Competition Vs Cooperation

China-Russia unleashes a vision of an interdependent world, while the US struggles with zero sum politics

Pravin Sawhney

Leaving the Kremlin after his March 2023 visit, Chinese President Xi Jinping said to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the full view of the media, “Right now there are changes—the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years—and we are the ones driving these changes together.”

Modi Biden

Xi was neither being pompous nor was he exaggerating. Together with Putin, Xi has unveiled an unparalleled and unbeatable vision of the new world order. Premised on the Chinese philosophy of win-win as against the traditional geopolitical mantra of zero-sum, Xi is looking at uniting the world through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): a network of cooperative roads, seas lanes, and hard and soft cyberspace connectivity for seamless flow of trade and traffic. This vision is complemented by Putin’s ‘pivot to Asia’ vision spelt out in 2012 for Greater Eurasia (Eurasia plus ASEAN, India, Pakistan, the Arab world, and Iran) which seeks to create an economic cooperation zone from Eurasia (Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan) to Asia-Pacific, thereby fusing the two visions together.

That the Global South (except for India) sees in this ‘once in a 100-year change’ an opportunity to uplift its people and economy was evident from the third Belt and Road Forum (BRF) to mark the 10th Anniversary of the BRI, held in Beijing on 17 and 18 October. Nearly 150 Global South nations had representation at the forum with 23 heads of state participating in it. Of course, Putin was the guest of honour. And India was not invited.

While the two global powers, China and Russia, are forging the path towards a new cooperative world, on the other side of the world, the third global power, the United States, still tied to old ideas of competition, is floundering in the absence of a vision for the new world. This confusion was summed up by US national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, recently. In his essay in Foreign Affairs magazine (November/December 2023), he wrote that America must adjust to “the main challenge it faces: competition (with China) in an age of interdependence.”

As the world is interdependent, the natural thing should be cooperation and not competition. And since there is a thin line between competition and conflict, in his State of the Union address in February, US President Joe Biden clarified that “the US seeks competition, not conflict.” Worse, there is no clarity on what the competition should deliver. Most agree that like the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the disintegration of China cannot be the end-state since as the world’s largest manufacturing hub, it happens to be the primary trading partner of nearly 138 nations. Despite tensions, the total value in goods trade between the US and China in 2022-2023 stood at USD 690 billion. So, the ideal end-state for the US should be a distinctive tilt in the balance of power in favour of the US and its allies/ partners. This requires a new Cold War where the US should play to its advantage: military power or deterrence.


Thus, the Biden administration has adopted a four-pronged approach.

One, while overplaying Chinese theft of US’ cutting-edge technologies by cyber means, the US has adopted a ‘small yard and a high fence’ strategy to deny advanced processors (7nm and below) to China. According to the US, China will use these advanced microchips for new breakthroughs in artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing and biotechnology to threaten its and its allies’ national security. The reality is that the US, which led the world in the third industrial revolution by semiconductors, mainframe computers, personal computers and the internet, worries that China could leapfrog in the fourth industrial revolution with AI and data since 5G wireless connectivity, which is the backbone of this revolution, has already been rolled out by China’s Huawei. This could make China the leader in setting international standards for the whole range of emerging technologies across physical, digital and biological domains. Moreover, to ensure on-shoring and friendly-shoring of the advanced AI hardware ecosystem, the US passed the Chips and Science Act, Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to protect US advantages.

Two, the US is strengthening its deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region by reinforcing existing alliances, and by forming new ones like AUKUS (Australia, UK, US). Called Integrated Deterrence, this includes a strategic partnership with India (given its sensitive location in the Indo-Pacific) bilaterally through the US-India Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (ICET) and multilaterally through the QUAD (quadrilateral security grouping of US, India, Japan and Australia).

Three, to meet the military challenge of China and Russia combined, the US has connected its alliances in Europe with the Indo-Pacific by globalising NATO.

And four, to showcase that its balancing against China has both military and economic initiatives, the US has announced numerous international infrastructure-building agreements like the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, Build Back Better World, and the recent India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor. The truth is that none come close to the BRI where China through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Silk Road Fund, China Development Bank and Exim Bank has already invested USD one trillion.

With the above military steps, the US hopes to disallow free movement to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) within the First Island Chain in the West Pacific where China has two of its total three core concerns—Taiwan and South China Sea (SCS); the third being India’s state of Arunachal Pradesh which China calls South Tibet or Zangnan. With growing PLA capabilities, China has taken a strong stand against the US’ freedom of navigation and air patrols in SCS and its arming of Taiwan. While most analysts believe that the West Pacific theatre is a possible flashpoint between the US and China, it appears unlikely. Great powers do not go to war directly since neither will be able to exercise enough war control to achieve desired military objectives, nor have escalation control to limit war.

Interestingly, with the US’ proxy involvement in Ukraine and direct one in the Israel-Hamas war, Washington will now have difficulty in devoting time and resources to its primary and pacing threat—China. Worse, the chances of US credibility taking a hit in both regional wars are high since they are unlikely to end in its favour. President Zelensky of Ukraine is feeling the heat since the US arms supplies are getting diverted to its closest ally, Israel. Moreover, Russia is already in possession of 23 per cent of Ukraine territory and is likely to occupy more before the war ends in temporary peace.

The Israel-Hamas war presents the US with a big dilemma since it cannot abandon this war which while threatening to enlarge into a wider Middle East confrontation, has no solution in sight. Israel is unlikely to accept the two-state solution and the Muslim world will reject Israel’s plan to push some 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza into the Sinai in Egypt. With each day, China and Russia’s credibility is rising in the region at the expense of the US. Worse, US allies and partners in East Asia watching the two regional wars might start assessing the US as an unreliable security partner.

Thus, even as the US’ new cold war in a fragmented world is unfolding, China’s strategy of ‘cooperation in an interdependent world’ with BRI as its roadmap is gaining greater acceptability amongst Global South nations.

Conscious of this, Xi, at the third BRF announced the next phase of the BRI’s strategy called ‘small, yet smart.’ While earmarking USD 107 billion for the next five years, Xi said that the BRI’s focus will be on projects involving science and technology. He was referring to taking most BRI nations into the third and fourth industrial revolutions depending upon their level of development. Given this new strategy, Xi highlighted four areas of partnership.

Indian delegation lead by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Wuhan Summit
Indian delegation lead by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Wuhan Summit

First, Xi announced a new initiative called ‘Global AI Governance Initiative’, his fourth in 10 years of BRI; the other three being the Global Development Initiative, Global Security Initiative and Global Civilisation Initiative. The present initiative involving AI and data would be done in partnership with the BRI nations. China will set the technology standards, while Chinese companies in partnership with host nations will determine rules, regulations and norms for the use of emerging technologies for development. Thus, China will help set up data centres, cloud services and a whole range of AI activities like data collection, algorithm design, technology development, technology production and applications. To facilitate the applications, Xi proposed setting up of 100,000 laboratories in BRI nations by 2030. This would be in addition to training, testing and assessment centres to imbibe new technologies.

This level of industrial internet development presupposes that advancement in the third industrial revolution with Chinese help would be underway or completed in three specific areas: fibre optic cables, sea cables and the Chinese Baidu global satellite system. Unlike the US’ Global Position System with 31 satellites, the Baidu system is a constellation of 45 satellites with the ability for two-way beaming, which means that in the remotest areas where satellite ground stations are not available, communication can be done directly between sender and receiver through satellite.

the two leaders duing the Chennai Connect Summit
the two leaders duing the Chennai Connect Summit

Second, to mitigate climate change disasters, China has proposed green development for BRI nations. This is doable since China is a world leader in solar panels, electric vehicles, and Lithium-ion batteries. The latter will soon be supplemented by Sodium-ion batteries, which while cheaper than Lithium-ion batteries will give similar results.

Third, connectivity with a focus on rail connectivity with China-Europe Railway Express as the flagship project. Once again, China is the global leader in rail connectivity and has the world’s largest high speed—350 kilometres per hour—network. Moreover, in June 2021, China successfully showcased the world’s first Maglev (Magnetic Levitation) train with 600 kilometres per hour speed. This train does not run on tracks, but above the track, driven by a magnetic field; this obviates track friction and increases speed. By 2025, China will have five more Maglev trains which it has proposed as an intermediate mode of travel between railways and commercial aeroplanes. The moot point is that by setting standards in AI, fast rails and green development in BRI nations, China will have an unbeatable lead in international standards setting which will provide first-user advantage to Chinese companies in Global South nations, and later, most of the world. And fourth, Xi expressed the need for establishing a BRI secretariat, which given the increasing footprints of BRI plus Greater Eurasia nations, would be necessary.

the two leaders duing the Chennai Connect Summit
the two leaders duing the Chennai Connect Summit

Regarding making Greater Eurasia a reality, Putin spoke at the BRF about the urgency to develop Russia’s far east by opening the Northern Sea route which provides the shortest shipping lane from Europe to East Asia through the Bering Strait. According to Putin, starting in 2024, ice-class cargo ships will be able to operate on this route around the year. Moreover, with Russia assuming BRICS presidency in 2024, the development of Russia’s far east from Vladivostok to East Cape will be a priority. This includes the Siberian and Sakhalin gas pipelines. After all, Russia’s Arctic which accounts for 30 per cent territory across three time zones, has 20 per cent of oil and 80 per cent of gas reserves. Russian Arctic as well as the Northern Sea route are being developed with Chinese help. Given this, joint naval patrols by Russian and Chinese navies in the Arctic region for peace and stability has raised US hackles since the Bering Strait runs close to Alaska.

Prime Minister Modi with President Joe Biden
Prime Minister Modi with President Joe Biden

Since this area has become a region of great power contestation, it provides another impetus for the Chinese and Russian ‘no limits’ partnership. Contrary to the belief that dislike of the US is the main reason for the Chinese and Russian partnership, it is the integration of their global visions which will see them working together in the foreseeable future.

Western analysts wonder whether China and Russia will form an alliance like NATO where an attack on one will be considered an attack on all. This will not happen. Global powers like the US, China and Russia don’t need alliances among themselves. They have the capability to defend their own territorial integrity. Smaller powers seek alliances with major powers for collective security.

Besides, an alliance or military bloc runs against the spirit of global cooperation that China and Russia are collectively seeking. And that is how they are offering an alternate vision to the Global South—security through cooperation and interdependence.



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