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Christian John Hayward, TI Youth Observer
The turbulent 20s continued:
2022 has been another difficult year for global geopolitics and has perhaps been another signal of the increasingly difficult times we have been facing since the global outbreak of COVID-19 and its lasting impact upon foreign policies across the world. Wars, military exercises, relaxing of pandemic restrictions and deaths of an older generation of heads of state have taken their toll on the major powers of the world. The U.S., the UK, China, and Russia have all suffered their share of hardships this year in both foreign and domestic policy, while the ripple effects of the tragic war in Ukraine are still reverberating globally.
This doesn’t mean that 2022 was as catastrophic as the last two years. Almost all nations have now fully relaxed their COVID-19 measures (including China being in the process currently), but now have to deal with the new outbreak of monkeypox and new COVID aftershocks. There has been a slight overall thawing of international relations and international sports events such as the Beijing 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, along with the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, which have contributed to an injection of much-needed harmony. This has been set alongside the resumption of large-scale summits including COP27, the G20 Bali Summit, and the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
Although naturally it would be impossible to cover every major event, here are some highlights of the year, taking into account the troubles and the positives while giving particular attention to the state of Sino-British relations, which have been on somewhat of a rollercoaster with three different prime ministers all taking very different approaches to their “China Strategy.”
The Russian invasion
Currently, the dominant issue on the world stage is the Russian “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine. Naturally, it has had a major impact on not just general international relations but also the prices of fuel and food due to Russia being a major gas supplier to Western Europe and beyond.
China’s role in the conflict has been discussed at length in the debate over the current direction of the war. Although China has been seen as obtuse towards the war, the China-Russia relationship has been under increasing scrutiny.1 It is clear that China still has a vital role to play in negotiations that must eventually come to wind down the war. Charles Michel, President of the European Council and former Prime Minister of Belgium, has recently conducted meetings with President Xi Jinping to discuss mediation of the on-going war.2 Although many think China is more openly pro-Russia, the reality is far more complicated. For example, when it came to Russia being sanctioned even more heavily by the West, Russia may have thought that the Chinese economy could protect it. However, while UnionPay did at first assist the Russian “Mir” payment system, it eventually did stop supporting Russia due to the risk of sanctions from the United States,3 demonstrating a far less black-and-white situation than assumed by many when assessing China’s support for Russia.
It is in the world’s interests for the war to come to an end, yet some Western analysts falsely see China as using the war to eye up what could happen if cross-Strait relations with Taiwan deteriorate, leading to one of the biggest geopolitical stories this year.
Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, was this a trap?
It is no secret that Nancy Pelosi has been a long-standing ally to the breakaway province of Taiwan, with the mainland in a somewhat delicate position following the COVID-19 outbreak and international pressure on her internal affairs. When Speaker of the House Pelosi went to visit Taiwan, she was the highest-ranking member of the US government to travel there in decades. Pelosi has been a long-time critic of the mainland for over 40 years,4 which obviously soured the ever-so-slight thaw in U.S.-China relations and led to a huge hit in Taiwan-mainland relations. So much so that before her visit, President Biden discouraged the stop-over on her already problematic East-Asian tour5 and triggered a temporary escalation in saber rattling and hostile rhetoric between Eastern and Western superpowers.6
The United States, which has repeatedly sailed vessels through the Taiwan Strait,7 sat back to see how the People’s Republic of China would react. The PRC did so with publicized military exercises around the island between the 4th and 15th of August to demonstrate the Chinese Army’s capabilities. One could argue that all this may have been in the interest of the U.S., opening a window on how the PRC would hypothetically take back the island. China did indeed respond angrily with its modern blue-water fleet, giving the Americans a clear view of how strong the modern PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) now is.
Of course, the whole situation did nothing to calm international tensions. If Pelosi had been professional enough, she would have known her visit would spark an international incident at best and at worst, a war. Although the mainland may talk about reunification in vague terms, Pelosi’s reckless visit only showed that the United States is prepared to be complicit in the destabilization of East Asian and Chinese internal affairs. However, we also witnessed the Western media arguing that the mainland’s drills did nothing to calm the situation afterwards, not helping China’s already unpopular image.
Boris Johnson’s downfall, U-turns and flight of the hawks
Boris Johnson’s rise and fall, quickly followed by the United Kingdom’s shortest tenure of any prime minister in the shape of Liz Truss, followed by successor Rishi Sunak’s reversal of (or tweak) to Sino-British relations, have made waters very choppy between the UK and China. These are two countries that need to work with each other but have a very complicated past that requires a careful diplomatic hand. Johnson was primarily a Brexit candidate, so naturally, he surrounded himself with the right wing of the Conservative party in order to appease the 2016 referendum vote.
This appeasement of such a hardline faction, which includes the China Research Group (CRG, a name that alludes to the European Research Group which spearheaded the ideology of Brexit), continued with the appointment of Liz Truss who took into her cabinet a number of China hawks8 and during the dash for the Tory leadership position, both candidates used the “China threat” as a political football. Sunak, for example expressed interest in closing the UK’s Confucius Institutes (which so far have not been closed) in a move that would be extremely detrimental to the UK’s own soft power, where China could easily retaliate by closing the British Council’s own schools, which generate a great deal of money and soft power for the United Kingdom.
After Liz Truss’ departure, her foreign policy (unlike her disastrous mini-budget, which was completely scrapped) was tweaked. Sunak U-turned on Truss’s policy of calling China an “official threat,” instead using the phrase “China poses a ‘systemic’ challenge to UK values.”9 However, it’s still too early to tell what this may amount to according to BBC analysts.10 Although this may have been seen as a modest turn, he also officially ended the “Golden Era” between the United Kingdom and China, which has plainly been wavering for many years and has now been officially axed. For the ailing Conservative party, China will continue to be a scapegoat, but it now seems unlikely any drastic action will be taken. However, the UK’s development of a new jet with Japan11 and the continuation of the AUKUS project may lead to the further grinding of gears between the two nations in the future.
Resumption of international summits, G20 and COP27
Towards the end of the year, the G20 summit was held in Bali, Indonesia. Although smaller summits had taken place, this was one of the most wide-ranging post-pandemic meetings that had been convened post-2020. The two main talking points of this year’s G20 summit were obvious: the Russian invasion of Ukraine (Putin notably did not attend12) and the long-awaited Biden-Xi talks. There seems to have been a fundamental disagreement between the way the United States and President Biden see the Chinese economic model.13 But the positive takeaway from the G20 summit was that both nations noted that they do need each other to solve many serious global issues.
Whether that be due to Zero-COVID measures or the freezing of relations, the superpowers both need to kickstart their “reform and opening up” for an economic recovery, as the current position of the countries at loggerheads is not improving the global situation. President Xi himself noted that globalization has been encountering headwinds too.14 However, this is most likely a legacy of policies initiated by the Trump administration. And no matter how many characters such as Pelosi or US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen criticize the PRC and their internal issues, the United States is well aware they can’t cut China off for trade, no matter how much “decoupling” they may try. Regardless, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit China next year15 signaling more talks and dialogue ahead. It’s unlikely that during the remainder of Biden’s term, the U.S.-China relationship will dial back to the better days before the Trump tenure, but more options for collaboration may open up.
Looking forward to 2023: more of the same, or a brighter future?
Like the tectonic plates of the continents, geopolitics is constantly shifting. Border disputes can flare up over small provocations or mistakes. As of mid-December, for example, a small border dispute that has been rumbling on for 60 years in the remote Ladakh region between India and China flared up into more skirmishes.16 When it comes to Chinese foreign relations and the relations between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, tensions seem to be brewing from four cardinal directions: Trouble from Russia and playing a delicate balance in any possible Ukrainian peace talks, the Taiwan question in the East, AUKUS from the South, with souring relations which seemed impossible to predict only five years ago, and India from the West, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeming to forget the project that Jawaharlal Nehru and Zhou Enlai worked so hard on to avoid conflict in the 1960s.
2022 also marked the departure of two giant heads of state – the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth II and former President of China Jiang Zemin. One could argue these deaths signal a changing of the guard and a passing of the torch from the Cold War era of relations. However, without the accrued wisdom of these former giants, we may see a different approach to relations between Britain and China. For example, it is well known that the new King Charles III favors a more pragmatic approach to diplomacy and cares very much about the environment.17 This may leave room for common ground for China and Britain to collaborate if the hawks don’t get in their way.
The war in Ukraine has naturally made the positioning for forward analysis much harder. Experts say that Putin has not given up on his desire for war18 in the region, not just for his own personal ambitions but due to knock-on effects of the cost of the energy crisis in Western Europe, helping send the cost of living skyrocketing, which could be revenge for the massive Western sanctions inflicted on the Russian economy. However, with Europe discussing ways to try and find alternative energy sources (mainly renewable) to wean themselves off Russian gas, Europeans may increase trade with China via hydrogen and other alternative power solutions which could contribute to a thaw if all goes according to plan. On the other hand, China is now seen extremely unfavorably in the West,19 and the vested interests such as the CRG could try and torpedo any deal for somewhere like the UK. There’s still room for China-friendly entities to promote bilateral cooperation via trade, but they should still be careful. For them, the responsibility is to not only help with their own energy demands but to try and develop dialogue with the PRC in the future.
2022 witnessed a series of conflicts centered around geopolitical fractions, economic burdens and ideological differences. But a true thawing could see China, as well as all the major powers, truly at the negotiation table for deescalating the conflict and facilitating global cooperations.
1. U.S.- China Economic and Security Review Commission, “China’s Position on Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine,” www.uscc.gov, October 27, 2022, https://www.uscc.gov/research/chinas-position-russias-invasion-ukraine.
2. Charles Michel, “Remarks by President Charles Michel Following the Meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping - Consilium,” webcache.googleusercontent.com, December 1, 2022, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2022/12/01/remarks-by-president-charles-michel-following-his-visit-to-china/
3. Alessandro Arduino, “What Have We Learned about How China Deals with Partnerships during the Ukraine Crisis?”, UK National Committee on China, no. 11 (May 2022): 1–4, https://img1.wsimg.com/blobby/go/de00d42f-877f-4d04-bf3a-320ffbed369c/UKNCC%20GCP%20May%202022%20Combined-compressed.pdf.
4. Yu Jie, “Nancy Pelosi in Taiwan: What Lies Ahead for China and the US?,” Chatham House-International Affairs Think Tank, August 3, 2022, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2022/08/nancy-pelosi-taiwan-what-lies-ahead-china-and-us.
6. The Associated Press, “House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Says the U.S. Will Not Abandon Taiwan as China Protests,” NPR, August 3, 2022, sec. Asia, https://www.npr.org/2022/08/03/1115338230/house-speaker-nancy-pelosi-says-the-u-s-will-not-abandon-taiwan-as-china-protest?t=1659505755048.8
7. Johanna Treeck, “US Warships Sail through Taiwan Strait, China Tracks Them,” POLITICO, August 28, 2022, https://www.politico.eu/article/us-warships-sail-through-taiwan-strait-china-tracks-them/.
8. Eleni Courea and Stuart Lau, “In the Race to Succeed Boris Johnson, Only China Hawks Need Apply,” POLITICO, July 27, 2022, https://www.politico.eu/article/boris-johnson-china-liz-truss-rishi-sunak-tory-leadership/.
9. Chris Mason, “Rishi Sunak: Golden Era of UK-China Relations Is Over,” BBC News, November 28, 2022, sec. UK Politics, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-63787877.
11. Jonathan Beale, “UK, Italy and Japan Team up for New Fighter Jet,” BBC News, December 9, 2022, sec. UK, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-63908284.
12. CSIS, “Assessing the 2022 G20 Summit: The Sherpa Perspective on Bali Outcomes,” www.csis.org, November 29, 2022, https://www.csis.org/analysis/assessing-2022-g20-summit-sherpa-perspective-bali-outcomes.
14. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of People's Republic of China, “President Xi Jinping Attends the 17th G20 Summit and Delivers Important Remarks,” www.fmprc.gov.cn, November 15, 2022, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/202211/t20221115_10975446.html.
15. Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom, “Big-Power Rivalry Overshadows Biden-Xi Cooperation Pledge,” Reuters, November 15, 2022, sec. Asia Pacific, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/big-power-rivalry-overshadows-biden-xi-cooperation-pledge-2022-11-15/.
16. Soutik Biswas, “India-China Dispute: Shadow of 60-Year-Old War at Border Flashpoint,” BBC News, December 14, 2022, sec. India, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-63969040.
17. Jonathan Manning, “Prince Charles Was an Environment Radical. What Happens Now He’s King?,” National Geographic, September 21, 2022, https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/environment-and-conservation/2022/09/prince-charles-was-an-environment-radical-what-happens-now-hes-king.
18. Alexander Baunov, “Why Is Putin Upping the Ante in Ukraine?”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 21, 2022, https://carnegieendowment.org/politika/87974.
19. Shannon Greenwood, “Unfavorable Views of China Reach Historic Highs in Many Countries,” Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, October 6, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/10/06/unfavorable-views-of-china-reach-historic-highs-in-many-countries/.
This article is from the December issue of TI Observer (TIO), which is a monthly publication devoted to bringing China and the rest of the world closer together by facilitating mutual understanding and promoting exchanges of views. If you are interested in knowing more about the September issue, please click here:
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