The indiscriminate attack by the terrorist group Hamas against Israel on October 7 is much more than that, as has been made clear not only by its intensity and cruelty, but also by Israel’s reaction. As was the case with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and with the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, we are facing an event that will change the future of the world.
In these three crucial episodes of our recent history, China has played a relevant but quite different role, underscoring how much relations between the United States and China have deteriorated and where we are heading: towards a cold war.
China’s response to 9/11 was to support the United States, as Russia did, at the United Nations Security Council. In reality, both nations had much to gain from Washington’s determination to end Islamic terrorism, given their own internal problems: Chechnya, in the case of Russia, and the Uyghurs, in the case of China. At that time, in addition, Beijing had free rein with an economic model of planning and directed industrial policy, despite the promise that it would become a market economy after its entry into the World Trade Organization in December 2001. Thus, while the United States continued to be absorbed in its own anti-terrorist crusade, China became its main trading partner, with a surplus of $400 billion in its favor in just 10 years. By then, and after a crisis that devastated the U.S. financial system in 2008, Barack Obama’s administration began to understand that the open-door policy with the so-called Asian giant could not continue without conditions. With his announcement of the shift in U.S. foreign strategy towards Asia in 2012, Obama recognized that the world’s leading economy had wasted too much time bogged down in the conflicts of the Middle East without realizing that a new power with global hegemonic ambitions was being created in Asia.
The dream of an open relationship between both countries was shattered with Donald Trump’s arrival to power in 2017: he immediately began trying to contain his rival with a policy of tariffs and barriers to technological transfer that the Biden administration has only increased. What is notable is that during the years in which the United States looked the other way, China had become the main trading partner of most countries in the world. By the time Russia decided to complete the invasion of Ukraine, in February 2022, the United States had already lost a good part of its global economic leadership — hit not only by the 2008 financial crisis but also by the pandemic — as well as its political leadership, as was evidenced in the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The European Union, in turn, had one more shock in its own history, the sovereign debt crisis of 2010, which made it face the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 in a state of exhaustion, and the subsequent invasion of Ukraine, after the pandemic, with hardly any fiscal space to deal with it. Without a doubt, China’s position regarding the Russian invasion has been key in the conflict. One could even argue that, without Beijing’s tacit support for Moscow, the war might have already been resolved in Ukraine’s favor given Russia’s enormous dependence on China.
The war in Ukraine has increasingly separated the West, not only from Russia, but also from China, which continues to push emerging and developing countries to align themselves against the United States, either because of its colonial past or, simply, appealing to their anti-Western sentiment. In this context, the recent attack on Israel is not only enormously painful — as unfortunately is Israel’s response in Gaza — but it is also causing tectonic movements in the Middle East. Movements to which China is no stranger. Firstly, it seems difficult to think that Hamas could have attacked Israel in such a surprising, accurate and lethal manner without any outside support. Eyes are on Iran, whose president, Ebrahim Raisi, has just met with one of the Hamas leaders in Qatar to threaten Israel about the consequences of its attacks on Gaza. As if that were not enough, Saudi Arabia, which until the attack took place was immersed in negotiations with the United States to close an agreement with Israel with the aim of normalizing its diplomatic relations, does not seem to want to continue with this process. Rather, the complete opposite. After a recent, much-publicized call, the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Iran appear to have gone from being historical enemies to showing mutual respect, ratifying the bilateral agreement recently promoted by China. In that sense, Beijing’s statements after the attacks on Israel and the even more recent ones from its foreign minister, Wang Yi, about the need to protect Palestine, make it very clear where its government is in this conflict: in a position opposite to that of the United States.
This reality is not surprising. Since Mao Zedong, China had maintained a pro-Palestinian position. More recently, China has gone from being a mere trading partner to the main strategic partner of the Middle East in the face of the vacuum left by the United States. Furthermore, until the arrival of the Biden administration, China had shown more reservations about showing this pro-Palestinian bias, since Israel, for a decade, had allowed the sale of dual-use technology companies to China. The stoppage in this transfer of technology between both countries, forced by the Biden administration, has probably given more freedom to China to instigate an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which should not be comforting for Israel at this time. Nor should it be for the United States, much less for the European Union: such a rapprochement, not to mention the well-known shadow of Russia behind Iran, could lead to an agreement to cut oil production as a measure of economic pressure to make Israel abandon its attack on Gaza.
Beyond the fact that a shock of this nature could endanger the painful processes of inflation reduction that are being carried out in the West, a deeper reflection leads to the realization of the inexorable advance of a world that is separating into two poles. The United States, with this new shock, will be able to identify even more clearly its allies, among which are the European Union and, undoubtedly, Israel. At the same time, the resounding denunciation of the attacks by Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan outlines this axis even better. China’s centrality in the other axis works in opposition to the interests of the current hegemonic power, which continues to be the United States.
It seems important, at this point, for the West to understand what historical moment it finds itself in. What may seem like a mere flashback of a cold war that we thought was dead and buried is now a reality. And this, despite greater economic interdependence. The October 7 attacks on Israel — along with, as we already said, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the invasion of Ukraine — will be remembered as one of the three great events that preceded and defined the breakdown of the global order into two large blocks, inevitably returning us to a cold war.
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