[SCMP Column] Great Games between China and the US is alive and well

May 11, 2015

By David Dodwell and Kristine Yang

This week three “great powers” have big stories at home – and almost no one in the rest of the world is taking any notice.

In the UK today (okay, arguably no longer a great power) a historic, perhaps game-changing election is riveting the nation – alongside the birth of Princess Charlotte.

In the US, President Barack Obama is at last girding his loins to fight for the “fast track” negotiating authority that will enable him to get the world’s biggest free trade agreement – the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – past the finishing line.

And in China, Xi Jinping prepares to visit Russia and two of its satellites.

In diplomatic terms, the “great game” continues to be played as it was 100 years ago – and the same old proverb applies - the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

I sense a great indifference in Hong Kong to Britain’s Lilliputian election – though it provides a marvelous example of how even the most time-honoured democracies find themselves sullied by tawdry, unprincipled compromises with political enemies in the cynical quest for power.

But in the US and in China, the great game is being played out by more traditional rules: in the TPP the US is bringing together 11 allies, above all else Japan and excluding China, that alongside its economic agenda is intended to balance Pacific power in its favour, underpinned by its relationship with Japan.

And in China, President Xi’s visit to Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus – alongside his recent visit to Pakistan and a visit by India’s prime minister to Beijing – marks China’s own efforts to rebalance power in Asia and the Pacific around its own interests and priorities.

Since the Ukraine conflict, Russia’s relations with the West have been strained.

Friends are in short supply. Out of invitations to 68 countries to stand alongside him to commemorate Russia’s Victory Day marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, fewer than 30 world leaders have agreed to join. Japan, Israel, the US, France, Germany – and even North Korea’s Kim Jong-un – have given Putin the cold shoulder.

President Xi’s presence has huge diplomatic importance.

For China, alongside the raw diplomatic importance, Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus are three anchors for their new Silk Road initiatives that look west towards parts of the world ignored by the West for almost a century.

Russia’s isolation has hurt Belarus and Kazakhstan economically, so the arm of China’s political and economic friendship has great attraction. For example, Belarus’s exports dropped 22.7 per cent in the first quarter of 2015 following the Ukraine conflict.

Meanwhile, China’s ties with this region long ignored by the West have grown steadily in recent years – driven strongly by China’s ever-growing need for natural resources as well as the need to stabilise potentially disruptive Islamic forces in China’s west.

China and Russia’s trade has jumped more than eight times over the past decade, making China today Russia’s main source of imports and its second largest export destination. In 2014, the bilateral trade between two has reached US$88.4 billion, up 29.4 per cent on 2013.

If Xi’s April visit to Pakistan is anything to go by, Kazakhstan and Belarus can also expect big deals from Xi’s upcoming visit. China announced a US$46 billion investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and infrastructure links are certain to be high on the agenda in the upcoming visits.

It was in Kazakhstan where Xi first brought up the Silk Road initiative in 2013, focusing primarily on infrastructure.

This matches Kazakhstan’s own economic stimulus plans, with the government planning to invest US$40 billion in transportation by 2020 building its role as a bridge between Europe and Asia.

China now is Kazakhstan’s largest trading partner of Kazakhstan and it is easy to see here the logic of the China-inspired Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), so controversially conceived two months ago in the teeth of fierce US opposition.

As China grows, so the balance of global economic and diplomatic power is beginning to change. The “great game” may include different parts of the world, and some different economic priorities, but in essence the rules of the game remain unchanged.

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