In mid-October, when the world’s eyes were on Israel and its preparation of the terrestrial military operation in the Gaza Strip, there were two other distinct pictures: Russian President Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping meeting in Beijing to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative, and on the other side of the world, Ursula von der Leyen, Charles Michel and Josep Borrell being invited by US President Biden to join a “steel and aluminum club” in exchange for Washington dropping its threat to reimpose tariffs on imports from Europe.
The symbolism of these two pictures cannot be understated. While China vies to establish a new global order in all fields where it would be the main authority, the West in general and the EU and US in particular look to push back against these efforts and curb China as much as possible. During this year’s European Ideas Forum, the Martens Centre in cooperation with Foreign Policy attempted to provide some ideas for this enterprise.
At first glance, it may seem China and Russia have wind in their sails, both in the security and the economic dimension. Russia’s war against Ukraine is primarily tragic for Ukrainian families and the Ukrainian economy, but it is also exhausting for the US, UK, and the EU. It seems that this war is gradually transforming from the aggression of one country, Russia, into a global geopolitical contest between the West and East. China is the main beneficiary of the war, able to buy discounted energy from Russia and delivering drones and other weapons to Moscow. It seems China will “feed” Russia as much and as long as needed to protract the war, profit from it, and weaken the West. China’s aim is that the longer the conflict between Russia and Ukraine lasts, the higher are the chances for cracks to show within the Western community.
Another wider military confrontation looms in the Middle East. The unprecedented, large-scale, horrendous assault by Hamas against Israel indicates a longer, more dangerous axis: Hamas/Hezbollah – Iran – Russia – China. In that theatre as well, China stands inconspicuously aside, playing with its money and influence.
Economically, China is continuing its policy of subsidies and aggressive assertion. The OECD has warned that the global steel market is facing growing overcapacity, which is attributed to Chinese investment in new production capacity, especially in Asia. It is natural and right that the US and the EU vie for a deal to create a green steel and aluminum club, excluding metals from China.
It is also important to underline that, in addition to building up new defences against Chinese steel, the EU has recently launched an anti-subsidy investigation into China’s electric vehicle makers. Both the EU and US continue to push China towards a level playing field for Western investors and trade.
Considering these various developments, what should the West expect of long-term war in Ukraine and an emerging ‘alliance without borders’ between Russia and China? First of all, a growing dependence of Russia on China. During his trip to China, President Putin was told by his ‘dear friend’ Xi Jinping: “The trust between China and Russia is deepening.” Let’s translate this phrase into a political message: “We the Chinese are happy to buy your energy no one else wants on the cheap. Happy for you to prolong the war and rely on us more. Happy to have you as a vassal.”
President Xi Jinping then called on Putin to make a common effort “to ensure international justice.” Read: “Let’s rule the world! Under China’s flag.”
The EU and the US bear huge responsibility, not only to defend Ukrainian sovereignty, to keep Israel on the world map, for the future of Taiwan, but also for the perspective of the entire democratic community and the world, based on the rule of law and the rules-based order.
The US must therefore show empathy towards Europe, restrain from any unilateral decisions against the EU, and patiently look for compromises in all contentious areas.
In return, the EU needs to strengthen the European pillar of NATO, by investing much more into security and defence. It must shoulder more responsibility for its own security and the stability of its neighbourhood. And, perhaps one day, the EU should try to make Putin understand that it will never allow the Kremlin to swallow Ukraine, and that the EU has no interest to one day share an effective border with China. The sooner Putin and his cronies come to terms with this, we’ll all be better off; the democratic world, but also and not least the Russians themselves.