The need to bridge geopolitical and geoeconomic discourses: US – China – Russia – Europe
Mar 06, 2023
More than ever, it seems vital to be able to zoom out on the problems facing each of the leading global actors. This is done without claiming expertise on all of the four topics - very few can seriously pretend to possess such expertise. The discourses in question arguably focus on milestones, processes, relationships, dimensions, lessons learned, concepts, etc. The latter includes topical debates on decoupling in the US-China relationship, deterrence and defence in the relationship between the West and Russia.
The US upcoming elections in November 2024 constitute not only a milestone but a planning target for a huge number of politicians and lobbyists – and not only in the United States.
This puts the limelight on the fact that domestic politics remain a central process also in terms of US security policy. Positions taken by candidates are framed in order to maximise voter support. Political leaders not seldom adapt their views in order to get elected, on the highest level to control both houses of Congress. Former President Trump took this to an extreme ahead of the 2016 elections, by contracting Cambridge Analytica to find out which messages would be welcome in different constituencies.
This methodology may in this variant not be repeated in the 2024 elections, but there is a reason for caution for outsiders to draw quick conclusions about where the actual elected candidate will land in response to crises facing him or her in 2025 and onwards.
Whether knowing the name of the President-elect (Trump? De Santis? Haley on the Republican side – vs. Biden or a younger Democratic candidate?) means knowing the way ahead for US security policy thus is uncertain. This was certainly true, for instance, for Lyndon Johnson in his battle against Barry Goldwater in 1964 as regards not only civil rights but also the Vietnam War. The same will probably be true for the main candidates in the 2024 elections in the US as they gradually emerge and their positions on Russia and China become known.
China seems to be a case in point. Trump could be perceived as an isolationist on the Ukraine issue - which pleases Putin, but has an aggressive separatist agenda as regards China - which does not please Xi. Biden's positions on China seem less clear cut. But he does continue certain policies on China initiated by Trump as regards decoupling.
China is projecting political and economic power worldwide and is moving into a more and more competitive and conflictual relationship with the US. Chinese economic development is influenced not only by the pandemic but also by the way the Chinese dual circulation strategy evolves, partly in response to American efforts to decouple China from the global market. Not least in the financial sector, China works hard in order to be able to create a dependence on the part of its BRI (Belt and Road) policy partners worldwide trading in the Chinese currency yuan rather than dollars. In this way potential sanctions using the SWIFT system can be counteracted.
The American response in terms of decoupling may in this context be defined as an emerging strategy of policies that partially limit the business flows with China. For the US, this obviously is a strategic balancing act seeking not to hurt major US business interests in China itself. Nevertheless, the US response to China will be influenced by a number of geopolitical factors such as the conflict over Taiwan, Chinas support to Russia and its global efforts to project power worldwide, inter alia through the Belt and Road program.
The US discourse has by several thinktanks been characterised in terms of a spectrum of stereotypes ranging from separationists to cooperationists with a middle of the road, centrist approach often recommended by experts - but not necessarily the way US policies will develop.
The way ahead will not be determined by the US-China relationship alone, but as noted by the domestic policy process inside the US and a number of geopolitical processes in different contexts. The extent to which China will be able to exploit important global and regional cooperative frameworks such as the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and BRICS will also play a role. Russia is a member of both. How China may use ASEAN as an intermediary to Western markets may also be important.
In addition to this complex picture has to be added geopolitical factors relating to deterrence and defence. China may increase its nuclear stockpiles. One also cannot exclude a more significant Chinese effort to support its partners through military aid as illustrated by Russia.
The question should at this point be what relevance all of this has for the discourse on Russia. On Russia, the spectrum of discourses includes a whole range of policies from isolationism to all out support for Ukraine victory, leading to the demise of the Russian leadership and effectively to regime change in Russia.
Let it suffice here that this analysis obviously becomes much more complex should the war in Ukraine go on for another several years. Increasingly, it might then be the case that Ukraine and the West do not fight Russia alone but a Russia in some sort of coalition with the other major superpower. Russia was characterised by President Obama as a regional power some years back which clearly agitated Putin. But is it to be regarded as such if its shortcomings to a large extent are compensated by China in return for increasing Chinese power projection in Russia and the Arctic region? As noted, also the Indian position in this new configuration may be of importance.
Russia is increasingly perceived as an autocratic system aspiring to re-create an imperial past ready for brutal war against civilians to keep and expand power using force and threat of force. Many analysts now - one year into the second Ukraine War - argue that the Russian leadership needs war in order to pursue this ambition. Peace is not a value in itself.
The question is then also whether this posture may be influenced by Chinese positions on nuclear weapons and conditions for peace. In this context there seems to be reason to return to the issue of China seeking to reduce its vulnerability against Western sanctions. Clearly this effort is a long-term process over many years which ideally would require some sort of stability and calm in developing Chinese cooperative strategies with partners worldwide including, importantly, in Europe, Germany as a prime target.
If this is the case, China has a very strong reason to influence Russia not to further escalate the war in Ukraine.
Europe is increasingly seen as not only a regional but global actor in a geoeconomic but potentially also geopolitical sense, focusing much more on projecting power than was declared policy only a few years ago. It is simultaneously acting on several levels, on the EU level through the European Council and the European Commission, on the level of states mainly through Berlin and Paris with London as a somewhat disconnected regional power with global interests.
Arguably, European strengths as an actor is very much related to the crises that Europe faces. Europe has grown stronger and more united in crisis both during the pandemic and in response to the Ukraine War. Particularly in the latter case this has also contributed to strengthened transatlantic ties where European efforts have been more welcomed than before as a contribution to burden-sharing.
But this Western unity cannot be taken for granted in all situations, particularly when it comes to geoeconomics. Major European regional powers as Germany and France are not shying away from market opportunities resulting from American decoupling. The French deal with China on Airbus in 2019 is a case in point and the German visit to China last autumn signals a strong German interest to explore opportunities with China. And London feels free to do deals with the US and Australia (AUKUS) even if they hurt French interests.
Also, for Europe - against this background - the 2024 US elections are key to understanding the way ahead on many of these issues.
Bridging the discourses in view of the American elections
Currently some would argue that Biden has positioned himself closer to supporting Ukrainian victory in the War against Russia than Trump. Whether Trump if still in power would have been more radical in terms of decoupling than Biden is less certain.
If both of these assumptions would be true before and after the 2024 elections one would assume that Russia would once more prefer a Trump-like candidate as President of the US and work for this result in various open and clandestine ways. The experience of the candidates in foreign and security policy may also play in as a factor. Many analysts characterise Biden's half a century long experience on foreign policy as a vital – and unwelcome - American asset from a Russian perspective.
At the same time, it would seem that a more Biden-like candidate should be preferred as President on the part of Beijing.
In such a case, this may indicate a further possible conflict of interest between Russia and China. This in turn might partially condition China's support to Russia in the war and when it comes to helping Russia to survive economically. One might even think of the possibility that Beijing would exert pressure on Russia not to influence the American elections in favor of Trump or any other candidate close to his views.
So, not only domestic politics in the US are complicated and require analysis which will need to include many nuances and complicating factors. Also the geopolitical and geoeconomic dynamics between the main actors require the inclusion of more complicating factors.
Against this background, it also seems necessary to forecast potential alliances in the east with great caution. Chinese potential military support to Russia is discussed at the same time as China launches a peace proposal. China may wish to avoid being lumped together with Russia in future sanctions packages. On the Western side it is of course a huge complication if in the context of deterrence, China must be included in the equation.
Of less importance, but still worth mentioning, is that the border conflict between China and India may need to be dealt with in some way before more Indian support of Russia can be established.
It seems therefore more important than ever in this multipolar world to involve regional expertise in a global analysis. What we see is a gradual evolution over time of policies in the major capitals. In terms of deterrence and defence what at one point seemed impossible for Washington supporting Ukraine has been deemed possible only months later.
And China is also pursuing a delicate balancing act in order to promote the Belt and Road and its recent soft power-oriented GDI initiative on a global scale while at the same time keeping doors open for more influence on Russia and its vast potential resources.
And several medium-size actors such as Turkey, India etcetera may be influenced by domestic policies making it difficult to forecast the outcome before and after electoral campaigns such as the current one in Turkey.
Still, everything is not unknown. There are certain trends which may play an increasing role for the coming years. Here are some candidates:
- One is certainly the now increasingly obvious fact that security requires strong conventional defence which cannot be replaced by nuclear weapons.
- The actual use of nuclear substrategic weapons seems to be a much less likely escalatory option than many analysts would have thought, particularly as regards managing deterrence in Europe. Many would no doubt have expected a major European war to go nuclear which should have prevented it to occur in the first place even if a conventional deterrence had not been established.
- For the above two reasons, American support for deterrence vis-a-vis Russia undoubtably will for the future require substantial conventional and troop presence in Europe combined with much more robust defence policies in Europe itself.
- Paradoxically, the utility of nuclear weapons to threaten other states and seek to force them into submission has been demonstrated as an important asset for Russia in the case of the Ukraine War. If the nuclear factor had not been there Western support to Ukraine had no doubt been much swifter and more decisive.
- Many nuclear analysts take this last point to mean that the risk of nuclear proliferation will increase substantially notably but not only in countries with nuclear neighbours, including in the Middle East.
- Finally, many countries will seek to diversify their dependencies and pay more for security of supply in crisis situations. This includes policies such as China’s aimed at reducing vulnerabilities to sanctions.