China ends the rules-based order without firing a shot

Beijing’s signal is that America no longer dictates what is acceptable and what is not

By Anil Madan

On May 24, 2023, the Rules-Based Order, at least as defined by America and its western allies, if it ever existed, suffered a mortal blow. Russia’s Prime Minister chirped that the bilateral ties between his country and China are at an unprecedented high level, as the two countries signed a set of agreements on trade and cooperation.

China rejects Western criticism of its ongoing embrace of Putin and Russia, insisting the relationship does not violate international norms. The declared position is that China has the right to collaborate with whichever country it chooses, and their cooperation is not targeted at any third countries.

President Xi Jinping and President Putin. Pic – ABC News

The not-so-subtle message is that China rejects the West’s characterization of Russia as a pariah state out of step with the values that all nations must recognize and respect. China has not distanced itself from Putin’s invasion and has pointedly rejected the idea that sanctions are warranted or will be respected by China. The only exception is that China does not wish to see secondary sanctions imposed on its companies.

China’s embrace of Russia is not new. In February 2022, just three weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Russian troops amassed on Ukraine’s borders, President Xi Jinping hosted President Putin at the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing. Even as President Biden was saying that US intelligence assessed that an invasion was imminent, Presidents Xi and Putin released a declaration that their bilateral partnership is greater than a traditional alliance and that their friendship would know no limits.

It is ironic that just a week ago, China was promoting itself as a neutral peacemaker between Russia and Ukraine. This latest bilateral signing with Russia puts the lie to any claim of neutrality. But, of course, no one should have been fooled by such claims. China presented no peace plan of any substance, and its approach would essentially validate Russia’s invasion and territorial gains.

China’s lean toward Russia has been transparent and blatant. In March this year, President Xi visited Russia and referred to Putin as a “dear friend.” Meanwhile, since the invasion of Ukraine, China has increased its imports of Russian oil and trade with Russia is at $70 billion, up 40%.

China’s assertion that its cooperation with Russia is not targeted at any third countries is, of course, nonsense. China’s actions are clearly targeted at the US and are part of a broader and ongoing Chinese effort to dilute and diminish America’s geopolitical influence, standing, and even relevance.

Russian Prime Minister Mishustin got no blowback when he declared that the relationship between Beijing and Moscow is “characterized by mutual respect of each other’s interests, the desire to jointly respond to challenges, which is associated with increased turbulence in the international arena and the pressure of illegitimate sanctions from the collective West.”

The Chinese representatives did not object to that characterization. China has, of course, ignored western sanctions in continuing to import Russian oil as has India. And to be fair, NATO countries as well as the US also continued to import Russian oil after sanctions were first imposed. President Xi emphasized that China and Russia should find ways to “upgrade the level of economic, trade and investment cooperation.” Locking up Russian energy supplies is one obvious strategic maneuver for China.

President Xi’s approach emphasized that the strategy behind President Nixon’s opening to China is a failure. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who was Nixon’s point person in the approach to China described the advantage of the rapprochement to China thus: “Well, it set up a triangular relationship between Russia, the United States and China, in which we attempted to be closer to each of them than they were to each other.” So much for that.

There is something more important at stake here. The accord with Russia is another notch in President Xi’s belt as he seeks to diminish America’s relevance on the world stage. In March, China was indeed a peacemaker as it brokered a truce between Iran and Saudi Arabia, bringing an end to decades of hostilities between the two Middle East countries.

The deal is significant in two respects. First, it was done without the involvement or blessing of the US, long the power broker in that region. Second, it puts Beijing’s stamp of legitimacy on both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran is on the threshold of having nuclear weapons. Both countries have come under fire for human rights abuses. Beijing’s signal is that America no longer dictates what is acceptable and what is not.

A positive side benefit of the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been the effort to bring the proxy war between those two countries to an end.

President Xi’s broader goal is to recast the so-called rules-based order that he sees as unfairly advantaging the West. One might recall the meeting in Anchorage between Secretary of State Blinken and his Chinese counterpart when the Biden administration first came to office. China insisted that it has its own form of democracy. China’s embrace of Russia and its approach to Saudi Arabia and Iran emphasize the rejection of America’s right, along with its allies, to define what it means to be a democracy and their right to demand respect for human rights. It is also a rejection of the West’s power to impose economic sanctions. Sub silentio, President Xi is holding himself out as the savior of smaller nations the world over. The message is that America is not the only player on the world stage.

What can we expect next? Perhaps an agreement to trade Saudi, Russian and Iranian oil in Yuan rather than US dollars? That would further upend America’s influence in world markets. For those who don’t think this could happen, consider that the Republican Speaker of the US House of Representatives is threatening to let the US default on its bond obligations rather than raise the debt ceiling. If the Republicans do allow such a default to occur, what reason would any country have for accepting payment in US dollars?

And perhaps President Xi will see this as an opportunity to pressure Taiwan to come into China’s fold. A Chinese naval blockade of the island is not out of the question. China’s declaration that it seeks a reunion with Taiwan through peaceful means perhaps indicates that it hopes to annex that island nation without firing a shot.

The dilemma for America and the West is this: how do you respond to the shot that has not been fired?


Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 26 May 2023

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