the first time in public by name. He accused the U.S. of trying to “contain” the world’s most populous country with its 1.4 billion people.
Containment was a U.S. strategy to stop communism’s spread after World War 2.
On 8 March, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines described Xi’s blast as “the most public and direct criticism that we have seen from him to date.”
His complaint “probably reflects growing pessimism in Beijing about China’s relationship with the United States, as well as Xi’s growing worries about the trajectory of China’s domestic economic development and indigenous technology innovation — challenges that he now blames on the United States,” Haines said in presenting the intelligence community’s 2023 assessment of perceived threats to U.S. interests.
China will maintain its diplomatic, defense, economic and technology cooperation with Russia “to continue trying to challenge the United States, even as it will limit (its) public support” for the onslaught in Ukraine, the unclassified version of the intelligence assessment said.
It predicted China’s one-party state also will push for international programs that favor state sovereignty and political stability over individual rights.
Rifts deepen between two global powers
It was the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union that left the United States the world’s sole superpower.
Critics complained it was now acting as a global cop in a unipolar world. Washington has defended for decades its global primacy as a stabilizing force in East Asia and the Pacific even as diplomatic and military relations among regional states have been jolted by disputes and rivalries.
China and the United States are now the world’s two largest economies and military powers.
Bilateral ties between them have been in a deep freeze over everything from Taiwan to trade to curbs on high tech. Then there’s TikTok, a video app platform that has emerged as a proxy for a range of alleged Chinese threats to U.S. security.
There are other sore spots as well: clashes over the origins of Covid-19; the U.S. shootdown of a Chinese balloon over the United States and China’s militarization in the South China Sea.
A duel between democracy and autocracy
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Congress 22 March that the post-Cold War world was “over” and an “inflection point” loomed over the shape of the rules and norms that undergird the global order.
“There is an intense competition underway to determine what comes next,” he said in presenting the State Department’s fiscal 2024 annual budget request.
Even as Chinese war games simulated an attack on Taiwan last weekend, Macron called for Europe to build a position as a third “pole” between the United States and China, which views Taiwan as its own.
Europe, he said, should avoid becoming a “vassal” in the service of any bigger power’s agenda, sparking criticism from those who viewed him as stirring division between the United States from Europe.
The Biden administration sees the U.S.-China divide as part of a broader duel between democracies and autocracies — systems in which power is concentrated in a leader whose decisions are subject neither to external legal constraints nor to regular free and fair elections.
The administration’s October 2022 National Security Strategy outlines a three-part blueprint for “out-competing” China.
War games down-tick
Putin and Xi have framed their respective conflicts over Ukraine and Taiwan in matching ways.
They describe both spots as part of historical motherlands and each as prone to being turned into security threats by devious foreign foes.
Ukraine was part of the now-defunct Soviet Union until winning independence in 1991. Taiwan was the refuge of nationalist forces who lost the Chinese civil war in 1949. At the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) 20th Congress in October 2022, Xi called absorbing Taiwan an historic mission crucial for “the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
The Xi-Putin meeting in Moscow marked their first encounter since the Ukraine invasion sparked the largest land war in Europe since World War 2.
In a joint statement at the end of the state visit, Putin and Xi warned against any steps that might push the Ukraine conflict into an “uncontrollable phase,” adding there could be no winners in a nuclear war.
A friendship that would know no limits.
Russia invaded just weeks after Xi and Putin had met for the 39th time in Beijing for the Winter Olympics opening.
In a joint statement at the time, they declared the Russian-Chinese bilateral partnership was greater than a traditional alliance and that their friendship would know “no limits.”
As if playing chess rather than checkers and with an eye cocked on the rest of the world, China seemed to tone down a repeat performance of saber-rattling war games around Taiwan last weekend.
Unlike Beijing’s response to a meeting in Taiwan last August between President Tsai Ing-wen and then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the latest Chinese military drills stopped short of firing ballistic missiles over the island, sparing shipping lanes and commercial air corridors from major disruptions.
The three days of war games that kicked off 8 April followed a meeting in California between Tsai and Pelosi’s successor as speaker, Kevin McCarthy, while Tsai was on a stopover.
The question remains whether China’s relative restraint in the latest war games entailed a down-tick to avoid overplaying its military hand while jockeying for expanded diplomatic stature to match its economic heft.
Three questions to consider:
- What’s China’s goal in an overhaul of the world order?
- Does China see eye to eye with Russia on the invasion of Ukraine?
- How do U.S. priorities differ from China’s when it comes to international relations?
Jim Wolf covered breaking news in some 30 countries over 40 years for major international news organizations including AP-Dow Jones, Agence-France Presse, Jane’s Defence Weekly and Reuters. As a Washington correspondent for Reuters for 26 years, he focused on East Asia security issues, the U.S. spy world, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, missile defense, cybersecurity and high technology. He was based by turns in Paris, New York, Bangkok, Washington D.C. and, as a professor of journalism, in Shanghai.