Over the last two weeks, developments in the Pacific and Indian Oceans have topped the agendas of international affairs forums in Cairo. Of particular interest were reports of a new alliance between the US, the UK and Australia following Washington’s cancellation of a submarine purchase from France in favour of a deal for Australian nuclear powered submarines. This development led observers to conclude that the new alliance was meant as a form of warning to China, the emergent global rival to the US. The ostensible alliance seems to follow through on the Biden administration’s actions from his speech at the G7 economic summit through a series of bilateral and multilateral meetings on global economic and security issues.
These actions are generally viewed in the context of Biden’s pledge to steer the US back to world leadership, which was sometimes interpreted as the intention to confront China’s rapid rise against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic. During the past two years, Beijing has made major inroads in various fields both internationally, in the framework of its Belt and Road Initiative, and regionally with the creation of a number of artificial islands in the South China Sea, causing major problems with the delineation of China’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone. More recently, China has become concerned with Afghanistan since the US exit and has moved to forge an alliance with Afghanistan’s neighbours, Russia, Pakistan and Iran, in order to contend with the turbulence in that area.
Observers drew a second conclusion from developments in the Pacific and Indian Ocean region, namely that the new alliance is another version of the Quad and the Five Eyes (FVEY) alliances. Consisting of the US, Australia, Japan and South Korea, Quad left little room for doubt that its purpose was to remind China that “We’re here.” FVEY sent the same message in another language. It comprises the intelligence agencies of all the Anglo Saxon countries: the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
All such strategic configurations have focused at least some of the conversation in Cairo on the new surge in tensions between the two giants, the US and China. The security-strategic related dimension of these tensions may not reach Cold War levels but it will generate situations that force other countries to make some hard choices. There is already plenty to fuel that fire, from charges that China caused the Covid pandemic to Beijing’s relationship with Iran and the question of the Iranian nuclear programme, to the recent discovery of China’s dominance in the economic supply chain. Add to this the simple and very common observation that Western countries always need an “enemy” and, after the Soviet Union was knocked out of the international arena, they turned on Islam as the new enemy and source of the “clash of civilisations.” Today, following the US departure from Afghanistan and the reduction of the war on terrorism to the “new normal” and the day-to-day business of Western security agencies, the Western focus has homed in on China as the new or, at least, potential enemy. Incursions by Chinese fighter planes into Taiwanese airspace and Taiwanese leaders’ vows to fight to the end to protect their democracy are signs of just how serious this matter is.
After the opening shots in the US-China confrontation, it emerged that France was hit by some shrapnel. Infuriated at the “stab in the back” it received from the Biden administration’s decision to cancel a submarine deal, Paris recalled its ambassador from Washington. A friendly phone call between Biden and Macron has since restored the warmth to that relationship and France’s ambassador to Washington. There followed another phone call at the presidential level between Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, following the provocative incursions of Chinese military aircraft into Taiwanese airspace. After the call, the two sides announced they would abide by existing agreements. Such “telephone diplomacy” paves the way to more US-Chinese communications and meetings on a range of common issues of concern. Ultimately, “mutual dependency” had saved the situation from a dangerous slide that would harm both countries. The conventional sphere for this interdependence is the economy, whether the focus is US currency, trade or technology.
In particular, the US needs Chinese supply chains in order to achieve the ambitious economic recovery plans Biden set in motion as the Covid-19 crisis receded. China, for its part, is a major consumer of imported energy, and so US economic health and energy sources form a buffer against rising oil prices. Indeed, from a purely economic standpoint, especially in the light of their combined share in world trade, nothing could be more in both Chinese and US interests than to work together to stimulate the global economy. But there is another area where the interests of the two converge, namely global warming, which is a key policy issue for the Biden administration. Both the US and China are aware that the climate is a global concern and that Washington cannot address it without China, its foremost partner in polluting the planet.
Chinese-US relations are not headed towards a classical Cold War scenario, but neither are they headed towards an “entente” of the sort that Henry Kissinger, in the 1970s, defined as the management of an adversarial relationship between two states. What we have is a new mode of contact combining “power” with “interdependence.” The political scientist Joseph Nye foresaw this in the 1970s when he spoke of a relationship in which each side tries to increase its own power by strengthening its dependence on the other.
It is no doubt a formula that requires more thought.
* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly