Is a Washington-Beijing reset underway?
Contending strategic schools of thought in the US are grappling with how to engage with China. Beijing’s choices will influence the debate
There is both clarity and ambiguity in Washington at the moment.
The clarity is with regard to Moscow. Across the American political spectrum, President Vladimir Putin is seen as the problem. There is relief at the return of Western unity, cheer about the belated European assertion on security, glee about how American intelligence got it right, hunger for more retributive measures, but supplemented with uncertainty about how the war will end.
This clarity is accompanied with ambiguity about Beijing. All segments of United States (US) political opinion and the strategic community see China as an adversary. But within that framework, three schools of thought have emerged.
The first sees China as an economic and technological competitor — but one that merits strategic accommodation. China is ambitious and distinct, but not out to wreck the global system, and, therefore, distinct from Russia. What flows from this view is that the US needs to boost its competitiveness, reduce dependence on China, but also find ways to work together and resolve geopolitical crises, including Ukraine.
The second school of thought has no illusions that China is a long-term economic, technological, military and strategic adversary; it is also aware of the Russia-China bond in recent years. But in the short-term, it senses Beijing’s discomfort over Russia’s action, and, therefore, an opportunity to wean Beijing away from Moscow. This would, in the best-case scenario from the American perspective, involve Beijing playing a “constructive” role in bringing the conflict to an end, but at the very least, entail Beijing not backing Russia in its military, geopolitical and information war objectives.
And the third view holds that the Beijing-Moscow axis is far more powerful than assumed, Xi Jinping and Putin have a chemistry, there is a structural logic to their relationship, both oppose the West-dominated global order and democratic political systems, possible Chinese assistance to Russia is evidence of this convergence, and investing hopes in Beijing would be a mistake. In fact, this school argues that the US runs the risk of ignoring the real battleground (Indo-Pacific), Washington does not have the attention span or resources or geopolitical strength to focus on two theatres simultaneously, and while it inflicts costs on Russia, its resource investment and military posture should be focused on Asia.
While all three impulses find a home within the administration, at the moment, the second school of thought is dominant. Tone down the aggressive public rhetoric vis-a-vis China, maintain intense private dialogue, adopt a carrot-and-stick approach (warn China that arms supplies Russia would be a redline; politely remind Beijing of how this moment offers the Middle Kingdom an opportunity to be a great, responsible power), and wait to see how Beijing plays its cards. This is the approach that the Europeans, who continue to hedge their bets on China, are most comfortable with too.
The next step in this dance will depend on Beijing’s response. It has three choices.
One, it can throw in its lot entirely with Russia — if it indeed wants to inaugurate a new phase of intense competition with the West, this is the moment. But there are indications that China recognises the costs of this approach, and while it is comfortable sharpening contradictions with its neighbours, it does not want to antagonise US and Europe entirely.
Two, it can continue to play the balancing act with a clear, pronounced tilt towards Moscow — so work with Moscow but also engage with Washington, Paris, Brussels, and Berlin; oppose sanctions in principle but find ways to work around it without getting shut out of the global economy; speak of sovereignty, but also defend Russia’s security interests; abstain from votes that condemn Russia but support Russia’s overall narrative against the West.
And three, it can actually project itself as a peacemaker, using its leverage with Moscow to dilute Russian demands but also working with the West to get Ukraine to accept a settlement. This is what Israel and Turkey are attempting to do, but if China enters the peacemaking theatre, the game changes. If it chooses the second or third option, China’s geopolitical value increases — and it can seek concessions on the wider relationship from the US in return.
What does all of this mean for India?
Those in Delhi who entertained the grand hope that the US would wean Russia away from China, and Washington and Moscow and Delhi could happily work together to counter Beijing, can bid their dreams goodbye. Those who assumed that US hostility to China was now a permanent and enduring fact, across all domains, may also need to revise their assumptions, at least in the short-term.
But, at the same time, those who assume that a possible US-China reset on a set of limited issues will suddenly transform Washington’s orientation towards Asia entirely are probably taking a leap too far. American security interests, partnerships, equities in the region are too deep for these to be bartered away; the US’s suspicion of Chinese intent and capabilities (as documented in the intelligence community’s latest annual threat assessment report) is now institutional; and American political mood towards China remains unforgiving. And so a reset may not necessarily mean a grand strategic deal aka 1971, and as long as there isn’t one, India can continue to rely on American strategic support on China.
But as the two major powers prepare to make choices based on their interests, calculations, and the political imperatives of the regimes in power, India must be prepared for shifting equations and a period of adjustment.
The views expressed are personal