This week’s editorial is given over to the comments made last week by Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington. The original text appeared in Asharq-Al-Awsat, a leading academic voice in Middle Eastern affairs. It is a thought-provoking critique of where China and Russia fit with the United States, and I reproduce it here as it has flown under the radar somewhat due to Easter and it being originally published in the Arabic press world and not the US media.
“The second half of March was not successful for American diplomacy. Secretary of State Blinken hosted China’s top two diplomats in Alaska on March 18, and he reminded the world media about American complaints against China, such as Xinjiang and Hong Kong and Chinese threats against Taiwan and Chinese economic pressure against countries like Australia. And then, Joe Biden on March 25 pledged not to allow China to become the leading country in the world.
Biden and Blinken must take this strong position against China because Biden needs votes from Republicans in the Congress for his priorities, such as reform of immigration laws and financing for new infrastructure construction. In addition, both men strongly believe America’s defense of human rights and democracy is vital to American legitimacy in the world.
But the public answer of China’s diplomatic team in Alaska was strong and angry. First, the Chinese reprimanded the Americans for diplomatic protocol violations. New American sanctions on China imposed on March 17 were not an appropriate welcome, the Chinese Foreign Minister emphasized. He pointed to the hypocrisy when Washington complains about Chinese economic pressure while at the same time it often applies sanctions. Chinese Communist Party Director for Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi insisted that America is not the spokesman for international public opinion, and it should resolve its own domestic problems instead of trying to create new copies of American democracy abroad. Washington should stop its interventions to change regimes, and fix its own human rights failures, for example the problems with America’s black communities.
Above all, Yang stressed that Beijing rejects the American “rules-based world order”. According to China, this order comes from a small number of states only. China chooses to support an international system whose center is the United Nations.
After its slap of the Americans in Alaska, Chinese diplomacy enjoyed another success on March 23 when the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers met, and the public remarks of Sergei Lavrov completely resembled the Chinese words in Alaska. Lavrov also praised the United Nations’ appointment of a special investigator who will examine use by states of unilateral economic sanctions; the UN report will surely criticize American sanctions policy.
In my opinion China and Russia want the United Nations at the center of the world system because they both have a veto right in the Security Council and can block any United Nations action they do not like. Syria is an example of how a system under the United Nations handles a conflict.
Chinese diplomacy had more gains after the Russian meeting. China’s foreign minister arrived in Ankara on March 24 and news came of a Chinese investment worth two billion dollars in a road project in Istanbul. It is worth remembering that China provided one billion dollars in foreign exchange financing in 2019 to Turkey’s unstable economy and Turkey needs more investment. While America is criticizing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s human rights violations and threatening more sanctions, China is providing new financing.
Then in Tehran on March 27, the Chinese minister signed a long-term bilateral cooperation agreement that might lead to 400 billion dollars of investment in Iran’s infrastructure. It will bring Iran into China’s huge Belt and Road Initiative. China has also supported the Iranian position that Washington must move first to remove sanctions on Iran to restore the 2015 nuclear agreement.
And still the Chinese are busy. This week the Chinese foreign minister will visit Gulf countries where China has successfully used its Covid vaccine as a diplomatic tool in countries like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. (America has not exported any vaccine, and the Blinken has not yet visited the Middle East.) In another gesture to the Gulf, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a huge bank that the Chinese government established, will hold its sixth annual conference in Dubai next October.
Chinese success in the Middle East impedes American efforts in the region, especially with Iran. However, American influence will not disappear. After the Chinese minister’s visit to Bahrain the American naval base will remain. Bilateral relations between Washington and Abu Dhabi are good.
What concerns me more is the triangle of Washington-Moscow-Beijing. I am glad Biden invited Russia and China to participate in a conference in April about climate change. The three powers need to find ways to cooperate. To be frank, there are no angels in that triangle. All three states play the tough game of international politics. I am more concerned about the Russia-Chinese alignment against the United States geo-strategically. Russia’s economy is the same size as Italy’s, but it is still an important military and cyber power. Henry Kissinger 50 years ago achieved an indirect alliance with China that isolated Moscow in the triangle. Now America’s isolation in the triangle benefits America’s two biggest adversaries and China knows it.”
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Chairman, Dezan Shira & Associates
Publisher, Asia Briefing