This article was originally published on L’Antidiplomatico.
The associated forms of human life that we can call “society” if seen from the inside, or “states”, if from the outside, have always had three kinds of exchanges between them: short, medium and long term. Although the rhetoric of globalization gave a superficial impression that distances and therefore geography no longer mattered, measured reality (which sometimes or often is different from what is perceived if the analysis is not deepened and “narratives” are uncritically accepted) says otherwise.
With very few exceptions, each state of the slightly less than 200 that exist in the world, in terms of ranking of the top three partners for export or import, almost always have neighbouring, bordering states. This is not only because of the proximity or mere geography. There are also historical and cultural reasons, which reiterate that the concept that diversity between similar people is less than with not so similar ones and since the exchange is between humans, this reason counts.
Many are realizing that the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict with US sponsoring participation that has dragged the NATO system into conflict is part of a larger conflict. This broader conflict has not yet taken the form of “war”, but it could do so. From this broader but not duly informed strategically reading, it may seem that the causative chain goes from the Russian-Ukrainian war to the US involvement that drags Europe into the conflict, with an attempt to divide the world in the reassuring “democracies against autocracies” confrontation paradigm. Arguably the more strategically correct reading is the inverse one. The first shareholders in the world, the US, which holds 25% of world GDP with only 4.5% of their population, starts from the world problem and then follows the need to defend the conditions of possibility that allow their dominant position. In this larger shot, the Americans’ competitor is China.
But China is at the same time part of two fronts: the Asian one where 60% of the world population resides, and the multipolar one with the addiction of Asian, Arab, African and South American powers of various degrees. Of this second front of stakeholders, Russia is the only one to be relatively competitive with the US, in terms of military strength (given the last level which is the atomic one). Hence the declarations made by the Americans themselves at the end of February, a few days after the beginning of the recent “events”, on the need to give the Russians, in Ukraine, their Vietnam. Or as Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin reiterated on April 25: “We want to weaken Russia to avoid more wars”. Which should be strategically translated into “we want to weaken Russia to win before starting new wars”. That the Great Conflict for Global Reorganization foresees new wars is certain at this time.
The US has been involved in various types of armed conflict for 227 of its short 245 years history, for a total of approximately 124 armed clashes. Conflict is an anthropological question of their associated form of life. It is internally the most competitive society in the world for human interrelationships (between individuals, ethnic groups, social classes, companies, politicians, knowledge etc.), hence the inclination to be so also externally. The more they get from the outside, the more they manage to moderate the otherwise consuming internal conflict. For the USA, the 25% share of world GDP that they still possess, but which is at risk of declining, is to be considered “vital”. This share could decrease in a short time, also because of what is known as “threshold effects”, hence the “need” to prepare for new wars and therefore to weaken the only real military competitor.
Thus the multipolar front must be deprived of its most problematic armed point, Russia. This is why the “rest of the world”, as we have analysed in the two recent UN pronouncements, did not participate in the chorus of condemnation of the Russian intervention in Ukraine. Especially in terms of sanctions. Certainly not because this is not objectively problematic for all planetary cohabitants, but because the rest of the world necessarily shares an interest of a higher strategic level with Russia.
The Asian arena is for the US the most strategically problematic because, in addition to concentration of most of humanity, the challenge of the game of economic power that is the main one is going to concentrate there and will concentrate there. Wars and armed force serve to conquer and defend eminently economic conditions of possibility (regulations), although there are those who read the world with imperial or anthropo-civilization metaphysics or other things that, while important, do not dictate the first logic of intentions of contemporary power actors.
Here, then, is the Asian situation photographed on the base of two simple axes: a China partnership ranking is for the main Asia-Pacific states, which accounts for import and export ties, from whom these states are obliged to buy or interested in buying and sell to feed the nation’s own wealth. We will limit ourselves to Asia’s most powerful actor.
China is the first import partner needed by the economies of: Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, Pakistan, New Zealand, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Japan, Philippines, South Korea, Bangladesh, Australia. Plus all the smaller or less important ones where the result, invariably, does not change. In many cases, the percentage of imports from China has a weight of around 20% and the second partner is far behind in terms of weight. China seems to be an “indispensable and irreplaceable supplier” and it is invariably so also for countries not otherwise defined as “friends” such as India or Japan, not to mention the Australia and New Zeeland.
Apart from the Philippines where China is fourth, India where it is third, Pakistan and Vietnam where it is second, China is also first as an export partner of the same countries/economies.
How does the US think it can cope with this inextricability of the Asian system which is the major system of which China is only a minor system? It is not known.
Geopolitical analysts sometimes tend to underestimate the economic reason, regardless of how “realistic” they can generally be. International Relations analysts, incur less in this mistake of underestimation but unfortunately they are much more ideological than the former, which blurs the view. In her recent conference at the Atlantic Council, Janet Yellen (previously chairman of the FED and now US Secretary of the Treasury ) launched the idea of friend-shoring, that is “inviting” the companies and capital of the Western system, which today has been reunited precisely because of the war in Ukraine, to dismantle the “value chains” that go through China, and transferring them to friendly countries in Asia (because of the low labour costs of course). This is a very problematic operation.
Many observers are not understanding how the US will be able to pursue the strategy of friction against China, but they also do not understand how this could eventually be possible. Isolating or trying to isolate China from the Asian system seems frankly impossible. Many Asian countries, precisely because they are structurally dependent on China economically, think they could pursue a balancing act with the US for military “protection”. However, this does not mean that this could be the premise for a winning American strategy with respect to the more general strategic problem.
We should therefore return to the analysis on the subject to better understand if there is a real strategy (which certainly there is), what it is (and here things get complicated), what consequences it will have (and here there are many doubts) . Logical conversions between economic and geopolitical domains are not easy also because it has been years if not decades that entire generations of analysts have specialized in one field or another and therefore are unable to make bi-logical reasoning. This is true for those who read the strategies, but also for those who make them. And it also applies to interest groups that should converge on those strategies.