The world has changed, even if the large information and communication powerhouses in the hands of a few large companies would have us believe otherwise.
By Aram Aharonian
The war in Ukraine has put an end to the post-Cold War illusion that the danger of another major war no longer exists. At the start of the war in Ukraine, US President Joseph Biden made a mistake by expressing his fears – or threats – about the possibility of a Third World War, thereby heightening fears of the end of humanity. And now he has provoked China by sending Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan.
Sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and its relays in a divided NATO caused a spike in oil prices that, paradoxically, increased Russia’s revenues, allowing it to double its war effort. These concerns eventually led French Prime Minister Emanuel Macron to support an immediate diplomatic solution and even suggested avoiding humiliating Russia.
Major Western economies are approaching recession, if they are not already; and yet inflation rates continue to rise, warns Michael Roberts. The latest surveys of business activity, called purchasing managers’ indices (PMIs), show that both the euro area and the US are now in contractionary territory.
In early June, US Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried described her government’s policy and motives: ‘Ukraine is the victim of aggression, Russia the aggressor. What is at stake for them is not simply Ukraine’s independence, but also the will of the democratic world to protect the US-designed rules-based international order from the clutches of the unapologetic authoritarian Russian President Vladimir Putin’.
The message appears to be directed not only at Russia but also at China. As China rises economically and politically, its dispute with the US grows fiercer. The US’s ability to confront China is limited and constrained.
In late July, Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping held a two-hour telephone conversation in which the Chinese warned that Washington should not play with fire on Taiwan ahead of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announced visit to the island.
Earlier, the State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asia, Jung Pak, accused Beijing of provocations against rivals in the South China Sea, and went so far as to argue that, given its aggressive and irresponsible behaviour, it is only a matter of time before a serious incident or accident occurs between armed forces in the area.
The situation of Taiwan, which has been de facto independent since 1949 and which Beijing considers an indivisible part of its territory, is one of the thorniest issues on the world agenda: although the United States and its allies do not recognise it as an independent country, the West maintains more than cordial relations with Taipei, provides it with constant military aid and generally uses it to harass a China that is regarded with suspicion and animosity, but on which its economies depend to a large extent.
The Southeast Asian maritime region is of key strategic importance as a transit zone for 30 percent of global goods and is the subject of claims between the states that occupy its coasts. It is difficult to ignore the imperialist arbitrariness behind the powers stubbornly patrolling an area tens of thousands of kilometers from their shores with military vessels and aircraft.
If it were to engage in a military conflict against China, the related costs would be astronomical. War could lead to a collapse of US financial markets. In the end, unless there is a nuclear conflict, the US could not defeat China militarily.
Chinese strategist Huang Renwei, executive vice president of Fudan University’s Belt and Road and Global Governance Institute, points to the inherent weakness of the US power structure and argues that, since 2020, China and the US have entered a phase of strategic stalemate that is likely to continue with ups and downs for 30 years.
The concept of a “phase of strategic confrontation” was coined by Mao Zedong in the text “On Protracted War”. Mao’s theory was that the war against Japan consisted of three phases: the Japanese offensive, the Sino-Japanese strategic stalemate and the Chinese counter-offensive.
However, the current stalemate phase between China and the United States is of a different nature: the strategic competition between the two powers has not yet entered into a direct military confrontation and China has not yet established the military defeat of the US as a strategic objective. Instead, China’s goal is to strive for a just and equitable new world order with prosperity for all countries.
The reason why this relationship has entered a strategic impasse is the so-called “duality” of power structures in the United States, characterised by the fact that, on the one hand, the country is in a process of economic and political decline, but on the other it is still a relatively strong military power. China’s duality is the opposite: it is on the rise but also shows many weaknesses. The “duality” evolves gradually over time.
The hegemony of the US dollar has, historically speaking, greatly benefited US strategic interests. However, it overreached in the use of this power and its credibility has been called into question.
In the next 30 years, China will face the harsh reality that Western countries, led by Washington, will reject and malign China’s role and participation in the old world order. For Huang Renwei, China must take the initiative and change the existing international landscape to create a new world order. He admits that it may take generations for this new system to be established.
The duration of the strategic stalemate will depend on the speed with which the balance of power changes: the 2030s will see a decisive shift in the global balance of power, when China’s economy, as measured by its GDP, will overtake that of the United States. Huang believes that by the 2040s, China will catch up with the United States in the areas of science and technology.
Huang believes that in this stage of strategic stalemate, the United States will make extensive use of its soft power advantages, the cost-benefit of which far exceeds that of a direct confrontation. Thus, the intensity of the soft power competition between the two powers would take centre stage.
The uncertain endgame
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the US and the UK are extending the war in Ukraine because ‘they are far away’ and ‘the European Union bears 40 per cent of the economic damage from sanctions’. In his opinion, “there is no doubt that the Ukrainians will not be allowed to continue negotiations until the Americans decide that they have made a fuss and sown enough chaos and can now be left alone”.
The Anglo-Saxon bloc’s goal, he said, is to “turn Europe against Russia”. As wars have a detectable beginning but an uncertain end, he added that the current geographic scope of the Russian operation is already different from what was on the table during the negotiating round between the Ukrainian and Russian delegations in Istanbul, Turkey, last March.
“Now the geography is different. It is not only the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republic, but also the Kherson and Zaporozhie oblasts and some other territories, and this process is continuing steadily and persistently”, although what the hegemonic television sells us is something else.
“In impotent anger”, they continue to fill Ukraine with ever longer-range weapons: “Geographical targets will move away from the current line further”. So “we cannot allow weapons to be deployed in the part of Ukraine that will be controlled by President Vladimir Zelensky or someone else, whoever takes over from him, that pose a direct threat to our territory and that of the republics that declared their independence and want to determine their future”.
Meanwhile, the campaign of terror about a possible war between nuclear powers, staged by the almost octogenarian Joe Biden, continues. It is not a threat to any particular country, but to humanity, as it would end the cycle of life – at least human life – on earth. Lavrov said Russia remains committed to the principle that there can be no winner in a nuclear war and that it should never be fought.
The foreign minister pointed out that Western countries know when Russia would be forced to use nuclear weapons; Russian doctrine speaks of an “existential threat” to use them. This is not a reassuring consideration, as Russia’s opponents include, among their hypotheses, launching missiles at Russia.
But historians remind us that there has never been a hegemonic transition without war, while the decline of the United States as hegemon and the rise of China are clear, in a process that will not be immediate but now seems inevitable.
While we talk about hegemonic transition, we no longer count the days of war in Ukraine, nor the deaths caused by the conflagration, nor the massacres, deaths, bombings, obscene display of war weapons, repetition of the predictions of geopolitical pseudo-analysts in newspapers, magazines, radios and, above all, on television and social networks.
The world has changed, although the large information and communication power plants in the hands of a few large companies would have us believe that this is not the case, and today China’s dominance of the technologies of the current industrial revolution (artificial intelligence, 5G networks and quantum computing, among others) stands out. This situation is similar to the EU’s mastery, a century ago, of the scientific organisation of work, the adoption of the technological advances of the time and their application to the art of war.
But this transition will be different from previous ones, Raúl Zibechi points out, because the declining power depends on the rising one (their economies are intertwined), because it involves regions and nations whose populations have different skin colours, because it involves a history of colonialism and racism of the West against the East, of the North against the South, and because there will not be a world hegemonised by China, nor by the US, nor by any other power, but a world fractured into two large blocs, with several regions and even continents oscillating between one and the other.
As the transition will be resolved by war, it is important to note that China’s defence sector is developing new weapons more efficiently and five to six times faster than the US, according to a senior air force commander. China’s advantage lies in its industrial base and the scale of its research, while the US’s main exports are agricultural commodities and weapons.
China presents itself as a constructive member of the international community: neutral, committed to peace and seemingly always ready to defend territorial integrity and the right of peoples to self-determination. Territorial integrity is an important chapter in its foreign policy, as is non-interference in internal affairs. Of course: China has its fragile flank in the conflicts in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The policy of encirclement established in Europe vis-à-vis Russia bears great similarities to that which the US is pursuing in its immediate surroundings through the promotion of AUKUS, the strategic military alliance between Australia, the UK and the US; the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), an informal strategic forum between the US, Japan, Australia and India; and the strengthening of anti-China alliances of all kinds in the Western Pacific, among others.
The truth is that although it seemed distracted, the shockwave of the war in Ukraine forced China into an active moderation that may allow it to increase its influence and respectability among African, Asian and Latin American countries. The conflict has forced China to take a stand vis-à-vis two opposing countries with which it has important relations, but at the same time to make it clear that its principle of non-interference must not further deteriorate its relations with the United States and its Western European partners.
The Ukraine crisis is “not something we want to see”, Xi Jinping told Joe Biden at their virtual summit in March. For China, the main economies should be focused on post-pandemic recovery, on rebuilding global industrial and supply chains. Today, the main issues of conflict with the US and its European partners are human and minority rights issues, the surveillance state and its doubts about Western declamatory democracy as a system of government.
The truth is that Biden is constrained by far less room for manoeuvre than he admits and even contemplated lifting some of the tariffs on Chinese goods put in place during the Trump era to reduce the hitherto unstoppable inflation that is generating enormous unease among Americans and is already seen as a major factor in his party’s anticipated electoral defeat in November.
The new NATO strategic concept adopted on 29 June defined China as “a challenge” and denounced its methods of “subverting the rules-based international order” of the West. The document stressed that China “seeks control of key technological and industrial sectors” by abusing its economic advantage. The United States thus responds to China’s challenge with threats from its international armed wing, a NATO with its tentacles extended to the East.
Unlike Russia, which is incapable of hurting the US but is able to hurt the European Union, which is stubbornly engaged in a sanctions war against Moscow, China can hurt the US economy badly. Like Russia, China can withstand an economic war better than the US or Europe. It is already testing this with its very long confinement.
The visit to Taiwan by the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, the octogenarian Nancy Pelosi, third in the US civilian chain of command, was a clear provocation to Beijing. It lasted less than 24 hours, but it will have profound consequences that will be felt in the medium term. A military confrontation is unlikely, but it set off the storm brewing in the South China Sea. For Beijing, the US used the guise of democracy to violate Chinese sovereignty.
Nor is it known how far its support for Taiwan might go, when the US and its European partners are sending massive shipments of money and weapons to Kiev to stop the Russian invasion. Nor is it known how far the promise to defend the island militarily, outlined by Biden a couple of months ago, will actually go.
Analysts warn, but few listen: the more Beijing is pressured to comply with Western directives, the greater the likelihood of an escalation of war and an internationalisation of the Ukrainian dispute.
Augusto Monterroso, a Guatemalan-Mexican writer, wrote the shortest story in history, seven words long: When the dinosaur woke up, he was still there. When the war in Ukraine is over, China will still be there.