The “Five Eyes Coalition”, which seeks to expand and coordinate its efforts, speaks out in unison on China-related issues, claiming that it has formed a four-way alliance between Japan, Australia, India and the United States to deal with the China “threat” and even threatening to build a larger global anti-China coalition. The series of actions taken to check China further exposes Washington’s obsession with geopolitical games great powers play. Looking back at the history of international relations since the Second World War, there are of course many reasons for the geopolitical turmoil, but the American factor is undoubtedly one of the most important. Because the United States is the world’s most powerful country, much of the time there is a “United States moves (first) and the world follows” response mode in many fields.
The relationship between major powers has always been one of the important variables affecting international politics and international relations. The current U.S. Government began exaggerating the “era of superpower competition that the world had entered into” ever since it came to power. In the past few years, it has continuously incited and promoted geopolitical competition among major powers, resulting in deep turmoil and major adjustments in relations between major powers and in the international situation. According to some scholars, the intenification of geopolitical games between major powers has become the most significant feature in the evolution of the current international situation. The emergence of such a situation is closely related to the foreign policy tradition of the United States and the setback to globalization that started it all.
First of all, adherence to the concept and practice of geopolitical rivalry is the unchanging theme of the U.S. in dealing with the foreign policy of major powers. Since its independence in 1776 to the present, the United States has always maintained an “angry young man”, uncomfortable with status quo, kind of style in conduct of foreign policy by relentlessly attacking its major competitors whom it perceives as threats. In the 19th century, it expelled Russia, Spain and France from the North American continent and established regional hegemony, and in the 20th century, after participating in global politics, it brought down the Soviet Union and established global hegemony. The US diplomatic tradition of identifying major powers as rivals was so entrenched that it continued to suppress Russia in the post-Cold war period, which chose to voluntarily fall to the West at that time, and cut it off from the process of rebuilding of the European security order.
As far as the United States is concerned, no matter how the internal affairs of other powers change, it is difficult for them to escape the fate of being identified as a rival or enemy of the United States. The United States fundamentally lacks the will and tradition to consistently build stable relations among major powers, and is accustomed to radically subverting the established international order.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. guided the Russian leadership at the time with the discourse of “democracy and peace,” convincing them that lasting and stable relations with the U.S. would follow if they promoted Western-style democratization at home. But the cold (harsh) reality is that in the process of Russia’s “democratization” into “chaos”, the United States successfully incorporated the former Warsaw Pact countries into the NATO system in which the United States is engaged in geopolitical competition with Russia. The original positive vision of shaping lasting peace in Europe on the premise of stability of the great powers of the United States, Russia and Europe was completely shattered within 10 years after the end of the Cold War, and a clear pattern of alliance confrontation against the great powers came to be.
The double-faced diplomacy of the United States with Russia, which “talks good and does bad”, is now being applied to China. The U.S. concocted concepts such as “rebuilding China” and “failure to engage”, all with the intention of gaining domestic support for exclusion of China. The United States is so obsessed with competition among major powers that it has never given up its efforts even while fighting against terrorism and coping with financial crises without major power cooperation. Russia has provided substantial assistance to the United States in the war on terrorism, but in return got repeated rounds of NATO expansion. China has made efforts to alleviate the international financial crisis that started in the United States, but in return it has adopted a “rebalancing” strategy against China. The current U.S. administration is seeking to “decouple” from China by complaining that “China is taking advantage of the United States” at a time when a multi-dimensional, multidisciplinary bond between China and the United States have already been formed. Many scholars worry that this is Washington’s way of preparing for a more intensified geopolitical contest.
Secondly, while globalization has not fundamentally weakened the boundaries of nation-states, the anti-globalization backlash has gained temporary momentum. That has become a catalyst for further intensification of the geopolitical rivalry between the major powers. Although the overall general trend of globalization remains unchanged, it is experiencing a backlash against it. If transnational flows and convergence of the core elements of globalization, such as capital, people, information and security, develop smoothly, globalization will evolve in the direction of a supranational state; a new security consensus will emerge and existing disputes over sovereignty or territory between countries, which are extremely difficult to resolve, may gradually dissolve in the future. The rise of anti-globalization forces, however, has had the undesirable consequence of intensifying great power rivalry.
At present, globalization has been hindered and domestic and foreign policies in many countries have been “nationalized”. This has led to consolidation and even worsening of international disputes, and at least temporarily to their not being able to be resolved in the course of development. The impact of the new corona epidemic can be described as a typical example, where the urgent need for cooperation among all parties in the international community to deal with the epidemic is bedeviled by “politicization” and “nationalization” of the issue by certain major countries. The major challenges of globalization, such as epidemics, natural disasters and terrorism, which require a joint response from all countries, are afflicted by mutual accusations among the major Powers.
Indeed, the widespread economic prosperity brought about by globalization over the past three decades has, to some extent, set aside or obscured many of the deep-seated problems involving people and nature, such as the disparity between rich and poor, environmental degradation, the spread of infectious diseases, etc. both within and between countries. They are reshaping public perception of globalization in some large countries and changing the political ecology of these countries, creating conditions for political elites of individual large countries to speculatively advocate nationalistic policies, thus bringing to the fore various pre-existing contradictions among nation-states and intensifying the competition among large countries.
The escalation of the geopolitical rivalry between major powers is an international reality that all countries have now to face up to. Other major powers have no choice but to steadily enhance their own strength and gradually shape a new balance of power on this basis in response to the deliberate instigation of geopolitical competition by individual powers such as the United States. Possessing strength is more likely to command respect, while lack of strength is likely to result in elimination. This is a profound understanding that has been gained from the American diplomatic tradition.
(The author is a Professor at the Institute of International Relations of the Foreign Service Institute)