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Geopolitics of a New World - First Tests

ARTICLES - 21 April 2021

The virus continues its lethal round of our planet. It is in the throes of a second assault on India and Brazil, new variants are striking places where before infections seemed under control, and in China it has been subdued, but not defeated.

However, geopolitical competition between states has not been put on pause in the interim. In fact, it has escalated dramatically, perhaps providing a foretaste of a post-coronavirus world order that is already in the making. Especially since the arrival of the new administration in Washington, we are witnessing increasing tension between China and the United States (and its allies), as well as between Russia and the West, all while Turkey, Israel and Iran pursue their own destabilizing ends. How else can we make sense of the various points of confrontation that have appeared, or been reactivated, in the South China Sea, in Ukraine, and in the Middle East?

Tension rising on all fronts

As François Godement recently discussed with his usual perceptive analysis, the tone of the new "Great Game" now afoot in the Indo-Pacific, was set in a meeting between the Americans and Chinese on March 18 and 19 in Anchorage, Alaska. The Biden administration seems to have set out to signal strength and resolution: on March 16, it sanctioned 24 Chinese officials in connection with the repression in Hong Kong; on March 22, the Americans enacted sanctions against two Chinese officials linked to the repression in Xinjiang.

China, meanwhile, is increasingly acting in provocation: a disputed Philippine islet - the Whitsun reef - was occupied in early March by Chinese sailors disguised as fishermen. The United States, showing its support for Manila, dispatched a US Navy flotilla led by the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt to the South China Sea. In response, the People's Republic has deployed its own carrier strike group, led by aircraft carrier Liaoning.

With regard to Taiwan, China is stepping up military pressure. On April 13, twenty-five Chinese military planes entered Taiwanese airspace. According to a Taiwanese news source, this would be the 86th Chinese maneuver in the island’s airspace since the beginning of the year. In early April, the Biden administration relaxed prior rules regarding contact between Taiwanese and American government officials: Secretary of State Blinken was concerned about the uptick in Chinese incursions into Taiwan.

The tone of the new "Great Game" now afoot in the Indo-Pacific, was set in a meeting between the Americans and Chinese on March 18 and 19. 

At about the same time as the Americans, but acting separately, Europe also sanctioned Chinese officials at the end of March. As we know, this aroused an extraordinarily strong reaction from Beijing, affecting officials, institutes and researchers across Europe, including in France. The Chinese response was certainly disproportionate. The intention was certainly to show that when it comes to sanctions China can be the master of escalation.

On the European continent, Russia has been massing military forces in Crimea since the beginning of March, putting itself in a position to intervene in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine. Exchanges of artillery fire with Ukraine are growing in frequency and duration, but it is unclear what Russia’s intentions are. Perhaps the goal is to counter internal developments in Ukraine that go against Russian interests. Or, to respond to Washington’s increasingly hardline stance, illustrated by Biden’s use of the epithet "killer" to refer to Putin on March 16. Maybe it is to anticipate the sanctions ultimately announced by the US on April 15, which themselves were a response to Russian cyberattacks and Russian interference in the last American election. Or, perhaps ultimately to make it clear to America that it is not free of its former nemesis. 

In his second phone conversation with Putin on April 13, Biden expressed concern over the situation in Ukraine and offered to hold a summit meeting with his Russian counterpart this fall, in a third country. The Kremlin is "studying the proposal".

One of the few bright spots in this otherwise bleak landscape is the indirect talks that have recently begun in Vienna between the United States and Iran, held under the auspices of the other parties to the Iran Nuclear Deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA). No one is expecting speedy results in this area, but the fact that negotiations are taking place at all gives hope for a modicum of stability in the Middle East. On April 11, however, Iran’s Natanz nuclear power plant - the flagship of the Iranian program -was hit by an act of sabotage generally attributed to Israel. In response, Iran announced that it would increase its uranium enrichment to 60%, bringing it even closer to producing atomic weapons, and adding yet another layer of difficulty to discussions in Vienna. 

In other words, Israel is not shy about moving its pawns in a way that may be at odds with the agenda of the new American administration. In like manner, acting in contradiction with the goals of its partnership with Russia in Syria and Libya, Erdogan’s Turkey provided drones to Ukraine that on April 12 made their appearance over the Donbass. In a gesture typical of "connectivity wars", Moscow then interrupted air travel between Russia and Turkey under a health pretext that fooled no one. The "strategic partnership" between Kiev and Ankara began in 2019.

The United States and Europe

Is it not true, as some commentators argue, that part of the current tension is due to an overly aggressive stance on the part of the Biden administration?

The new US president, who many viewed as a centrist bowed by the weight of his years and anxious to continue America’s withdrawal from global affairs, has shown a surprising and remarkable dynamism on the international level, as well as on the domestic. Highly experienced, his administration expected - and no doubt prepared for - the inevitable tests from its opponents. Above all, he no doubt learned a valuable lesson from the Obama administration: not challenging China on human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, not pursuing necessary commercial, technological, and geopolitical rebalancing with China, turning a blind eye to the excesses of Putin’s regime - these would all only weaken America further, and embolden its rivals.

At the same time, the US administration seems to be carefully maintaining dialog between itself, Beijing, and Moscow. The April 15 measures announced by President Biden, combined with his offer for a meeting, are clearly calculated to signal that a return to more normal relations is possible between the US and Russia, and could be an alternative to the Russo-Chinese quasi-alliance.

Another lesson taken from the Obama period is the need to quit while the US is ahead in Afghanistan. Biden has just announced the complete withdrawal of American forces, to be completed on September 11, 2021, which will allow the administration to focus its attention on rivalry with China and Russia, and on the solution of the Iranian problem, among other things. It should be noted that the US took this decision with only minimal notice to its NATO allies - Germany in particular - who continue to deploy troops alongside the US forces currently in Afghanistan.

Is it not true that part of the current tension is due to an overly aggressive stance on the part of the Biden administration?

For France, which has had a sustained military presence in the Sahel, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is not neutral: it may mark the end of an era in terms of Western foreign intervention.

More generally, where does Europe fit in the new order emerging before our eyes? In recent months, Europe began to take defensive measures in the face of China’s predatory behavior. It is also doing its "duty" as a bastion of liberal democracy, by putting in place measures that compare to the Americans’, in terms of the human rights abuses of both China and Russia. However, Europe is also anxious not to fuel a spiral of confrontation between East and West that creates clear rival blocs. In his speech before the Atlantic Council on February 4, President Macron noted that Europe should avoid both "ganging up" (the encirclement of China), as well as keeping an equidistance between the US and China. This is undoubtedly the kind of consideration that led the European Union under the leadership of Chancellor Merkel to conclude an investment agreement with Beijing on December 30, presenting the future Biden administration with a fait accompli.

Likewise, during an informal (and virtual) exchange between Merkel, Biden and Macron as part of the Munich Security Conference on February 19, 2021, the German Chancellor and French President refrained from responding to the American president’s call to create a coalition of democracies against authoritarianism, which would of course be under American leadership.

What is striking, a few weeks later, is that the new American administration has organized its strategy toward China around its main allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific: India, Japan and Australia. And so, the March 12 (virtual) meeting of the "Quad" was President Biden’s first true "international summit". This meeting also resulted in a common action plan (economic, security, and also with respect to "vaccine diplomacy") exceeding expectations. For comparison, the new US president will not meet his main European counterparts until early June, in an extended G7 format that will include Australia, South Korea, and India-although this meeting will be face-to-face. One should not exaggerate the importance of symbols in these matters and after all, Secretary Blinken has already visited Brussels twice in only a few weeks.

A dress rehearsal for the future?

In the near term, the risk is that a local incident - in the South China Sea (which will be crossed by a French naval mission in the coming days) or in Ukraine - degenerates into a regional conflict, or worse. The risk is all the more serious because decision-makers in Beijing and Moscow may consider the current period a window of opportunity for cementing the "decline of the West", a prospect they have been anticipating for some time, and which may otherwise experience a regrettable (from their perspective) delay. It is significant that the ongoing tension in the Middle East seems less concerning in comparison.

In the longer term, the current tensions are perhaps indicative of a more enduring geopolitical reality:

  • The undertone of an atmosphere of permanent coercion is now commonplace: digital incursions, wars of influence, wars of connectivity and of manipulating information, sanctions and counter-sanctions… the economic interdependence that differentiates today’s East-West competition from the old Cold War with the USSR is not a guarantee of peaceful relations;
     
  • Permanent coercion does not exclude open crises (or terrorism).The current situation in various parts of the world hints at what could be a Sino-American conflict in Taiwan, as well as Russian military action within a Baltic country, happening at the same time - possibly supplemented by hostilities on European territory on the other side of the Mediterranean. In the growing Sino-US confrontation, it is common to think of the United States as having the advantage of a network of allies, and China as having only favors to call in, sitting surrounded by neighbors fearful of its strength. But in the face of today’s reality, this narrative should be reexamined. It encourages Washington to keep trying to separate Russia from China in the long term, and it encourages the two leaders of the "East" to manipulate the triangular relationship to their advantage; 
     
  • The historic task facing European leaders in the coming years, especially the leaders of Europe’s larger countries, is to create a place for Europe in the landscape of geostrategic competition that is developing between China, Russia, and the United States, and step-by-step and to varying degrees, many other countries. Here again, in looking at the news (Josep Borrell’s unfortunate visit to Moscow, Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen’s calamitous performance in Ankara) one is tempted to believe that it is a task European leaders ought not delegate, and should take on themselves. The opportunity that presents itself comes, perhaps, from the fact that Europe shares many common interests and values with the United States. Being less dominant than they once were, the US may therefore be more likely to take its allies’ opinions seriously, that is, if those allies can learn how to engage the post-coronavirus world order wisely.

 

Copyright: Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP

 

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