– The writer is a faculty member at the Department of International Relations at Istanbul Medeniyet University
It would not be wrong to say that after US President Joe Biden’s participation in the G7 and then the NATO and the European Union (EU) summits, a stronger “Chinese threat” perception has appeared on the horizon.
In recent years, a “rising China” and possible responses to this rise have been among the issues that have preoccupied International Relations communities.
Many theorists, from Graham Allison to John Mearsheimer, Fareed Zakaria to Joseph Nye, develop scenarios for how this rise would impact the international system.
China, which ended 2020 with a 2.3-percent economic growth despite the pandemic and a GDP of more than 13 trillion Euros, has been breaking routines and challenging long-held norms around the world, becoming a source of major concern, particularly for the US-led Western alliance, its own region in Asia, and the rest of the world.
However, no consensus has yet been achieved on what methods to employ to address this concern.
For now, we can see that the existence of the “problem” is recognized by many countries, while the US is preoccupied with building a perception of a new common global threat.
We are only at the beginning of the journey, and the level of tension may climb or fall depending on China’s actions.
China being built as a common threat
During the Trump era, the US’ relations with the West, as well as many other regions, sustained a serious blow because of the protectionist economic measures it took and its alienating rhetoric, so the Biden administration has now chosen the path of mending its relations with the Transatlantic community.
Through the bilateral and multilateral meetings organized under the motto “America is back”, the Biden administration used face-to-face diplomacy and gave its Western allies the message that “they are not alone”.
The primary reason for forging an alliance is, of course, a sense of mutual gain — not altruism — which underlies the recent US moves as well.
Closely examining the G7, NATO, and EU summits, we can see that the US is fully focused on the continuing Russian threat and the rising Chinese threat in the Asia Pacific.
With this “double threat” approach, the US is trying to close ranks against the increasingly visible Chinese competition while also delivering the message that it will continue to monitor the current tensions with Putin’s Russia.
After it annexed Crimea in 2014, Russia was removed from the G8, and the countries that now called themselves G7 continued to criticize Russia despite Trump’s efforts to the contrary.
China, despite being the world’s second-largest economy, has never been invited into this structure.
Three of the guest countries invited to this year’s meeting, which was organized by the US, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Japan, and Italy, with the cooperation of the EU, were particularly noteworthy: India, South Korea and Australia are geographically close to China.
India, Australia, and Japan, on the other hand, together with the US, have been part of the so-called “Quad Alliance for Security” since 2007.
This structure aims to counter China militarily and diplomatically, especially in the South China Sea.
South Africa, the G7’s fourth guest member this year, is one of China’s most important trading partners.
From this perspective, the US seems to have brought the G7 and the Quad Alliance together at the meeting about two weeks ago with the primary goal of isolating China.
As a matter of fact, when we look at the final declaration of the G7 Summit this year, we can see that China is openly targeted under the title of “global geopolitical risks”, and there have been concerted efforts to establish it as a common threat.
China, which is estimated to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy by 2050, is a source of concern not only for the US, which is at risk of losing its hegemony, but also for the powers in its immediate vicinity.
Although some close neighbors such as India have been wary about ruffling China’s feathers and have tried to play both Washington and Beijing by pursuing a hedging policy, the US is trying to expand the anti-China front as much as possible.
Although Washington’s endeavor to turn its face to Asia-Pacific began to assume prominence during the Obama era, the preliminary steps in that direction had actually been taken during the G. W. Bush era, as seen in the example of the Quad Alliance.
Focusing on the “Pivot to Asia” policy with Obama, the US adopted a strategy of “offshore balancing” in the same period, based on the idea that “problems in Europe and the Middle East should be primarily tackled by the governments in those regions.”
Unfortunately, Syria is where we have seen the most destructive results of the US policy of austerity centered on leaving the Middle East and shifting to Asia-Pacific.
It is often underlined that there are elements of continuity in American foreign policy.
The Trump administration, in this regard, continued to prioritize the “Pivot to Asia” policy that it inherited from the Obama administration.
By declaring it a “national security threat”, Trump publicly portrayed China as the primary threat to American interests.
In particular, he focused on internal balancing by utilizing the US’ own resources.
The “trade wars” or military technological moves in the navy that we have observed for some time between the US and China were part of this internal balancing struggle.
As last week’s traffic at the Summit reveals, the US has now entered the second phase: external balancing.
G7’s initiative for poor countries aimed at countering China
Through the G7, NATO and EU meetings, the US is trying to build strong regional and global alliances against the common Chinese threat, not shying away from explicitly referring to it as such.
It is not yet clear whether the struggle against this “threat” would morph into a “containment” strategy, a US Cold War-era doctrine, as suggested by neorealist Mearsheimer.
It is, however, not difficult to predict that the struggle against China in the 21st century would not be waged on the Cold War dynamics of the previous century.
China, which has utilized its “Belt and Road Project” as a web being woven across the globe, has, with its “debt trap” ensnared numerous poor countries that the West has little interest in by providing favorable loans with no political preconditions.
The African continent is quite remarkable in this respect.
In particular, with regard to the latter issue, the US is inviting China to “play by the rules”.
As is well known, the US is the creator of the game in question; the liberal, capitalist international order.
With Washington’s latest moves, Beijing will no longer be able to play this game as freely as it once did.
The commitment to assist impoverished nations with infrastructure projects, as well as the promise to supply COVID-19 vaccines to needy countries, as stated in the final declaration of the G7 Summit, are intended to counter China’s deep-running strategy of silent advancement, which has been going on for a while.
The G7’s proposal to establish “value-driven, high-quality and open” collaborations with poor countries is a direct challenge to the Chinese model.
China, on the other hand, wants the whole stack to be dealt again, maintaining that the problems affecting the entire world cannot be resolved by a small number of states.
Therefore, it effectively raises an objection to the current global order, as well as its institutional structures and ideals.
The irony of this objection is that China is making it a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
Pressuring others to ‘choose your side’
China implements state capitalism that is not based on a Western liberal ethos, and it is unclear, for the time being, whether its efforts to create an alternative to the Washington Consensus — a possible Beijing Consensus — would yield results.
The key is in the hands of the people, not the leaders.
If the masses choose to gain more economically at the expense of democracy, human rights and individual freedoms, the US’ chances will dwindle, while authoritarian governments such as Russia and China will benefit. For this reason, the Biden administration keeps laying emphasis on the motto of “universal human rights”.
Of course, it is inconsistent for the US to bring this emphasis to the forefront for economic reasons rather than moral or conscionable ones, such as the Palestine issue.
However, it seems that the Biden administration will continue to judge and isolate China for opposing universal values, citing sensitive issues such as East Turkestan and Hong Kong.
In contrast, China will respond to US economic measures with weapons such as the “anti-sanctions” law, compelling Western private companies to choose between the US and China.
Even the EU has not been able to reach a consensus on the extent to which cooperation with China should be tolerated.
Italy’s meeting with China to participate in the Belt and Road Project was met with a harsh reaction from Germany and France.
However, Western European countries, such as the UK, Germany, France, and the Netherlands, as well as Central and Eastern European countries that joined the Western Bloc relatively late, have signed many cooperation agreements with China in different fields.
All these are issues that profoundly vex the US.
The same goes for agreements with Russia.
Germany is under US pressure due to the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline, much as Turkey has experienced with the S-400 issue.
Under no circumstances does Washington want to lose its allies to Russia or China, or allow them to become dependent on either.
Many countries, including Turkey, are likely to face increased pressure to “pick a side” as a result of this capitalist struggle.
It will thus become increasingly difficult to implement a “balancing risk” strategy to play both sides together.
EU countries are already looking for a way out of this situation.
In addition to the G7 Summit, European countries are said to have softened the tone of the US’ anti-China messages at NATO and EU summits.
In this case, despite all the warning messages in the final declarations, EU countries, for economic reasons, appear to be steering a more moderate course than the US, emphasizing a peaceful and democratic world built on transparency and accountability.
Nevertheless, as with the NATO Summit, China, along with Russia, remained the main agenda item at the US-EU Summit.
Despite still pointing to Russia as the “main enemy”, NATO has declared that it will stand up to China’s strategic challenges, including its disinformation campaigns.
Although the Atlantic Alliance does not define China as a “direct military threat”, it has expressed its discomfort with the country’s rise as per its 2030 Strategy Concept.
China claims that all these actions just “serve the plans to create a conflict environment in the future”, and that NATO cannot leave behind its Cold War mentality, trying to hinder China’s peaceful growth.
As can be seen, the ranks are getting tighter fast.
The Biden administration and its European allies are seeking a “renewed alliance” in Transatlantic relations to erase the painful memories of the Trump era, and China is now as much a target of this alliance as Russia.
Even though the Biden administration occasionally reiterates that the US is not in conflict with China, but rather in a competition, it is advancing with a broader and more systematic policy than the Trump administration in order to overthrow the rival and consolidate its hegemony.
Judging by the initial reactions from China, a tough showdown is awaiting us.
According to the “balance of power” theories, if internal and external balancing measures fail to be effective, the third and final stage will be war.
We hope that the international community will not be drawn into such a showdown and that the rational mind will sufficiently prevail to avert a new world war.
Translated from Turkish by Baran Burgaz Ayaz
*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.
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