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Project of the century: How the Belt and Road initiative will impact the Eurasian region

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In 2013, China announced the creation of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century – this initiative of “The Belt and Road” was designed to turn Asia and Europe into a single economic region. It focuses on the industries that are important for the internal growth in China and, at the same time, involves over 70 countries with a total population of 4.4 billion. Today, the initiative has already changed the economy of Eurasian countries significantly. Over the last seven years, the region got approximately $98 billion in investments in order to implement 168 projects.

What’s in it for China?

In recent years, China’s economic growth has slowed from double-digits to 6.4% in 2017. The wide-reaching economic model formerly in use (based on cheap labour, gross investment, and exports) has faced a number of serious challenges.

The country has to overcome industrial overproduction – steel making in China is a great example of this challenge. According to official data, China’s production capacity amounts to 1.1 billion tons per year, while internal demand is approximately 700 million tons, and China’s export partners cannot consume the remaining 400 million tons. The country needs to be provided with an access to new markets and to launch new resource-intensive projects.

In addition, Chinese authorities have been facing the problem of a sharp increase in labour cost. We live in a world where the average labour cost in China ($758) is higher than in Russia ($615). And it causes many multinational corporations to move their manufacturing facilities to other South-East Asian countries, such as Vietnam. China is losing its historical competitive edge – cheap labour, and analysts are increasingly talking about the risk of “stalling” in the trap of average income.

Furthermore, China needs to reduce its debt burden. The country is one of the world leaders in joint debt rating. In 2016, the total debt load in China amounted to $27 trillion, which equals 254% of the country’s GDP. Simultaneously, the amount of “bad” debt in the banking system is growing.

Social inequality and poor ecology exacerbate the situation further. For example, 1% of the wealthiest Chinese control roughly 33% of total national wealth, while 25% of the poorest Chinese possess just a mere 1%. Beijing sees as little as 124 clean days every year, while total environmental destruction amounts to 3.5-5% of China’s total GDP. In addition to a number of internal reforms adopted to create an economic model focused on domestic consumption, the Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, proposed the “Belt and Road” initiative. Among other things, it is designed to stimulate domestic economic growth through external forces – ensuring access to Chinese products in new sales markets, natural resources, integration into complex production chains, exchange of advanced technologies, and the establishment of new high-tech manufacturing facilities in China. To do this, Chinese authorities are attempting to create a large-scale platform that will enable the expansion of trade and investment relationships, as well as technological cooperation between China and Central Asia, Europe, and Africa. This is believed to be a way for China to gain an access to the tools needed to overcome the economic development challenges described above.

China helped create powerful financial institutions in order to finance projects within the framework of the Belt and Road initiative, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank with $100 billion in capital, and the Silk Road Foundation ($40 billion in capital). The New Development Bank (or BRICS Bank) is also seen as an important element of the Belt and Road projects’ financial infrastructure, which will also involve the participation of the largest Chinese state-owned banks and development institutions. The total budget for projects under the Belt and Road initiative is estimated at an astronomical $1.3 trillion. The bulk of these investments is expected to be sent to the countries of the Eurasian Economic Union, including Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, which are key to the implementation of The Belt and Road initiative.

How will this Chinese initiative affect other countries?

The Belt and Road initiative will stimulate major infrastructure changes not only in China, but also in other countries through which the New Silk Road passes. There are expectations for the construction of new roads and railways, power plants, ports and fuel pipelines. The Chinese investments are expected to accelerate the growth of the economies of the countries participating in the Belt and Road initiative.This is precisely what is meant by mutually beneficial cooperation, or the “win-win” model, which Chinese officials often reference. Many believe in the efficacy of such a model. A total of 69 countries and international organizations have entered into agreements with China to cooperatively implement the framework of The Belt and Road initiative. In practice, cooperation is developing in several key areas.

Trade

In the long run, the Chinese government is striving to create a single integrated economic space, with the ultimate goal of establishing a free trade zone. Already, by the end of 2017, China’s trade turnover with the countries that signed cooperation agreements within the framework of the Belt and Road initiative exceeded $800 billion. To further integrate the economies of Asia and Europe, the creation of six economic corridors has been proposed. The main routes of the Silk Road Economic Belt will connect China with Mongolia and Russia, Indo-China, Pakistan, the Republic of Bangladesh, India and Myanmar, as well as Central and Western Asian countries. Today, goods from China are most commonly delivered by sea, taking approximately 45 days. The construction of modern highways and high-speed railways will shorten this delivery period to 10-15 days.

The most important project in this respect is the largest Central Asian land port – Khorgos. This facility is strategically located in Kazakhstan in the Free Economic Zone called “Khorgos – Eastern Gate”, which also includes logistics and industrial zones. China has invested over $3 million in this project, which saw the first trains come to port in 2015. It is expected that the majority of cargo trains traveling between China and Europe will pass through it in the future.

The formation of a modern transport and logistics infrastructure in the countries of Central Asia, the Caucasus and, even, Europe is a key component for the development of these national economies. Such projects enable China to unload their excess production capacity and deliver domestic goods to foreign markets. Not only large state-owned companies, but small and medium-sized businesses stand to gain as they provide services for complex projects implemented under the framework of the Belt and Road initiative. For example, since 2011 Chinese and European cargo trains have traveled through 28 cities in 11 European countries. Currently, there are more than 4,000 trips per year, and this number is expected to increase to 5,000 by 2020.

Energy

The Belt and Road initiative also takes into account the need to create new energy capacities – construction of interstate power lines, pipelines and gas pipeline systems, and the development of new energy-deposit fields.

One of the most promising projects in this area is Yamal LNG, the Russian liquified natural gas plant that was commissioned at the end of last year. The project’s budget is estimated at $27 billion with approximately $20 billion provided by Chinese banks, led by the Silk Road Foundation as the primary investor.

Additionally, the Power of Siberia gas pipeline is expected to be complete by the end of 2019 – it will enable Russia to supply China with 38 billion cubic meters of gas per year for 30 years. The pipeline, traversing the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), Irkutsk and Amur regions, will become the largest gas transportation system in Eastern Russia, thanks to over $70 billion in investment by Russia and China.

Tourism

According to online companies Ctrip and Alibaba, Chinese citizens took 129 million tourism trips abroad last year, spending a total of $118.4 billion. Implementation of the “One Belt, One Road” strategy will contribute to the influx of Chinese tourists to countries in the Eurasian Economic Union. Indicators of that influx are already growing. For example, last year a record number of Chinese tourists visited Russia – 1.5 million. However, it is important to note that the bulk of revenue generated as a result of  serving Chinese tourists goes to Chinese businesses, not Russian ones, as Chinese travelers tend to buy tour packages and order guide services from home, paying either in cash or through national Chinese payment systems.

Education

The Silk Road Economic Belt also fosters business cooperation between China and other Eurasian countries in the field of education. Today, 25% of all international students in Russia come from China. This indicates an especially high rate of international education collaboration with China as Russia’s share is a mere 2% of all Chinese students studying abroad (most still prefer European and American universities). China and the EEU countries are trying to solve the problem of a personnel shortage in the fields of economics, law and business, increasingly developing joint educational programs. For example, the Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO runs specialized “Understanding Russia” programmes for Chinese entrepreneurs on how to effectively conduct business in Russia. Over 300 business leaders from China have been trained in this programme. In addition, in November, 2018 the Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO and the business school of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology will launch “EMBA for Eurasia”, a cooperative programme designed for business leaders in Eurasia.

Innovations

The most widely-accepted theories of economic growth see technological development as the main driver of modern economic growth. Within the Belt and Road initiative, a special role is played by the sharing of technologies and technological innovations. As of today, 75 industrial parks are under construction as a part of the initiative.

In 2015, a Chinese holding bought 65% of YotaPhone, the Russian smartphone manufacturer. China also actively collaborates with other Eurasian countries on innovative projects in the fields of biotechnology, photonics, biomedicine, LED, food and consumer goods. In essence, it means that “One Belt, One Road” propels the industries of the Eurasian region to a new technological level. For example, several organizations from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia are developing an innovative project to cool heavy-duty machinery – the so-called “double phase-shift cooling system” is being developed on a super-computer technology platform.

Work is being done in other areas as well, as seven belts are planned to be put in place, including financial and agricultural ones. In total, roughly one thousand different projects are expected to be implemented across different countries in the long term.

What are the barriers for implementing the strategy?

The Belt and Road is an initiative, not a project, meaning it has no defined goals or deadlines. China first mentioned its intention to establish the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century back in 2013, yet today, five years later, there is still no official information about the total number of projects or participating countries that should be involved, rendering the strategy somewhat amorphous. Unless the Belt and Road initiative is “institutionalized,” business can not use standard project and investment approaches, which makes it difficult to implement the overarching plan.

Furthermore, China is reducing investment in the Eurasian region. In 2013, the country allocated as much as $18 billion toward the project, but cut this amount down to $10 billion in 2016. If China had not invested in Iran’s nuclear program that year, this amount would have dropped to $5 billion. Such an approach makes predicting future investments challenging. The internal economic and political dynamics of China contribute to the challenge of forecasting the trajectory of the initiative – public and private investment banking institutions have begun to scrutinize these investment projects, as too much money was spent inefficiently or lost, drawing the attention of Chinese regulatory bodies.

Another important roadblock is the fact that some of the announced projects have not been a success. For example, the construction of a high-speed railway between Moscow and Kazan, which was originally designated as one of the priority projects for the Belt and Road, stalled. The construction of this Russian segment was supposed to be the first stage in building a railway between Moscow and Beijing, which was to be followed by an even more ambitious “Eurasia” railway project, connecting Beijing, Moscow and Berlin. Unfortunately, under current financial conditions, these projects are not economically viable, which halted their development at the feasibility study stage. This is a clear example of collaboration in which strategic ambitions outpace, or fail to take into account, the economic and investment feasibility of the Belt and Road projects.

Nevertheless, the initiative has emerged at the right time. At a time when protectionism is gaining momentum in international trade, China is driving an expansion of free market values, simplified customs and visa procedures, and the creation of transportation and logistics infrastructure that will ensure the quick and easy delivery of goods to new markets. This approach enables multilateral development at the domestic level and eliminates barriers to business that already seem archaic in the global world of the 21st century.

Head of China Unit of SKOLKOVO Business School, Representative in China and an Expert at EMBA for Eurasia by HKUST and SKOLKOVO programme

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No Prospects for Denuclearization of North Korea

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Analytical pieces—typically prepared by self-professed experts—abound as to whether denuclearization of North Korea could be possible or what its parameters would be. Such ruminations became particularly popular by the end of Donald Trump’s presidency when the negotiations eventually found themselves in deadlock. However, I would rather call it a “freeze,” and while this may not be the best solution to the problem, it is certainly not the worst either.

The crisis over North Korea’s nuclear missile program has been going on for some 15 years, and I would argue that the reason why no practical solution has been found lies in poor positioning. As I have repeatedly noted [1] North Korea’s nuclear missile program is not the root of the problem that disrupts the traditional world order; rather, it is a consequence of problems that are more global in their dimensions, reflecting the transition from the wonted world order to a new one.

There are a few signs to this new world order. First, some nations abuse the right to decide which state is a democracy and which is not, with the contrived singling out of “rogue states” to be countered through any methods, including those that seem ethically unacceptable. Broken promises are no longer perfidy but military stratagems. When it comes to North Korea, one might recall the Agreed Framework story or how President Kim Young-sam and his administration spared no effort to destabilize the situation in North Korea at a time when it suffered from what has been called the Arduous March. Seoul advocated providing no aid to the starving country, one South Korean official admits while privately talking to the author, in the hope that the famine would spur mass riots and subsequent “reunification.”

The second sign indicative of the new world suggests that international law and major arbitration institutions have lost their authority. UN Security Council resolutions that forbid North Korea to launch any kind of ballistic missiles is a good case in point. Incidentally, this violates the decisions enshrined in a number of other UN documents that guarantee the universal right to explore outer space for peaceful purposes.

The third sign has to do with the crisis of competence, which affects the quality of decision-making on the part of both politicians and subject-matter experts, blurring the line between the real country and its cartoonish propaganda image. This is well illustrated by the case of North Korea: any foolish news report about the country ultimately finds an audience. While the story of Jang Song-thaek being fed to a pack of dogs was debunked fairly quickly, no less fantastic death penalty stories for listening to K-pop are still popular.

Besides, the might of the law has been replaced with the law of the might. The new generation of politicians no longer fears a major war, rendering military conflict—“humanitarian” bombings of “rogue states” in particular—one of the acceptable means for achieving domestic and foreign policy goals.

Finally, under these circumstances, North Korea cannot use the conventional conflict resolution methods, thus being compelled to look for ways to defend itself on its own, especially since the threat of losing sovereignty is by no means hypothetical. Officially, the Korean war is not over, and South Korea’s Constitution still extends the state’s sovereignty to the entire peninsula, demanding that the president promote the country’s unification. What is more, the National Security Act refers to North Korea as an anti-state organization rather than a country. Even relatively liberal populists, such as Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in, failed to review this concept.

Relying on its nuclear missile program, North Korea sets itself two goals. The first is to achieve minimal and, eventually, guaranteed nuclear deterrence, which would certainly take a belligerent solution to the North Korean problem off the table. The North Korean leadership has certain reasons to believe that only North Korea’s nuclear weapons saved it from the fate of Iraq or Libya. It is well-known that once in a while the U.S. and its allies plan an offensive war against the North, whose elements are drilled at joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises irrespective of their scale.

The second goal is to achieve international recognition and ditch the “rogue state” yoke. Should North Korea theoretically join the “nuclear club,” this will put it on a par with the leading superpowers. This is the principal reason why—despite the UN Security Council’s internal disagreements—the Permanent Five have so far voted unanimously for yet another sanctions package each time North Korea has taken another significant step in developing its nuclear missile program. The current world order is based on the premise that only the five great powers are allowed to possess nuclear weapons. It also relies on the UN’s authority, which would collapse if it became known that at the end of the day North Korea got the UN to “cave in”—following nearly 30 years of condemnation, resolutions and sanctions.

It is no accident that the very term “denuclearization” is under discussion. American conservatives, such as John Bolton and others who adopt a strictly realistic approach, interpret “denuclearization” as meaning nuclear disarmament of North Korea, which should be stripped of all types of WMD and—to boot—of its nuclear program. This entails eliminating the North Korean threat both globally and regionally. In contrast, North Korea, as well as Russia and China, stress that denuclearization should extend not to North Korea alone but to the whole Korean Peninsula, which requires certain commitments on the part of the U.S. and South Korea, up to and including prohibiting U.S. warships carrying nuclear weapons from docking at South Korean ports.

It has to be noted that those who identify with the allegedly liberal approach to international relations view the North Korean issue as highly ideologically charged. Liberal democracy advocates and WASP conservatives alike perceive North Korea as an authoritarian regime imbued with atheistic collectivism, as an “Evil State.” They see it as the pure opposite of the ideal state—an abstract concept that exists in their minds. That, in turn, stimulates an intractable drive towards confrontation, since not only is the “Evil State” incapable of negotiations, such negotiations are impossible in principle. Any deal with such a regime is an unacceptable concession in terms of values, and value-based confrontations are always more inflexible than those political or economic in nature.

During the 2017 crisis, when I believed the probability of conflict really rose beyond 50%, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un emerged as pragmatic leaders, essentially putting the process “on hold.” The jury is still out on how this related to the Russia-China “double-freeze” plan, while each party would certainly have wanted more. Kim Jong Un would have loved to have the sanctions eased, with Donald Trump expecting further concessions. The pause that was achieved, though, allowed both parties a “small profit.” The U.S. president could say that, first, he prevented war and, second, that the sanctions were effective, with no missiles in the air and the U.S. having granted no unacceptable concessions. Kim Jong Un, on the one hand, got a peaceful breather, which allowed him to focus on the country’s economic development, and, second, his commitments were essentially unofficial and did not restrict the development of the nuclear missile program. This could be exemplified by multiple successful launches of short-range missiles as well as by presentations of new types of ICBMs and SLBMs, even though these were not tested.

Yet, since late 2019, both parties have been aware that “things are not going to get better.” In late 2019, Kim Jong Un said it was no use hoping for an easing of the sanctions, while allowing Donald Trump to “sit out” the final year of his presidency with no unnecessary tensions. As of the writing of this article, his moratorium is still in place, although American and South Korean experts believed that several dates came and went when Kim could have raised the stakes, opting for an escalation. I believe that Pyongyang is waiting for the White House to formulate and announce a new North Korean policy. So far, as Roman Lobov puts it, “the door is shut but not locked”; and Choe Song-hui, who seems to be still in charge of North Korea–U.S. relations, has not been dismissed from office and declares from time to time that the North will use force in response to force and amicability in response to amicability. The 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea emphasized that no change in the White House would change the U.S.’s overall hostility towards North Korea, which is why North Korea will hardly make the first step, choosing to wait for truly serious proposals from the U.S.

This is the situation three months into 2021, exacerbated by several additional aspects. The new U.S. president is the first such aspect. Of course, there is some hope that he will follow the same path as Donald Trump once did: a hardliner early in his tenure shifted to a more constructive approach once collided with reality. So far, however, it appears that the logic of factional strife is compelling Biden to go along “the main thing is not to be like Trump” pattern, and that means steering a course towards escalation. Such an approach will provoke North Korea to retaliate. More importantly, such blinders will keep the Biden Administration from rapidly developing a constructive approach to its interaction with the North. In particular, we can see that human rights issues in North Korea, all too valid for the Democrats, were not broached regularly under Trump while they have come under attention once Biden assumed office.

The U.S.-China confrontation is another aspect, which was pronounced to be value- rather than merely politics-based even under Trump. There has been no change to this approach under the new president. The U.S. attempts to restrict and contain China, with this confrontation being part of Russia and China’s more broad confrontation with what is perceived as the West.

I believe such a rift and its would-be consequences deal no smaller blow to the existing world order than Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. First, this reinforces North Korea’s conviction that the current situation makes the country rely on missile sovereignty. Second, rifts in the Security Council give North Korea a certain boost. It does not, however, mean that the Security Council will no longer remain unanimous should the North decide to raise the stakes sharply. Yet, if we consider the U.S.-China confrontation from the point of view of allies of both states, we will see that China could only rely on the North since it has for a long time stressed the two countries’ socialist nature and their friendship based on ideological values. Besides, North Korean media outlets have been condemning the U.S. for criticizing China’s policies. What this means is that China will keep Pyongyang afloat and contain American pressure to denuclearize Kim’s regime unless it decides that North Korea’s actions are too provocative. The same can be said of Russia, although the North Korean issue is less of a priority for Moscow, especially when compared to the post-Soviet states or the Middle East.

The coronavirus pandemic has also affected the global situation. First, self-isolation instituted throughout the country has generated a new spiral of suppositions revolving around the notion that its economic system is about to collapse and that a new Arduous March will ensue. Second, with diplomats and NGOs having left North Korea, gathering data has become more difficult, which has indirectly contributed to growing alarmist sentiments. Finally, we cannot rule out a situation when the North Korean issue may—for a number of countries—become a way to shift attention away from domestic problems, including those related to failures in fighting the coronavirus. In such a situation, any prospects for denuclearization are extremely vague.

The fourth aspect is the level to which North Korea’s nuclear program has advanced, which makes the monitoring methods used for the states that are at the early stages of their nuclear programs ineffective. Since North Korea is a de facto nuclear power, the set of measures intended to ensure complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization, as Vladimir Khrustalyov notes [3] will essentially demand that North Korea be essentially stripped of its sovereignty as far as the monitoring and checking powers are concerned, with which international inspectors should be vested.

Consequently, today it might be said that one can only go on talking about denuclearization for the sake of talking. It will take a miracle to move things forward. Option one is some fantastic change in the international environment, which would make North Korea no longer feel threatened and thus less reluctant to abolish its nuclear program. That would mean geotectonic rather than merely geopolitical shifts in the existing international security architecture. Option two, just as fantastic, provides for a North Korean Gorbachev who, for some reason, will make the decision to abolish an important component of North Korea’s political myth and its sovereignty guarantees. Harsher options envision denuclearization as a result of regime change, which is of very little probability as well.

Does this mean there is no way out of this predicament and that missile fireworks will follow sooner or later? No, it does not. The possibility of the “double freeze” is still there, and such a “freeze” could continue almost indefinitely. Another possibility requires more efforts as it entails resetting the agenda—while keeping the term “denuclearization”, new strategies would actually focus on arms control. Instead of destroying North Korean nuclear capabilities, efforts would be channeled into restricting it, operating on the premise that the existing capabilities already serve as minimal deterrence. Many scholars adhere to this stance, both in Russia [2] and abroad, while fully cognizant of the fact that a change in tack will prompt huge resistance, since this would go against the trend of preserving the global status quo. Any attempt to abolish the demand for full denuclearization of states aspiring to the nuclear club “membership” would amount to a crack in the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

On balance, true denuclearization of North Korea would require a radical change in the geopolitical situation in Northeast Asia: once the threat is gone, countermeasures will no longer be necessary. While there is no possibility of such changes, the Russia-China proposal of a “double freeze” settlement remains the most feasible solution, although far from ideal.

The study has been carried out with financial assistance from the RFBR (project No 20-014-00020).

  1. Asmolov, K.V. The Nuclear Problem of the Korean Peninsula as a Consequence of the Changes in the Global World Order (in Russian) // Paper presented at the All-Russia Academic Conference with International Participation “International Relations in the 20th-21st Centuries: 4th Chempalov Conference dedicated to the 75th Anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War and the 75th Anniversary of the end of World War II. 17–18 December 2020. Yekaterinburg.
  2. Zhebin, A.Z. The Korean Peninsula: From Denuclearization to Arms Control (in Russian) // Paper presented at the 25th Conference of Korean Studies Specialists from Russia and the CIS. 25–26 March 2021. Moscow
  3. Khrustalyov, V.V. (Vladivostok, North-East Asian Military Studies Project) On Fundamental Obstacles in the Way of Rapid, Guaranteed, and Irreversible Denuclearization of North Korea (in Russian) // Paper presented at the 8th International Conference “Russia and Korea in the Changing World Order – 2019.” 17–18 May 2019. Vladivostok.

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Kissinger Again Warns US, China Heading for Armageddon-like Clash

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image credit: John Harris/U.S. Navy/Flickr

Last week, Henry Kissinger again warned US-China tensions are a threat to the entire world and could lead to Armageddon-like clash between the world’s two military and technology giants. Surprisingly, some Chinese are interpreting it as a threat to intimidate China in order to “accept and obey” the US-led world hegemonic order.

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In January 2015, the peace group CODEPINK dangled a pair of handcuffs in front of the then 91-year old former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at a Senate hearing. Twelve months later, at the February Democratic Debate Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton were seen engaged in a heated duel attacking and defending the acclaimed diplomat respectively. The late writer Christopher Hitchens in his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger warned editors, TV news channel producers and presidential candidates to stop soliciting Kissinger’s “worthless and dangerous” opinions. The never ending outburst of enmity on the part of CODEPINK, Sanders and Hitchens was due to Kissinger’s role in the brutal killings of thousands of civilians, gang rape of hundreds of female detainees, and alleged slaughtering of over one million people in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos among countless similar crimes against humanity since the early 1970s. 

As documented in “Kissinger and Chile: The Declassified Record,” as some 5,000 people were being detained and tortured in Chile’s National Stadium, Kissinger told the ruthless Augusto Pinochet: “You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende.” But Sanders-Clinton “spirited exchange” five years ago, as mentioned above, was not confined in Sanders’ words to Kissinger being “one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history” of the United States. Sanders’ rare outburst also included Clinton defending her foreign policy mentor – Kissinger – on China. “[Kissinger’s] opening up China and his ongoing relationship with the leaders of China is an incredibly useful relationship for the United States of America,” Hilary Clinton emphatically pointed out.

Sanders responded disdainfully and berated Clinton for admiring Kissinger. “Kissinger first scared Americans about communist China and then opened up trade so US corporations could dump American workers and hire exploited and repressed Chinese,” Sanders had retorted. On the contrary, no one in Beijing either knows or seems interested in the so-called negative traits attributed to the veteran diplomat who is generally known as the most “influential figure in the making of American foreign policy since the end of World War II.” As according to Peter Lee, editor of the online China Matters and a veteran Asia Times columnist, the CPC leadership value Kissinger as the “symbol, custodian and advocate” of a US-China relationship that is special.    

Professor Aaron Friedberg, author of A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, described the re-opening of relations with China as Kissinger’s greatest achievement. In a review of Kissinger’s massive book On China, Friedberg wrote: “Kissinger’s six hundred pages on China are an attempt to apply the principles of foreign policy realism to the most pressing strategic challenge of our day.” (Emphasis given) However, the approach, taken alone, was far from adequate in anticipating the behavior of an increasingly powerful China on the one hand, and for prescribing an appropriate American strategy to deal with a rising China on the other, Friedberg went on to add.

Since Mao, all successive top Chinese leaders have met with Kissinger one-on-one in Beijing, some even more than once. China’s current President Xi Jinping is no exception. In fact, given the deep esteem with which reform era CPC leadership has been embracing Henry Kissinger, the general wisdom in Beijing is President Xi has horned his diplomatic skills by learning well his (Kissinger’s) oft-quoted aphorism “you don’t go into negotiations unless your chances of success are 85 percent.” Kissinger had first met with Xi in 2007, when Xi, as the party secretary in Shanghai, had received the most frequent foreign visitor to China on a visit to the city. When asked for his assessment of the party’s new general secretary within days of the 18th party congress in November 2012 by the Wall Street Journal, Kissinger had said “Xi Jinping is a strong leader capable of rising up to any challenge.”

In the past four decades of Kissinger-CPC bonhomie, the first decade thanks to Cold War passed off rather smoothly and uneventfully. The second decade ushered in with perhaps the first most serious test for both Kissinger as well as for the US-China relations since the unfreezing of the bilateral ties by Nixon-Kissinger pair in the early 1970s. In June 1989, the CPC rulers used brutal force to crush peaceful student demonstrators at the Tiananmen Square and launched nationwide crackdown on suspected dissidents. Though criticized by the US political elite for “Kowtowing to Beijing” for defending the CPC authorities by saying “a crackdown was inevitable,” Kissinger did influence the Bush administration in imposing comparatively mild sanctions while deflecting congressional pressure for tougher action.

In third and fourth decades respectively, unlike during the first two stages, ideology gradually regained initiative over geopolitics in influencing the bilateral relationship. There are mainly two factors for this. First, from 1979 to the end of the last century, China was relatively weaker than the United States both economically and in military technology. Following China’s rapid economic growth beginning late 1990s and at the turn of the twenty-first century, a section in the US political elite became apprehensive of China’s assertive and highly competitive stance. These concerns soon gave birth to the “China threat theory” which Beijing unsuccessfully tried to pass off as “China’s peaceful rise.”

The second factor has much to do with the world financial crisis in 2008 which resulted in the beginning of decline of the US economy on the one hand, and the unfolding of the seemingly evident intent of the CPC leadership to “eventually displace the US” and “re-establishing their own country as the pre-eminent power in East Asia.” In other words, with Cold War and the Soviet Union both long gone, and China perceived as threatening to soon replace America as the world’s number one economy, the communist rulers in Beijing were under no illusion that the ideologically hostile US was plotting “color revolution” to replace the CPC with democratically elected leaders in the People’s Republic.

The chilling of US-China bilateral relations during the first year of Obama presidency itself, with China replacing Japan to become the world’s second largest economy in 2010 and further hardening of the US stance towards China, and finally the US “pivot to Asia” strategy introduced by the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton – all these were perceived by Beijing as the US “creating political framework for a confrontation with China in order to maintain the global hegemony of American dominance.” Even Kissinger was very much aware of the changing stance in Beijing, as is reflected from what he wrote in On China: “China would try to push American power as far away from its borders as it could, circumscribe the scope of American naval power, and reduce America’s weight in international diplomacy.”

Interestingly, although the most frequent US visitor to China has continued to visit China ever more frequently during the past decade, given the changing nature of polity in both the US and in China – especially the increasing “rivalry” under the Trump administration, it is not incorrect to conclude the Kissinger magic has gradually faded away from the bilateral relationship. It is least surprising therefore last Friday, when the “old friend of China” warned both Beijing and Washington in a speech at McCain Institute’s Sedona Forum in France, that their escalating tensions were leading the world towards Armageddon-like clash, the opinionated, vocal Chinese social media reacted with caution. “Kissinger used the so-called end of the world argument to threaten and intimidate China in order to accept and obey the hegemonic order by the United States,” a blogger responded.  

A commentary in Chinese last week pointed out, ever since Trump launched “all out political war” against China, Kissinger has been in subtle and cunning way warning China to “cooperate” with Washington. The signed article entitled “Kissinger Continues to Scare the Chinese People” stated: “For the past two years or more, Kissinger has been repeatedly saying China must continue to compromise and obey the US hegemony and US-led global order. Otherwise, China will face the danger of World War I-like situation.”

To sum up, while calling Kissinger’s veiled threat a bluff, a reader posted in the chat room of guancha.cn – one of China’s most widely read online Chinese language news platform: the old man is a veteran who, more than anyone in China, has interacted with most number of China’s founding leaders. It is therefore his responsibility to explain to the world why most American politicians have failed to co-evolve with China’s leaders, Chinese government and with Chinese people? Why has America relentlessly carried on slandering China? Why America has been consistently accusing, vilifying and provoking China? Mr. Kissinger, please answer. Thank you.”

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East Asia

Post COVID-19, Can China Emerge as the New Global Power?

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China Beijing

Authors:Makam Khan Daim and Mohammed Seid Ahmed*

There are many unknowns about the virus and that makes it incredibly challenging for every government to wage war against the common enemy. The politically divided United States was not ready for a crisis like such and is already going through a deep political division that is deviating the superpower’s attention from leading the world. The United has already left multiple multilateral agreements and organizations that it helped create in the first place Trump administration was running the nation without any clear policy goals. Trump’s administration was retreating from world leadership but at the same time reluctant to give up its position as a global superpower. Though the policies of the administration are pulling the US back from years of progress as a global leader. As the world waits for the US leadership in the outbreak of the virus, the administration and supporters downplayed the harsh nature of the virus. The repercussions of failing to contain the virus at an early stage have put the US as the leader in infections and death toll above all the affected countries around the world.

The previous US administration chose to engage in a war of words with China rather than undertakin­g measures to contain the virus at home and be an example to the world. On the other hand, the Asian nations have taken “draconian” measures in the American eyes but were successful in containing the virus more than any country in the world. China’s has 102,517 cases with 4846 death, the numbers might be disputable for some, however, figures from democratic countries like South Korea and Japan revealed that the Asian nation has successfully contained the spread of the virus. As of  May 2nd, 2021, Japan has 82, 425 with just 1493 deaths, Korea has 123,240 cases with just 1833 deaths according to the latest data compiled by the John Hopkins University of Medicine, coronavirus task force. The US on the other hand, in the same timeframe, has registered a staggering 32,392,667infection cases and 576,722 deaths. Although Chinese figures are disputable the recent reopening of all cities and provinces, indicates that the virus is contained, and things are going back to normalcy.

Power is shifting to the East as many political scientists predicted and China as an Asian superpower is in the final stage of preparations to take the role of global leadership. India is the other Asian nation that can contest China, but India’s domestic issues, its relatively weaker economy, and the ever-growing population have been a challenge for the subcontinent to be a serious contestant for China’s activities in a global scale. In fighting this pandemic, the US has missed another opportunity to lead the world and take responsibility as a superpower. The administration’s adherence to the outdated protectionist policies, that is harming American workers, let alone leading the world in the fight against COVID-19, Trump’s denial of the reality and his enablers within the government put the nation in harm’s way and has culminated in the death of thousands of Americans.

New Zealand has come out of the battle against COVID-19 as a winner with its early lockdown and strict measures with the extraordinary leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Arden and her administration. The European nations Italy, Spain, France, and Germany that have been hit hard with the virus are getting a sigh of relief after their worst at the beginning of the outbreak. Their large size aging population have become the victim of the virus, with a series of lockdown and extreme measures they have finally managed to mitigate the likelihood of more deaths related to the virus. Africa to the surprise of lots of people is the last continent that has started to see new cases. Africa’s young population under the age of 35 that makes up over 60 percent of the continent’s population could have worked in favor of Africans because of the viruses’ nature to attack mostly immune compromised and aged population. Nonetheless, the recent increase in testing for instance in Ethiopia is revealing hundreds of cases every day. Now, Ethiopia is reporting 258,062, with just 3709 deaths related to the virus. South Africa and Egypt are among the worst hit countries from Africa, in which the former has reported 1,582,842 cases and 54406 deaths, and the latter reported 228,548 cases with over 43,402 deaths respectively. Although, the death of a single person is painful, with all the indications and data available Africa is surviving this outbreak with fewer casualties. If whether this could be attributed to the nature of the virus or African government’s measures is remained to be seen in further researches and reports in the foreseeable future.       

The problems that Africa could face if the infection rate increases drastically are dire, given the continent’s record in poor healthcare infrastructure, scarce of ventilators, hospital beds, small size healthcare professionals in relative to the population size. Developed countries with advanced technology and healthcare system in place have not been able to cope up with the patients’ demand and has been extremely challenging for the government and professionals to fight the virus. It is no brainer the challenges that Africans could face without the infrastructure. Nonetheless, while all the traditional global powers closed their doors and were fighting the pandemic, there is one rising superpower who has emerged to play the global leadership role in the fight with the virus.  China has emerged not only as the hotbed for the virus but as a global power who is using the pandemic to project its soft power around the globe and play the role of the so-called “responsible power”. 

In conclusion, China would be the winner in this epidemic, because of the measures it took and its quasi-leadership in fighting this pandemic using its soft power. It has already lifted the ban in Wuhan and now things are slowly going back to normal ahead of many other countries, which is beneficial for China to survive the economic fallout. Economists are predicting a global recession following COVID-19, but even if that is the case China will not be the biggest loser, United States, Europe, and the rest of the world are. One thing we all learn from this pandemic is that because of our intertwined interests and living by each other there is nothing that the world could achieve today without the cooperation and collective actions. Time will answer the question that will the United States take the lesson, embrace multilateralism again, and get back to lead?

*Mohammed Seid Ahmed, Freelancer(M.Phil International Relations at Zhejiang University, currently based in California, the US)Mohemmed can be reached at mahmedseid89[at]outlook.com

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