Xi Jinping played host to Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin during the APEC summit in Beijing. Source: Reuters
The process by which great nations are born and die, global empires are transformed into mediocre states and obscure upstarts turn into rulers of the world remains a mystery, despite all the best efforts of academics and politicians to crack it.
Today China is at the centre of the debate over this process, just as the United States was 100 years ago. At the turn of the 20th century, the United States was still waiting for its finest hour. It had already made a remarkable economic leap, but had not yet received international political recognition. There are many similarities in the historical development trajectories of the United States and China at their moments of transformation into world hegemonies. The founding father of China’s economic miracle, Deng Xiaoping, instructed his successors to be modest in their dealings with the outside world and wait for the right moment to come into their own. Similar recommendations some 200 years earlier were left by U.S. founding father George Washington in his political will.
The United States began to shed its isolationism only after it had overtaken all its international economic rivals, which occurred under Theodore Roosevelt in the 1900s. China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, has much in common with Roosevelt. China’s “Big Stick policy” in the South China Sea, tough rhetoric, ambitious statements — all these indicate China’s desire to speed up the process of spending its economic capital on foreign policy.
For the U.S., the event that removed all obstacles on its path to establishing its international political influence was World War I.
A glance at today’s headlines prompts the conclusion that China does not have to wait long before it rises to the top of the global pedestal. The confrontation between Russia and the West is a true godsend for China. Just as the self-destruction of the Euro-centric world a century ago prepared the ground for building a new U.S.-centric system, the weakening of America in its standoff with Putin’s Russia in the 21st century will result in its being replaced by China as the leading global power.
It is sad to admit that in both cases, the role of the key spoiler — the country that ruined the balance of the global system — belongs to Russia.
In the opinion of many Americans, modern Russia does not present a serious force to be reckoned with internationally and can claim only the status of a regional power. They may be absolutely right as far as Russia’s positive capabilities are concerned, but its negative potential is immeasurably higher. Yet this is manifested not so much in military pressure on its East European neighbours or threats to turn the United States into “radioactive ash.” The real Russian threat lies in Moscow’s ability to destroy the U.S.-centric world order by starting to play the China card in the hope of hurting the United States and compensating for losses resulting from Western sanctions.
The argument in favour of Russia forming an anti-American bloc with China and other countries is often repeated by Moscow.
It is absolutely obvious that the sluggish progress in Russian-Chinese economic relations prior to 2014 and its substitution with grandiloquent, but ineffective, declarations and memorandums of understanding had only one reason: President Vladimir Putin did not want to let China onto his territory. Now, however, in 2014, this resistance is no longer possible.
Putin has decided that the threat of China’s economic and demographic domination of Russia is less serious than the threat of the United States provoking a “colour revolution” in Russia. Suddenly, the future of the global political system has become less important than the more immediate fear of losing political control. Putin was faced with the dilemma of losing power under the Americans or retaining it under the Chinese. It could hardly be a surprise that he opted for the latter.
A similar strategic choice is being presented to the United States. The recent series of East Asian summits has clearly shown that China will not miss this opportunity to fish in these troubled waters, so the United States must now decide which is more important to it: To punish the aggressor Putin, losing its world hegemony in the process, or to find a way of resolving the conflict with Russia, thus halting the process of China’s transformation into a political and military superpower.
Unfortunately for the United States leadership, the choice is not as obvious as it was for Putin. It does not have such a telling illustration of its political future as the Russian leaders got on February 22, 2014, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was deposed and fled the country.
Ivan Tsvetkov is an associate professor at St. Petersburg State University.
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