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Lessons from History for the Sino-US rivalry or: How not to start another First World War?

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Summary: The article examines significant similarities between the Sino-US rivalry today and the British-German rivalry that led to the First World War. In both cases rapid economic growth resulted in a feeling of supposedly denied entitlement as a great power. Both China and Germany created large navies from scratch to break the hegemony of their British / American rivals. Along with military expansion went a crackdown on minorities and the rejection of Western ideas. History has shown us that such rivalries need careful management to avoid sleepwalking into a disastrous war.

For all of humanities impressive advances in knowledge and technology we still struggle to understand the world beyond our grasp. For us, the world appears as an ever-changing web of meaning woven together by interdependence and contingency. Even specialized experts can’t reliably predict the near future. Fortunately, there are certain patterns in this apparent chaos we have to live in. After all, the needs of humans and their ways of fulfilling them, both on the level of individuals and groups, have been surprisingly constant through history. More than 2500 years ago, the first true historian, Thucydides, predicted that men lead war because of three reasons: fear, interest, and honor.  Today, scholars like Graham Allison agree. Allison coined the concept of “Thucydides’ Trap”, which describes a situation in which one hegemonial power is confronted with an aspiring power. 

The rise of China’s economic and military power has ushered in a new era of Sino-US-rivalry creating this scenario. The last three US Administrations emphasized the need for an increased engagement in East Asia increased engagement in East Asia, recognizing China as the most powerful rival China as the most powerful rival. Hand in hand with the reassignment of the US’s diplomatic and military focus goes a myriad of papers aiming aiming at developing frameworks developing for understanding frameworks  the new order understanding and the intentions intentions of its participants. Looking back at history can help to identify patterns in the complex chaos, allowing us to make more educated assessment as to how the interactions of individuals, organizations, and nations might play out.  

Early in 2021 Matthew Flynn tried this by asking “what Napoleon can teach us about the South China Sea” what Napoleon can teach us about the South China Sea.  In his insightful article, he makes the point that Great Britain was able to defeat Napoleonic France by dominance of the sea and better alliance-building. He also stressed the economical superiority of the British and the self-defeating attempts of Napoleon to reach a Europe-wide boycott on British trade through the costly invasions of Spain and Russia. In Flynn’s view the USA today has similar advantages. However, the USA should not follow the confrontational way into this “kind of devastating struggle that defined British and French relations at the turn of the 19th century”. “Washington”, he argues, “should learn from this and instead pursue a balance of power.”

While we can agree or not with this advice, I doubt that the historical analogy is fitting. The British superiority over the French was overwhelming. They had more ships, better crews, better tactics, better morale, better ports, and a better shipbuilding industry. Of course, the US Navy is the most potent navy in the world, but her predominance is shrinking but her predominance is shrinking. The Chinese used their world class shipbuilding industry to triple the number of warships between 2000 and now, thereby creating the navy with the most ships creating the navy with the most ships. The media-savvy development of their home-build aircraft carriers is only the most visible example of many new blue-sea capabilities many new blue-sea capabilities. The Royal Navy hindered Napoleon’s attempts to conquer Britain, but it was the combined armies of Europe’s great powers that defeated the French. It’s hard to imagine a comparable alliance against China today.

Finally, the economic situation is different. The UK was by far the strongest economic power in the world both in trade and in the manufacture of goods. In fact, continental Europe exported “only foodstuffs and raw materials” which made the UK, ruling over a huge colonial empire, independent. According to the IMF, in 2020 alone the USA imported goods from China with a worth above 450.000 Million US Dollars, while exports totaled around 136.000 Million US Dollar. The United Nations Statistics Division reports China’s share of global manufacturing at 28.4 %, significantly above the share of the USA. These numbers alone make it clear that we now live in a much more integrated and less lopsided world economy.

In 1871, 56 years after Napoleon’s final defeat, the Prussians eventually forged the potpourri of small German states into the German Kaiserreich. The new nation underwent a rapid industrialization, developed imperialistic urges, built the greatest battle-fleet in Europe, second only to the Royal Navy, and eventually became the main rival to Great Britain. The history of this period offers many similarities to the Sino-US rivalry today.

A late nation with huge ambitions

Throughout the 19th century, German liberals wanted to create what most Western European people already had: a nation-state in the sense of the Westphalian Peace. This wish corresponded with the zeitgeist of the time. Additionally, the Germans had a strong urge to feel safe from their neighbors. The Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648 combined with the French invasions under Napoleon were two traumatizing experiences driving this. In 1848, the liberal’s revolution was defeated by the united military power of the German princes. Finally, in 1871 Otto von Bismarck’s Prussia created the German Kaiserreich after three wars against Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1870).

At first, the liberal “Bürgertum” tried to install a strong parliament, but it soon succumbed to Bismarck’s successes and integrated itself into the authoritarian regime. The military became a glorified institution relatively unsupervised by the civilian authorities. After all, it was the generals who had fulfilled the long-held dream of an unified fatherland. Not long after the unification the hunt for enemies within the state started. Catholics, Poles, Alsatians, Jews and Socialists were increasingly targeted by the Prussian dominated administration. Nationalistic pressure groups, such as the 1891 founded “Alldeutsche Verband”, became increasingly important and called for colonial expansion. The later acquisitions of colonies in Africa and the Far East brought Germany in competition with other imperialist nations, and in particular Great Britain. The impulsive character of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II and the often-aggressive behavior of his diplomats made things worse magnifying geopolitical tensions. Whilst other nations started to fear Germany’s newfound might, the Germans acted out their inferiority complex.

The political ambitions of the Kaiserreich were based on the rise of its economy. In a very short time Germany became a highly industrialized nation. By 1900, Germany’s “manufactures accounted for approximately 70 % of total German exports, a higher proportion than attained even by Britain”.  By 1907, more than 42 % of the population worked in industry and manufacturing and only 28 % still worked on the fields.  Numerous banks were founded, most prominently the Deutsche Bank in 1870,  explicitly aiming to “make us independent from England”German GDP rose accordingly quick fueling imperialistic ambitions. In Great Britain, this rapid growth was watched carefully and the danger of losing the position as leading economy became a strategic theme in British politics. Arthur Balfour remarked in 1907: “We are probably fools not to find a reason for declaring war on Germany before she builds too many ships and takes away our trade.”  Indeed, by 1900 Germany was exporting more steel than Great Britain and its export of chemical and electrical goods, the high-tech of the time, were significantly higher. Many British people were shocked when the Merchandise Marks Act of 1887 showed just how many products were “Made in Germany”. 

The German’s, however, were not satisfied with their economic success alone. A strong fleet was seen as a status symbol for a modern great power. The Kaiserliche Marine had a very media-savvy promoter in Admiral Tirpitz. Tirpitz not only convinced the Kaiser of the importance of a blue sea navy, he also made it a symbol for the ongoing modernization of Germany. The army was still dominated by the aristocracy, whereas the new navy became a pet-program for the national-liberal Bürgertum. In 1890, the recently founded “Deutscher Flottenverein” had over half a million members and became, arguably, a successful nationalist pressure group. The German fleet laws of 1898 and 1900 laid the foundation for a completely new fleet capable of competing with the Royal Navy. The envisioned fleet was supposed to include over 40 battleships and around 52 big and small cruisers. In 1905, HMS Dreadnought changed everything by making the older battleships almost irrelevant. The Germans soon produced their own dreadnoughts and now had the chance to build an equally strong fleet. At first, British Members of Parliament were more successful as their German’s colleagues in restraining the naval spending. This changed in 1909, when the so-called Naval Scare, a politically orchestrated campaign, pathed the way for an impressive increase of the Royal Navy.  In Great Britain, Germany soon replaced Russia as main antagonist. On the other side of the North Sea, “perfidious Albion” was perceived as scheming against the Reich and denying it its rightful place as a great power.

An old nation with huge ambitions

Modern Communist China perceives itself as a reborn nation finally overcoming the so-called Century of Humiliation in which European powers could interfere at will in the affairs of the Middle Kingdom. It’s the publicly stated aim of Xi’s Administration to bring China back to its former glory by “lead[ing] the reform of the global governance system”, expansion into the South China Sea, and by ‘unifying’ China, both ideologically and by acquisition of claimed territories. Far from preaching an internationalist communism in 2014 Chairman Xi stressed the importance of patriotism as the “muse, guiding the people to establish and adhere to correct views of history, the nation, the country and culture”. Indeed, the last years have shown how influential an ethnic nationalism has become. In another key speech in 2018, Xi emphasized the importance of inner homogeneity: “We should adhere to the correct political direction, strengthen propaganda and ideology work to tightly unify the ideals and faith, the values and ideas and the morals and ethics of all our people.”

A paramount part of this propaganda is the renewed crackdown on bad-faith influence from Western states. In the so-called “Document 9” from 2013 the following sins are clearly stated: “Promoting Western Constitutional Democracy”, “Promoting ‘universal values’”, “Promoting civil society”, “Promoting Neoliberalism”, and “Promoting the West’s idea of journalism”. The harsh measures taken in Hong Kong and against Uyghurs and Chinese opposition members complement the ideological unifying process. This closely resembles the German attempts to marginalize ethnic and political minorities potentially opposed to the state. The rejection of Western thoughts and the aimfully constructed exclusive nationalism are highly comparable. The striving for possessing the South China Sea and claims of being denied their rightful role in the world could be understood as  China’s demand of  its “place in the sun”. Last, not least the Chinese “wolf-warriors” with their hyper-nationalistic tone, supposedly attending a certain sense of Chinese grandeur, willfully break as much diplomatic porcelain as their German predecessors did.

China’s rapid industrialization and its status as “the world’s factory” doesn’t need further explanation. Interestingly, there is a historical parallel to China’s “One Belt, One Road” project. In 1899, a German conglomerate, heavily supported by the Kaiser, was awarded a concession from the Ottomans to extend the Berlin–Istanbul railway all the way to Baghdad. The concession included the rights on all minerals found in an area of 20 km on both sides of the railway and the right to found ports in the Persian Gulf.  

Despite the high population density on the coast and the importance of fishing and transportation of goods, the Chinese lacked a strong fleet for most parts of the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2016, marine industries, transportation and tourism by sea, and exploitation of ocean resources alone were responsible for 1/10 of China’s GDP. China’s import of resources and its import and export of goods is mostly seaborne. Even more importantly, 20–33 % of the whole world’s global sea trade runs through the South China Sea. Yet the Chinese wish for a strong navy is not just an economic necessity. Humiliations such as the Taiwan crisis in 1996, in which the USA sailed two whole aircraft carrier battle groups through the Taiwan Strait, led to the recognition that only a capable navy would allow the CCP to project power adequately. Furthermore, a strong navy with aircraft carriers can be seen as the ticket into the club of the truly great powers. The PLA Navy and its acquisitions in the South China Sea satisfy nationalist feelings by fulfilling a perceived historical entitlement, not unlike the German navy and the colonies once did.  The rise of the Chinese navy already initiated a more or less hidden arms race between China and the USA (and to a certain degree its allies, especially South Korea and Japan, which both are increasing their navies significantly; last not least by constructing their own small aircraft-carriers).  This reciprocal confrontational naval policy will supposedly fuel nationalist feelings on all sides, elevating the navies to symbols of the nation’s pride.

How not to start another First World War?

The cardinal lesson is how easily such rivalries can lead into a world war. Christopher Clark’s seminal study “The Sleepwalkers” has shown how nations can “sleepwalk” without clear intent into a disastrous war. This can be avoided by finding ways of hedging and partializing certain areas of conflict. This prevents chain reactions and feedback loops that lead into unforeseen catastrophe. History has shown that strongly intermingled economies are no panacea for peace. It’s vital to build strong alliances but the German’s “Niebelungentreue” to the Austrians, giving them unconditioned support for their aggressive foreign policy, is an important caveat for the possible pitfalls of alliances. Both Korea and Taiwan could be the first domino-stone to fall instigating a new great war. It’s very possible that we will experience more forms of hybrid warfare in Asia and Africa, however, political ‘fire doors’ should be implemented, e. g. the non-use of regular troops, to hinder regional conflicts from escalation.

The USA will have to accept that it will be no longer possible to stop China’s expansion by sheer force. Even a 360-ship navy and a move to multi domain operations will not be able to operate successfully in open warfare against China’s navy and air force in their backyard. In the unfortunate case of a conventional war against China, the US Navy would be able to blockade China effectively by air carrier battle groups in the distance and submarines raiding nearer to China’s coast. The diminution of China’s trade and import of resources (especially oil and food) would hopefully be enough to force both sides on the negotiating table.

It would make more sense to invest the money for new ships and possibly useless missiles in cutting-edge cyber capabilities. These are dearly needed to fend off economic and information warfare and can be used as a strong deterrence beneath the threshold of open warfare. At the moment, the CCP arguably profits more from a semi-independent Taiwan, e. g. by importing semiconductors. Of course, the nationalist propaganda in China together with economic and demographic instabilities, may force the CCP’s to initiate an invasion to stabilize the regime. Arguably, the ongoing Chinese annexations in Bhutan already serve this aim. The example of the German nationalist pressure groups, making it almost impossible for the administration to back down from a confrontational course against the Great Britain, has shown that nationalism is a two-sided sword for governments. The USA should try to prevent such a scenario by abstaining from traditional saber rattling.

Accepting China’s military and economic strength and its role as a great power does, however, not mean that systemic conflicts should be ignored or potential Chinese transgressions overlooked. The very reverse should be the case. While the USA should be respectful to China as an independent nation, it should name systemic differences and emphasize that cooperation between the two nations is highly desired. But not at any cost. Criticism of China’s transgressions will remain a paper tiger as long as most products in the USA are “Made in China” and national icons like the ivy league’s universities and Hollywood practice self-censor to make money in China.

The West should learn from the CCP’s playbook and use economical bargaining chips to reward or punish political behavior. It would be highly advisable to compete in less military and more economic oriented ways. The Corona virus crisis has shown the dangers of an overly globalized economy. Cost-efficiency is important but so is resilience. A certain reindustrialization would lessen some of the more virulent social distortions in the USA.

All in all, the USA should take the rivalry sportingly, avoid war, and prove that the Western way of living is all but obsolete.

Author’s note: This essay was published first on Wavell Room.

Julian Koeck is a historian. He has written a book about the German nationalistic voelkish movement before and after the First World War. He is currently working at the University of Heidelberg.

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Air Balloon and U.S.-China Relations

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Credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Tyler Thompson/US Navy

The story of the Chinese Automatic Drifting Balloon (ADB) violating the U.S. airspace in late January–early February 2023 will be a symbolic marker for a new phase of deterioration in the US-China relations.

The relations were rapidly eroding throughout 2022 and early 2023. In some aspects, U.S.-China relations in 2022 evoked obvious associations with U.S.-Russian relations in 2021. While trying to engage in cooperation with Beijing on certain issues (particularly on Ukraine), Washington simultaneously kept imposing increasingly painful sanctions against the country.

Among important steps recently taken in this direction, there have been restrictions on supplies of advanced microchips and equipment for their production to China, effective since October 2022, as well as the pressure exerted on Japan and the Netherlands (key manufacturers of equipment for the microelectronics industry) to join these restrictions. Licenses to supply virtually any components and equipment to China’s Huawei have been terminated, and a significant number of sanctions were imposed on smaller Chinese companies and individuals.

Most of the Chinese measures have been defensive and involved steps to ensure the security of production chains and the national economy. In the meantime, Beijing is also discussing measures to limit certain items of Chinese exports, with potential thermonuclear consequences. Semi-finished products, raw materials and equipment for the production of solar panels can be affected—given China’s monopoly on a number of products, this could be a shock for the renewable energy industry in the West.

The visit of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in early August 2022 played a disastrous role in the military and political situation in East Asia. That trip, despite repeated warnings from Beijing, triggered a period of rapid increase in Chinese military activity around Taiwan, which still continues.

Chinese activities include numerous live-fire exercises in the waters around the island, large groups of combat aircraft and drones flying along the island’s perimeter, and systematic violations of the median line in the Taiwan Strait by PRC ships and aircraft. For its part, the U.S. is increasing military aid to Taiwan, although it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so against the backdrop of ongoing hostilities in Ukraine.

The November 2022 meeting of Xi Jinping and Joseph Biden in Bali was similar in content to the Geneva summit of Biden and Vladimir Putin in June 2021. We saw similar attempts to achieve at least partial stabilization of relations, establishing rules of the game, unblocking channels for political communication by creating joint working groups, and the same predictable failure. So far, we can only hope that the final outcome of these efforts will not be so disastrous as the one between Moscow and Washington.

The U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit was canceled due to the balloon incident, while it was supposed to restore the ruined channels of dialogue. The U.S.-Chinese relation is still lagging far behind the U.S.-Russian relationship in matters of mutual alerting, preventing dangerous incidents, and maintaining emergency channels of communication, where relevant experience has continuously been accumulated since the 1960s. Given the rapid progress of China’s transformation into a new nuclear superpower, conservation of this situation could be dangerous.

Nothing more was expected from Blinken’s visit – no U-turn in relations, no strategic deals, including those concerning Beijing’s positions on the Ukrainian issue. Now, the visit has been postponed indefinitely and the dialogue has been suspended amid the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the Pacific.

The circumstances of the very incident with the Chinese ADB over the United States allow us to take a fresh look at the behavior of China’s leadership in the heating confrontation with the United States. According to U.S. military statements, the ADB shot down on February 4, 2023 was the fourth Chinese apparatus to violate U.S. airspace. The previous three ADBs that visited the U.S. during Donald Trump’s tenure were not detected by U.S. airspace controls in time, and the Americans became aware of their existence belatedly via intelligence channels.

If this is true, China is deliberately and systematically doing what the USSR never afforded during the entire Cold War—flying reconnaissance aircraft directly over U.S. territory. For its part, the U.S. used ADBs on a large scale for flights over the USSR and the PRC in the 1950s and 1980s, and the explanation of their purpose was exactly the same as that used by the Chinese now: border violations due to navigation error or malfunction, meteorological research, observations of airstreams, etc.

China’s contemporary political culture attaches great importance to careful observance of the principle of reciprocity, avoiding situations that could be interpreted as Beijing’s recognition of its unequal position vis-à-vis any major power. This is partly due to the severe historical trauma of the “century of humiliation” in 1840–1945, a time of foreign domination over China.

The current use of the ADB over the United States is by no means a retaliation against historical grievances. Rather, it is a response to some U.S. actions within its “freedom of navigation patrols” in the South China Sea, where U.S. ships and aircraft deliberately violate 12-mile territorial water zones around a number of Chinese-controlled islands. The Americans justify their behavior by saying that these Chinese islands are artificial and do not create rights to territorial waters.

Surely, China believes that the Americans are violating the integrity of its national territorial. From China’s perspective, the U.S., as a power external to the region, should not interfere in any of its territorial disputes with the countries of Southeast Asia. Besides, the high activity of U.S. reconnaissance aircraft along China’s borders—and sometimes over disputed water bodies—has long been a matter of Chinese concern.

From China’s perspective, the use of ADB over U.S. territory may well look like an appropriate response to the U.S. actions. Chinese leaders may have seen this action as a necessary step to confirm China’s status as a great power equal to the United States, even if only a limited number of people knew about these operations for the time being.

The political motivation behind the use of the ADB can also be discerned in the Chinese response to the incident. In a normal situation, if the balloon lost control and inadvertently entered (or risked entering) U.S. airspace, the owner would have contacted the Americans, provided the necessary data and information, and tried to avoid a fallout.

China, for its part, responded to the incident only twelve hours after Pentagon’s statement to that effect. There was a dry statement from the PRC about the loss of control of the weather balloon due to force majeure, for which “regret” was expressed.

Shortly thereafter, China declared that it would not tolerate “hype and speculation” about the balloon and accused the United States of indiscriminate and excessive use of force after it was shot down, threatening some “consequences.”

Under the circumstances, it is difficult to assess this as anything other than China’s deliberate humiliation of the United States as well as demonstration of its own strength and confidence. The Chinese consciously chose this course of action in the run-up to Blinken’s visit—now, as the conflict in Ukraine is escalating, the U.S. is more interested in dialogue than the PRC.

The Americans had to choose between continuing the dialogue in a poorer bargaining position after the humiliation they had endured and abandoning the dialogue altogether. The reaction of American public opinion predetermined the choice for the latter. However, this decision was apparently not easy to make.

The visit has not been canceled, but postponed, and the U.S. will probably look for opportunities to carry out negotiations in the not-too-distant future while saving face. Alongside with Blinken’s visit, there were plans for an even more important visit to China, to be paid by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. On February 9, 2023, Yellen announced that she was still planning a trip to China, although it was not yet possible to give a date.

The incident has shown that the Americans are not overly prepared for a tough confrontation with a comparable superpower as soon as it stops playing at giveaway with them. As it turned out, the few previous Chinese ADBs had not been detected at all, and the last one was shot down only after it had crossed the entire U.S. territory, flying over, among other things, an intercontinental ballistic missile base.

There is nothing surprising or particularly embarrassing about it: the ADB is an extremely difficult aerial target because of its low radar visibility, extremely low speed, and a very high flight altitude. The Soviet Union has been practicing its tactics against ADB for decades. The ability to counter such targets was taken into account in the design of some Soviet air defense interceptors. These include, for example, the MiG-31 still in service in Russia, which has the highest maximum flight altitude among modern fighters and is equipped to fight balloons with a GSh-23-6 cannon.

In the United States, reconnaissance ADBs did not show up during the Cold War, simply because the Soviet Union lacked the necessary technical capabilities in the early decades of the confrontation, and the late-Soviet gerontocracy was later afraid to respond in kind to violations of its airspace. Now, the Americans faced a more active opponent and have yet to learn many new skills.

The traditional U.S. propensity to make up for real-world failures with media victories was not very convincing either. Covering the incident, U.S. propaganda followed two lines. They claimed that, first, the Chinese balloon could not have caused any serious damage to the U.S. compared to China’s existing reconnaissance satellites, and second, that the vehicle was not shot down so as not to pose a threat to civilians on the ground.

The second claim is patently absurd: a significant part of the Chinese ADB route passed over deserted or sparsely populated areas, where the risk of harm to civilians was equal to zero. As for the former, the ADB surely remains a valuable reconnaissance tool that can significantly supplement satellite data. For its part, the U.S. has made extensive use of balloons in the operations against Iraq and Afghanistan.

The reconnaissance satellite operates at altitudes of hundreds of kilometers above the ground, while the balloon does so in the altitude range of 20–30 km. This gives it additional capabilities to conduct electronic reconnaissance and detailed ground surveys. The ADB is capable of monitoring atmospheric chemistry and making other measurements useful for the reconnaissance of nuclear-weapons-related targets. Finally, the balloon is capable of remaining over the same territory for long periods of time, tracking the situation there dynamically, and its flight time over an area is not predictable, unlike that of satellites.

Was the incident with the balloon an intentional attempt to disrupt Blinken’s visit from the very beginning? Hardly. If the Chinese had flown around the U.S. three times in the Trump presidency with their ADBs and got away with it, it would make sense to continue this successful practice. When the “balloon case” became public, the Chinese might have chosen an escalatory course of action based on their view of the situation. It is likely that Beijing concluded that it would not lose with any possible U.S. reaction to the incident, and this is probably true.

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Can Lula walk the tightrope between Washington and Beijing?

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As Brazil’s New President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (popularly known as Lula) prepares to visit China later this month, maintaining neutrality would be difficult as the winds of change enwrap  Beijing.

Brazil is Back

President Lula’s coming to power has marked a decisive shift in Brazilian foreign policy. With the Pink Tide resurging in South America, the new President has clearly spelled out his foreign policy aims: restoring Brazil’s neutrality and importance in international affairs at par with both the West and East after nearly 4 years of impasse under his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro, who had adopted a Sinophobic, pro-Trump foreign policy.

Brasilia’s 39th President, who previously presided over the office between 2003-2010, will have a lot to talk about as he visits his nation’s largest trading partner that imported $89.4 billion in 2022 mostly in soy and iron ore which added a surplus of $28.7 billion to Brazil’s coffers. Boosting the economic partnership with China will be a priority for Lula, who intends to integrate South America into a closely held economic unit. Another important item on the agenda includes the appointment of former President Dilma Rousseff as the new BRICS Bank president.

Lula and the West

Lula had rattled swords with Washington on several occasions during his previous tenure such as alleging the United States for reducing South America to its “backyard” by intervening in its internal politics as well as by opposing the Iraq War. Even though he recognises the importance of maintaining good relations with the superpower up North; several of Lula’s moves including sending a delegation to Maduro-led Venezuela, refusing to sign a UN Human Rights resolution condemning human rights violations in Nicaragua, allowing Iranian warships to dock at Rio de Janeiro, maintaining an ambiguous approach on the Russia-Ukraine War and refusing to send arms to Kyiv, dubbing the ‘Balloongate’ incident a bilateral issue  between the US and China and defining  the Taiwan issue as Beijing’s internal matter, have deeply irked the West.

While tensions remain, Lula’s focus on combating climate change and call for saving the Amazon have earned a thumbs up from the Biden administration as the former’s election to power comes as a breath of fresh air after his staunch “Trump of the Tropics”  predecessor adopted a not-so-friendly approach towards Biden’s entry in the White House. Lula understands Washington’s support is required and hence it was a top spot on his foreign visits list. Lula and Biden held talks amidst a cordial ambience and vowed to reboot bilateral ties by promising to protect democracy and combating climate change.

Winds of Change in Beijing

However, winds of change in the East have dispersed the clouds of ambiguity and China now stands more vocal, more critical and more confident in dealing with the United States.

The recent session of the National People’s Congress, which won Xi Jinping a never-seen-before third term as the President, saw him voicing his criticism against “Washington-led attempts” to “contain, encircle and suppress” China which pose ” serious challenges to its development” (“以美国为首的西方国家对我实施了全方位的遏制、围堵、打压,给我国发展带来前所未有的严峻挑战。”). Sino-US relations have been in the trough since President Trump’s tenure with the recent point of clash being the ‘Balloon incident’ which made Anthony Blinken call off his visit to Beijing.

Xi recently unveiled his new 24 Character Foreign Policy which, Dr. Hemant Adlakha believes, marks “China’s new foreign policy mantra in the ‘New Era’ ” acting as its “ideological map to attain national rejuvenation by 2049”. The characters “沉着冷静;保持定力;稳中求进;积极作为;团结一致;敢于斗争 ” which translate as “Be calm; Keep determined; Seek progress and stability; Be proactive and go for achievements; Unite under the Communist Party; Dare to fight” are set to replace Deng Xiaoping’s 24 Character Strategy  focussed on never seeking leadership and assuming a low profile.

China’s confidence is further boosted by its successful attempt to broker peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran, who have been staunch rivals for the past many years. With the handshake that brought the Sunni Arab Kingdom and the Shiite Persian theocracy together, Beijing has garnered accolades from nations across the region and is all set to play a greater international role by not just pulling American allies such as Riyadh to its side but also through actively putting forth its plans to end wars with Xi all set to pay Putin a visit over the Russia-Ukraine War before he meets Lula at Beijing. Lula too eagerly anticipates what Beijing has to say as he told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz “it is time for China to get its hands dirty”.

Neutrality no more?

If the state of Sino-US relations does not improve, things would get hard for many leaders like Lula who seek to balance between the two superpowers. Lula knows  neutrality is his best bet but money matters– as his former Foreign Minister Celso Amorim noted “Our surplus with China—and I’m talking just about our surplus—is bigger than all of our exports to the United States. It is impossible not to have good relations with China.” Isolating  China, with which Brazil has had a long strategic partnership since the 1990s, at the expense of moving closer to the US might come hard on the purse and exacerbate the many economic challenges he faces. Nor can Washington be isolated– not just because of the economic necessities but also in the face of challenges from far-right forces that both Lula and Biden face.

Lula realises the risks of placing all his eggs in one basket but would he be left with the choice to divide them equally into both? The issue is bound to get stickier but if he successfully manages to escape the quagmire of the unfolding great power rivalry, Lula will set a precedent for not just South America but nations across the globe. The only viable solution would be to strengthen regional alliances in Latin America and boost partnerships with  developing nations like India while using the collective strength to push Beijing and Washington to come together.

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The Malvinas feud as a Global Constant

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Image source: buenosairesherald.com

As an event gets bigger, it’s more likely that interesting things will happen behind the scenes, that is, in unplanned activities.

The seventh meeting of G20 foreign ministers in India in 2023 confirms this. Bilateral meetings between Qing-Jaishankar, the Blinken-Lavrov dispute, and the meeting between Santiago Cafiero and James Cleverly, during which the former notified the latter of the end of the Foradori-Duncan agreement.

On March 2, 2023, by rescinding the Foradori-Duncan agreement, the Argentine government de facto reopened one of the most important territorial disputes in the Western Hemisphere, perhaps the most important, and did so in the most theatrical way possible: at the G20, the main North-South dialogue platform.

What was the purpose of the Foradori-Duncan agreement?

The idea behind the agreement was for the Argentine government to renounce its claims and any serious discussion regarding the territorial dispute over the sovereignty of the Malvinas (Falklands) Islands and the adjacent territories in the South Atlantic. Instead, the Argentine government would adopt a position of claiming “light sovereignty” in order to obtain benefits, mainly economic ones, through joint exploitation of the natural resources of the islands and adjacent territories in the South Atlantic with the United Kingdom (UK), as well as through British investments in the country.

In practice, this agreement implied the Argentine government’s resignation to discuss sovereign rights over the Falkland Islands and their adjacent territories in the South Atlantic. It can be inferred that this was a disguised surrender clause by the government of Mauricio Macri to continue with Argentina’s sovereign claim over the Malvinas Islands.

The purpose of the Foradori-Duncan agreement was in line with the foreign policy stance of the Macri administration (2015-2019), which had a marked pro-Western (and more Atlanticist) position than previous governments (Kirchnerism 2003-2015).

This geopolitical code (if we can speak of the existence of a “Macrista geopolitical code” coming from the geopolitical code of the traditional Argentine ruling class) consisted of a series of agreements (tacit and official) of Argentine resignation and subordination to traditional Western powers (of which the Foradori-Duncan agreement was one of its greatest exponents) which aimed –in theory– to obtain greater economic benefits and a renewal of the country’s public image in the supposed “international community.”

These types of foreign policy positions would be a constant of the Macri government. Even the Argentine scholar Juan Gabriel Tokatlian has conceptualized such a stance as “Concessive Peripheral Unilateralism” to define the foreign policy of the Macri government [1].

In practice, these ideas and plans, were shown to be totally ineffective and unproductive. Argentina practically did not receive economic benefits from such positions, nor did its public image have a significant and positive international projection. And the Foradori-Duncan agreement is the most scandalous example of this reality.

Why did the Argentine government of Alberto Fernández decide to end such an agreement?

The first explanation is the internal conformation and political identity of the government of Alberto Fernández, which logically demanded a change in the previous government’s (Macri) stance on the Malvinas agreements, his predecessor and opponent. But this inference raises another question: Why were such measures not taken before? The answers to this question are only conjectures.

Since the end of the Malvinas War (1982) until today, except for the years of the Menem governments (1989-1999), Argentina’s bilateral relationship with Great Britain has always been marked by a strong “Malvinense” [2] component on the agenda of their interaction, which has often led to high-pitched disputes between both parties. The “agenda” of the Malvinas cause was a constant trend of the Kirchnerist governments (2003-2015), such claims were made, denouncing British illegal occupation of the Falkland Islands on numerous occasions in various international forums, bilateral meetings, and multilateral forums.

But as mentioned earlier, the Macri government would have a diametrically opposed position to its Kirchnerist predecessors regarding the Malvinas question. However, the reality of the country and its foreign policy changed again when Argentina “presented” a new government in 2019, with Alberto Fernández as the head of the presidency.

The government of A. Fernández has an eclectic political character [3], as a result of a coalition between several political sectors, so the foreign policy of his government also reflects the heterogeneous internal conformation of the government coalition sectors.

In such conformation, sectors such as Kirchnerism, as well as more orthodox Peronist sectors, are present, both of which have traditionally had a more                       “Post-Western” stance, aiming to “rewrite the Argentine geopolitical code” and the vectors of Argentine foreign policy, projecting an alternative foreign policy, in first place towards their own region: South America, Ibero-America, the Caribbean, and in more modern times, especially towards the Global South, the BRICS, and Asia. In such guidelines, the action of rescinding the Foradori-Duncan agreement was logical. But logic also makes us wonder, why were such measures not taken before? Such questions enter the realm of speculation.

Another analysis could be given in an electoral key reading, this year 2023, presidential elections will be held in Argentina, and Alberto Fernández has expressed on several occasions through words and gestures [4], that he is willing and interested in being re-elected as the head of the Argentine executive branch.

Facing a public image tarnished by the covid-19 pandemic, and mainly a negative macroeconomic situation, the electoral nature of this foreign policy measure cannot be ruled out: the Malvinas cause is a cause that mobilizes emotions in Argentine society and remains a deep wound to national pride, and is a valid rhetorical and practical tool to antagonize the Argentine opposition (liberals and conservatives), which has never had (and perhaps never will have) a firm geopolitical stance nor interest in the Malvinas question.

Also, the reading of tensions within the coalition of the current Argentine government can’t be ruled out, in this last aspect, this measure could be read as a gesture of balance from the “Albertismo” towards Kirchnerism, a sector of the government in which many leaders believe that the sector identified with the president has geopolitically leaned too much towards Washington and the West since the 2022 debt agreement with the IMF and the war in Ukraine.

Argentina informed the British of its decision during the G20 foreign ministers’ summit, which was dominated by the BRICS. Is it a coincidence that such a measure was taken at one of the most representative events of the Global South?

it clearly cannot be considered a coincidence.

The symbolic weight of such an action, in such a context, must be clearly considered. The G20 has a dual character as the main forum in which traditional (Western) powers dialogue but also reflects their tensions and antagonisms with emerging powers and peoples, including those of the so-called Global South.

With tensions between former metropolis countries and former colonies that make up the G20, and which are now emerging in material capabilities, a post-colonial and decolonial reading cannot be ruled out, and therefore a strong message from Argentina to the world’s emerging powers and the Global South.

Did China have any influence on the finalization of the pact?

No, there is no such “Chinese hand” that has driven such a measure by the Argentine government. These are paranoid arguments with a stubborn anti-Chinese bias that also ignores Argentina’s own reality. To put it plainly, if we use common sense, the decision was not elaborated nor driven from Beijing.

As mentioned earlier, the issue of the Malvinas is a deeply rooted national cause in Argentine society, and a constant in the foreign policy of Kirchnerism, which today is part of the coalition that compose the current Argentine government, which with such measures such as revoking the Foradori-Duncan agreement seeks to                “retake the ownership of the Malvinas and South Atlantic issue in its agenda,” marking a clear differentiated stance from the current political opposition (Juntos por el Cambio) that made such a pact in the previous presidential term.

The decision was not elaborated nor driven by Beijing, and in any case, recent and clear positions of support for Argentina’s sovereign claim in the Malvinas Islands by powers such as China [5] and Russia [6] were considered within the decision-making process to take such measures. Therefore, the positions of Beijing and Moscow influenced, but did not condition or generate, Buenos Aires’ decision.

The future of the Malvinas Question

It’s very difficult to envision a future scenario for such a specific and complex issue, especially in the long term. But a prospective scenario can be envisioned in the short term, which is basically and probably that the situation will not change significantly under current conditions. Unless the world is altered by seismic events.

It’s highly unlikely that we will see a dialoguing UK government in the short and medium term that is willing to negotiate the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. And it is similarly unlikely to see a future Argentine government, especially if it has the characteristics of a Peronist, Kirchnerist, or progressive government, openly giving up its claims to the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands.

Such a proposition would surely change if there were a liberal-oriented government in Argentina, such as Mauricio Macri’s.

The problem with the current Argentine government, as well as future ones, regarding the Malvinas dispute, is that the country does not have, and will not have in the short and medium term, the set of soft and hard capabilities (economic, diplomatic, military, ideological influence) to press and force the UK hard enough to revise its traditional stance on the occupation of the islands. At least until the current balance of power and the position of emerging powers, such as China, would consolidate even further in the world order.

But in any case, such changes and opportunities will depend on the international context and the agency of third parties, which are independent variables for the positions that future Argentine governments may take.

Most experts in international relations and geopolitics agree that the territorial dispute over the Falkland-Malvinas Islands between Britain and Argentina will not have an easy or predictable resolution in the short term.

Some experts point out that the strategic geographical position of the Malvinas Islands and the presence of significant natural resources in the area, such as fishing and hydrocarbons, make the dispute even more complicated.

Moreover, many experts believe that Britain’s position has been strengthened in recent years thanks to the exploitation of the area’s natural resources and the lack of a clear strategy on the part of Argentina to resolve the dispute.

A hypothetical Chinese presence in the region, through the southern Argentine city of Ushuaia, through the construction of a logistics hub, has added an intervening element that makes it even more complex to envision a prospective scenario [7].

However, some experts believe that the issue of the territorial dispute over the Falkland Islands, Argentina’s position is legitimate, which has won it great support and sympathy among peoples and emerging powers, most of them with a colonial past [8].

References

[1] Tokatlian, J. G. (2018, 2 de febrero). Relaciones con EEUU: ¿nueva etapa? (Relations with the US: a new phase?) Clarín.
https://www.clarin.com/opinion/relaciones-ee-uu-nueva-etapa_0_rka7ze-UM.html

[2] Porto, J. M. (26/03/2022). Despite diplomatic ups and downs, the Malvinas claim became a state policy. Telam. https://www.telam.com.ar/notas/202203/587606-diplomacia-soberania-argentina-islas-malvinas.html

[3] In its composition as a coalition, including important elements of what might be called “Centre-Right” sectors that have Western – especially Washington – affinities.

[4] Its relevant to remember that on 22 February Alberto Fernandez led a public act in situ celebrating 119 years of Argentine presence in Antarctica. “Alberto Fernández visits Antarctica“. Sputnik. (23/02/2023). https://sputniknews.lat/20230223/alberto-fernandez-visita-la-antartida-1136141105.html

[5] Joint Statement between the Argentine Republic and the People’s Republic of China on Deepening the Argentina-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. (06/02/2023). https://cancilleria.gob.ar/es/actualidad/noticias/declaracion-conjunta-entre-la-republica-argentina-y-la-republica-popular-china

China’s support for the Malvinas deepens a relationship with many agreements. Telam. (03/07/2021). https://www.telam.com.ar/notas/202107/560027-apoyo-china-malvinas-cada-vez-mas-explicito-profundiza-relacion-muchos-acuerdos.html    

[6] United Russia leader Medvedev celebrates Argentina’s termination of Foradori-Duncan agreement. Sputnik. (2023, March 6). https://sputniknews.lat/20230306/el-lider-de-rusia-unida-celebra-que-argentina-haya-terminado-el-acuerdo-foradori-duncan-1136503626.html   

Putin defended Argentina’s sovereignty over Malvinas and took aim at Boris Johnson and Margaret Thatcher. Política Argentina. (2022, May 30). https://www.politicargentina.com/notas/202206/44954-putin-defendio-la-soberania-argentina-sobre-malvinas-y-le-tiro-a-boris-johnson-con-margaret-thatcher.html

[7] The details of the Ushuaia Logistics Hub to supply Antarctica. El Cronista. (24/12/2021).
https://www.cronista.com/economia-politica/exclusivo-los-detalles-del-polo-logistico-de-ushuaia-para-abastecer-a-la-antartida/  

An Antarctic logistics hub: official plan opens the door to strategic partners. El Cronista. (11/10/2021).
https://www.cronista.com/economia-politica/un-polo-logistico-para-la-antartida-el-plan-oficial-que-abre-la-puerta-a-socios-estrategicos/       

[8] The Group of 77+China gave strong backing to Argentina’s position on the Malvinas Islands question. Telam. (2022, November 12). https://www.telam.com.ar/notas/202011/534875-el-g77china-dio-un-fuerte-respaldo-a-la-posicion-argentina-en-la-cuestion-malvinas.html

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