Has The ‘Great Game’ Between The West And China Already Begun? – Analysis


Historians and geopolitical experts usually seek major shifts to understand and explain the developments in the world, believing they will find answers in any major military-political development. The shifts in the last century included a number of major events, each of which was considered a “milestone” towards a new phase in international relations. 

Maybe the most prominent of all the events were the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 on the United States of America, which constituted the first foreign attack on US soil since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (US port on Hawaii’s island of Oahu). The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with major human losses, followed. However, they did not inform the geopolitical situation in the world in the 21st century, which remained the same as we knew it since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early nineties of the 20thcentury- dominance of the West in the decision making processes at the global level, despite the Russian and Chinese opposition to certain issues. Namely, it was only limited opposition, as seen in the case of the war in Iraq. 

It seems that the Russia-Ukraine war or the “Ukraine Crisis” is the development which in its deepest sense has an attribute of a “milestone” because of the political, economic, diplomatic and military repercussions it will have in the future. After almost 17 months since the outbreak of the war, some parameters that could have a major effect on the future mainstream in international relations are starting to emerge. Most important of these parameters include:

  1. Maybe the most notable fact that is a result of this war is the failure of the West to stop Russia through diplomatic and military pressures. This is something that is happening for the first time. Namely, the two sides had not come into direct conflict during the Cold War, as they have now in Ukraine.
  2. The war has opened the path for creation of the Eurasian pole, intensive Russia-China coordination and the silent joining of the alliance by India. In a couple of years this alliance will become the center of the world, thanks to its economic, human and military potential. China will lead the alliance and Beijing will not find a better historical opportunity from the one offered by the Russia-Ukraine war to demonstrate to the world its true power on the international scene.
  3. The world has started to discover the possibility of global economic activity without using the US dollar as the currency. In conjunction with the major powers in Asia, India and China, Russia has essentially launched the start of trade exchange that is based on national currencies, preferring to have the Chinese gold Yuan backed by gold, unlike the dollar.
  4. The West has revealed the level of decline of its influence in the world. Namely, it expected that the countries in its orbit and the countries believed to be within their historic sphere of influence would publicly condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine. However, the stance of majority of African, Asian and Latin American states was reduced to a vote in the UN General Assembly on condemnation of Russia, which is a non-binding vote, while they refrained from clear condemnation of Russia and called for a dialogue, negotiations and preservation of territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Russia-Ukraine war is a milestone in the shift from unipolar to multipolar world 

In 1947, in his doctrine US President Harry S. Truman defined the concept of a bipolar world, which he dived into two parts, the communist world on one side and the liberal world on the other[3].

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and end of Cold War led to the collapse of bipolar world, in favor of a new, changeable and unstable situation, which could be called “post-bipolar” world. According to Bertrand Badie[4]., French sociologist, the United States were not able to impose their hegemony because of the accelerated development, both economic and military,  of China and other countries in the world, including Russia as the successor of the Soviet Union, which has regained influence in global politics. 

Multipolar world essentially means US, China and Russia. However, reality shows that these countries were not able to pull other countries in the world into their orbit. Firstly the US war in Iraq and its ultimate failure to achieve its goals and then the war in Afghanistan with similar results and the humiliating withdrawal where the harbingers of the end of what some experts call the “unipolar world”. Such a development incited China to increase its global influence, particularly through the new economic alliances it had established with Africa and Central Asia. 

The results of this war show that the US, which was on the path to lose control over Western Europe and even over NATO, (when French President Emmanuel Macron called it clinically dead[5]), are now on the path to impose their economic and military policy in Europe. They managed to quickly restore the spirit and strength of the decaying body of NATO. The transatlantic alliance has strengthened because of the Russian threat, the economic (natural gas) and military threats by Russia and the possible employment of nuclear weapons. 

What we see now and after all the months of the war, is the return of America, which is a real pole with all the means of control and hegemony -supported by some richest and most powerful countries in the world, such as the EU, Japan, South Korea and Australia. 

Historical development of confrontation between Washington and Beijing

Beijing cannot be satisfied with being second to Washington, just as Washington cannot accept not to be number one. Pierre Grosser[6], French historian of international relations, concluded his book, which was published this year under the titled “The Other Cold War?  The US-China Confrontation” with this observationGrosser actually emphasized that the war in Ukraine was an unexpected opportunity that Taiwan seized to elevate its level of combat readiness against any similar attack by China. Just as the Korean War had saved Chiang Kai-shek’s regime in Taiwan, because Truman’s administration had decided at the time to protect Taiwan from a Chinese attack, the Ukraine war has saved Taiwan again as the possible threats of aggression by China are decreasing.

The development of relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China can be divided into three historical phases. The hostility phase between 1949 and 1972, then the phase of development of closer relations ranging from the historic visit by President Richard Nixon[7] to Beijing to the role of China in the financial assistance to the West after the 2008 crisis. The third phase, which we have entered, starts with the arrival of Xi Jinping to power in Beijing in 2012. In this phase China has entered into a competition with America for global hegemony. American administrations have started to pay attention to the spread of the power of China, which is no longer industrial or commercial in its essence, but has extensively expanded to include military and technological aspects as well. Upon arrival of Joseph Biden to power in 2021, the US administration begun to create a network of new alliances with countries surrounding China, with the aim to  suppress its growing role and power in the region of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In example, the AUKUS[8] alliance established with Australia and Great Britain, and the Quad[9] alliance with Japan, Australia and India. 

Over the past two decades, US documents on national security warned of the escalation, the significant threat from China and existence of far smaller threats from Russia. The document titled  “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance“[10], issued by Biden’s administration in March 2021, includes only two references to Russia as a challenger power that constitutes a challenge for the United States. At the same time, the document contains 15 references to China, all within the framework of required preparations to address the threats, as China has become the only challenger able to link the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power, and is therefore a challenge for the US policy. 

The most serious consequences of the Russia-Ukraine war are the dramatic changes in the structure and dynamics of global relations. This is confirmed by the warnings of US security and intelligence services that China and Russia present the biggest threat to the interests of the US, particularly China in the long run- as they are forming anti-American and anti-Western alliances. 

During its almost 40-year rise, China avoided strategic surroundings by reducing its global ambitions and maintaining cordial relations with the United States. However, this phase ended since Beijing became more aggressive in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. The United States have abandoned the constructive interaction and pursue a new restraining policy. Washington conducted the largest maritime expansion and missile proliferation in the past 30 years, introduced strict import duties on goods from China unprecedented in the post-World War II era and enforced major restrictions on foreign investments. All these measures were aimed against Beijing. 

Response of Chinese policy 

China’s diplomacy applies ancient Chinese wisdom according to which successes of wars are measures by results. Majority of wars being wages are not decided on the battlefield but at the negotiation table. 

Sun Tzu, famous Chinese soldier and strategist who lived 2,500 years ago, offered advice and wisdom on “strategy of waging a war”. In his famous book titled “The Art of War”[11] he wrote “To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.

However, the most important advice offered by Sun Tzu and an advice by which the Chinese diplomacy strictly abides is related to avoiding actions based on wrong assessments, which cause losses and failure in achievement of the goals of the war. If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat Sun Tzu noted. Specifically, his standards imply that waging a war is a result of failure of deterrence. 

History is full of wars with disastrous results. They were based on wrong assessments, caused enormous devastation and did not achieve their goals. Examples include the arrogance and “superiority” of Hitler’s Nazism and its catastrophically wrong assessments in Europe, particularly the opening of the Russian Front, which led to attrition of his forces and his ultimate defeat, as well as the defeats of America in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, where prolonged wars with enormous material and human losses were fought.

Current China-Russia relations

China and Russia have never defined the nature of their mutual relations nor did the two countries ever pursue the same communist ideology- not during the Soviet Union period or after its dissolution and the rise of Vladimir Putin in Russia. As a result, their alliance has had neither a solid nor fragile character. In fact, big and intensive competitiveness between China and Russia at various levels on the global market, and particularly in Central Asia countries, which had been a part of the Soviet Union once, is noticeable. 

The two sides have partner relations, which are unbalanced and heterogeneous. While the two countries have no ideological connection, there is a common vision of international relations aimed at elimination of the Western influence in the world. On the other side, the relationship between Beijing and Moscow is not a “marriage of interest”, and there are “many points of convergence” among them. China has to some extent similar views as Russia when it comes to the existing tensions with the United States and NATO. However, it is evident that China does not see Russia as an “ally,” but only as a “partner”. 

Russia and China are not in the same situation because of the subordinate position of Russia, which is isolated and under the sanctions imposed by the West. As a result, because of its limited options, it is left with China alone to partner with. 

Currently, China is stronger than Russia and its interests are more comprehensive and diverse. Beijing’s goal is to maintain an understanding with Moscow at the strategic level and oppose American power, without needing to provide its support at the tactical level. Namely, as it benefits from access to global markets, China wants to avoid sanctions and build relations with other countries in the world without any restrictions. 

China’s support to Putin could be detrimental to its economy bearing in mind the hostilities between Russia and the West, and it still needs the economic and technological exchange with the West. 

China has made it clear to Russia that entering into an alliance with any party would limit its freedom of maneuver in foreign policy. Specifically, entering an alliance implies undertaking of commitments as a result of what it could be forced to militarily intervene in a war, and in no way does China want to be engaged in something of the kind.

Apart from spreading its power in East Asia, through economic and diplomatic mechanisms China is currently also expanding its area of interest to the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. 

Chinese policy of de-escalation

The last thing on China’s mind is a war with the US and an attack on Taiwan. It can draw lessons from the current Putin’s war in Ukraine, which has entered its seventeenth month without achieving strategic successes- conquering Ukraine, toppling of the Ukraine’s Government and installation of a puppet regime in Kiev that would be under the control of Russia.  As a result of the Russian military invasion, Ukraine has moved closer to the West, while the cohesion within NATO has increased. President Putin has become the best promotor of the Alliance as NATO’s border with Russia has doubled with Finland’s membership and Sweden’s pending integration into the Alliance, after the two countries had abandoned their multi-decade policy of military neutrality. Even Switzerland, which takes pride in its military neutrality and continues to refuse to join the regional alliances such as the EU and NATO, participates in the introduction of sanctions against Russia.                                              

[1] IFIMES – The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, has a special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)/UN since 2018. It is also the publisher of the international scientific journal European Perspectives.

[2] The “Great Game” was a rivalry between the 19th-century British and Russian Empires over influence in Asia, primarily in AfghanistanPersia, and later Tibet. The two colonial empires used military interventions and diplomatic negotiations to acquire and redefine territories in Central and South Asia, link: https://reviews.history.ac.uk/review/1611

[3] The Truman Doctrine is a framework US foreign policy plan for stopping the spread of communism in the World, link: https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/truman-doctrine

[4] Bertrand Badie (born in 1950) is a French politologist, international relations expert and professoremeritus. He is one of the most renown French international relations experts, link:  www.semanticscholar.org/paper/New-Perspectives-on-the-International-Order%3A-No-in-Benazzo/9536dd2cde9cc59db4274a1011fae7bd4ec691ff

[5] The Economist: NATO is becoming brain-dead, link: www.economist.com/europe/2019/11/07/emmanuel-macron-warns-europe-nato-is-becoming-brain-dead

[6] Pierre Grosser: L’autre guerre froide ? La confrontation États-Unis Chine, link:  https://boojum.fr/lautre-guerre-froide-la-peur-cette-mauvaise-conseillere

[7] President Nixon’s trip to China in 1972 ended twenty-five years of isolation between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), link: www.nixonlibrary.gov/nixons-trip-china

[8] AUKUS: The Trilateral Security Partnership Between Australia, U.K. and U.S., link:  www.defense.gov/Spotlights/AUKUS/

[9] Quadrilateral Security Dialogue www.dfat.gov.au/international-relations/regional-architecture/quad

[10] The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, link: www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NSC-1v2.pdf

[11] Art of War: Top Ten Teachings of Sun Tzu Still Used in Modern Military and Daily Lives, link:   https://edubirdie.com/examples/art-of-war-top-ten-teachings-of-sun-tzu-still-used-in-modern-military-and-daily-lives/


IFIMES – International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council ECOSOC/UN since 2018. IFIMES is also the publisher of the biannual international scientific journal European Perspectives. IFIMES gathers and selects various information and sources on key conflict areas in the world. The Institute analyses mutual relations among parties with an aim to promote the importance of reconciliation, early prevention/preventive diplomacy and disarmament/ confidence building measures in the regional or global conflict resolution of the existing conflicts and the role of preventive actions against new global disputes.

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