From one-on-one battle to four corners interaction | Hui Ching

From one on one battle to four corners interaction Hui Ching

The G7 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting took place in London amid a pandemic. Apart from clarifying their position on the global economic and health situation, they have also issued a strong statement after the meeting on the relations between the West, China, and Russia. It was “strong” because of the choice of wordings and that it has not tried to avoid the sensitive topics that might touch Beijing’s nerves. Moreover, the statement has listed China and Russia side by side, which rarely happens in recent years. It acknowledged the emerging of two large camps instead of focusing on one and ignoring the other, a strategy the West has been using in the past.

In the foreseeable future, not only the English-speaking countries such as the U.S., UK, and Canada, but also those with more business cooperation with Beijing and have more strategic consideration, such as Germany, France, and Japan, are gradually siding with Washington. Of course, the diplomatic stance and use of words is one thing, but how each country’s foreign affairs and trade system operates is another. But the general strategy of the West towards China and Russia in Biden’s era has, without a doubt, unprecedentedly and clearly displayed through the above meeting and statement.

The focus should not be on whether Biden/Harris government is tougher and more direct towards China and Russia than Trump. The disharmony between Washington and its western allies, especially Brussels, in the past four years is very likely to continue to be eliminated. Beijing and Moscow will be facing greater pressure and synergy effect from the West in the race of global ideology and strategic interest. More importantly, it seems neither Biden nor his European and Asian allies mind that China and Russia could form a quasi-alliance as a result. The hidden strategic cognition and deployment changes definitely worth more attention.

In comparison to Obama and Trump, Biden has much longer and more extensive experience dealing with foreign affairs, like his time spent leading the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Whether domestically or in the international society, Biden can get his hands on stronger and more related connections and information quicker. And Harris is one of the few vice presidents who has been extra valued by the people, political circle, and media from the beginning of her taking office. She has even already been seen as the person carrying the flag for the Democrats in 2024, 2028 to continue to stay in the White House. Giving his deputy a chance to build up her experience, and considering his own age and physical ability, Biden has entrusted Harris with more domestic affairs, and himself focuses on foreign matters, which is a fairly logical choice.

Instead of arguing whether Biden will continue Obama’s or Trump’s way of thinking on China and Russia, we could say Obama’s strategy of pivoting or re-balancing Asia is a combined work from him, Biden, and Hillary Clinton. As early as during Obama’s first and second term in office, the strategy, with its premise on maintaining stable relations with the European allies, was already in place. It aimed to shift the U.S. political, economic and military power from Central and West Asia towards the East and block China’s Maritime Silk Road at the East Indian Ocean/West Pacific Ocean. For the U.S. elite groups that are mainly in Washington, New York, and California, Trump’s unexpected win at the election has affected the trust between the U.S. and EU, which has interrupted the above operation.

In theory and practice, Biden has to first return to the North Atlantic to resume, reinforce and mobilize mutual support with western Europe, especially Berlin and Paris, if he wants to pivot to Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific. Biden’s top priority on foreign affairs when he took office was to lead the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Agreement, which would improve the moral position of the U.S. within the western community, also the mutual trust and private relations between Biden and Macron. As the world’s two biggest economies that have direct competition against each other on strategic industries like currency, finance, and aviation, the U.S.-Europe relations are complex and changeable as they can be affected by many interest considerations. However, judging by the statement after the G7 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, the strategic mutual trust among Biden, Macron, and Merkel is much stronger than what they had with Trump.

The biggest challenge for Biden is not to resume the Obama era’s friendly relationship with western Europe but to at the same time ensure the stability of the Middle East. Unlike their policies on China or Russia, the policies and interests of the U.S. and Europe in the Middle East are different in history, consciousness, and reality. The root cause is the U.S. and West Asia/North Africa being miles apart, and Europe, especially Southeast Europe and the countries north of the Mediterranean Sea, are practically their neighbors. Obama and Biden both believe that Washington not only has to lead the world to reduce carbon emission, but also transform the U.S. from a major energy importer to a major exporter in the final stage of petrochemical energy’s world dominance.

One can predict that Biden will, like Obama, support domestic coastal exploration and the development of shale oil and shale gas. Although Central Asia and the Middle East are blocked by the mountains of the Caucasus, Russia’s sphere of influence, they have never been separated and ruled in terms of culture, descent, religion, and security. Biden’s insistence on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and resuming negotiations with Tehran will naturally raise doubts of the U.S. allies in the Middle East, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia. Compared with four years ago, the difference is that not only Putin would continue to seize the opportunity to operate the Middle East war, but Beijing will also be more actively involved in the changes in the local strategic pattern.

Let’s say the U.S. and Europe are on one side, and China on the other side with Russia. How these two big camps participate in and control the war and peace of Iran, Iraq, and Syria will be the most serious diplomatic wrestling Biden must face before the U.S. Congress Midterm Election. The question remains: as the U.S. has withdrawn from the region, would Germany and France, the pillars of Europe, have enough diplomatic influence and military mobilization to make the Middle East situation go the way the West has imagined? On the other hand, would the U.S. military and NATO leaving Afghanistan lead to the increase of China’s diplomatic and military influence in the Central Asian countries, which would touch the sensitive nerve of Moscow?

The persistence from the U.S. and Europe on the Xinjiang problem mainly is to control Beijing’s interaction with countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. When dealing with the Tajik-Kyrgyz border dispute, Moscow also repeatedly highlights its leader position in Central Asia. It shows that the substitute relationship between the U.S. and Europe and the co-opetition relationship between China and Russia has made this “four corner interaction” far more complicated than the one-on-one battle during the cold war. The seven countries with the largest economies are not worried that they have pushed China and Russia together, which can only mean more targeted and tougher security and economic and trade measures are still to come. Whether this front can be shifted from the Middle East/Central Asia to the Indo-Pacific would reflect the growth and decline of the strength of both sides. The elderly Biden placed much more on this gamble than his predecessor.

(Dr. Hui Ching, Research Director of Hong Kong Zhi Ming Institute.)

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