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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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Early Elections in Canada: Will the Fourth Wave Get in the Way?

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On August 15, Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada and leader of the Liberal Party, announced an early parliamentary election and scheduled it for September 20, 2021. Canadian legislation allows the federal government to be in power up to 5 years, so normally, the elections should have been held in 2023. However, the government has the right to call early elections at any time. This year, there will be 36 days for the pre-election campaigns.

At the centre of the Liberals’ election campaign is the fight against the COVID-19 epidemic in Canada and the economic recovery. The coronavirus has also become a motivator for early elections. In his statement, Justin Trudeau emphasised that “Canadians need to choose how we finish the fight against COVID-19 and build back better. Canadians deserve their say, and that’s exactly what we are going to give them.” Thus, the main declared goal of the Liberals is to get a vote of confidence from the public for the continuation of the measures taken by the government.

The goal, which the prime minister did not voice, is the desire of the Liberal Party to win an absolute majority in the Parliament. In the 2019 elections, the Liberals won 157 seats, which allowed them to form a minority government, which is forced to seek the support of opposition parties when making decisions.

The somewhat risky move of the Liberals can be explained. The Liberals decided to take advantage of the high ratings of the ruling party and the prime minister at the moment, associated with a fairly successful anti-COVID policy, hoping that a high level of vaccination (according to official data, 71% of the Canadian population, who have no contraindications, are fully vaccinated and the emerging post-pandemic economic recovery will help it win a parliamentary majority.

Opinion polls show that the majority of Canadians approve Trudeau’s strategy to overcome the coronavirus pandemic. Between the 2019 elections and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trudeau’s government was unpopular, with ratings below 30%. Unlike Donald Trump, Trudeau’s approval rating soared after the outbreak of the pandemic to 55%. During the election campaign, the rating of the Liberal Party decreased and was 31.6% on September 16, which reduces the chances of a landslide victory.

Trudeau left unanswered the question of whether he’d resign if his party fails to win an absolute majority in the elections.

Leaders of opposition parties—the Conservative Party, the New Democratic Party, Bloc Québécois, and the Green Party—criticised Trudeau’s decision to call early elections, considering the decision inappropriate for the timing and situation with regard to the risk of the fourth wave of the coronavirus epidemic. They stressed that the government’s primary task should be taking measures to combat the pandemic and restore the economy, rather than trying to hold onto power.

The on-going pandemic will change the electoral process. In the event of a fourth wave, priority will be given to postal voting. Liberal analysts are concerned that the registration process to submit ballots by mail could stop their supporters from voting, thereby undermining Trudeau’s drive to reclaim a majority government. However, postal voting is the least popular among voters of the Conservative Party, and slightly more popular among voters of the Liberal and New Democratic parties. The timeframe for vote-counting will be increased. While ballots are usually counted on the morning after election day, it can take up to five days for postal voting.

One of the key and most attractive campaign messages of the Liberal Party is the reduction of the average cost of childcare services. Liberals have promised to resolve this issue for many years, but no active action has been taken. Justin Trudeau noted that the pandemic has highlighted the importance of this issue.

As in the 2019 elections, the Liberal Party’s key rival will be the Conservative Party, led by new leader Erin O’Toole. The Conservative Party’s rating a five days before the election was 31.3%. Conservatives suggest a different approach to childcare—providing a refundable child tax subsidy that covers up to 75% of the cost of kindergarten for low-income families. Trudeau has been harshly criticised by the Conservatives in connection with the scale of spending under his leadership, especially during the pandemic, and because of billion-dollar promises. In general, the race will not be easy for the conservative O’Toole. This is the first time he is running for the post of prime minister, in contrast to Justin Trudeau. Moreover, the Conservative Party of Canada is split from within, and the candidate is faced with the task of consolidating the party. The Conservative will have to argue against the billion-dollar promises which were made by the ruling Liberals before the elections.

The leaders of the other parties have chances to increase their seats in Parliament compared to the results of the 2019 elections, but they can hardly expect to receive the necessary number of votes to form a government. At the same time, the personal popularity of Jagmeet Singh, the candidate from the New Democratic Party, is growing, especially among young people. The level of his popularity at the end of August was 19.8%. Singh intends to do everything possible to steal progressive voters from the Liberal Party and prevent the formation of a Liberal-majority government. Singh will emphasise the significant role of the NDP under the minority government in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and highlight that it was the New Democratic Party that was able to influence government decisions and measures to support the population during the pandemic.

Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet, whose popularity level was 6.6%, intends to increase the Bloc’s presence in Parliament and prevent the loss of votes in the province of Quebec in favour of the Liberal Party. According to him, it is fundamentally important to protect the French language and the ideas of secularism. The Bloc Québécois is also not interested in the formation of a majority government by the Liberals.

Green Party leader Annamie Paul is in a difficult position due to internal party battles. Moreover, her rating is low: 3.5%. Higher party officials have even tried to pass a no-confidence vote against her. Annamie Paul’s goal is, in principle, to get a seat in Parliament in order to be able to take part in voting on important political issues. The Greens are focused on climate change problems, the principles of social justice, assistance to the most needy segments of the population, and the fight against various types of discrimination.

Traditionally, foreign policy remains a peripheral topic of the election campaign in Canada. This year, the focus will be on combating the COVID-19 epidemic, developing the social sphere, and economic recovery, which will push foreign policy issues aside even further.

The outcome of the elections will not have a significant impact on Russian-Canadian relations. An all-party anti-Russian consensus has developed in Canada; none of the parties have expressed any intention of developing a dialogue with Russia.

From our partner RIAC

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Interpreting the Biden Doctrine: The View From Moscow

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Official White House Photo by Carlos Fyfe

It is the success or failure of remaking America, not Afghanistan, that will determine not just the legacy of the Biden administration, but the future of the United States itself.

The newly unveiled Biden doctrine, which renounces the United States’ post-9/11 policies of remaking other societies and building nations abroad, is a foreign policy landmark. Coming on the heels of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, it exudes credibility. Indeed, President Biden’s moves essentially formalize and finalize processes that have been under way for over a decade. It was Barack Obama who first pledged to end America’s twin wars—in Iraq and Afghanistan—started under George W. Bush. It was Donald Trump who reached an agreement with the Taliban on a full U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Both Obama and Trump also sought, albeit in strikingly different ways, to redirect Washington’s attention to shoring up the home base.

It is important for the rest of the world to treat the change in U.S. foreign policy correctly. Leaving Afghanistan was the correct strategic decision, if grossly overdue and bungled in the final phases of its implementation. Afghanistan certainly does not mean the end of the United States as a global superpower; it simply continues to be in relative and slow decline. Nor does it spell the demise of American alliances and partnerships. Events in Afghanistan are unlikely to produce a political earthquake within the United States that would topple President Biden. No soul searching of the kind that Americans experienced during the Vietnam War is likely to emerge. Rather, Washington is busy recalibrating its global involvement. It is focusing even more on strengthening the home base. Overseas, the United States is moving from a global crusade in the name of democracy to an active defense of liberal values at home and Western positions abroad.

Afghanistan has been the most vivid in a long series of arguments that persuaded Biden’s White House that a global triumph of liberal democracy is not achievable in the foreseeable future. Thus, remaking problematic countries—“draining the swamp” that breeds terrorism, in the language of the Bush administration—is futile. U.S. military force is a potent weapon, but no longer the means of first resort. The war on terror as an effort to keep the United States safe has been won: in the last twenty years, no major terrorist attacks occurred on U.S. soil. Meantime, the geopolitical, geoeconomic, ideological, and strategic focus of U.S. foreign policy has shifted. China is the main—some say, existential—challenger, and Russia the principal disrupter. Iran, North Korea, and an assortment of radical or extremist groups complete the list of adversaries. Climate change and the pandemic have risen to the top of U.S. security concerns. Hence, the most important foreign policy task is to strengthen the collective West under strong U.S. leadership.

The global economic recession that originated in the United States in 2007 dealt a blow to the U.S.-created economic and financial model; the severe domestic political crisis of 2016–2021 undermined confidence in the U.S. political system and its underlying values; and the COVID-19 disaster that hit the United States particularly hard have all exposed serious political, economic, and cultural issues and fissures within American society and polity. Neglecting the home base while engaging in costly nation-building exercises abroad came at a price. Now the Biden administration has set out to correct that with huge infrastructure development projects and support for the American middle class.

America’s domestic crises, some of the similar problems in European countries, and the growing gap between the United States and its allies during the Trump presidency have produced widespread fears that China and Russia could exploit those issues to finally end U.S. dominance and even undermine the United States and other Western societies from within. This perception is behind the strategy reversal from spreading democracy as far and wide as Russia and China to defending the U.S.-led global system and the political regimes around the West, including in the United States, from Beijing and Moscow.

That said, what are the implications of the Biden doctrine? The United States remains a superpower with enormous resources which is now trying to use those resources to make itself stronger. America has reinvented itself before and may well be able to do so again. In foreign policy, Washington has stepped back from styling itself as the world’s benign hegemon to assume the combat posture of the leader of the West under attack.

Within the collective West, U.S. dominance is not in danger. None of the Western countries are capable of going it alone or forming a bloc with others to present an alternative to U.S. leadership. Western and associated elites remain fully beholden to the United States. What they desire is firm U.S. leadership; what they fear is the United States withdrawing into itself. As for Washington’s partners in the regions that are not deemed vital to U.S. interests, they should know that American support is conditional on those interests and various circumstances. Nothing new there, really: just ask some leaders in the Middle East. For now, however, Washington vows to support and assist exposed partners like Ukraine and Taiwan.

Embracing isolationism is not on the cards in the United States. For all the focus on domestic issues, global dominance or at least primacy has firmly become an integral part of U.S. national identity. Nor will liberal and democratic ideology be retired as a major driver of U.S. foreign policy. The United States will not become a “normal” country that only follows the rules of realpolitik. Rather, Washington will use values as a glue to further consolidate its allies and as a weapon to attack its adversaries. It helps the White House that China and Russia are viewed as malign both across the U.S. political spectrum and among U.S. allies and partners, most of whom have fears or grudges against either Moscow or Beijing.

In sum, the Biden doctrine does away with engagements that are no longer considered promising or even sustainable by Washington; funnels more resources to address pressing domestic issues; seeks to consolidate the collective West around the United States; and sharpens the focus on China and Russia as America’s main adversaries. Of all these, the most important element is domestic. It is the success or failure of remaking America, not Afghanistan, that will determine not just the legacy of the Biden administration, but the future of the United States itself.

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AUKUS aims to perpetuate the Anglo-Saxon supremacy

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Image credit: ussc.edu.au

On September 15, U.S. President Joe Biden worked with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison together to unveil a trilateral alliance among Australia-U.K.-U.S. (AUKUS), which are the major three among the Anglo-Saxon nations (also including Canada and New Zealand). Literally, each sovereign state has full right to pursue individual or collective security and common interests. Yet, the deal has prompted intense criticism across the world including the furious words and firm acts from the Atlantic allies in Europe, such as France that is supposed to lose out on an $40-billion submarine deal with Australia to its Anglo-Saxon siblings—the U.K. and the U.S.

               Some observers opine that AUKUS is another clear attempt by the U.S. and its allies aggressively to provoke China in the Asia-Pacific, where Washington had forged an alliance along with Japan, India and Australia in the name of the Quad. AUKUS is the latest showcase that three Anglo-Saxon powers have pretended to perpetuate their supremacy in all the key areas such as geopolitics, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. In short, the triple deal is a move designed to discourage or thwart any future Chinese bid for regional hegemony. But diplomatically its impacts go beyond that. As French media argued that the United States, though an ally of France, just backstabs it by negotiating AUKUS in secret without revealing the plan. Given this, the deal among AUKUS actually reflects the mentality of the Anglo-Saxon nations’ superiority over others even if they are not outrageously practicing an imperialist policy in the traditional way.

               Historically, there are only two qualified global powers which the Europeans still sometimes refer to as “Anglo-Saxon” powers: Great Britain and the United States. As Walter Mead once put it that the British Empire was, and the United States is, concerned not just with the balance of power in one particular corner of the world, but with the evolution of what it is today called “world order”. Now with the rise of China which has aimed to become a global power with its different culture and political views from the current ruling powers, the Anglo-Saxon powers have made all efforts to align with the values-shared allies or partners to create the strong bulwarks against any rising power, like China and Russia as well. Physically, either the British Empire or the United States did or does establish a worldwide system of trade and finance which have enabled the two Anglo-Saxon powers to get rich and advanced in high-technologies. As a result, those riches and high-tech means eventually made them execute the power to project their military force that ensure the stability of their-dominated international systems. Indeed the Anglo-Saxon powers have had the legacies to think of their global goals which must be bolstered by money and foreign trade that in turn produces more wealth. Institutionally, the Anglo-Saxon nations in the world—the U.S., the U.K, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—have formed the notorious “Five eyes alliance” to collect all sorts of information and data serving their common core interests and security concerns.

This is not just rhetoric but an objective reflection of the mentality as Australian Foreign Minister Payne candidly revealed at the press conference where she said that the contemporary state of their alliance “is well suited to cooperate on countering economic coercion.” The remarks imply that AUKUS is a military response to the rising economic competition from China because politics and economics are intertwined with each other in power politics, in which military means acts in order to advance self-interested economic ends. In both geopolitical and geoeconomic terms, the rise of China, no matter how peaceful it is, has been perceived as the “systematic” challenges to the West’s domination of international relations and global economy, in which the Anglo-Saxon superiority must remain. Another case is the U.S. efforts to have continuously harassed the Nord Stream 2 project between Russia and Germany.

Yet, in the global community of today, any superpower aspiring for pursuing “inner clique” like AUKUS will be doomed to fail. First, we all are living in the world “where the affairs of each country are decided by its own people, and international affairs are run by all nations through consultation,” as President Xi put it. Due to this, many countries in Asia warn that AUKUS risks provoking a nuclear arms race in the Asian-Pacific region. The nuclear factor means that the U.S. efforts to economically contain China through AUKUS on nationalist pretexts are much more dangerous than the run-up to World War I. Yet, neither the United States nor China likes to be perceived as “disturbing the peace” that Asian countries are eager to preserve. In reality, Asian countries have also made it clear not to take either side between the power politics.

Second, AUKUS’s deal jeopardizes the norms of international trade and treaties. The reactions of third parties is one key issue, such as the French government is furious about the deal since it torpedoes a prior Australian agreement to purchase one dozen of conventional subs from France. Be aware that France is a strong advocate for a more robust European Union in the world politics. Now the EU is rallying behind Paris as in Brussels EU ambassadors agreed to postpone preparations for an inaugural trade and technology council on September 29 with the U.S. in Pittsburgh. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared in a strong manner that “since one of our member states has been treated in a way that is not acceptable, so we need to know what happened and why.” Michael Roth, Germany’s minister for European affairs, went even further as he put it, “It is once again a wake-up call for all of us in the European Union to ask ourselves how we can strengthen our sovereignty, how we can present a united front even on issues relevant to foreign and security policy.” It is the time for the EU to talk with one voice and for the need to work together to rebuild mutual trust among the allies.

Third, the deal by AUKUS involves the nuclear dimension. It is true that the three leaders have reiterated that the deal would be limited to the transfer of nuclear propulsion technology (such as reactors to power the new subs) but not nuclear weapons technology. Accordingly, Australia remains a non-nuclear country not armed with such weapons. But from a proliferation standpoint, that is a step in the direction of more extensive nuclear infrastructure. It indicates the United States and the U.K. are willing to transfer highly sensitive technologies to close allies. But the issue of deterrence in Asia-and especially extended deterrence-is extremely complicated since it will become ore so as China’s nuclear arsenal expands. If the security environment deteriorates in the years ahead, U.S. might consider allowing its core allies to gain nuclear capabilities and Australia is able to gain access to this technology as its fleet expands. Yet, it also means that Australia is not a non-nuclear country any more.

In brief, the deal itself and the triple alliance among AUKUS will take some years to become a real threat to China or the ruling authorities of the country. But the deal announced on Sept. 15 will complicate Chinese efforts to maintain a peaceful rise and act a responsible power. Furthermore, the deal and the rationales behind it is sure to impede China’s good-will to the members of AUKUS and the Quad, not mention of their irresponsible effects on peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.

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