Raising the Stakes*

*Editor’s note: On March 4, 2022, Russia enacted a law that criminalizes public opposition to, or independent news reporting about, the war in Ukraine. The law makes it a crime to call the war a “war” rather than a “special military operation” on social media or in a news article or broadcast. The law is understood to penalize any language that “discredits” Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine, calls for sanctions or protests Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It punishes anyone found to spread “false information” about the invasion with up to 15 years in prison.

Aleksandr Vorobiev, a researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, on how the 2024 presidential election race is forcing the U.S. to escalate its conflict with Moscow and Beijing.

The closer the 2024 U.S. presidential election, the fiercer the battle gets between the leading candidates – Democrat Joe Biden and his most likely Republican opponent, former President Donald Trump. And the presidency is already hotly contested, even though there is still quite a lot of time before the election.

The incumbent president does not find himself in a strong position. Biden receives a fair amount of criticism from his Republican rivals as well as Trump personally for providing military aid to Ukraine and the mixed performance of the economy. The latter is exemplified most recently by the sudden collapse of the Silicon Valley Bank, one of the 20 largest banks in the U.S., which engaged in financing startups. This large-scale collapse could have led to the downfall of the entire U.S. banking system, a situation not seen in the country since the 2008 global financial crisis. Federal authorities managed to prevent a run on the banks by pledging to cover any losses resulting from the collapse of SVB and Signature Bank — another casualty of the banking turmoil. Nevertheless, the economic situation is still rather uncertain.

So, given the mixed results of the Biden administration domestically, showcasing the president’s foreign policy successes will be crucial to ensure his triumph in 2024. First of all, it is assumed that military and economic aid from the U.S. and its allies, as well as a plethora of successive sanctions packages against Russia, will allow Kyiv to make serious progress on the battlefield. This is precisely the message Biden wants to send to the U.S. public. Moreover, Biden’s visit to Kyiv on Feb. 20, which the Western media dubbed as “historic,” can also be considered part of the sitting president’s election campaign.

Although the Russian theme is prominent in the speeches of American politicians, it is worth noting that Washington considers Beijing, not Moscow, to be its main strategic rival. At the same time, anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S. political class today is strong among Democrats and Republicans. Therefore, it is likely that such negative feelings will intensify in the future as the U.S. government is preparing to counteract China’s growing influence.

Thus, in March, the Biden administration announced plans to tighten existing restrictions on the export of equipment for semiconductor manufacturing to China. Without such equipment, it will be much more difficult for China to produce the most advanced microchips and compete with Western companies. Moreover, Washington is pushing for similar restrictions to be imposed by Japan and the Netherlands, who are also among the leaders in developing technologies for advanced microchip production.

The U.S. also seeks to contain China by military and political means. In particular, the AUKUS alliance, created in 2021, which includes the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, fills this role. At the same time, Australia will become the first country without nuclear weapons to own nuclear submarines.

While the geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the U.S. is open and acute, the competition between China and the U.S. is more restrained so far. However, even here, the situation is gradually moving toward escalation. For example, the incident with the alleged Chinese “spy” balloon shot down over U.S. airspace in early February is an eloquent example of the high level of such tensions.

The balloon could have entered U.S. territory accidentally, as the Chinese claimed. After all, the trajectory of such objects can be predicted accurately only for relatively short distances of about 62-124 miles. Furthermore, the Chinese balloon flew along a very bizarre path. Having taken off from Hainan Island in the South China Sea, the balloon flew toward the Arctic Circle and over Alaska. Then the balloon headed south and, flying over Canada, reentered U.S. airspace. Therefore, it’s unlikely that such a flight path can be predicted in advance.

Of course, such balloons can be used for gathering intelligence. But the problem is they are poorly controlled. Strong winds can force them off course quite easily. Therefore, in technologically developed countries today, of which China is certainly one, the widespread use of satellites is a more effective and reliable way to collect intelligence instead of uncontrollable balloons. Therefore, the Chinese balloon may have been an ordinary weather balloon studying the atmosphere.

According to established international practice, countries usually react calmly to the appearance of such balloons due to the low degree of risks they pose and allow them to leave their airspace. The U.S., however, took a different path.

It is unlikely that concerns for national security prompted the U.S. authorities to act. More likely, the Chinese balloon fell victim to the already-mentioned heightened political tensions within the U.S. in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election. For example, the Republicans decided to use the appearance of a Chinese balloon in U.S. airspace as another pretext to criticize Biden. The media actively reported on the topic, and, step by step, an ordinary weather balloon turned into practically the main threat to national security. In this situation, Biden found himself in the role of a hapless and indecisive leader.

At the same time, the destruction of the Chinese balloon will serve as one of the factors preventing the normalization of bilateral relations between Beijing and Washington in the future. For instance, the U.S. canceled Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to China where he was to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who, incidentally, visited Moscow this week to talk to Vladimir Putin.

This may not have been Biden’s intention, as he has stated that he wants to see China as a competitor rather than an adversary. However, one cannot dismiss the possibility of a deliberate provocation by those in authority in the U.S. who are interested in disrupting negotiations with China. Similar steps are likely to take place in the future as the U.S. election campaign gathers momentum.

The desire by Washington politicians to constantly raise the stakes in their interaction with international partners, even if they are not the most convenient partners such as China or Russia, in order to turn the domestic political situation in their favor has a very detrimental effect on the stability of international relations. Their confrontational behavior leads to increased uncertainty, the rising price of natural resources, stagnation of the global economy and an increased risk of a large-scale military conflict.

Against this background, one can only hope that, if not in 2024, then in the foreseeable future, the views of the U.S. political class will evolve. It is clear that sooner or later, the American elite will understand the pointlessness of the current approach to domestic and international politics.

The author holds a Ph.D. in History and is a director of the Center for Public Diplomacy and World Policy Analysis. The author’s opinion may not necessarily reflect the views of Izvestia’s editorial board.

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About Nikita Gubankov 101 Articles
Originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, I've recently graduated from University College London, UK, with an MSc in Translation and Technology. My interests include history, current affairs and languages. I'm currently working full-time as an account executive in a translation and localization agency, but I'm also a keen translator from English into Russian and vice-versa, as well as Spanish into English.

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