Great power relations in the context of the third BRI Forum

Given the extreme tense international situation and great power relations, with open wars in Ukraine and Israel, the framework for the 3rd BRI Forum for International Cooperation was exceptionally challenging.

As the icing on the cake, two days after the Forum, Biden addressed: a declaration of war?

BRI in the nutshell

China’s Belt and Road Initiative project is often described as a 21st century’s Silk Road made up of a “belt” of overland corridors and a maritime “road” of shipping lanes. The Chinese initiative, which was announced by President Xi Jinping in 2013, aims to boost connectivity and cooperation between East Asia, Europe and East Africa. China will expand the use of the Chinese currency (renminbi / yuan) in countries and regions related to the Belt and Road Initiative by improving cross-border payment and settlement facilities for the currency.

After fruitful ten years of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday, October 18, announced new moves to usher the initiative into another “golden decade” with relentless efforts to achieve modernization for all countries and build an open and inclusive world. The third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held on Tuesday and Wednesday was the most significant celebration for the 10th anniversary of the BRI.

According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, representatives from over 130 countries and 30 international organizations will attend the forum, of which the total output is expected to surpass that of the previous two forums in 2017 and 2019.

According to a white paper released by China’s State Council Information Office on Tuesday, by June 2023, China had signed more than 200 BRI agreements with more than 150 countries and 30 international organizations across five continents. From 2013 to 2022, the cumulative value of imports and exports between China and BRI partner countries was about $19.1 trillion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is visiting China on October 17-18. Representatives of Asian, Latin American and African states are expected to arrive as well to mark the tenth anniversary of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In a nutshell, it goes about the forum of the Global South that has not joined the sanctions against Russia but has been developing cooperation with it instead. Putin has an opportunity to meet with the leaders of Russia-friendly countries amid Beijing’s period of high tensions in the relationship with Washington.

Forum and bilateral meetings in the sidelines

Chinese President Xi Jinping met with number of world leaders, who came for the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) in Beijing. Heads of state, government leaders and officials, as well as leaders of international organizations have arrived in China’s capital city, making the BRF the most extensive international event at the moment. Countries of the Global South are the main participants, as well as the ones, who have mainly benefited from the BRI. Wide range of various other meetings were held in the sidelines of the Forum.

Xi Jinping delivered the keynote address, where he positioned the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as an alternative to Western-led globalization. The BRI transcends differences between cultures, civilizations and stages of development’, he said. Vladimir Putin praised on the BRI, saying “our Chinese friends did it”. UN chief Antonio Guterres also spoke at the summit and called for measures to prevent developing countries from accumulating unsustainable debt

Xi Jinping has used a gathering of governments supporting his Belt and Road Initiative to oppose the concept of global economic “decoupling” and support his key ally Vladimir Putin – whose country has been targeted exceptionally massive sanctions. With Vladimir Putin in the audience, Xi said his country opposed “unilateral sanctions” and “economic coercion” – while characterizing the BRI as the opposite of this.

Xi – Putin meeting

Besides wide range of bilateral economic, political and military-industrial issues on the agenda of Xi-Putin meeting, Putin went to China also to solve issues of proxy wars with the US. Since 2013, Xi has met with Putin 42 times, establishing a strong working relationship and deep friendship. 

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin held a thoroughgoing discussion of the bilateral relationship between Beijing and Moscow, as well as other issues of interest, including Ukraine issue and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The meeting was held on the sidelines of the forum. Firstly, the heads of state held talks with the large delegation of other officials taking part, then at a working breakfast with selected few and lastly one-on-one talks regarding the most sensitive issues.

Putin and Xi discussed political issues, such as opposition to the US’s supremacy as Washington is trying to strengthen its influence in Taiwan, Ukraine, Israel, South Korea, and Japan. Putin’s visit to China denotes a decisive influence on China’s readiness to confront the United States. Both leaders are pursuing the building of an alternative, multipolar world order.

It seems that there is a proxy war going between China and the United States. It broke out against the backdrop of Beijing’s successes in the Middle East after Xi Jinping resolved relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia and then wanted to do the same with regard to Israel and Palestine. In June, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled the invitation to visit China, whereas in August the US announced a route from India through Saudi Arabia and Israel to Europe. In other words, the Americans challenged the Chinese BRI.

China is literally snatching up US “colonies” and the US is going on the offensive, wherever this is happening,” a Chinese expert wrote. Of course, Xi will be looking for allies, including on the Taiwan issue and Russia has experience in such a war.

Russia and China share a common agenda, when it comes to ending a Western-dominated international order and curtailing US and European influence in what both view as their zones of privileged interest across Eurasia.

Xi-Putin meeting demonstrates high level of strategic coordination. Xi said that China is willing to deepen cooperation with Russia and jointly safeguard global justice and fairness and contribute to global development. 

Given the increasingly apparent conflict fatigue among Ukraine’s Western partners and the likely political benefits that Russia will reap from the current violent escalation in the Middle East, the relations of Xi’s China and Putin’s Russia are getting ever closer. Xi may find an opportunity to facilitate a settlement more on Russia’s terms than on Ukraine’s. If Xi were to succeed this, it would also cement China’s role in a future Euro-Atlantic and Euro-Asian security order.

China also has and pursues other options in its foreign relations. There is still a possibility of a meeting between US president Joe Biden and Xi at the APEC summit in San Francisco in November. EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, visited China, possibly to prepare of an EU-China summit later this year.

The key question is, how Xi will balance his support for Putin with his need to stabilize relations with the US and prevent large-scale European procedure of limiting technology trade with China and other containing measures that would further limit access to EU markets for Chinese goods, services and capital.

A major significance of Putin’s visit to China is the demonstration of the high level of strategic coordination between Russia and China, and especially given the current international landscape and challenges that Russia has been facing, there is a need for the two sides to enhance coordination at both bilateral and international levels to counter the West’s unreasonable containment policy.

China – Russia cooperation

China-Russia relations have been continuously developing as the two heads of state share many similar understandings about bilateral relations and the geopolitical landscape, including the importance of a secure and stable environment among neighboring regions and the need to push the global order in multipolar direction. 

Economy and trade

China has gradually become Russia’s first trade partner in terms of trade turnover and the Russian Federation has risen to the sixth place among Chinese trade and economic partners. China’s exports to Russia have grown by 57% this year and about half the value of all foreign exchange transactions in Moscow in September was in the yuan.

Russian-Chinese trade turnover is rapidly increasing and this year could reach $215-220 bln, according to Russia’s Minister of Economic Development. Russia primarily exports energy resources, metals, timber, agricultural products, and seafood to China. China, in turn, imports cars and trucks, consumer electronics, excavators, microprocessor units, clothing, shoes, and consumer goods. Russia is now China’s sixth-largest trade partner with all countries taken into consideration, while among nations outside the Far Eastern region Russia has become China’s second-biggest trade partner after the US, having outpaced Germany.

A special intergovernmental commission on investment cooperation serves as the primary mechanism for interaction between the two countries in the field of investment. The Russia-China Investment Fund has been in operation since 2012. As of September 2023, Russia and China implemented 79 large-scale projects together, with total investments of around $170 bln.

At the end of 2022, Russia was second in terms of oil supplies to China, exporting 86.25 mln tons (Saudi Arabia was first with 87.49 mln tons). Russia supplies oil to China through three main routes: a branch of the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) oil pipeline, tankers passing through Kazakhstan, and from the port of Kozmino in the Far East.

The Power of Siberia gas pipeline began transporting gas for export to China in December 2019. Gas will be supplied along the eastern route for 30 years, while the pipeline’s design capacity reaches 38 bln cubic meters of gas per year and the contract is worth $400 bln. The second project entails shipping up to 50 bln cubic meters along the Power of Siberia – 2 pipeline transports of gas per year. The route will be laid through Mongolian territory to western China. The third project involves the supply of gas from the Sakhalin island’s shelf along the Power of Siberia – 3 gas pipeline currently under construction.

Chinese investors are involved in Russian projects for the production of liquefied natural gas (LNG): Yamal LNG project and the Arctic LNG – 2 natural gas liquefaction plant construction project.  LNG will be delivered to the companies’ Chinese receiving terminals.

Nuclear energy: Rosatom built four power units with VVER-1000 reactor units at the Tianwan NPP between 1998 and 2018. On March 7, 2019, a general contract for the construction of the 7th and 8th power units with VVER-1200 reactors of the latest generation 3+ was signed – China is building the 5th and 6th blocks of its own design.

China is the world’s largest coal importer. Russian coal exports to China have increased 2.6-fold in the last six years to 67 mln tons per year, with at least 85 mln tons of Russian coal expected to be supplied to China by the end of 2023.

Agriculture: China is a major importer of Russian food and agricultural raw materials. China traditionally buys a lot of fish and seafood (more than 30% of total exported food volume); vegetable oil, honey, chocolate, beer, and ice cream exports have increased over the last five years. In 2015, China opened the grain market to Russian producers. Russia also exports fertilizers to China.

Transport: The Europe-Western China corridor is the largest transportation project. The highway spans approximately 8,500 kilometers, with 2,200 kilometers in Russia, 2,800 kilometers in Kazakhstan, and 3,500 kilometers in China. Construction started in 2008 and is expected to be finished by 2024. Several other projects are under construction.

Settlements in national currencies: The Bank of China was the first of China’s commercial banks to begin settlement operations in yuan and rubles in March 2003. In March 2017, a yuan settlement and clearing center was opened in Moscow. There are several representative offices of Russian banks in China, as well as a branch of VTB Bank in Shanghai. There are around 60 Russian commercial banks with correspondent accounts in Chinese banks. Since October 2017, a payment system for yuan and Russian ruble settlements has been operational within the framework of the China Foreign Exchange Trade System (CFETS). On June 5, 2019, an intergovernmental agreement on the transition to mutual settlements in national currencies was reached. In March 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia and China already conduct two-thirds of their trade in rubles and yuan.

Other areas of cooperation

In China-Russia bilateral meeting, Xi pointed out that BRICS countries had achieved a historic expansion, demonstrating the confidence of developing countries in promoting a multipolar world and the democratization of international relations. 

China is willing to continue to strengthen communication and collaboration with Russia in multilateral frameworks such as the UN, SCO, G20 and so on, playing a bigger role in ensuring food and energy security and the stability of global industrial and supply chains, thereby protecting the common interests of China, Russia and other developing countries.

Given the Eurasian Economic Union, Russia maintains very close ties with Central Asia, and its support for the BRI is of immense significance. The reason Russia chose to support the BRI is that over the past decade, Russia has reaped dividends from its development. China is willing to work with Russia and other member countries of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) to promote the alignment of the BRI with the EAEU, so as to foster higher-level and deeper regional cooperation. China hopes that the China-Mongolia-Russia natural gas pipeline project will make substantive progress as soon as possible.

Russian FM spokeswoman Maria Zakharova described China-Russia relationship “a paragon of interstate cooperation between major powers in the 21st century”. Developing relations of comprehensive interaction and strategic partnership with China is an absolute priority for Russia. Russia is cooperating with China on pairing the development of the Eurasian Economic Union with the BRI. Russia views this important integration project as the backbone and key element in building a broad unifying framework for the Greater Eurasian Partnership.

The two countries’ growing cooperation with the Global South is challenging the Western-dominated economic system. A new global order is in the making with a radical change in international politics and economic relations. The process is also identified by the Global South’s growing international cooperation, as African countries aim to redefine their role in the shifting landscape.

Moscow and Beijing intend to closely coordinate efforts in view of the escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Russian Foreign Ministry said after a meeting in Doha between the Russian and Chinese envoys for the Middle East.

The diplomats confirmed “Moscow and Beijing’s unwavering focus on closely coordinating efforts for the political settlement of this and other crises in the Middle East and North Africa region within the framework of the UN Security Council and on other international platforms, including BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” the ministry said after talks between the Russian President’s Special Envoy for the Middle East and Africa, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and Special Envoy of the Chinese Government on the Middle East Issue Zhai Jun.

Two-front confrontations – US preparing for a two-front China and Russia war

In the midst of international crisis and growing tension, the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the US released, late October 2023, a report urging the country to be prepared for a two-front conflict against China and Russia. This took place parallel with BRI Forum in Beijing.

A recent US Congress report urges a strategic defensive posture review of simultaneous near-peer conventional and nuclear threats. The report says that US defense strategy and strategic posture must change to properly defend its vital interests and improve strategic stability with the two nuclear-armed adversaries while advocating that critical decisions should be made now to address nuclear threats expected to arise during the 2027-2035 timeframe.

It also assessed that the US needs to address the looming nuclear threat with a comprehensive strategy and force structure adjustments. The report emphasizes the importance of non-nuclear capabilities for the US strategic posture, including strengthened infrastructure and risk reduction efforts. It notes allies and partners are crucial to the US approach in the new emerging threat environment.

The report recommends that the US Congress fund the expansion of the US nuclear weapons defense industrial base. It also suggests that Congress should ensure funding stability for the defense industry to respond to innovative Department of Defense (DOD) contracting approaches.

The report’s recommendations include deploying a stronger space architecture with offensive and defensive elements, prioritizing funding for long-range precision strike programs, developing homeland missile defense systems and transferring missile defense responsibility to the Military Departments by October 2024.

The report says that the US should maintain and strengthen its network of alliances and partnerships to deter aggression, ensure regional security and boost economic prosperity through access to international markets. It warns that withdrawing from these relationships would benefit adversaries, increase the risk of aggression and reduce the US and its allies’ security and economic prosperity.

Capabilities of adversaries

China and Russia have multiple approaches to negate US nuclear and conventional deterrence, running a spectrum between threatening to use nuclear weapons and unconventional means. China’s growing nuclear forces could potentially increase the risk of unintentional escalation.

If China perceives a favorable nuclear balance of power over the US, it may become more tempted to use nuclear weapons in a conflict and if the US lacks tactical nuclear capabilities, China may perceive a US response to limited nuclear use in the Indo-Pacific as unreliable.

China’s nuclear arsenal expansion, including the acquisition of delivery methods that can threaten the US homeland, could weaken US extended deterrence commitments, making the US less willing to defend its allies. This situation, coupled with the risk of unintentional escalation due to miscalculations or mistakes, increases the potential for a Chinese nuclear strike.

China has exceeded previous Pentagon projections for the size of its nuclear arsenal and is now producing even more weapons while expanding its navy, the Pentagon is warning in the new report. The Defense Department specifically believes China had more than 500 nuclear warheads in its arsenal as of May 2023, roughly 100 more than last year, and China will likely double that to more than 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030, and the number is expected to grow, the report says. Pentagon estimates China would have 1,000 warheads by 2030 and 1,500 by 2035.

The report notes that in the case of Russia, with Russia’s dwindling arsenal of conventional precision weapons and NATO’s strategic adaptation, Russia’s strategy is likely to change, with an increase in reliance on tactical nuclear weapons. Russia’s perceived conventional inferiority compared to US precision strike capabilities has driven Moscow’s increased reliance on tactical nuclear weapons.

The increased role of nuclear weapons in Russia’s deterrence strategy and strengthened posture in areas bordering NATO could weaken European security and stability. This could exacerbate Moscow’s threat perception and influence escalation dynamics, impacting the stability of potential crises between NATO and Russia. If Russia’s reliance on non-strategic nuclear weapons increases, Moscow’s appetite for arms control on short- and medium-range missiles will likely erode further.

In terms of conventional deterrence, Russia poses a hybrid threat to NATO and Europe through using proxies, covert activities, cyber capabilities, political subversion and economic influence. Russia uses a combination of non-military (covert) and military (overt) deterrence to destabilize adversaries, limit potential threats and guarantee victory in a potential conflict. Russia accomplishes those ends by deterring, coercing or containing an adversary by destabilizing it covertly and reducing its military, political and economic capabilities.

Given the near-peer challenges facing the US deterrent posture, the US should consider a Conventional-Nuclear Integration (CNI) strategy that emphasizes greater coherence between conventional and nuclear forces to manage escalation in regional conflicts, develop integrated options to strengthen deterrence and deny adversaries any advantages gained by nuclear use in a regional conflict.

This way, they say, adversaries will be deterred from limited nuclear escalation, thus ensuring that US and allied forces can still achieve their warfighting objectives. Such a strategy can give decision-makers more flexibility and reduce the prospects for a limited nuclear war. However, they also point out that CNI blurs the lines between conventional and nuclear forces, thereby increasing the risk of nuclear escalation.

Misunderstandings and faults in the Report

The researchers of this and some other relevant reports do not see or fail to realize Russia’s leading position in the hypersonic weapons and electronic warfare as well as China’s rapid progress in these technologies. A serious, even fatal mistake is to ignore the close cooperation of China-Russia in the development of hi-tech weapons.

Both Russia (Kinzal, Zircon, Avangard) and China (DF-17, DF-26) have already deployed hypersonic missiles in their arsenal and especially Russia has used them in the real combat situation (Kinzal missiles). The US is several years behind and still lack of any working device.

I have analyzed those new weapon developments on my website, available here “Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)”.

China has exceeded previous Pentagon projections for the size of its nuclear arsenal and is now producing even more weapons while expanding its navy, the Pentagon is warning and believes China had more than 500 nuclear warheads in its arsenal as of May 2023.Pentagon estimates China would have 1,000 warheads by 2030 and 1,500 by 2035.

China will probably use its new “fast breeder” reactors and reprocessing facilities to produce plutonium for its growing nuclear weapons program, despite Chinese officials publicly maintaining those facilities are intended for “peaceful purposes.”

In addition, China likely completed the construction of its three new fields for solid-fueled missile silos in 2022, including at least 300 new intercontinental ballistic missile silos and has loaded “at least some” ICBMs into the silos.

The current explosive situation in Israel-Palestine war may trigger unpredictable implications as already has happened. New rocket attacks on American targets in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen suggest prospect for regional conflagration growing.

Pentagon has confirmed that American troops suffered injuries during the last days of drone and rocket attacks against bases in Iraq and Syria. With the whole region still on edge due to fast moving events in Gaza and on the Lebanese border, US troops in Syria have again come under attack. Targeting American troops in Syria and Iraq shows just how dangerous things could rapidly get for Pentagon forces in the region. If Hezbollah and Israel enter full war along the border, these American bases would likely suffer much bigger attacks.

Chaos and disarray in the Middle East may plunge all Pentagon’s “well-planned” endeavors into abyss.

Results and conclusions, aftermath of BRI Forum

Washington and Brussels have been eyeing with alarm the relationship between China and Russia, with Beijing refusing to condemn Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. 

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell urged China during a three-day trip to the country that wrapped up this weekend to use its influence with Russia, particularly on the UN Security Council, to stop the war in the country. He also warned Beijing that “any direct military support to Russia … would be a serious concern for us.” The European Union is expected to have a summit with China before the end of the year. 

The recent BRI Forum takes place against the background of a slowing economic growth for China, propelled in part by a property downturn. Representatives from more than 100 countries were to attend the forum in Beijing, which strengthen China’s position as a great international player. The BRICS Summit in August was a heavy indication of transformation in the international order. The era of petrodollar is ending and along with that, US global hegemony position. The emergent trends, therefore, go a long way to strengthen multipolarity in the world order. 

Now, it appears that the new game with new combination of relevant players is emerging, China – Russia – Iran – Saudi Arabia & other Arab states supporting Palestine. The longer the Israeli assault on Gaza continues, the more international condemnation and demand to allow a humanitarian corridor will only intensify and the more also this new game will intensify.

As regards the power dynamic in West Asia, these trends can only work to the advantage of Russia and China, especially, if the BRICS were to take a lead role at some point to navigate a Middle East peace process that will push aside the US.

After a deadly explosion at a Gaza hospital killed hundreds, Jordan called off US President Joe Biden’s planned summit with Arab leaders in the country even before the US leader departed for the Middle East. Biden’s trip signaled that Israel was the only stop for the US president, who had hoped to mediate the situation. That means the United States’ efforts to tamp down tensions in the escalating conflict between Israel and Palestine have faced a massive setback.

The US now basically regards the Middle East as an arena for its “game” with China and the Biden administration’s support for Israel is partly because of the fact that it, with an eye to the 2024 presidential election, cannot afford to ignore the Jewish people’s special influences in the US’ political circle.

Professor Michael Brenner, the University of Pittsburgh, has recently made an article “America declares war”, where he writes

“American foreign policy has set the country on a course destined to lead to a world of rivalry, strife, and conflict in the foreseeable future. The United States has declared ‘war’ on China, on Russia, on whomever partners with them. That ‘war’ is comprehensive – diplomatic, financial, commercial, technological, cultural, ideological. It implicitly fuses a presumed great power rivalry for dominance with a clash of civilizations: the American-led West against the civilizational states of China, Russia, and potentially India.”

Another comment, highly recommended, is here below. Col. Douglas MacGregor warns of looming conflagration.

We are on the threshold of world war