This is the second of a two-part article on the changing face of geopolitics. First part was published on 14 April.
China has long felt that it is in its interest to try and make sure that Donald Trump does not stay in power beyond 2020, unless he has been defanged by then. Beijing is working behind the scene to get the unpredictable President defeated by undermining and blocking his plans, or rather his gut feeling-based decisions with regard to Europe, Israel, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Pakistan and of course North Korea. In that strategy China has the conditional but effective support of Russia where Trump is not disliked but is regarded as an egotistical blowhard who can be pushed into taking dangerous action by his neo-conservative and Zionist advisers, who subscribe to the globally imperialistic ideology that led to the invasion of Iraq, the NATO assault on Libya and the war on the Assad regime.
Russia, with China’s quiet support, made sure that similar methods did not succeed in Syria and Yemen and Moscow has put the Americans on notice that a US military operation in Venezuela would not be tolerated by sending a delegation of military advisers and delivering supplies to Caracas. Trump’s angry call for Russians to get out of Venezuela was coupled with an unspecified threat which did not seem to impress the Kremlin. The Russian government demanded that American troops leave Syria first, as unlike the Russian delegation in Venezuela they are not there with the permission of the country’s legal government.
There is no telling how the contest between the Maduro government and its US backed rival will end but the White House appears to have blundered once again into an unwinnable confrontation by officially supporting, in violation of international law, a young and inexperienced politician without making sure he had enough support at home to take power. By bullying other NATO and OAS members to recognise the self-proclaimed “Guaido interim government” Washington unpleasantly reminded Latin American states of its neocolonial track record on the continent by trying to overthrow a head of state to replace him with an unknown US protégé. Vice-President Mike Pence, a man not renowned for either his brainpower or his experience of international affairs was reportedly furious when he realised that Juan Guaido had no independent ability to stage a coup in his country. One more attempt (after likeminded endeavours in Russia, Iraq, Libya and Syria) to put a puppet at the helm of a foreign country may also ignominiously fail, in which case the US government will not only be seen once again as a rogue actor but also cut a ridiculous figure. Guaido is beginning to sound like the homophonous Godot, Becket’s character who never shows up in the play in which he is expected.
Faced with the blatant display of Washington’s cynical arbitrariness in foreign policy, which seems to have Israel as its sole constant and reliable supporter, China, having built a network of financial, manufacturing and trading relations with much of the world, is pursuing a charm offensive in Europe where 13 states have so far signed agreements to participate in the Belt and Road Project. The harbour of Pireus in Greece has become the main maritime bridgehead into the continent from the Eastern Mediterranean. The next major prospective partner on the “New Silk Routes project” is Italy, where
President Xi Jinping paid a visit on 21 March at the head of a 500-member delegation. Italy has been designated as a global strategic partner of China and no less than 29 agreements have been inked, covering the areas of trade, investment, infrastructure, telecommunications, science and technology, as well as culture, education and news media. To expand sea commerce, China is going to develop four Italian ports, including Genoa and Trieste. On its part Italy wishes to float its own “panda bonds” on the Chinese stock markets to raise much needed capital. There is talk of Beijing purchasing some of Italy’s debt and the leaders of the two nations have waxed eloquent about the revival of the links woven by Marco Polo and other medieval Italian travellers to the Middle Kingdom, while underlining that 50,000 Chinese companies are already present in Italy where 300,000 Chinese live.
This geopolitical romance has rung alarm bells in Paris, Berlin, Brussels and greatly agitated Washington. It was apparent that the ruling coalition in Italy relishes its revenge on the French and German governments for their stepmotherly, even insulting treatment. The Five Star movement, one of the two partners in the alliance is known for anti-American sentiments and the Lega, though ideologically sympathetic to Trumpism is fiercely nationalistic and does not appreciate the haughtiness of the White House and of the Pentagon towards allies. The Italian partnership with Beijing sticks a finger in the eye of Brussels, openly hostile to the current government in Rome.
Prime Minister Conte was under intense pressure from Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to back down on the “China deal” and was hounded by the French and German leaders until 2 in the morning on the day before Xi Jinping landed. It took Italian President Sergio Mattarella, generally trusted as pro-European and pro-NATO, to guarantee that the accord with Beijing would not hurt either the western alliance or the EU for the Paris-Berlin axis to relent. However, cooperation agreements and financial commitments have their own dynamics and it is doubtful that a political intention can effectively prevent some of their unwanted effects, given that the key ministers in Rome are Eurosceptics at best. As Vice-Premier Luigi di Maio, head of the Five Star said pointedly, paraphrasing Trump “US remains our most important ally but Italy First”. The Chinese official statement was equally pithy, noting that Italy was being pragmatic and not ideological and inviting the US to follow in Rome’s footsteps and give up its cold war shibboleths.
From Rome, President Xi Jinping flew to Paris where the French head of state, the German Chancellor and the President of the EU Commission went through the awkward exercise of welcoming him and lobbying for business deals while warning him “to respect European unity”, which the Chinese leader must have found hard to detect.
The Elysée nevertheless could not but be pleased with the huge order for Airbus planes signed by Beijing among other transactions (including collaborative agreements between the major German and Chinese car manufacturers), which made it plain that when it comes to big money, national governments find it very difficult not to put their own interests above the pious ideal of continental and transatlantic solidarity. Chinese money and energy easily silence the reservations that some harbour about the designs of the People’s Republic. The next EU-China summit scheduled for 9 April is likely to reflect that ground reality.
Former Italian Premier Romano Prodi, a long-standing advocate of closer ties with Russia and Asia, issued a statement to the effect that a strong, united Europe could alone stand between China and the United States to prevent what is becoming a global war, economic for now but eventually military in the coming years. However, Europe is also facing a belligerent America, which wants to impose its trade terms and force the continent to subordinate its economic policies to Washington’s wishes. The outspoken campaign led by the White House to prevent the construction of the NordStream II gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, and to enforce sanctions on Moscow that directly hurt European interests has infuriated the German establishment.
It does not help that Trump’s directives are being undiplomatically relayed in Berlin by US ambassador Richard Grenell, a garrulous and arrogant prima donna, who saw it as a bright idea to make himself the champion of supposedly oppressed gays and lesbians in the host country, even though they are probably far more secure and better treated there than in the socially conflicted US. For the first time perhaps in a NATO member country there is a public debate in the Federal Republic on a high level call to expel the obstreperous Yankee envoy who is only one eminent addition to the long list of Trump’s loutish faux-pas abroad. The Europeans cannot overlook the distress signals coming from across the Atlantic. The other day the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, an apolitical, presumably non-partisan voice said on television that the US looks like a failing company.
Given that the Belt and Road project is already transforming the global economic map what is India’s place in that scenario?
Mandatory caution about China’s soft and hard power projection abroad does not imply ignoring the momentous and probably unstoppable developments taking place on the Euro-Asian-African landmass which inevitably affect the rest of the world. The construction of a transport and communication infrastructure to bind together the eastern hemisphere and boost manufacturing and commercial activities across that immense area is already creating multiple synergies between regions that have complementary assets and requirements.
India has the ability to play a critical role in this network, between the Far East, the Indian Ocean littoral, Africa, Central Asia and Europe and that expanded theatre can help New Delhi exit the vicious circle of regional hostility with Pakistan and China where it was long boxed in, partly due to the effects of Anglo-American post-colonial strategy.
Insofar as the new silk roads come into being, they will necessarily be managed by many actors and China cannot expect to be hegemonic when so many other major players are involved. The multipolar world system that is emerging comes in response to the American attempt to keep other countries locked into subservient relations within the global Atlantic-led Alliance which came into being in the wake of the World War II.