Saturday, Oct 01, 2022

US Focus On Russia Takes Attention Away From China, And It Suits Xi Jinping

How sanctions against Russia can help China to build up its alternative financial system and forces Putin to depend on China.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping AP/PTI

The war in Ukraine has brought back Russia to the centre stage of US foreign policy. For the Biden administration, Russia has replaced China as America’s principal adversary for now. The all-encompassing sanctions slapped on Russia for its transgressions in Ukraine indicate what length Washington will go to punish Moscow.

When Joe Biden took office last year, China was on top of the agenda for the administration. Following his predecessor Donald Trump’s lead, Biden too spent time and energy on how to checkmate China’s unfettered growth. Obama’s pivot to Asia was part of a long-term plan to ramp up America’s positioning in the Pacific waters. But it was Trump who made it a public issue during his election campaign. As President, he continued to target China and began his tit for tat tariff war, charged Beijing with manipulating the financial system and of stealing ideas from US companies. By the end of his term, Trump had succeeded in making the world aware of the dangers of  China’s rise and its ambitious plans to take on the US. During the  PLA’s incursions into Ladakh, his secretary of state Mike Pompeo was loud in his criticism of China’s move. The Biden team followed Trump’s aggressive China policy, but without publicly berating China or getting into a slanging match with Beijing.

One of Joe Biden’s first major foreign interactions was a virtual summit of the quad leaders. This was the first quad meeting at the highest political level. The US, India, Australia, and Japan group is an attempt to contain China’s dominance of the Indo-Pacific. This was later followed by the announcement on AUUKUS, aimed at providing Australia with state-of-the-art technology for nuclear-powered submarines. Australia could then be a force in guarding the waterways of the Indo-Pacific where the PLA navy continues its belligerence.  

But  Vladimir Putin’s February 24 action against Ukraine has turned back the clock to the Cold war era. Helping Ukraine and opposing Russia is now consuming all of America’s energies. In a way, it is easy for the Biden administration to slip back to the time when Russia and the US fought proxy wars across Asia and Africa and planned moves and counter moves around the world. Generations of western liberals have grown up with the conviction that Russia is the enemy. The fact that the war is not in Asia or Africa but in the heart of  Europe, has been a major factor in bringing the sufferings of Ukrainians to the consciousness of the west. After all prominent journalists have referred to them as one of us, western and middle class, unlike Afghan or Syrian refugees.

President Biden has got the support of  Europe, Australia and Japan to back him in punishing  Putin for his misdeeds. Unplugging Russia from the international  SWIFT payment system and essentially hoping to stop Russian oil and gas sales and cut off access to trade with the west.

Biden’s boast of slapping Russia with the ``broadest sanctions in history’’ may help to enhance his image as a tough leader, but in doing so he is giving China an economic bonanza. It will help China gradually build up an alternative to the western financial system. President Xi Jinping has talked of the Chinese way of doing things. Russia’s economic sanctions will finally benefit China to have its own financial arrangement. Biden is helping China to get on with its ambitions of offering an alternative to the western dominated financial system.

China’s massive energy requirements can now be met by neighbouring Russia. This does not have to come through the sea but overland and surely at a cheaper price as Russian oil and gas markets dry up due to sanctions. With the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline now almost at a halt, Russia will not be in a position to bargain with. Russia and China had signed a $117.5 billion deal for new oil and gas imports, during Putin’s visit to China to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic games. Russia will be able to trade with China with the Chinese version of the SWIFT payment system called the Cross-Border Interbank Payment(CIPS). China has long tried to experiment with a financial system to circumvent the western mode of payment.

Biden is a product of the cold war era. Putin took over the reins in Moscow in 2000 and brought back a semblance of stability to a country that was a shadow of its former self. Putin has been building on that and succeeded in getting Russia to punch much above its weight, whether in Syria or Iran. Ever since the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia, Putin has been a hate figure in the US. Russia has been charged with interfering in the US elections and backing China was for decades not seen as an adversary.

The US has never shown the kind of hostility to China, though it is well known that the major threat to US dominance of the world in the coming years is Beijing which has both the political, diplomatic, and economic clout to challenge America’s dominant position in the world. Yes, bells will start to jangle if China tries to unite Taiwan by force, but for now beyond selling arms to Taiwan and symbolic gestures like visits by US Congressmen and officials to Taipei not much can be done. China has been accused of committing crimes against humanity against the Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang and detention of nearly one million in "reeducation camps,’’ yet there have been no severe sanctions on China for this. 

Nor has the Biden administration made any public comments on China’s incursions across the LAC in Ladakh, though Washington says New Delhi did not want the US to weigh in on the issue.  India wants the Ukraine issue to be resolved through talks and quickly so that the US can shift focus back to Asia. A long drawn-out war of attrition in Ukraine will keep the US and western powers engaged in Europe and give China the leeway it needs to grow more powerful.