Covid-19 impacts global alignments

27 May 2020 — Indian Punchline

By M.K. Bhadrakumar

Russia-China partnership challenges US global hegemony

The sluice gates have opened, as it were, on world politics after the ‘timeout’ through the past 2-3 months due to Covid-19. The spectacle of America’s epic war with Covid-19 under President Donald Trump’s watch creates a range of emotions in the world community — ranging from sympathy and pity to horror and derison. This will have consequences.

The pandemic has accelerated the main currents of international politics: the US’ national security strategy vis-a-vis Russia and China, the two ‘revisionist’ powers in Washington’s crosshairs; the Russia-China entente that has become an increasingly significant factor in global politics; the steady unraveling of the transatlantic alliance; and, most important, the decline of the US as a hegemonic superpower.

The most dramatic template is, unsurprisingly, the US-Russia-China triangle. The US-China tensions have increased and so is Washington’s prolonged standoff with Russia. This is driving Moscow and Beijing toward each other.

Russia and China are increasingly backing each other in their standoff with the US. (See my blog Russia-China entente deepens in the shadow of the pandemic, May 2, 2020)

The hard-hitting remarks on May 26 by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the latest threat by the US of imposing sanctions on China over the situation surrounding Hong Kong underscores that Moscow has walked into the epicentre of the US-China tensions and is not only displaying its solidarity with Beijing but naming the US’ dual containment strategy toward them as a matter of common concern.

Lavrov said, “The problems, which they (US) are stirring up around Hong Kong, are related to China’s domestic affair, and we view them this way. I don’t think that the US attempts now to turn this problem into a scandal… add reliability to dialogue with the US on any other issues.”

Lavrov went on to draw a parallel with Russia’s own bitter experience with the US: “These statements are filled with a sense of superiority and a sense of impunity, including the self-appropriated right to rate everyone and put demands on everyone —demands that are related to satisfying US interests… We have experienced this more than once, and, unfortunately, what the United States is saying now about China does not surprise us, although, in general, this is, of course, unprecedented.”

On May 24, two days before Lavrov spoke, the Speaker of the Russia Duma Vyacheslav Volodin had launched an extraordinary broadside against the US alleging openly that the State Department in Washington and the Central Intelligence Agency have been working to weaken and dismember Russia on the same lines as it once did to the former Soviet Union, which resulted in the collapse of the USSR.

Now, Volodin is a top Kremlin politician who is known to be very close to President Vladimir Putin, having previously served as deputy prime minister and held the key position of the first deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration. Volodin figures in the Moscow grapevine as potentially Russia’s next president.

Volodin alleged that Washington is trying to undermine the Russian people’s trust in Putin, which, apart from being a blatant interference in Russia’s internal affairs, is a ploy to discredit Putin in an attempt to derail Russia’s resurgence that can only be seen as a reflection of the US strategy to maintain its dominating position in global affairs by weakening other states.

Volodin linked Washington’s pressure on Russia with the US’ overall decline stemming from the fact that “China has started outperforming the US in economy and technological development, while Russia has surpassed Washington in the military field.”

Volodin and Lavrov, two top Kremlin politicians close to Putin, have echoed each other. Both hinted that Russia and China are facing the same predicament. We may expect an intensification of the coordination between Moscow and Beijing on regional and global issues such as Syria, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela — or even arms control. Conceivably, at some point in a not-too-distant future, Russia and China will step up their challenge to the dollar remaining the world currency.

China has already became the first major economy to carry out a real-world test of an official digital currency after six years exploring the idea.

Meanwhile, the tectonic plates are shifting in the trans-Atlantic alliance also. No doubt, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell made a landmark speech on May 25 while addressing the annual German Ambassadors’ Conference 2020 in Berlin. In a nutshell, Borrell argued for a “common strategic culture” among the European states in a global scenario where the Covid-19 can only be seen as “the great accelerator of history” that strengthens “trends that were already present before.”

In his words, “First, we live in a leaderless world where Asia will be increasingly important – in economic, security and technological terms. Analysts have long talked about the end of an American-led system and the arrival of an Asian century. This is now happening in front of our eyes. If the 21st century turns out to be an Asian century, as the 20th was an American one, the pandemic may well be remembered as the turning point of this process.”

Most significantly, Borrell flagged, “The pressure to choose sides (between the US and China) is growing. As EU, we should follow our own interests and values and avoid being instrumentalised by one or the other.” In fact, Borrell proposed a robust but constructive engagement of China by Europe:

“China is getting more powerful and assertive and its rise is impressive and triggers respect, but also many questions and fears… our relations must be based on trust, transparency and reciprocity. This is not always the case today. We only have a chance if we deal with China with collective discipline. And we hope that the Leipzig EU-China Summit scheduled in autumn will be very important in this regard.”

Hong Kong becomes, in immediate terms, the leitmotif of these geopolitical trends. Clearly, Russia will reject the Trump administration’s game plan to add Hong Kong to Covid-19 as another alibi to isolate China. Washington may find itself isolated in the bargain.

Curiously, the day after Borrell spoke in Berlin, on Tuesday, Emmanuel Bonne, the foreign policy adviser to the French president, made a phone call to Wang Yi, the Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister, to convey that France respects China’s national sovereignty and has no intention to interfere in affairs of Hong Kong.

According to the Chinese state media, Bonne said France is fully aware of the sensitivity of issues related to Hong Kong and hopes that they can be solved under the framework of the “One Country, Two Systems” principle.

Bonne’s phone call came hot on the heels of the draft national security legislation for Hong Kong being taken up for consideration by the National People’s Congress (NPC) on Friday. Amongst other issues, Wang conveyed China’s support for the French proposal for a United Nations Security Council Summit by the five permanent members.

The two officials also discussed the COVID-19 pandemic and agreed to provide more political and financial support to the World Health Organization, assist African countries’ anti-COVID-19 efforts and to delay debt payments owed to them by some of the poorest countries around the world.

Ironically, Bonne made the phone call even as Washington was announcing that the State Department has certified to the Congress that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China. The national security advisor Robert O’Brien had said last Sunday that if the state department is unable to certify Hong Kong’s autonomy, the US will impose sanctions on China and Hong Kong.

Clearly, against the backdrop of the reset of the Franco-German axis lately and taking into account Germany’s traditionally strong relations with China, the French move to harmonise with China over Hong Kong can be seen as a calculated move to differentiate Europe’s policies vis-a-vis rising China from those of the US.

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