sexta-feira, 20 de março de 2015
China is the unlikely gainer from Ukraine conflict
A year ago Crimea became a part of Russia, causing a long stand-off between Moscow and the west. The conflict over Ukraine is a belated salvo of the cold war, provoked on both sides: by the euphoria of the west, which viewed its success in the confrontation of the late 20th century as proof of its moral and political supremacy, and by Russia’s desire to take revenge for its dramatic fall from the height of a superpower to barely short of a second-grade crippled state.
The Ukraine crisis is a play-off of the old game. But in a global context it is pushed to the sidelines because the centerpiece of international politics is moving to Asia.
The crisis shows how insignificant much of Russia’s relations with the west have become even though a couple of decades ago they were the backbone of global politics. An overwhelming majority of nations are unaffected by the events in Ukraine. People in Africa, East Asia or South America may watch with interest how the Russia-US “test of strength” ends, and whether Russian rebellion agains us-led world will be successful, but the issue is clearly at the bottom of their priorities.
There is, however, one reason why Ukraine may be important in terms of the change in the global balance of power: its impact on a possible division of Europe. This is not a territorial division, but the future of the “European heritage” where Europe may stop existing as a separate factor in world politics.
The Ukrainian conflict has put an end to hopes for a “Greater Europe” from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which was discussed as a possibility after the end of the cold war. This is not because Russia and the EU have split for good — the history of Europe shows that the bitterest enemies can find common ground. It is because the current stand-off is happening at a critical moment in global alliances.
On the one hand, talks on the US-proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are going full steam ahead and if the US and EU succeed in building a vast free trade area the Old World will be firmly fastened to the course of the New World, closing possibilities for a Russia-EU entity independent from the US (as was the dream of some anti-American forces in Russia and Europe). But there is another, less obvious, side: China is turning west and this may have significant consequences for Europe.
It is quite symbolic that President Xi Jinping announced the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative at a time (the autumn of 2013) when Russia and the EU were nearing a crucial point in their stand-off over Ukraine. China has distanced itself from competition with other powers for spheres of influence and offered a project that potentially embraces all the countries in Eurasia and may even economically absorb them. In fact, there is hardly any country that could rival it in terms of the resources it can commit.
While all the other players (Russia, the EU and the US) use mainly political instruments in Eurasia, thereby raising tension in the region, China offers ready cash and is indifferent to what kind of regime and national priorities its target has.
One of the objectives of the Silk Road project is to use the opportunities the European confusion is opening up in the west. The old Silk Road stretched to southeastern and southern Europe and the Middle East. Its recreation would bring China’s economic influence to depressed regions (from Greece to Iraq), where problems persist despite attempts by Brussels and Washington to solve them. China is not going to assume political responsibility, but it is quite willing to make use of these regions’ needs.
China is moving westward partly because its expansion in the Asia-Pacific region clearly invites confrontation with the US, which Beijing wants to avoid — at least for the time being. However, by advancing its interests to Europe China will have to face the US.
The controversy generated by the big European countries’ desire to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is just the first sign of China’s looming competition with the US in the new area. For example, Germany is China’s biggest trading partner and technology exporter in Europe, and its second largest trading partner outside the EU after the US. It ranks second (after Britain) among European countries on investment in China.
China’s turn westwards and Europe’s gravitation towards China as a market and trading partner in big projects, creates a new situation for Moscow. On the face of it, it is beneficial for Russia, which serves as a natural link between the two. But it promises no immediate gains. The Ukraine crisis has changed things for the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, and China’s Silk Road concept encompasses countries that Russia would like to see in the union. But Beijing is not talking about integration and political compromises; it simply wants to invest large amounts of money on its own terms.
China taking the position of a leading Eurasian power is the main unexpected outcome of the Ukraine crisis. Russia has yet to understand what role is left for it in Eurasia; Europe must realise that China is no longer somewhere in the distant east, but is actually next door; and the US should think about the fact that a country which has already surpassed it as the world’s largest economy is growing ever stronger. Amid these developments the fate of Ukraine, unfortunately, appears rather insignificant.