In March, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, where they not only “reaffirm[ed] the special nature of the Russia-China partnership,” but "signed a statement on deepening the strategic partnership and bilateral ties which are entering a new era." As XI was leaving the Kremlin, he told Putin that "Together, we should push forward these changes that have not happened for 100 years." That goodbye was XI’s not so coded call for the end of the American century.
In his February 7 State of the Union Address, President Biden got carried away by his excitement and arrogantly and ineptly went off script and called out, "Name me a world leader who’d change places with XI Jinping. Name me one. Name me one."
But the deflating truth is that the world is lining up behind China and Russia’s vision of a multipolar world no longer exclusively led by the US. From Africa and its unanimous attendance at the recent Russia-Africa in a Multipolar World conference to the Middle East and its long list of countries lining up to join the Chinese and Russian led multipolar organizations BRICS and the SCO to Latin America and most of Eurasia and Asia, including India, the weight of the world is going to XI’s place to balance US hegemony and support a multipolar world.
Biden’s outburst was an insult and confrontation that was a personal microcosm of US provocation and confrontation of China on a global level. And it has had a corrosive and dangerous effect. An angry China is not answering American phone calls. Biden had hoped to talk to XI on the phone in mid March, but Chinese officials are not responding to US requests to arrange the call. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s calls to set up talks with his Chinese counterpart have also not been answered.
China is emerging as the rock upon which the US-led alliance breaks.
China’s growing economic, diplomatic and political influence is beginning to be more powerfully felt on the world stage. The rapid growth of international organizations that support China and Russia’s multipolar world vision is just one piece of evidence. China’s emergence as an influential broker is another.
China has become a power that can shape the world, leaving the US out of the process. They shocked the world in March by brokering a region transforming agreement between arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. And they upset the US in February by initiating a peace process for the war in Ukraine. Both initiatives left the US out of the room.
The world is no longer unipolar: a world with multiple poles of power is emerging. China’s foreign policy seeks economic growth that demands the fostering of stability in the world; US foreign policy seeks hegemony that demands hostility and schisms that punish and isolate resisters. The problem with China’s emergence as a broker is that it breaks US hegemony. But it is also that China’s peace plans get in the way of America’s war plans.
The US is not ready for peace plans for the war in Ukraine. Though peace plans may serve a devastated Ukraine, they do not serve the larger US goals being served by the devastated Ukraine. The US is not ready for Ukraine to go to the table and end the war before the larger US goals are accomplished. As State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in March 2022, "this is a war that is in many ways bigger than Russia, it’s bigger than Ukraine."
Biden rejected China’s potential role as a broker in the war, insisting that "the idea that China is going to be negotiating the outcome of a war that’s a totally unjust war for Ukraine is just not rational." National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that the US does not believe that a Chinese peace proposal "is a step towards a just and durable peace." He claims that "We all want to see the war end. . . . And a ceasefire, at this time, while that may sound good, we do not believe would have that effect.” Kirby then added that "we don’t support calls for a ceasefire right now. We certainly don’t support calls for a ceasefire that would be called for by the [People’s Republic of China] in a meeting in Moscow that would simply benefit Russia.”
The US has long insisted that no decisions will be made without Ukraine. But if a Chinese brokered peace were to succeed, it would be because Ukraine has agreed to it. It is remarkable that it is up to Ukraine to continue the war but not up to Ukraine to end it.
China’s peace plans for the Middle East also get in the way of America’s war plans. A US led unipolar world demands the isolation of Iran. A key piece of that plan is the establishment and maintenance of a regional coalition against Iran. At the heart of that coalition is Saudi Arabia firmly in the US anti-Iran camp. The recent Chinese brokered Saudi-Iran agreement breaks that coalition and mends that schism.
The Saudi-Iran agreement has had immediate effects in the region that further challenge US efforts to shape it in their own way. Fast in the wake of the agreement, Saudi Arabia and Iranian ally Syria agreed to reopen their embassies. And the shift in shape is not just bilateral, but regional. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister is reported to be on his way to Damascus to formally invite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to this May’s Arab League summit in Riyadh. The invitation, Syria’s first since 2011, would "formally end Syria’s regional isolation." On April 1, Syria’s foreign minister went to Cairo for the first official visit in twelve years to begin the process of reinstating Syria in the Arab League.
That "leap forward in Damascus’s return to the Arab fold" frustrates US plans to isolate Assad and Syria. The US has opposed normalization of relations with Syria by countries in the Middle East. The State Department says their "stance on normalization remains unchanged” despite Saudi Arabia’s new stance and the changes in the region.
China has emerged as a diplomatic force that can broker agreements and shape the world in a way that shatters US hegemony in a unipolar world. China is the rock upon which that alliance breaks.
China’s peace plans are the rock in the once clear harbor of the US led alliance in yet another way. Some countries are willing to break with the US and work with China.
France has communicated to China its "appreciation for China’s positive role in promoting peace talks." Macron’s Diplomatic Advisor, Emmanuel Bonne, told Wang Yi, China’s Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, that "France is ready to make joint efforts with China to facilitate cessation of hostilities and seek a peaceful solution."
France is a major European NATO ally. China’s emergence as a diplomatic superpower has created a crack in the structure of the US led alliance.
France is not alone in its willingness to work with China. Where France’s independent position reveals a rift within the US led alliance, Brazil’s independent position reveals the emergence of other poles in the newly emergent multipolar world.
The independent course charted by Brazil and its willingness to work with America’s rival reveals, not only the loss of US hegemony in its own hemisphere, but the loss of US hegemony globally because partnering with China is partnering with BRICS, the large international organization whose goal is to balance US hegemony of a unipolar world.
Brazilian President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has supported China’s efforts at negotiating a peace proposal and criticized the US for speaking "very few words about peace." But he has also proposed a joint effort, or a "peace club" that could include BRICS members China, India and Brazil and possibly Indonesia. Indonesia has been a leader in the nonaligned world and was recently welcomed as guests at the BRICS Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.
China’s diplomatic entry into the war in Ukraine highlights a multipolar world that could shape a post world war and sideline the US.
As China’s growth and the gravitational pull of its multipolar world grow, and as China’s force is further felt, not only economically, but politically and diplomatically, the US stance may stiffen, and Washington may more solidly confront China, not only by increasing sanctions, but by calling on its allies to increase sanctions.
That call could be a challenging one for the US’s European allies to answer. If Seymour Hersh’s reporting is correct, it took cutting Germany off from their Russian oil supply by a historic act of sabotage, an act of war, to keep Germany fully on board in America’s sanction regime on Russia. China has been Germany’s most important trading partner for seven consecutive years. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Germany has only increased its investments in and economic dependence on China. It will be more difficult to pressure Germany to cut economic ties with China than it was to pressure it to cut ties with Russia. And it will be asking a lot of Germany to ask it to cut ties with both.
Dr. Suzanne Loftus, Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute Eurasia Program, told me that "China is Germany’s most important trading partner. Having to sanction China would put Germany in a very difficult position seeing as how it has already had to sanction another one of its significant trading partners (Russia) and is also struggling with US protectionist policies (Inflation Reduction Act)." Loftus says that, [f]acing difficulties at home, Germany will most likely opt out of having to sanction China if the US started to put pressure on Germany to do so. It would otherwise face too much of an economic shock and increased domestic turmoil as a result."
A hint of that potential split with the US was provided in November when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s defied the US by going to Beijing, accompanied by the CEOs of Volkswagen, BMW, BASF, Bayer and Deutsche Bank, in part to discuss trade.
On the eve of his trip, Scholz wrote that "new centers of power are emerging in a multipolar world, and we aim to establish and expand partnerships with all of them." He said that, though China is an economic power that will "play a key role on the world stage in the future," this does not "justif[y] . . . calls by some to isolate China." Scholz then wrote clearly that "even in changed circumstances, China remains an important business and trading partner for Germany and Europe – we don’t want to decouple from it."
Future US calls to sanction China could force Europe into a choice between solidity with the US led alliance and continued economic partnership with China. For the US, there is a hazardous forecast that that choice could weaken that solidity.
The growing reality of China’s multipolar world vision, China’s emergence as a broker of peace plans that interfere with US war plans, the world’s shifting of shape that sees important countries willing to work with China and the need for countries to strengthen trade ties with China all suggest that China cold be the rock upon which the US led alliance breaks.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.