| Washington Wrap |

Taking Measure of the Middle Kingdom

The need for the US to craft an effective strategy to counter Beijing’s rise has never been more acute


espite the Biden administration’s tough rhetoric aimed at Russia during its ongoing war in Ukraine, the identity of America’s true chief adversary has never remained in doubt — China. And with the Communist giant expanding its trade ties through its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, and upgrading its military to achieve superpower status, the need for the US to craft an effective strategy to counter Beijing’s rise has never been more acute.

That strategy will have to leverage current US relationships with other countries — and could come to involve Israel as well.

For now, the Biden administration is following a policy outlined in May by Secretary of State Antony Blinken called “invest, align, compete.”

“We will invest in the foundations of our strength at home — our competitiveness, innovation, and democracy,” Blinken said at the time. “We will align our efforts with our network of allies and partners, acting with common purpose and in common cause. And harnessing those two key assets, we will compete with China to defend our interests and build our vision for the future.”

Blinken said the United States and China “have to deal with each other for the foreseeable future,” and that’s why “this is one of the most complex and consequential relationships of any we have in the world today.”

“We aren’t looking for conflict or a new Cold War,” he clarified. “To the contrary, we’re determined to avoid both.”

The model Blinken promoted will not block China’s rise as a major power, nor stop the Chinese leadership from advancing their economy or vital interests. But at the same time, he said that the US will defend and strengthen “the international law, agreements, principles, and institutions that maintain peace and security.”

“Even as we invest, align, and compete, we will work together with Beijing where our interests overlap,” he argued. “In short, when we can engage constructively with China, we will.”

Ganging Up

It is through this prism we that should view recent pacts the US has formed, such as the I2U2 and AUKUS.

The I2U2 forum, comprising Israel, India, the US, and the UAE, was inaugurated in a meeting held last week, dealing with food security, infrastructure, and science. Some are already calling it “the western Quad,” comparing it to another anti-China military alliance between the United States, India, Japan, and Australia called “the Quad.”

This follows the formation of AUKUS, an alliance among the US, the UK, and Australia, and there’s also the D-10 strategic forum, a grouping of ten nations that represent a majority of the world’s democratically governed people.

All this is being undertaken to counter the rise of China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), whose recent massive upgrade, by numerous accounts, has brought it up to par with the US in many respects. The Rand Corporation, for example, rates Chinese air power as close to parity with the US over the areas closer to the Chinese mainland.

And as Senator Marco Rubio recently commented in these pages about China’s naval advances, “When I first got to the Senate, I remember being told by people in the military that it’s going to take China 30 years to learn the lessons we’ve learned about aircraft carriers. It didn’t take them 30 years. It took them less than seven.”

Meanwhile, as China ramps up its military investment, says an April policy paper published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, US forces “have deferred some of their own modernization programs and declined in readiness across many areas since 2001, partly due to a preoccupation with counterterrorism and counterinsurgency.”

The policy paper continues, “Even after the Afghanistan withdrawal, America’s enormous and highly capable military remains spread thin across a number of global missions — whereas the PLA has been optimizing for a few key objectives in its local theater. Together, these trends have led the Pentagon to warn of a diminished 'competitive edge' over China.”

A New Silk Road

But despite China’s rapid advances, the US still possesses tremendous natural advantages. An Israeli Sinologist, who preferred to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the topic, says the current US strategy against Russia is largely intended to deter China, with some measure of success.

“The fact that the United States was able to unite the West and employ sanctions to such devastating effect — this is China’s worst nightmare,” he says. “This is because when United States has used sanctions against China in the past (as in Trump’s trade war), it was unable to get many other countries on board. Now the US has gotten smarter and developed an efficient mechanism with the help of the EU, and has done a much better job of implementing sanctions against Russia. China fears a united West with experience in effective sanctions, which could in theory be directed at them as well.”

Furthermore, said the expert, despite its ambitious Belt and Road Initative, a global investment and development strategy intended to reconstruct the old “Silk Road” trade network that established China’s dominance as the “Middle Kingdom,” Beijing is unlikely to make any great strides in the Middle East.

“In terms of China’s involvement in the Middle East, on the macro level, their interest in the region is very limited,” he says. “From a geopolitical perspective, the region is a battleground between the US and Russia, who are competing over Syria, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, and some would even say Israel — as evidenced by the Israeli government’s ambivalence over Ukraine, despite American pressure, due to Israel’s ties with Russia.

“The US and Russia have both spent decades building up alliances in the Middle East,” says the Sinologist. “They have experience and vested interests in the region. If China decided to enter the arena, it would do so from a position of inferiority. They have no bases in the region, nor do they understand the language, the culture, the dynamics of the region. It’s all very remote to them. They stand to lose much more than they could gain — investment that could go down the drain, manpower in the event of escalation, and credibility. China’s primary interests lie in Asia, in its relations with the US, and after that in Europe and Africa.”

But there’s an exception to every rule, and in this case, says the expert, it’s the UAE. China is making increasing investments in the UAE, in every field, and is building an important relationship with oil-rich Saudi Arabia. China’s encroachments in the region may well have come up during Biden’s talks with the Saudis, says the expert.

“The UAE is a unique case,” he explains. “That’s why the US is worried. They’re more independent and advanced than any other country in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel. China has economic interests there, as well as geopolitical ones — the G5 network, for example. Potentially, they could pose an alternative to the United States. Russia is not a significant actor in that country, so one could say that there’s a vacuum, or at least an attempt to create one.”

Confront or Cooperate

But given all the areas of confrontation between the US and China, is there any chance of cooperation?

The short answer is yes. One possible area of compromise is in the current trade war. With the US experiencing 9 percent inflation, soaring gas prices, and broken supply chains — which put both powers at risk of a major recession — there’s a real possibility that we’ll see localized compromises, and both countries will become more flexible about finding common interests and placating their respective publics, groaning under the rise in prices.

In recent days, speculative reports have swirled that America might begin to lift tariffs on Chinese goods in the near future. American consumers would certainly benefit from this, and as a bonus, the US would enjoy a momentary improvement of ties with China at a time of peak tension with Russia. At least one problem would be moved to the back burner for a while.

But this would be a tactical compromise, not a strategic one. The conflict between the two great powers, a rivalry that extends across the political, economic, and technological realms, will loom over us for decades to come.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 920)

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