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The Sino-American COVID-19 Narrative Confrontation

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There has been a blame game between Washington and Beijing regarding the source of the COVID-19. As stated by the Guardian and China Daily, President Donald Trump and other American officials, have labelled Covid-19 the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan Virus” . One White House official is reported to have also labelled the virus the “Kung Flu”. The Republican senator Tom Cotton questioned the idea of whether or not the coronavirus could be a China-crafted bioweapon without providing evidence. Correspondingly, in China, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, Zhao Lijian, tweeted that “it might be the US army” that carried the virus to Wuhan, giving an official yet unofficial nod to a conspiracy theory that had been circulating on Chinese social media for some time.

Due to this situation, some authors and bureaucrats claim that American and Chinese officials are engaged in a COVID 19-caused ideological battle, signifying an approaching new Cold War. However, I argue that this statement exaggerates the current situation, which does not constitute an ideological war but rather, reflects a soft power clash.

Undeniably, China has proposed alternatives to the US-dominated world order and has pursued strategies to make it easier for Beijing and other governments with similar attributes to survive. However, according to Professor Jessica Chen Weiss, it is “less as a new Cold War and more as an emerging security dilemma, in which China and its efforts to make the world safer for Beijing appear to threaten the values of liberal democracies overseas, not by intent, but still as a consequence of its defensive efforts”. It might be factual that Washington and Beijing dislike each other because of ideological distinctions. However, for China, what Beijing wants is political stability without the intervention of foreign forces. To some extent, as Professor Weiss argues, Beijing “has just adopted offensive means to achieve its strategically defensive aims”. Furthermore, it might be possible that Beijing may embrace some dysfunctionality of the American system, but this is far from confirming that Beijing has any massive ideological strategy to confront the US, or that it intends to export its ideology to the world.

In addition, the contemporary Chinese ideology, to some extent, does not create an ideological confrontation with the West. Professor Andrew Mertha argues that the current socialism with Chinese characteristics fully and entirely serves Beijing domestically rather than globally. Officially, the narrative of the China Model, Chinese Dream, and the Belt and Road Initiative are either just mottos with infinite explanation or well-acknowledged as vague and constantly evolving projects. They do not naturally form a vigorous ideology that can rival the US. Professor Mertha recently said, “the genuine narrative that has emerged under the Xi’s era, that of China reclaiming its proper place in the global pecking order, is also not an ideology but a blunt, albeit historically grounded, nationalist imperative”.

In fact, both sides are struggling to triumph in the narrative battle, a contest that aims to win hearts and minds. Based on Joseph Nye‘s claims, it is essentially a soft power clash that revolves around “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments”. This attraction originates from justifying the legitimacy and morality of one country’s culture, political values and its foreign policies, in which the US and China are fighting to dwarf each other in the current pandemic. However, the increase of one country’s soft power does not originate from obstructing the soft power of another country. Quoting Marcel H. Van Herpen, “the only way to become number one in the league of soft-power champions is to become more attractive”. In this geopolitical beauty competition, the US and China do not become more beautiful by denigrating each other. “One wins only because one has the best qualifications”.

Unfortunately, what we see now is squabbling between Sino-American officials on whom is to blame for the pandemic, rather than finding ways to live with each other and solve the problem together, which has essentially decreased the soft power of both sides. Especially, for the US, the recent G7 meeting was not even capable of issuing a joint statement on the worldwide pandemic, because the US refused to sign anything that does not label the infection as “Wuhan Virus”. As Fareed Zakaria criticized, “the disputes sound like something from high school”. It is understandable that President Trump wants to keep playing the “anti-China Card”. To some extent, it is endemic of a populist rhetoric that helped him get elected and may boost his approval ratings while maintaining his political power for the upcoming election. However, where is the glorious image of America’s global leadership? Is the recent Trump-initiated Sino-American trade war supposed to keep the position of America as the single superpower and evict any potential challengers? If so, where is the world leadership that the US has always wanted to exhibit to win the soft power battle by cooperating with other countries to unravel each difficulty? This is the crucial component of the Sino-American power competition that President Trump fails to realize.

From our partner RIAC

Yuan Jiang is a Chinese PhD student currently studying at the Queensland University of Technology, Australia. He is affiliated with the QUT Digital Media Research Centre, focusing on the Belt and Road Initiative. He completed his master’s degree in political science at Moscow State Institute of International Relations as a Russian Speaker and bachelor’s degree of law at Shanghai University. He served as an Account Manager of ZTE Corporation and special correspondent in Asia Weekly and The Paper/Pengpai News, both in Moscow. His writing has also appeared in The Diplomat, The National Interest, South China Morning Post, Russian International Affairs Council, Australian Outlook- Australian Institute of International Affairs, China Brief-The Jamestown Foundation, Global Times (English Edition), Modern Diplomacy, US-China Perception Monitor, Southern People Weekly Magazine, People’s Daily (Overseas Edition), Caixin and Kanshijie Magazine. As a Chinese student and journalist, he was invited to comment on Financial Times, Russia Today and some Russian TV and radio talk shows several times. He tweets at @jiangyuan528. For more information, please refer to his LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/jiangyuan528/

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Transition 2021: How Biden is likely to approach the Middle East

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In terms of foreign policy, the new President of the United States, Joe Biden,is likely to face numerous challenges, especially when it comes to the Middle East because of the disastrous policies of the former President, Donald Trump, in the region. Even in his inauguration speech, Biden made it clear that it was going to be testing time. Some of the challenges that the new administration would be facing includethe nuclear deal with Iran, the ongoing war in Yemen, issues of human rights issues and the current deadlock between Israel and Palestine. There is some possibility that Biden’s foreign policy towards the Middle East would either be a revival of Barack Obama’s former policies or new strategies would be formulated based on the nature of the challenges faced. However, it is certain that Biden will address or undo Trump’s terrible policies in the region. 

The Biden administration’s top foreign policy agenda is the policy towards Iran. The Iran nuclear deal (2015) or JCOPA was considered to be a milestone in multilateral diplomacy that was irresponsibly abandoned by Trump in 2018. Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” of sanctions against Iran aimed to please the traditional allies as they faced a common enemy in Iran. Biden has promised to return to the 2015 JCPOA agreement, and he would also discuss Iran’s nuclear program and exchange for sanctions relief. In this process, it is expected that Washington might pressure Iran to withdraw its support for regional proxies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Moreover, the US would also seek to curb Iran’s export of precision guided missiles to her regional allies. Iran though, has already made it clear that these issues would not be discussed in the event of a renegotiated JCPOA. Furthermore, this plan may be complicated by the recent assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, which was not condemned by the White House that Iran blames on Israel. Public outrage had not even subdued at the point due to the assassination of Qasim Sulemani. Currently, the architecture of the Middle Eastern region is even more complex and challenging than it was four years ago butthe fact is that Iran cannot afford military conflict at this point when its economy is already crippling amidst the COVID-19 pandemic along with the sanctions imposed by the US.

Trump administration’s “Israel-first” approach in the region brought severe criticism at the global level. The Abraham Accord, signed in September of last year,which normalized Israel’s relations with UAE & Bahrain, is widely seen as Donald Trump’s most significant foreign policy achievement. This Accord altered the decades long regional perception that Arab-Israel peace could not be achieved without first addressing the issue of statehood for Palestinians. Biden has said that he supports more countries recognizing Israel but at the same time Israel needs to work towards genuine solutions between the two states. Moreover, the new administration at the White House will not show the same tolerance for Israel’s settler expansionism as its predecessor. However, there are certain foreign policies by the Trump administration that the new US leadership does not want to renew. The normalization of Arab-Israel relations is something that enjoys bipartisan support. And also, the shift of the US embassy to Jerusalem seems unlikely to be undone.

The US policy inthe Middle East under the new leadership will be less ideological and would be more based on fundamental principles.  These principles will greatly focus on human rights as some analysts view human rights as the core foreign policy agenda of the Biden administration. Thus, it does not seem not to be good news for the traditional allies of the US including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel. There are a variety of issues in addition to the human rights issues: the KSA intervention in Yemen, arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the lingering mistrust, the jailing of activists and Jamall Khashoggi’s murder case, which are creating uncertainties between the Washington and Riyadh. Hence, KSA is going to have a very difficult time with the Biden administration. Similarly, the new administration can also be expected to take a less tolerant view towards Moscow and Ankara because of the extraterritorial activities in the Middle Eastern region.

Certainly, returning to the Iran nuclear dealofficially, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action-will take a longer time to review because of the complexity of the issue and the domestic problems that the US is currently facing. There is also a possibility of a dangerous escalation without a nuclear deal due to Iran’s aims of buildingmilitary scenarios. Therefore, multilateral diplomacy is the best option for regional peace and security, which has been tried in the previous years.Even the JCPOA was a result of such diplomacy. The US ending its support to Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen might turn away the traditional allies for some time but not permanently due to the common interests in the region. Biden is also likely to alter Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from the region as it would decrease US influence in the region. The top priority of the US administration in the Middle East would be to try and manage Iran’s problems and to maintain reasonable relations with Israel. Traditional allies of the US in the Middle East were content and supportive of Trump’s policies in the region but they view Biden, not as a President, but Vice President of the Obama Administration. Trump’s bilateral relations were often based on personal ties with the foreign leaders while Biden is expected to adopt a more multilateral approach in engaging with the allies. Still, scholars believe that there would be no fundamental change in the US foreign policy towards the Middle East, especially when it comes to protecting its vested interests in the region.

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Rejoining the UNHRC will be the State Department’s first diplomatic mistake

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As over the last days US Vice President Harris swore in Linda Thomas-Greenfield as the new US Ambassador to the UN, US Secretary of State Blinken announced in parallel that the US is now seeking election to the UN Human Rights Council, in an attempt to rejoin the UN system. But that’s not the right first move back at the UN that the US should be making. And that’s not what the progressive left had in mind when the real left groups put in office the new Biden Administration.

My perspective comes from having worked in the UN human rights system and as a finalist for UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of speech last year – but also as a progressive left voice.

The days when UN engagement defined Democrats vis-a-vis Republicans are over.

Shunning the UN has always been a Republican hallmark but backing and pouring so much funding into an old style, corrupt bureaucracy that has little to do with “diplomacy” is not what the new, awaken progressive left wants either.

Several weeks ago, I made the estimate that the 10bln dollars which the US government pours into the black hole called the UN equals the Covid relief that 16mln struggling American people could be getting now. The Biden Administration’s State Department diplomats have to remember who put them in office.

Democrat centrist diplomats have more in common with the UN in terms of ways, goals, style and world view than they do with the progressive left. Backing the UN means backing the old, corrupt ways, which the real progressive left voted to break last year.

The decision to announce the US’s goal to rejoin the UN Human Rights Council comes in the same week when President Biden finally announced his real stance on the Black Lives Matter ‘defund the police’ goals. Biden, it turns out, unsurprisingly does not support that. That’s not what the progressive left signed up for, either.

The UN institutional funding inertia by the US government does not define the Democratic Party anymore. That’s not what the left voters want. 

The left’s reasons for not embracing the UN and the UN Human Rights Council have little to do with the usual Republican ‘go it alone’ at the international stage.

Yes to diplomacy and multilateralism. No to the corrupt, faceless UN. “International diplomacy” is no longer the same thing as the UN system.

The wave that rose across American political life last year, with so many young black activists and so many people voting for the first time, signaled a big resounding No to old ways and old institutions, which have little concern for the actual needs of the people.

The new US Ambassador to the UN, Thomas-Greenfield, will have the tough job of reforming the UN, and in my opinion, even defunding the UN.

The days when love for the UN defined Democrats are certainly over. It’s time for the Biden Administration to do what it was elected for, which is to not simply go back to the same old, same old corrupt, faceless bureaucratic institutions swimming in money. This is not what we want. The progressive left voted for change and now that also includes the UN.

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U.S. Climate Policy Could Break the Ice with Russia

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Photo: Fiona Paton/ flickr

“In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity” — Albert Einstein

Within the climate crisis lies strategic opportunity for the United States. Climate change offers the chance to earn back the good will of allies, to prepare American cities for an urgently needed increase in immigration, and to reinvent U.S.-led institutions that have gone stale. Perhaps most of all, foreign policymakers should remain cognizant of how climate action can help the U.S. navigate relations with the other great powers.

As a recent report from the Center for a New American Security details, synergy between China and Russia is more problematic for U.S. interests than the sum of the challenges that each nation poses individually. Similarly, a recent Atlantic Council publication observed that “allowing Russia to drift fully into China’s strategic embrace over the last decade will go down as the single greatest geostrategic error.” Chinese and Russian interests do currently align on defense, economics, and the degradation of the U.S.-designed world order, but the nature of their alignment does not constitute an alliance.

In characterizing the relationship, this distinction is paramount. For as long as China and Russia remain merely convenient partners, rather than ideologically kindred allies, it is possible to keep these neighbors at arm’s length. To this end, the U.S. must reorient its approach to Russia. It is the Russian perception that world politics are rigged to benefit the U.S. at Russia’s expense that has prompted its support for China.

Russia’s national interests are rooted in the desire for respect. With this in mind, Russia could pull back from synergy with China if a better opportunity to advance these interests presented itself. Ultimately, the ability of the U.S. to offer a mutually acceptable alternative will hinge on two related factors: the Arctic and NATO. Critically, the issue of climate change is central to both of these factors.

In the Arctic, rapid warming removes barriers to resource exploitation, shipping activity, and great power competition. This has drawn many non-Arctic states to the region. Yet, even with China inserting itself as a “Near-Arctic State,” Russia has expressed the need for a hierarchy of regional influence in which the interests of Arctic states are prioritized over non-Arctic states. On this, American and Russian interests align.

Russian distrust of the U.S. complicates matters, however. Arctic military assertiveness from Russia is evidence of its sensitivity to the NATO alliance. In response, U.S. military branches have been releasing strategies for Arctic-specific forward defense. Such militarism is not conducive to improving relations, securing sovereign influence, or addressing climate change. 

In order to limit undue Chinese influence in the region and stabilize its relations with Russia by securing a multilateral agreement that formalizes an Arctic hierarchy, the U.S. will need to alter its foreign policy so that Russia perceives it to be a viable partner. The alteration should be sufficient for reducing friction with Russia’s core interests, but not so extreme that liberal values or American security are put in jeopardy. Such transactional considerations should include fashioning a new climate-positive role for the U.S. in NATO. After all, the permanent physical presence of roughly 76,000 U.S. troops on the European continent not only irks Russia, but this posture is also expensive, carbon-intensive, and perhaps not even the most effective approach to conflict deterrence. 

Indeed, research has shown that rapid deployment of new forces is significantly more likely to stymie aggression. This suggests that the U.S. should reduce its troop levels in Europe by at least 75 percent while bolstering rapid deployment readiness. This would allow the U.S. to simultaneously reduce its military’s fuel demand and greenhouse gas emissions, earn the good will necessary for stronger diplomacy with Russia, and still honor its security commitment to NATO in the event of a crisis. Moreover, the U.S. could then reinvest the potential savings into both Arctic sustainability and NATO’s capacity to manage climate insecurity.

Through the establishment of a bounded Arctic order and the greening of American leadership in NATO, the U.S. can dispel Sino-Russian synergy in the region and help maintain balance between the great powers. Specifically, these actions would both politically distance China from Russia and give the Kremlin substantial reason to begin feeling more optimistic about its relations with the West. To be sure, similar measures will be necessary in other regions to fully assure balance. However, the Arctic is a natural place for the U.S. to begin this endeavor. Usefully, the themes of climate mitigation and adaptation provide a blueprint for what countering Sino-Russian synergy elsewhere ought to generally entail.

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