Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a series of Covid-19 related closures in China seem to have little to do with each other. Both events, however, accelerate a turn that leads the world in a dangerous direction, dividing it into two halves, one centered on the United States and the other centered on China.
The world was not supposed to be drawn in such a direction. Three decades ago, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, globalization seemed to unite diverse countries and societies were expected to achieve successful order and be intertwined with trade, the Internet, and a higher degree of political and economic ideals. The Chinese capitalist revolution revived hopes that even this communist giant would be so immersed in the world system under the leadership of democracy that it would not move against it. However, when we entered the 21st century, only those who were optimistic could still expect such a future. We can observe that political confrontation, economic nationalism, and cultural localism are emerging in the corners of the world. The deteriorating US-China relationship and China’s financial and strategic ambitions fueled the renewed rivalry between the major powers. They turned into an ideological battle between global liberal and illiberal norms.
Now, the political consequences of the Ukraine crisis are echoing in unpredictable ways around the world, and prolonging the Covid-19’ implications has the potential to change the world economic landscape. As Russia continues to attack and China insists on a zero-sum strategy on Covid-19, the likelihood of these tensions escalating into global bloc competition is growing.
China’s leaders have been severing ties with the world for some time. Over the years, Xi Jinping has pursued policies aimed at a new Pax Sinica or transformed world order created and led by Beijing. He sees the United States as China’s leading strategic and economic enemy with a newly aggressive foreign policy. Also, he considers the US-led global system as an obstacle to Beijing’s power. The Chinese leader has reduced his country’s reliance on the United States and its allies. By emphasizing a self-sufficiency campaign, he wants to ensure that China controls the economy’s primary commodities production. China seeks to achieve this by securing the supply chain and replacing imports with local products, including microchips and jumbo jets. Furthermore, the Xi Jinping Belt and Road Initiative is a development plan to build infrastructure in countries in need. It is designed to deepen China’s political and trade influence in developing countries and tie them to China through marketing, financing, and technology. This reorientation occurs with the pattern of Chinese investment in other countries.
The American Enterprise report on Chinese foreign investment shows that the United States is the leading destination for Chinese companies to invest on a cumulative basis, which peaked at $ 53 billion in 2016. Still, in 2019 it amounted to three billion, while it dropped to one billion last year. Aside from the coronavirus epidemic, growing Chinese companies’ suspicions of the United States have also contributed to declining investment in the United States. Meanwhile, Belt-Road partnerships have received more attention.
From China’s point of view, the Ukraine crisis is probably a confirmation that Xi Jinping’s path is the best way to China’s future. One cannot be sure what is going on into his mind and that of his senior policymakers, but one can imagine that they are concerned about the harsh Western sanctions against Russia. Protecting China from such punitive measures is one of the main motivations behind China’s distancing policies. In many ways, China’s zero-sum approach has helped the global economy. China’s economy and factories remained open and active without a significant health crisis, calming the challenging global supply chain. Recent shutdowns, however, have created uncertainty and put pressure on international companies to diversify their supply sources outside China. This raises costs, political risks, regulatory barriers, trade disputes, and concerns for human rights.
This great rift may never be complete. Relocating China’s manufacturing operations to a company like Taiwan’s Foxconn, Apple’s leading supplier, is extremely difficult, as the company’s turbulent project experience in Wisconsin showed. This is a clear example that, unlike during the Cold War, when the American and Soviet blocs were disintegrated entirely, the two parts of the future world will probably be more or less connected. However, the dividing lines between the two halves are becoming more apparent. The Ukraine war warned the United States and Europe of the new threats posed by the authoritarian aggression that contributes to the current rift in re-establishing a transatlantic democratic alliance. As NATO strengthens in Europe, the Quad becomes a deterrent to China in Asia between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. At the same time, Beijing’s continued support for Moscow forms the backbone of an anti-Western coalition that includes destabilizing regimes such as Belarus and North Korea.
This time, as during the Cold War, some countries will not be inclined to bias. India, which decades ago was the flagship of non-alignment, is now approaching the United States in the face of Chinese policy, and at the same time, like China, is taking a soft stance against Russia. However, as this rift continues, the world’s countries will move closer to one side or the other.
In conclusion, the future world comprises two halves, with economic ties within each half being stronger than economic ties between the two halves. These two halves use a separate technology and are governed by different political, social, and economic norms. These two halves are likely to aim their nuclear missiles at the other half and engage in a zero-sum competition for power and influence. Generally, this is not a world that anyone wants, but it is a world that we will inevitably face.
Disclaimer. The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of MEPEI. Any content provided by our authors is of their opinion and is not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.
About the author:
Amin Bagheri is a Research Fellow at the International Studies Association in Tehran. His primary research interest lies in international relations, transnational governance, international peace, and conflicts in the Middle East.