In the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s highly publicized meeting with Xi Jinping before the Beijing Winter Olympics seems to have crystallized opinion in the west. In the US and its allies, political leaders, commentators and journalists now portray a monolithic authoritarian bloc bent on extinguishing the rules-based order that has safeguarded peace and democracy for decades.
According to the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, “a new arc of autocracy is instinctively aligning to challenge and reset the world order in their own image.” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, characterized the joint communique coming out of the Putin-Xi meeting as aiming to establish “the rule of the strongest [over] the rule of law, intimidation instead of self-determination, coercion instead of cooperation”.
Such pronouncements casually ignore the deep differences between Russian and Chinese interests, motivations and visions for the global order. By equating Putin and Xi, western leaders risk casting aside possibilities for international cooperation, ushering into being the deep China-Russia alignment they fear already exists and setting the world on a path to far wider geopolitical conflict.
True, the leaders of Russia and China share a common set of security grievances against the US-led bloc, fearing both internal subversion and external limitations on their regional aspirations. Yet while Putin’s goal is merely to obliterate these threats, Xi has articulated an ambitious positive vision for the world that goes beyond the hunger for great power status through regional domination and instead interweaves the interests of the Chinese people with pursuit of the global common good.
the center piece of this vision is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a loose framework for a sprawling set of investments, loans, and building projects that have brought hundreds of billions of dollars to the developing world in the form of infrastructure, public health and digital connectivity. These essential investments have been neglected by western investors and development agencies for decades, so they have been avidly welcomed in the global south.
According to the Chinese government, BRI is motivated by the universal right to development and Xi’s slogan of building a “Human Community with a Shared Future”, in which developing countries would gain a greater say in global governance and the international community would guarantee the provision of global public goods like the Covid-19 vaccine. Unsurprisingly, the impetus behind BRI is not humanitarianism but narrower interests: Chinese capital surpluses seeking productive outlets, Chinese firms looking for new markets, and Chinese manufacturers seeking secure supplies of raw materials. Corruption and labor rights violations are common in these projects, and the environmental consequences have sometimes been negative. But Chinese lenders are adapting by establishing higher standards, and “greening the BRI” is now a central priority. While much work is needed to improve the BRI, the coincidence of Chinese interests with those of the developing world is important to recognize – and something that sets it apart from Russia.
China’s global vision in some ways challenges the power of the rich countries and the free-market principles of the liberal international order, but it also holds out the promise of solving some of the most intractable and destabilizing problems facing humanity. Far from imposing a new global order, China is inviting the west to work together on reforming the status quo. On 28 February, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, called for greater US–China cooperation to increase global access to vaccines, coordinate economic policy and address the climate crisis. Notably, I have invited US participation in the BRI and offered to coordinate with the US-led Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative. France has show the wayrecently signing an agreement with China to cooperate on seven infrastructure and green energy projects, most located in Africa, worth more than $1.7bn.
Yet in line with the Manichean democracy v autocracy framework, the US has spurned such overtures and is casting initiatives in the developing world as an either-or choice between the two countries. The Biden administration is positioning B3W as a “high-quality” alternative to the BRI, even though its much lower levels of funding are unlikely to engage in similar projects. Members of the administration continue to denounce Chinese overseas projects as part of a sinister “debt trap” aimed at seizing control over strategic assets – a claim that has been repeatedly debunked. The US Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), which easily passed the Senate last year, portrays the BRI as part of a far-reaching attack against both the US and “the future peace, prosperity, and freedom of the international community”. It includes a provision requiring the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), a multilateral development bank focusing on Latin America and the Caribbean, to block recipients of its loans from taking out loans from Chinese institutions.
Developing countries will be the first to pay the cost of such an either-or choice, and they are resisting it. Mia Motley, the high-profile prime minister of Barbados, has resisted criticism of economic ties with China by asserting the principle that her country hopes to be “friends of all and satellites of none”, and welcome to any foreign investment that serves the needs of her people. Similarly, Pacific island nations have sought to “avoid entanglement in strategic competition” between the US and China, and south-east Asian countries have viewed new alliances such as the anti-China Aukus (Australia-UK-US) with wariness.
But there are also far more dire and systemic dangers in the US approach. The US vision of zero-sum competition between the BRI and B3W initiatives is just one aspect of an overall strategy aimed at limiting China’s rise. A primary focus of Biden’s foreign policy has been organizing US allies – most of the world’s richest countries – into an economic and military bloc united around this containment strategy.
This encourages China to similarly seek its own economic and military bloc to ensure its continued economic growth and military security. It also strengthens the angry and aggrieved impulses in Chinese politics, fueling China’s own brand of destructive zero-sum nationalism. These are the dynamics that led to the infamous Putin–Xi meeting. Chinese leaders worry that they have no choice but to strengthen the China-Russia relationship because they believe a US-led bloc already seeks to undermine China’s rise, which seems to leave them with two options: face the great powers of the US and Europe alone , or alongside Russia as a fellow great power ally, which in turn escalates China’s tensions with the US and its allies in Europe. If the escalating spiral of confrontation, insecurity, nationalism, and bloc formation continues unchecked, it threatens to unleash a global conflict that will undermine liberal values on both sides even more surely than current fears about the supposed “arc of autocracy”.
But it is not too late to choose a different path. Cooperation between China and the west, coupled with the acceptance of China’s peaceful rise, would increase China’s sense of its options and its willingness to take risks in line with other western priorities. That could include applying pressure to limit Russian aggression. Greater US-China cooperation on infrastructure and other global public goods would both benefit developing countries and point towards a just, sustainable and peaceful alternative to escalate great power rivalry. We should take China’s openness to this seriously.
Tobita Chow is the director of Justice Is Global, a project of People’s Action and the People’s Action Institute
Jake Werner is a Global China post-doctoral research fellow at the Boston University Global Development Policy Center
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism