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East Asia

The Chinese View of Western-Russia Competition

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The interrelation of Russia, China, and the West (primarily the US) will largely dictate how Eurasia develops in the coming decades. Will the super-continent disintegrate into several spheres of influence, or will it remain a space in which, as in the post-Cold War period, Western influence remains unopposed?

Much attention is paid to the struggle between Russia and the West, but less to China’s view of that competition—a view that is critically important. Russia is not strong enough to effectively counter Western influence, and the US is on the defensive and squabbling with allies. China is the only world player with the financial and military might to challenge the existing balance of power.

Chinese territory is immense, and it juts deeply into the Eurasian continent. This makes it highly vulnerable to the forces of geopolitical competition on the continent and highly sensitive to opportunities to tip the balance. For China, the territories in the Eurasian landmass to the west, from Xinjiang to Portugal to Scandinavia, are the space in which its rise can play out.

While it is often argued that China’s economic rise is the most important aspect of the quickly changing world order, it should be noted that economic progress, however grand in scale, will not suffice to reshape the world with China at the top. As would any great power, China needs opportune geopolitical circumstances on the Eurasian landmass to advance its interests.

One such opportunity is the Russia-West confrontation. It is often forgotten that for the Chinese, Russia and the Western states fall within one category: powers that once pursued a colonial presence on Chinese territory (Russia in the country’s north and the Western maritime empires on the coast). There is no outright hatred, but this perception of Russia, the US, and other Western powers is deeply ingrained in Chinese political culture.

In terms of a grand strategic vision, it is in the Chinese interest to keep its Eurasian competitors as divided as possible. To accomplish this, Beijing could side with one power and then switch to the other in a few decades. During the Cold War, China sided with the Soviets and approached the US as a competitor. Later, Beijing’s relations with Moscow deteriorated and Washington became a major supporter of China.

In the recent past, Chinese foreign policy has made ample use of the strategy of playing one against the other. Beijing has both tacitly and openly supported Moscow in its confrontation with the West, whether through votes at the UN or through economic and military cooperation in contravention of Western sanctions imposed on Russia. By supporting Moscow in this way, China forces the US to dedicate military and economic resources to the containment of Russia in the former Soviet space, Africa, the Middle East, and the Black and Mediterranean Seas.

The Chinese attitude toward the Russia-West confrontation has created a suspicion in Moscow that Beijing is intent on a complete overhaul of the existing world order. But while it is fashionable to portray all Chinese moves as part of that kind of grand strategic design, China actually benefits a good deal from the current world order. Economic relations have allowed China to attain high growth levels and stake a larger claim in global supply chains. Russia-China relations are more about the two sides using each other to disrupt the US-led status quo than to catapult China to world domination. At this stage, Moscow is no more dependent on China than the other way around.

With that said, it is another common misconception that Beijing considers Moscow to be on an equal footing with it. Judging from statements by Chinese politicians and the country’s analytical community, Beijing sees Russia as just another piece in the Eurasian geopolitical game. Russia’s recent gain in influence has not been as fundamental as that of China, which limits Russia’s chances of an eventual Russia-China-led Eurasia.

The Russia-West confrontation also helps China within the context of Russian Middle East policy. The region is economically important to Beijing, but it has been divided and mostly dominated by Western powers. Russia’s actions have disrupted and diminished the Western posture in the region, which benefits Beijing.

In the long run, as Russia is unlikely to maintain its current level of influence in the Middle East, China could play a more active role in the resource-rich region. Moreover, the Middle East’s importance will grow in China’s calculus because of the region’s geography as one of the connection points with Europe’s almost 500 million person market.

It is not enough for a rising global power to have a powerful economy, though that is very important. A rising power also needs opportunities to widen gaps between other major players that are in competition. The Russia-West rivalry is just such an opportunity for Beijing.

The rise of the US to preeminence on the world stage by the end of WWII was made possible not only by its economic power, but by rivalries among the European states that cleared the way for American military and economic dominance. While China’s modern foreign policy is not about fostering war on the Eurasian landmass, diplomatic and economic competition between Russia and the West offers Beijing a chance to pursue its wider economic interests—namely, the Belt and Road Initiative—on a much higher level.

Author’s note: first published in BESA Center

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

East Asia

The complex puzzle of Canberra-Beijing ties, as diplomacy takes a back seat

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Australia and China seems to be engaged in a repulsive tariff war targeting each other’s goods. Canberra is struggling to manage its complex economic relationship with Beijing even as it finds itself in the strategically opposite camp. How did things turn out this way? Here, I analyse.

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There was a time when Australia under the Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was in office from 2007 to 2013, had the highest level of warmth in relations with China.

The Labour premier saw a promising prospect of economic partnership with a rising China at that point of time, but gravely under-estimated the geopolitical threat that would be soon posed by Beijing, a mistake later governments would realise and is still striving to rectify.

Quad pullout and comeback

Rudd even pulled Australia out of the four-nation Quad grouping in 2008, a year after it was conceived by former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, in a move to appease Beijing with which Canberra’s economic partnership was progressively moving upwards. But, nine years later, Malcolm Turnbull’s premiership brought Canberra back to the Quad as regional and global security dynamics witnessed a paradigm shift.

Strategic shift

A decade later since Rudd took office, despite closer economic ties with Beijing, Canberra pushed for a closer alliance with the United States since 2017, the year Quad Security Dialogue was revived during the ASEAN and Related Summits in Manila.

It was a result of changes in security assessments by Canberra with regard to new threats and challenges from an increasingly assertive Beijing in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

The rift between Australia and China further widened, earlier this year, when the Australian government supported an inquiry into the origins of the novel coronavirus, annoying China where it originated. Australian politicians also became increasingly divided on hawkish and dovish lines.

Huawei and ZTE ban

Tides were turned in 2018 when Australia became the first country in the world to ban Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE from 5G trials and rollout, citing security concerns, as these companies ‘allegedly’ had links to the Chinese ruling establishment which they deny.

Beijing also reciprocated with tit-for-tat measures from time to time. The latest in line of such measures was the imposition of temporary anti-dumping tariffs up to 212.1 per cent on Australian wine imports with effect from November 28, this year.

Ongoing tariff tensions

2020 saw a foray of imposition of tariffs and reciprocal duties from both sides right from the beginning of the pandemic. Attempted mergers and acquisitions by Chinese companies involving companies in Australia were also blocked by Canberra citing security reasons.

Adding oil to the fire, anti-dumping investigations were initiated by both sides against each other, for using its findings as rationale for imposing more tariffs on different sets of goods such as aluminum, steel, paper, coal, copper, sugar, log timber, and barley.

ChAFTA

What will be the fate of the 2015-signed China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA)?

The worsening ties might take a toll on ChAFTA as it readies for a five-year review next month, notwithstanding the other broad-based trade pacts in which both countries are participants such as the recently-signed, 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

ChAFTA took about a decade to complete and led to zero tariffs on many goods, but RCEP is still in its infancy.The main issue is not whether a review of ChAFTA is possible, but how to prevent the looming prospect of Canberra and Beijing retreating from the current commitments directly or indirectly that would effectively reduce the pact into a state of coma.

As ChAFTA goes for review in December, the most likely outcome could be both countries agreeing to maintain the deal’s status quo. If any of the parties wishes to terminate the pact, there is a six-month notice period after which they can leave, with or without a review.

Still economic partners, but political rivals

Today, China has positioned itself as Australia’s largest trading partner. Moreover, Australia strongly benefits from its close proximity to the vast markets of China and Japan which together represent over 40% of all Australian exports, in which a little over 32% amounting to $89.2 billion, are exclusively to China, as data from 2019 show. Despite this, Canberra and Beijing remain at odds politically.

Exercise Malabar 2020 and beyond

One of the striking questions in the strategic circles of all Quad partner countries is, will Australia continue to take part in the annual Exercise Malabar in the coming years, annoying Beijing further?

While Japan is a strategic partner in the Quad, ties with China are moving on an adversarial path, particularly worsening since Canberra took part in the annual Exercise Malabar in the Indian Ocean this month, after a gap of 13 years since it left the mega naval war games.

The exercise by the four Quad partners of India, United States, Japan, and Australia is apparently a warning to Beijing’s naval ambitions in the waters of the Indo-Pacific.

Supply Chain Resilience Initiative

In fact, all the Quad partners and other democracies in the Indo-Pacific wish to decouple itself from over trade dependency on China. But, domestic economic realities prove otherwise. With a raging pandemic and the unravelling US-China cold war threatening supply chains, Japan has recently put forward an idea – the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative or SCRI.

It is a trilateral approach to trade, with India, Australia, and Japan as the key-partners aimed at diversifying its supply risk across a group of supplying nations instead of being disproportionately dependent on just one, apparently keeping China in mind.

Despite all these measures, the prospect of closing of huge Chinese markets for Australian exports, owing to a disproportionately high level of tariffs is haunting domestic producers in Australia that could potentially make Australian wine largely unmarketable and non-feasible in Chinese markets.

Ineffective diplomatic efforts

Current Australian PM Scott Morrison has been trying to bridge gaps in a reconciliatory tone by stating that his government’s actions are wrongly seen and interpreted by some only through the lens of the strategic competition between China and the US. But, Beijing doesn’t seem satisfied, as evident in the decision to impose the recent set of disproportionate tariffs on wine.

Loss of businesses for Australian domestic producers is already hurting the Australian economy badly as goods remain stalled at ports. But, the behemoth of Chinese economy appears to be largely resilient to adverse impacts, compared to the Australian economy.

Way ahead

Australia’s producers and farmers are largely unhappy and unsatisfied with the way Canberra is dealing with Beijing as it directly threatens their livelihoods.

As things turn out worse, Canberra will have to strategise newer options to effectively balance geostrategic and economic considerations with regard to Beijing, possibly through the diplomatic route, in a way to immediately diffuse the prevalent confrontational approach to come out of this diplomatic impasse.

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East Asia

Is China on the brink of a food crisis?

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It is not a secret that the current COVID-19 pandemic has been affecting people all around the globe. The virus touched almost all spheres of regular life – i.e. it resulted in temporary or permanent closure of businesses, a rise in the unemployment rate, inability to physically spend time with family and friends. Such drastic changes in times of uncertainty significantly impacted the well-being of the world population. Moreover, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) warned about the emerging food shortages worldwide. According to FAO statistics, global food prices have been on the rise for four consequent months, hitting their maximum in September 2020. China – the place where the virus originated – is one of the states that have been seriously affected by the disruptions, including production and distribution of food.

In his speech on August, 11 Chinese leader Xi Jinping did not admit any food shortages. However, he promoted food security through the campaign “operation empty plate,” thereby encouraging people to stop wasting food. It is interesting to note that Mao Zedong introduced a similar food campaign before the 1959 Great Chinese Famine. Meanwhile, there has undoubtedly been a significant increase in food prices in China. Many experts claim that China is on the brink of a food crisis that has been manifested as a result of lockdowns, infected livestock, and poor weather conditions. It is difficult to give any predictions or estimations about the future food situation in China because the country does not share enough of its data with the rest of the world, yet it is possible to answer the question why the state faces food difficulties.

Average food prices increase

The National Bureau of Statistics of China reported that, on average, food prices have increased by 11.2% compared to 2019. The price level of vegetables increased by 6.4% in one month; egg prices soared by 11.3% within the same period. Pork prices grew the most, by 52.6% compared to the last year’s statistics. Why is it important?

Firstly, many workers and their families who faced loss or decrease of income or remittances became food insecure. That, in turn, has had social repercussions for the overall level of crime, health concerns among adults and infants, high death rate, different demographic and economic challenges. Furthermore, international trade will also suffer: due to the lack of labor force Chinese imports in foreign countries will seemingly increase in price.

Secondly, China, along with other countries, was in a period of recession earlier this year. Food insecurity will cause difficulties in coming out of this financial downturn.

The impact of lockdowns on food supply chains

One of the main factors contributing to the declining agricultural productivity and spiking food prices in China is the restrictions on personal mobility and transportation of goods. In January Chinese authorities adopted measures to limit mobility within the country; they imposed “city lockdowns, traffic control, and closed management of villages and communities.” Such restrictions impacted food supply chains. For the production part many workers experienced difficulties getting to work that created a shortage of physical labor. That is why some crops were not picked, others were not even planted. As a result, the supply of agricultural goods decreased. On the other hand, at the beginning of the year, the demand for them also fell as restaurants and bars were closed. Thereby, many crops went to waste, while farmers did not make enough profit to purchase the seeds and fertilizers for the next season. It is a problem because businesses continue to open up, raising the demand and prices on crops. Immobility also impacted the distribution of seeds and fertilizers to the farms that disrupted the plantation season. Furthermore, the distribution of agricultural goods to grocery stores became difficult. Particular inconveniences associated with the restrictions on mobility all added up to the spike of prices on crops.

African Swine fever outbreak

Another factor impacting the emerging food crisis in China is the failure to rebuild last year’s loss of pigs due to the infection. Chinese porcine farms were hit by the African swine fever outbreak that infected and killed a large number of pigs (40% of total Chinese pigs’ population), decreasing the supply but increasing the prices on pork in 2019. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, pork prices were 52.6% higher in August this year than the year before, while corn prices – the main porcine fodder – increased by 20% compared to last year. Chinese farmers failed to improve the situation in 2020 due to severe flooding. The increased amount of precipitation caused considerable losses of corn and thus the inability to feed pigs. China began to import crops from abroad – particularly, corn from the US. As the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) stated, China had been importing 195,000 more tonnes of American corn than the year before.

Shuttered diplomatic relations between China and Western states

Some experts claim that Chinese diplomatic relations with such Western countries as Australia, the US and Canada shattered due to the fire of four ballistic missiles on the Indian border on August, 26. These states are China’s major food exporters. If their diplomatic relations with Beijing worsen, then the trade has a high chance of being negatively affected as well. In other words, Chinese imports of crops have the risk of becoming more expensive, meaning that the prices of pork and other goods might rise even more.

Severe flooding and drought

Finally, worsened weather conditions – some parts of China experienced drought, others were hit by flooding – led to a decrease in crops and a significant increase in food prices. Southern, Central and Eastern China underwent a period of heavy rain and the worst flooding in the last hundred years. Excessively high water levels in major Chinese rivers, including the Yangtze River, resulted in the evacuation of 15 million people in July 2020. Moreover, the flooding destroyed 13 million acres of agricultural land, which is estimated to cost at least $29 billion of economic damage. In the meantime Northern (Xinjiang province) and Southwest (Yunnan province) China have gone through a period of severe drought. In April 2020 nearly 1.5 million people in Yunnan province were caught in an emergency situation: shortages of drinking water, damage of hundreds of hectares of crops and livestock. Consequently, the supply of many agricultural goods and pork decreased, which spiked the prices on these goods.

Chinese long-term prospects toward food security

To conclude, immobility, African swine flu, worsened weather and security conditions led to the growing food shortages and increasing food prices in China. This being said, the Chinese government has been working on that problem. It has taken special measures to ensure sufficience of agricultural goods by investing in various disaster relief funds for different crops, particularly rice and wheat. For example, Chinese authorities allocated 1.4 billion yuan to save the agricultural harvest in Hubei province. Due to the substantial loss of agricultural products, China has also increased its imports. General Administration of Customs reported that China’s grain imports rose by 22.7% in July 2020 compared to the previous year. Meanwhile, the Chinese leader took a gentle approach to solve this problem. He did not announce the issues related to the insufficient number of crops; instead, he adopted a program for encouraging people to be more frugal with their eating habits. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences followed the same path as it denied anticipation of a food crisis in the short-term perspective, yet warned about possible food shortfalls by 2025 if no agricultural reforms take place. As of now, China is not on the break of a food crisis; however, its shuttered prospects for long-term food sustainability are subject to dangerous repercussions.

From our partner RIAC

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East Asia

China and Mongolia: A Comprehensive and Never-Ending Strategic Partnership

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Mongolia is an exceptional country when it comes to Eurasian geopolitics, linking China with Russia, two great countries in terms of military and economic capabilities, geographical area and population. In June 2016, the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor (CMREC) was announced in order to consolidate friendly relations and promote economic exchanges for the success of the Belt and Road Initiative. Many reports indicate the great position of Mongolia on the Chinese economic map as a pillar of the modern Chinese initiative. Mongolia is a major economic partner of China, and the Chinese administration aspires to forge permanent relations of cooperation and coordination with Mongolia by virtue of its common geography and strategic location, in order to open up through it to Russia and other Mongolia is a key economic partner of China, and the Chinese administration aspires to forge permanent relations of cooperation and coordination with Mongolia by virtue of its common geography and strategic location, in order to open up through it to Russia and other international partners.

Mongolia is rich in natural resources, for example the mining industry provided up to 30% of GDP and almost 90% of exports, but its economy is not as developed compared to China. Some economic reports indicate the great economic benefit to Mongolia from the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor. Mongolia is expected to witness unparalleled economic growth in terms of international economic cooperation, which will positively affect the national economy. The Mongolian economy depends heavily on China’s investment; data of the two largest ports in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in northern China indicates enormous economic benefits. In the chart below, the continued economic progress achieved in Inner Mongolia is shown. In addition, rail trade increased by 16 percent year-on-year to 11.2 million tons in 2017. In the same year, 570 trips were made on the China-Europe railways passing through Ernhot (a county-level city of the XilinGol League, in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, located in the Gobi Desert along the Sino-Mongolian border, across from the Mongolian town of Zamyn-Üüd).

The Belt and Road Initiative aims for mutual profit, cooperation and peaceful communication. China shares an ancient cultural history with Mongolia, long common borders, and economic cooperation that has never stopped. The strategic geographic location of Mongolia makes it a priority for China on the new Silk Road, in addition to the richness of natural resources and livestock that China needs.

The Mongolians are a horse-loving people, a country known for its large number of horses. Mongols without horses are like birds without wings. Despite globalization and the great economic progress in the neighbor (China), as well as the cold weather and difficult geography, the Mongolians did not abandon their traditions and the Mongolian way of life still exists today. In Mongolia there are herders of horses, camels and cattle to benefit from milk, meat, wool, etc. During the pandemic in China, for example, President Battulga set up what is known as “Sheep Diplomacy” where Mongolian President donated 30,000 sheep to China. This initiative indicates the Mongolians’ positive intentions towards the Chinese and the desire to open up more. In this context, I would like to point out that China is a big importer of meat and the Chinese demand for meat is constantly increasing, as shown in the chart below. Here is a great opportunity for Mongolia to increase its exports of meat to the Chinese market.

The reading of Mongolian history indicates that this country has passed through periods of prosperity. Mongolia may be a good example of power and rule, as its borders extended to many countries during the rule of Genghis Khan (1162-1227), the man whom the Mongolians consider their historical leader and has turned into a hero and a national symbol. The Mongolians did not abandon their land despite the cold weather and difficult geography, indicating that they are a deeply rooted people with land. Mongolia, with its vast territories and few people, has turned into a meeting place for Russia and China, and a strategic center for Chinese economic expansion. Therefore, it is impossible for the Chinese administration to abandon the partnership with Mongolia.

The Mongolian economy is heavily dependent on livestock, and the number of pastures has increased significantly since the Soviet era because of the transfer of ownership to the people. However, the government is still not able to provide all services to citizens “the government has failed to promote education and health care and veterinary care in pastoral communities, so there is no longer any incentive to stay in rural areas” said Sarol Khuadu, an official at the Institute for Environmental Research in the Mongolian capital. The policy, which no longer places much emphasis on the countryside, has led to the transfer of large numbers of citizens to the capital and to engage in the world of money and business.

Unfortunately, the Mongolian government is not working seriously to support citizens in remote areas. The conditions of life are not good and the loans granted are high interest, in addition to the weather that adversely affects their businesses. In order to help the poor and rural people, in cooperation with national governments, humanitarian, development and scientific partners, FAO has developed an early warning approach by monitoring risk information systems and turning warnings into proactive actions. International organizations contribute to permanent humanitarian and social assistance in Mongolia.

Mongolia’s strategic policy through the “Mongolia Steppe Road Program 蒙古国“草原之路” is largely in line with the belt and road initiative, which is a road connecting Mongolia, China and Russia. Consequently, Mongolia, a country that mainly depends on the agricultural sector, will be a center for economic communication between China and Russia, and thus will witness a great economic development. The Steppe Road Program aims to boost Mongolia’s economic standing and create an advanced network of infrastructure for communication with China and Russia and build an oil and gas pipeline. In 2014, during his historic visit, Chinese President Xi Jinping raised the level of relations between the two countries to “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Relations”. Since then, bilateral cooperation has begun to move faster.

China has never abandoned Mongolia; it is a country of advanced strategic location as a bridge between Asia and Europe, in addition to the important agricultural sector in Mongolia which benefits China greatly, not to forget to mention the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor which has become an important part of the belt and road initiative and a key component of Sino-Russian cooperation.

The relationship between China and Mongolia today is an ideal example of the bilateral relationship between two neighboring countries. Cultural, economic, political and tourism communication is in continuous progress between the Chinese and Mongolians, and the Belt and Road Initiative will push this communication forward. The Chinese aspire to increase free trade areas and economic connectivity through a developed infrastructure network.

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