The growing tension with the United States unleashes a race to force the alignment of countries that hesitate to take sides. The Chinese model advances and many see it as an alternative for development
Mentioning the Cold War is in vogue. And not on a whim. In an interview with The Economist, the United Nations secretary-general himself, Antonio Guterres, acknowledged that the world is rapidly moving towards a bipolarity similar to that which marked the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. The main difference is that, now, the communist bloc is led by China, one of the pillars of globalization, and that its allies are not limited to those of the closest geographical and ideological sphere and maintain complex interdependent relations with countries of the rival block.
“The three main powers [United States, China and Russia] have a very dysfunctional relationship, and that makes it difficult for the Security Council to make adequate decisions to face the crises we are facing,” said Guterres. “In the Cold War, the two superpowers faced a conflict that, despite everything, was predictable. But now, the situation is much more complicated and it is more difficult to get countries to respect the rules,” added the former prime minister of Portugal, who stressed the need to reform the UN to prevent it from living in an eternal blockade.
In Beijing, they are clear that the culprit for everything is Donald Trump. “Some extremist forces in the United States have created ideological conflicts and are forcing countries to take sides in a new McCarthyism. Their goal is to provoke tension and instability,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in a conversation with his Vietnamese counterpart, Pham Binh Minh. “The United States has lost its mind, morale, and credibility,” Wang had previously said in another phone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
In Washington, the same story is told very differently. Not in vain, there his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, gave on the 23rd one of the most critical speeches with China, which he considers the greatest threat to democracy. “If we kneel now, our children’s children will be at the mercy of the Communist Party of China,” he said after calling for the unity of the “free world” to confront the Asian giant, with which it has more and more Conflicts: from the diplomatic riot caused by the recent reciprocal closure of consulates in Houston and Chengdu, to the commercial and technological battles, passing through warlike tensions in the waters of the South China Sea. Even Ecuador has become a battleground for the two superpowers due to the presence of hundreds of Chinese fishing boats on the edge of their Exclusive Economic Zone, which the US government has offered to protect.
Props on the ‘axis of evil’
It is evident that the two main world economies are trying to add allies among those who have not yet taken sides or hesitate to do so to gain strength. Washington has already demonstrated its power of conviction with some victories, such as the veto of Huawei 5G equipment in the United Kingdom and in other countries in its sphere of influence, but Trump’s attitude and the growing influence of Beijing prevent the European Union clearly opts for its great traditional ally. Meanwhile, China continues to add support between the old ‘axis of evil’.
The best example is the economic and security agreement reached with Iran. According to the 18-page draft agreed by both countries, China will invest no less than $ 400 billion in the Persian country – $ 280 billion in the energy sector – in the next quarter-century, a period in which Tehran will sell Beijing oil to a bargain price. And both countries will collaborate on Defense matters, which offers China an anchor point in a key region and Iran a deterrent shield against the United States.
Once again, communist leaders say this is a ‘win-win’ deal, a term often used in business rhetoric to refer to mutual benefit: Iran finds an escape valve to relieve pressure in an economy weighed down by American sanctions, and China ensures energy supply and an important political ally along the New Silk Road, President Xi Jinping’s megalomaniac plan to structure the world as an alternative to that proposed by the traditional colonial powers of the West.
In parallel, China is also driving its ever-complex love-hate relationship with Russia. And it does so with another strategic plan, that of the Polar Silk Road: it is another global vertebra that rests on a 3,000-kilometer pipeline and 400,000 million dollars of investment to ensure supplies and prop up the Chinese presence in the Arctic, a region to which geographically it does not have access but which gains importance in maritime routes due to the fact that climate change facilitates navigation.
“China has closed agreements with Russian energy companies, has opened a large Embassy in Iceland, has financed the construction of a railway line to Finland, has improved relations with Norway, and is investing in Greenland to make it more independent from Denmark,” Matteo Giovannini, a financier at ICBC bank, explains in an article published by the official China Daily.
But while it may be easy for China to close deals with arch-enemies of the United States such as Iran, Russia, or Venezuela – which it provides arms to – it is more difficult to convince states without clear affiliation. And even more so when Washington has managed to forge good relations with them. The Philippines is one of the best reflected of the two superpowers’ battle for global hegemony: it has traditionally been an ally of the United States, with which it has a mutual defense agreement.
To the point that, although in 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of Manila in the dispute that confronts it with Beijing in the waters of the South China Sea, Duterte has not asserted that verdict. In exchange, the Philippines has closed export agreements for its tropical fruits and has seen a significant increase in the flow of Chinese tourists. “China does not criticize and is the only one that can help us,” Duterte said in an interview with Xinhua. “The United States has lost. I have realigned myself with Chinese ideology,” he said during a state visit to Beijing in 2018.
Now, the controversial Philippine president, reviled in the western world for his bloody war on drugs, hopes that the friendship he has forged with China will pay off in another area: “I have begged Xi Jinping: Can we be among the first to receive the [coronavirus] vaccine? Can we buy it? ”, Reported on the 27th during the State of the Nation speech, in which he also recalled the maritime territorial dispute. “China claims it for itself, and we also. They have weapons, we don’t. It’s that easy. They have the property. What can we do? We must declare war, but I cannot afford it. There is no hope, and I have to admit it,” he added. So if you can’t beat your enemy, team up with him.
Something similar happens with other countries in Southeast Asia that have open territorial conflicts with China. Vietnam, for example, has an ideological affinity that is shattered by historical quarrels that both countries are trying to iron out. In the eastern seas, a war of influence is being waged and, after Trump’s withdrawal from foreign policy, Beijing gains ground. “In Europe, it also tries to divide its member states to weaken the union and thus prevent the bloc from gaining bargaining power,” explains a member of the European Chamber of Commerce who prefers to remain anonymous. “All you have to do is win the favour of some of the neediest states so that consensus is impossible and the EU has to tone down your criticism or your threats,” he concludes.
China has also had considerable success in its chequebook policy. It has been demonstrated with the strategy, especially in Latin America and the Pacific, to snatch partners from Taiwan, an island whose independence is increasingly recognized by fewer states. The formula is as simple as it is effective: if you stick to the ‘one-China principle’ and stop recognizing Taipei, we will do business and your economy will grow. Thus, it has been achieving that countries such as Panama, the Solomon Islands or Kiribati have decided to cut their diplomatic relations with Taiwan to establish them with China, which, according to President Tsai Ing-wen, “uses political and financial pressure to reduce the political space of Taiwan in the international sphere”. Only 14 countries recognize the independence of ancient Formosa, none has global relevance, and analysts agree that they will be less and less.
Beijing’s investments and the infrastructure it builds, although sometimes controversial, have also served to hedge the balance towards its interests in Africa, the continent in which its presence has increased the most. Between 2015 and 2018 alone, Beijing invested $ 299 billion in the sub-Saharan region, and in the past two decades has offered loans to the governments of the continent worth more than $ 130 billion. China builds a vital infrastructure for development but also buys political favours. It is no coincidence that the first military base outside its borders is in Djibouti.
Given the growing tension with the United States on all fronts, everything indicates that the Communist Party will continue to strengthen relations with the developing world, which sees its development model with hope. “In the West, there is often criticism that China does not put issues like human rights before business. But it is still a hypocritical attitude when you consider that the United States has countries such as Saudi Arabia among its allies. China maintains its principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, has not been involved in any war since 1979 [in Vietnam], and has no colonial will,” explains a professor of finance at Fudan University in Shanghai who asked not to reveal his identity. “It is logical that he looks after his interests. And, if in this process it manages to get other countries to develop their economies, it will demonstrate that another model of global governance is feasible,” he adds.