The Korea Herald


[Wang Son-taek] Limits and chances from the limitless alliance

By Korea Herald

Published : May 23, 2024 - 05:30

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Last week, the summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing was held amid global attention. The summit became famous because it could serve as the starting point for changing the current international order, namely the unipolar order with the United States as the hegemon, into a multipolar order with China and Russia sharing the same status and power as the United States.

During the summit, the two leaders declared the beginning of a new era and shared an impressive hug while criticizing the US' hegemonic behavior. However, according to the meeting results, no specific action plan has been made regarding the change in the international order. The prevailing assessment showed considerable limitations, considering the two nations boasted an alliance with "no limits."

It might be a disappointing result from the camp against the US, but it is a relief for the other side. However, the US and its Western allies must analyze the diplomatic strategies of China and Russia that emerged through the talks. Fortunately, President Xi and Putin have relatively clearly exposed the direction and significant guidelines of their diplomatic strategy at the talks, helping the Western camp establish future diplomatic responses.

The most important part of the diplomatic strategy that Xi Jinping exposed is that he does not participate in the initiative to construct a new Cold War structure. Russia has been seen as actively considering organizing an anti-US alliance with North Korea to challenge the US hegemony directly. The anti-US solidarity is a diplomatic initiative that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been actively pursuing in recent years. Since Putin met with Kim in September last year, he has been making bold moves to provide support to North Korea. However, Xi has never signaled that he agrees with the proposal.

In the joint statement signed with Putin, Xi included that the two countries neither sought to form an alliance nor target a third country. He clearly confirmed that he would not agree with the idea of making another world against the US-led community. China's position is the same as that shown over the past few years. China is indeed under pressure from the US as it competes strategically with the US, and it has serious complaints about this. Nevertheless, China's departure from the US-led order would result in a loss far bigger than a profit, given the level of China's national development. The fact that Putin did not visit North Korea after finishing the China itinerary is also believed to reflect the position of Xi. When visiting North Korea, he has no choice but to emphasize anti-US solidarity, which has been burdensome to exclude China.

During his visit to China, Putin did not hide his fawning attitude toward Xi to the extent that he was criticized for being obsequious in receiving China's economic, diplomatic and military support. This shows that the financial and military difficulties caused by the war against Ukraine are pretty severe.

President Xi Jinping's second diplomatic strategy direction is unique because it contradicts the first guideline. China will continue to cooperate economically with Russia, which has decisively deviated from the US-led order. While China does not challenge the US-led order on its own, it has indirectly contributed to undermining it by supporting Russia. In the same vein, China continues its role as a background sponsor for North Korea, which is directly challenging the US-led order.

China has serious complaints about North Korea's blatant disregard for China's opposition to some of its moves, such as its nuclear weapons development program. However, since North Korea is playing a role in disrupting the US-led order, and it is in China's interest, China also supports North Korea.

Xi's third strategy direction is maintaining strategic competition with the United States for the time being. In the short term, China would refrain from provocative actions that include the meaning of a hegemonic war with the United States. Still, it will reject US hegemony and interference in the long run after raising its national power to a target level.

Xi will probably stay in defensive mode until time and conditions are advantageous, such as a politically meaningful period or the level of national power buildup. For instance, China would try to secure military strength to occupy Taiwan by 2027, achieve a nominal per capita income of $20,000 by 2035, and secure military posture to win an all-out war with the United States by 2049. In that case, China will go beyond strategic competition with the US after 2027 or 2035 and may show a form of hegemonic competition by 2049.

The scenario in which China will ultimately challenge the US for hegemony is very inconvenient. However, just because he made a scenario, there is no guarantee that it will be accomplished 100 percent as Xi wants. It is important to remember that China has not developed as much as Xi has wanted over the past 12 years because it has used its national strategy in a different direction from the development flow of the world community. China's remarkable growth for more than 30 years since the respected leader Deng Xiaoping took power was due to its active participation in the development trend of the international community.

The good news is that President Xi would rather avoid the scenario of directly challenging the US within 2027 or 2035. The US and Western countries will have ample opportunity to persuade and entice China to become a partner country that respects democratic order and liberal norms. If China rejects the order and norms the West demands within that period, the Western camp may engage in deft sabotage to disrupt its economic development. Of course, the best scenario is to upgrade the world order and norms in a way that partially reflects China's demands and to actively incorporate China into the new order.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is an adjunct professor at Sogang University. He is a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and a former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.