Leaving the Kremlin after his March 2023 visit, Chinese President Xi Jinping said to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in full view of the media, ‘Right now there are changes – the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years – and we are the ones driving these changes together.’
Xi was neither being pompous nor was he exaggerating. Together with Putin, Xi has unveiled an unparalleled and unbeatable vision of the new world order. Premised on the Chinese philosophy of win-win as against the traditional geopolitical mantra of zero-sum, Xi is looking at uniting the world through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a network of cooperative roads, seas lanes, and hard and soft cyberspace connectivity for seamless flow of trade and traffic. This vision is complimented by Putin’s ‘pivot to Asia’ vision spelt out in 2012 for Greater Eurasia (Eurasia plus ASEAN, India, Pakistan, the Arab world, and Iran) which seeks to create an economic cooperation zone from Eurasia (Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan) to the Asia-Pacific, thereby fusing the two visions together.
That the Global South (barring India) sees in these ‘once in a 100-year changes’ an opportunity to uplift its people and economy was evident from the 3rd Belt and Road Forum (BRF) to mark the 10th Anniversary of the BRI held in Beijing on October 17 and 18. Nearly 150 Global South nations had representation at the Forum with 23 heads of the state participating in it. Of course, Putin was the guest of honour. And India was not invited to it.
While the two global powers, China and Russia, are forging a path towards a new cooperative world, on the other side of the world, the third global power, the United States, still tied to old ideas of competition, is floundering in the absence of a vision for the new world. This confusion was summed up by US national security advisor, Jake Sullivan recently. In his essay in Foreign Affairs magazine (November/December 2023), he wrote that America must adjust to ‘the main challenge it faces: competition (with China) in an age of interdependence.’
As the world is interdependent, the natural thing should be cooperation and not competition. And since there is a thin line between competition and conflict, in his State of the Union address in February, US President Joe Biden clarified that ‘the US seeks competition, not conflict.’ Worse, there is no clarity on what the competition should deliver.
While most agree that like the Soviet Union during the Cold War, disintegration of China cannot be the end-state – especially since it is the world’s largest manufacturing hub and happens to be the primary trading partner of nearly 138 nations. Despite tensions, the total value in goods trade between the US and China in 2022-2023 stood at US$ 690 billion. So, the ideal end-state from the US’s point of view is one where there is a distinctive tilt in the balance of power in favour of the US and its allies/ partners. This requires a new Cold War where the US plays to its advantage: military power or deterrence.
Thus, the Biden administration has adopted a four-pronged approach.
One, while overplaying the Chinese theft of US cutting-edge technologies by cyber means, Washington has adopted a ‘small yard and high fence’ strategy to deny advanced processors (7nm and below) to China. According to the US, China will use these advanced microchips for new breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence (AI), quantum computing and biotechnology to threaten its and its’ allies’ national security. The reality is that the US, which led the world in the third industrial revolution by semiconductors, mainframe computers, personal computers, and the internet, worries that China could leapfrog in the fourth industrial revolution with AI and data since 5G wireless connectivity, which is the backbone of this revolution, has already been rolled out by China’s Huawei. This could make China the leader in setting international standards for the whole range of emerging technologies across the physical, digital and biological domains. Moreover, to ensure on-shoring and friendly-shoring of an advanced AI hardware ecosystem, the US passed the Chips and Science Act, Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to protect its advantages.
Two, the US is strengthening its deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region by reinforcing existing alliances, and by forming new one’s like AUKUS (Australia, the UK, the US). Called Integrated Deterrence, this includes a strategic partnership with India (given its sensitive location in the Indo Pacific) bilaterally – via the US-India Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (ICET) – and multilaterally through the QUAD (quadrilateral security grouping of US, India, Japan, and Australia).
Three, to meet the military challenge of China and Russia combine, the US has connected its alliances in Europe with the Indo-Pacific by globalising NATO.
Four, to showcase that its balancing against China has both military and economic initiatives, the US has announced numerous international infrastructure building agreements like the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, Build Back Better World, and the recent India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor. The truth is that none come close to the BRI where China, through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Silk Road Fund, China Development Bank, and Exim Bank has already invested US$ one trillion.
With the above military steps, the US hopes to disallow free movement to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) within the First Island Chain in the west Pacific where China has two of its total three core concerns: Taiwan and South China Sea (SCS); the third being India’s state of Arunachal Pradesh which China calls south Tibet or Zangnan. With growing PLA capabilities, China has taken a strong stand against US freedom of navigation and air patrols in the SCS and its arming of Taiwan. While most analysts believe that the west Pacific theatre is a likely flash point between the US and China, it appears unlikely. Great powers do not go to war directly since neither will be able to exercise enough war control to achieve desired military objectives, nor have escalation control to limit war.
Interestingly, with US involvement in Ukraine (by proxy) and directly in the Israel-Palestine war, Washington will now have difficulty in devoting time and resources to its primary and pacing threat—China. Worse, the chances of US credibility taking a hit in both regional wars are high since they are unlikely to end in its favour. President Zelenskyy of Ukraine is feeling the heat since US arms supplies are getting diverted to its closest ally, Israel. Moreover, Russia is already in possession of 23 per cent of Ukrainian territory and is likely to occupy more before the war ends in temporary peace.
The Israel-Palestine conflict presents the US with a big dilemma since it cannot abandon this war which while threatening to enlarge into a wider Middle East confrontation, has no solution in sight. Israel is not going to accept the two-state solution and the Muslim world will reject Israel’s plan to push some 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza into the Sinai in Egypt. With each day, the credibility of China and Russia is rising in the region at the expense of the US. Worse, US allies and partners in east Asia watching the two regional wars might start assessing the US as an unreliable security partner.
Thus, even as the US’s new Cold War in a fragmented world is unfolding, China’s strategy of ‘cooperation in an interdependent world’ with BRI as its roadmap is gaining greater acceptability amongst Global South nations.
Conscious of this, Xi, at the 3rd BRF announced the next phase of the BRI’s strategy called ‘small, yet smart.’ While earmarking US$ 107 billion for the next five years, Xi said that the BRI’s focus will be on projects involving science and technology. He was referring to taking most BRI nations into the third and fourth industrial revolutions depending upon their level of development.
Given this new strategy, Xi highlighted four areas of partnership. First, Xi announced a new initiative called ‘Global AI Governance Initiative’, his fourth in 10 years of BRI; the other three being the Global Development Initiative, Global Security Initiative, and Global Civilisation Initiative. The present initiative involving AI and data would be done in partnership with the BRI nations. China will set the technology standards, while Chinese companies in partnership with host nations will determine rules, regulations, and norms for use of emerging technologies for development. Thus, China will help set up data centres, cloud services, and a whole range of AI activities like data collection, algorithm design, technology development, technology production, and applications. To facilitate the applications, Xi proposed setting up of 100,000 ‘training opportunities’ in BRI nations by 2030.
This level of industrial internet development presupposes that advancement in third industrial revolution with Chinese help would be underway or completed in three specific areas: fibre optic cables, sea cables, and Chinese Baidu global satellite system. Unlike the US’s Global Position System with 31 satellites, the Baidu system is a constellation of 45 satellites with ability for two-way beaming, which means that in the remotest areas where satellite ground stations are not available, communication can be done directly between sender and receiver through satellite.
Second, to mitigate climate change disasters, China has proposed green development for BRI nations. This is doable since China is a world leader in solar panels, electric vehicles, and Lithium-ion batteries. The latter will soon be supplemented by Sodium-ion batteries, which while cheaper than Lithium-ion batteries will give similar results.
Third, connectivity with focus on rail links with the China-Europe Railway Express as the flagship project. Once again, China is a global leader in rail connectivity and has the world’s largest high speed – 350km/hour – network. Moreover, in June 2021, China successfully showcased the world’s first MagLev (Magnetic Levitation) train with 600km/hour speed. By 2025, China will have five more Maglev trains which it has proposed to be an intermediate mode of travel between railways and commercial aeroplanes. The moot point is that by setting standards in AI, fast rails, and green development in BRI nations, China will have an unbeatable lead in international standards setting which will provide first user advantage to Chinese companies in Global South nations, and later, most of the world. And fourth, Xi expressed the need for establishing a BRI secretariat, which, given the increasing footprint of BRI plus Greater Eurasia nations, would be necessary.
As for making Greater Eurasia a reality, Putin spoke at the BRF about the urgency to develop Russia’s far east by opening the Northern Sea route which provides the shortest shipping lane from Europe to East Asia through the Bering Strait. According to Putin, starting 2024, ice-class cargo ships will be able to operate on this route round the year. Moreover, with Russia assuming the BRICS presidency in 2024, development of Russia’s far east from Vladivostok to East Cape will be a priority. This includes the Siberian and Sakhalin gas pipelines. After all, Russia’s Arctic which accounts for 30 per cent of its territory across three time zones, has 20 per cent of its oil and 80 per cent of its gas reserves. The Russian Arctic as well as the Northern Sea route are being developed with Chinese help. Given this, joint naval patrols by Russian and Chinese navies in the Arctic region for peace and stability has raised US heckles as the Bering Strait runs close to Alaska.
Since this area has become a region of great power contestation, it has become another impetus for the Chinese and Russian ‘no limits’ partnership. Contrary to the belief that dislike of the US is the main reason for the Chinese and Russian partnership, it is the integration of their global visions which will see them working together in the foreseeable future.
Western analysts wonder whether China and Russia will form an alliance like NATO where an attack on one will be considered an attack on all. This will not happen. Global powers like the US, China, and Russia don’t need alliances among themselves. They have the capability to defend their own territorial integrity. Smaller powers seek alliances with major powers for collective security.
Besides, an alliance or military bloc runs against the spirit of global cooperation that China and Russia are collectively seeking. And that is how they are offering an alternate vision to the Global South—security through cooperation and interdependence.
Pravin Sawhney’s recent book is The Last War: How AI Will Shape India’s Final Showdown With China.