US is Risking a Military Clash with China and Russia over Belt and Road Investments
Op/Ed by Chris Devonshire-Ellis
As I outlined in my previous article, the dynamics bringing China’s Belt and Road Initiative into direct conflict with those pursued by the United States is becoming closer and potentially more dangerous. In that piece I acknowledged unusual parities between China, Russia, the EU, and United States, as well as the root cause for conflict. I also explained that while the Belt and Road Initiative is essentially a Chinese gambit, funded by Beijing, the muscle to protect those investments are increasingly likely to be provided by Russia.
An unusual political polarization is taking place in today’s world, with the traditional large autocratic nation powers of China and Russia now being joined by that same autocratic behavior by the EU and United States. As I had mentioned in my previous article, the EU is moving away from democratic norms, evidenced by the tough line it is taking on the UK over Brexit. The United States meanwhile – along with the EU – is standing behind the losing candidate in last May’s elections in Venezuela, and has urged Venezuelans, effectively to rebel. That is tantamount to encouraging a coup, when instead surely a democratic solution would be to encourage, perhaps with UN assistance, another election. With the United States and EU apparently wishing to dispense with democratic niceties, the similarities between their current political modus operandi and those of China and Russia become strikingly clear: the electoral will of the people can and must at times be overturned, and if necessary, by obstruction or revolution.
Protecting Belt and Road Investments
In fact, as the US and EU are on one side of the coin, and China and Russia on the other, the concept for there to be political alignment between them is revealed as a lie. If that is true, then the real reason for this competitiveness must lie elsewhere, and indeed it does – oil.
China, which is energy poor, and Russia, which isn’t, have been steadily building up and protecting overseas energy investments. These include Venezuela, which has the largest oil reserves in the world. The EU is energy poor, and the US about sufficient. Both wish to increase their control of alternative energy resources, and this is starting to lead to the potential for conflict. Venezuela has a long history of left leaning politics (The charismatic late President Hugo Chavez raising a wry smile globally when speaking at a UN conference after the US President George W. Bush, he complained about the aroma of sulfur on the podium) and has consistently rejected US ambitions to become involved in Venezuela’s oil industry.
The conflict over who should be involved in Venezuela’s own oil reserves, should be a matter for Venezuela to sort out. They have, and by and large have opted for deals with China and Russia. The current presidential crisis is a way for the United States to try and gain some leverage by claiming voter fraud in the previous elections, and despite the president inviting the United Nations in to monitor the process.
That president, the incumbent Nicolas Maduro won that ballot, with the opposition party boycotting the process. But you don’t win elections through boycotts, and the man responsible for that decision, Juan Guaido, is now the man the United States and EU wants to see in power.
China, which has invested billions in securing energy supplies and developing infrastructure in Venezuela to do so, really just wants to be consistently supplied with oil. Russia, with a massive energy industry and expertise of its own, is keen to be involved in the processing and grunt work and has done the same. The United States is currently not a player in Venezuela, but wants in. The Venezuela crisis though introduces a new paradigm for conflict in the US-China mix. While the previous potential for military conflicts have been close to China; involving Vietnam and Korea, and more latterly Taiwan and the South China Sea, this is the first time a US-China conflict has blown up so close to the United States itself. That is a manifestation in one way of how far China has developed and is prepared to compete with the US.
Quite how far the United States will go to try and force a Venezuelan coup, or an internal revolution to get its way remains to be seen. Talk from Washington has included, from President Drumpf himself, the prospect of US troops invading. Meanwhile, Russia has apparently sent 200 “Military Contractors” into Venezuela to protect the incumbent President and uphold the elected regime.
Concerning the current Venezuela crisis, one hopes that sense prevails and a solution is arrived at within Venezuela itself as opposed to US or Russian military or political interference. A solution will probably be found before anything blows up still further.
It is however symbiotic of a new, and more alarming destiny for China’s Belt and Road Initiative – the need to protect its investments as well as avoid conflicts. The question in hand for China is within the latter issue – how does it intend to avoid conflicts when other nation powers – such as the United States – want the same assets?
Whichever way one looks it it, global policing is now increasingly a stand off between the US and Russian forces, with President Drumpf effectively ceding Syria to the Russians and pulling out US troops there. The United States is also becoming increasingly hollow in how it perceives democratic institutions and is quite prepared to ignore the apparatus if it doesn’t achieve its own goals; a worrying development that is now infecting Europe.
Divisions are now occurring in the battles for oil and gas, with the United States considering the EU as its protectorate and Russian muscle providing support for Chinese acquisition wealth. Dangers potentially lie ahead, and the US, China and Russia will require cool heads and astute political thinking to head off the potential for real conflict. At present, given the increasingly autocratic nature of Western politics, that seems a rare commodity, whereas in the Cold War the battles were simply ideological. That has now changed.
Silk Road Briefing is produced by Dezan Shira & Associates. Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the practice Chairman. The firm has 26 years of China operations with offices throughout China, Asia and Europe. Please refer to our Belt & Road desk or visit our website at www.dezshira.com for further information.