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How the Ukraine crisis could reset the global balance of power


We've been talking about Russian aggression towards Ukraine as a story about Europe, the U.S. and Russia. Well, Gideon Rachman argues that to understand the bigger picture, we also need to look at China. He's chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times. And he argues that Moscow and Beijing are both trying to reduce America's sphere of influence around the world, and the situation in Ukraine is part of that effort. Gideon Rachman, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

GIDEON RACHMAN: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: To start with some context, you write that until recently, China and Russia were as much rivals as partners. What's changed?

RACHMAN: Well, I think what's changed probably is partly that Xi Xinping came to power in Beijing in 2012 and that he shares a considerable amount of a world view with Vladimir Putin, which boiled down is that America is too powerful and that America is actively trying to undermine his own government. Both the Russians and the Chinese have a kind of a semi-obsession with what they call color revolutions, which are what they regard as American-sponsored revolutionary movements around the world that target authoritarian regimes, often authoritarian regimes that are friendly towards either Beijing or Moscow. They see American efforts as democracy promotion or promotion of human rights as all part of a kind of world in which America is too aggressive, too powerful, too threatening to them. And they are determined to kind of reduce American power.

SHAPIRO: So China and Russia have this shared world view and the shared view of the role of the United States aspires to play and ought to play. Is China actively involved in the situation in Ukraine?

RACHMAN: No, it's not. What it's done is - there was a phone call between Putin and Xi in December. Interestingly, the Russians and the Chinese put slightly different spins on it. The Russian spin was that Putin got Xi's wholehearted support. The actual Chinese statement was a bit more ambiguous. But essentially, they're on roughly the same page. Russia is the protagonist, obviously. It's the country that's threatening to invade Ukraine. But...

SHAPIRO: Protagonist or antagonist, depending on the where you sit.

RACHMAN: Yeah, exactly. But it's in the front line. But China is watching from the sidelines, and it's certainly much closer to the Russian position than it is the American position. But the really interesting thing is that China has been making increasingly threatening noises towards Taiwan - a democratic island it regards as a rebel province - has repeatedly said that it has the right to invade Taiwan if it wants to.

SHAPIRO: So is it as simple as saying that if Russia were to invade Ukraine and be successful in that effort, then China would be more likely to invade Taiwan?

RACHMAN: I think it is actually more or less as simple as that. I mean, obviously, invading Taiwan, you know - complicated matters. There's a lot of sea between Taiwan and China, and a seaborne invasion is much more complicated than simply letting the tanks roll. But the mood in China is highly nationalistic. And there is a kind of growing obsession that China has to really impose its will on Taiwan and reincorporate Taiwan forcibly. But in actually staging an invasion might bring them into a war with the United States. Biden has implied as much. America's usually ambiguous about that, so that is quite a big proposition. However, if Russia were to succeed in Ukraine, it would create the feeling that the U.S. really was looking much weaker, and that would raise the temptation for China.

SHAPIRO: So China and Russia are aligned in their desire to destabilize this world order that has been in existence since the end of World War II, one in which the United States is the global leader. Do China and Russia want the same thing out of that change?

RACHMAN: I think in very broad terms, yes, in the sense that they don't want an American-dominated world. However, I think there is a slight difference in the scale of their ambition. I think the Russians know that they can never really aspire to what America has now, kind of a global hegemony. But they want to go back to something more like the Cold War, where they were one of the world's great powers at the really top table, and they have their own interests, and America's kind of respected those interests. There were areas that America wouldn't intrude on as Russia sees it.

I think China's ambitions are bigger than that. I think the Chinese actually are beginning to think maybe they can displace the United States as the world's dominant power. They are, by some measures, now the world's largest economy. But their geopolitical power is much smaller. They're not even really the dominant power in their own region. If they were to, say, successfully invade Taiwan, I think that would signal that the era of Chinese dominance of the Asia-Pacific had begun. And if they dominate the Asia-Pacific, which is kind of the core of the global economy, at that point, they have a very good crack of displacing America as the world's most powerful country.

SHAPIRO: What does it tell you about U.S. standing in the world that we're even having this conversation, that this world order that has defined geopolitics for decades is being challenged?

RACHMAN: To be fair, it's been kind of under challenge, I think, for at least a decade - you know, maybe more. I think America's sort of failure in Iraq and failure in Afghanistan began to undermine U.S. hegemony some time ago. Since then, of course, you've had this huge increase in the size of the Chinese economy, which, you know, has grown by absolute multiples over the last 20 years. So America's dominance was always likely to erode.

But then if - you have the combination of American defeat in Afghanistan, the clear signs of American political dysfunction at home, Americans fighting each other over Trump and the elections and so on, plus a succession of presidents who, although in domestic terms, are very different - Obama, Biden, Trump - have a certain continuity in foreign policy in the sense that they all want to reduce America's role overseas. Obama talks about nation-building at home. Trump talks about America first. Biden talks American foreign policy for the middle class. They're all kind of signaling that America is a little bit tired of being the global policeman. So into that kind of vacuum in that sense of American weakness, you get the Russians and the Chinese beginning to chip away at America's power.

SHAPIRO: Is the outcome here a given, and it's just a question of how long it will take and how dramatic it will be? Or do you think the outcome is uncertain?

RACHMAN: Look. I think nothing's a given, you know, because history doesn't go in a straight line. But, I mean, if you were saying somebody believed above all that economics dictates everything, then I think you would say it kind of is a given that America must become less powerful and may ultimately be less powerful than China because of the sheer size of the Chinese economy. This is a country of 1.4 billion people. They only have to get to about 25% of the productive levels of Americans to have a larger economy. And they're almost there. But, you know, there are still big questions. Can China turn that economic power into geopolitical power? Would they risk a war?

Also, you know, there are questions, I think, ultimately about the stability both of China and of the United States internally because if you think, what ended the Cold War, it wasn't ultimately Russia and America sort of duking it out on the battlefield in Europe. It was that the Russian system collapsed because it was so unstable domestically. And there are challenges to China domestically - you know, can the one-party state go on forever? You know, what do they do about the fact their population is beginning to shrink and age and separatism, etc.? But unfortunately, there are also enormous challenges to American political stability. So I'm not sure whose system you would say is currently looking more robust, but that might actually be what determines the struggle rather than measures of the size of the economy or size of navies.

SHAPIRO: Gideon Rachman is the chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times. Thanks for speaking with us.

RACHMAN: Pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF NITEMOVES' "POLYPEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.