Railways and Pipelines are Preferable to Nuclear Submarines

Photograph Source: An American Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarine – Public Domain

On September 16 the media carried the news that the US, Britain and Australia are banding together to increase pressure on China by arranging for Australia to buy and operate nuclear-powered submarines.  Strategically, this is of little significance, and it will take years for the vessels to enter service, but the video conference involving President Biden and Prime Ministers Johnson of the UK and Morrison of Australia sent a signal to China that confrontation is alive and thriving and the UK and Australia have hung their coats on the shaky rack of US hegemony.

Two major developments in international commercial conveyance were reported in August and September, but neither of them received much cover by mainstream western media.  First was the news that the China-Europe rail link was proving outstandingly successful, as recounted by the Xinhua news agency and Spain’s EFE, and second came the story on September 6 that the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany was about to come on line, which was covered by the Oil Price website and to an extent by Deutsche Welle which didn’t mention the official statement by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.  But the New York Times, for example, did not consider the development newsworthy in even a minor fashion, and a search of the paper’s website was entirely negative, as it was for all the west’s major outlets.

It is intriguing that these two significant affairs were so comprehensively disregarded rather than being welcomed in most western capitals, and it goes some way to explaining the shaky state of international relations to examine some of the reasons behind the seeming antipathy of western governments and media to successful cooperative ventures involving China and Russia.

Opposition to the Nord Stream project has been widespread and hard-hitting, with Poland, for example, being particularly critical.  In July its deputy foreign minister met with the visiting Counsellor of the US Department of State, Derek Chollet and declared that “Poland considers this project to be detrimental to the security of not only Ukraine, not only Central Europe, but also to the security of the whole of Europe, making the EU dependent on Russian gas, contrary to earlier declarations regarding the need to diversify energy sources.”  Predictably, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, she who greatly assisted the 2014 coup in Ukraine, said it is a “bad pipeline” and spoke with relish about the lurking sanctions that would be imposed “should Moscow use the pipeline as a political weapon.”

The “political weapon” argument is interesting, mainly because this pipeline is all about bringing reasonably-priced natural gas to about 26 million households in Europe.  That is, it’s about people, not politics. Of course there is an economic benefit to Russia, whose gas is being piped over 1230 kilometers (764 miles) under the Baltic, and it would be surprising if there were no commercial gain, because, as the US would be first to ever, that is one of the many positive results of international trade.

But there are many US legislators who have different views and no regard for the benefits to European citizens or anyone else.  The US agency Radio Free Europe reported Senator Rob Portman (Republican-Ohio) as tweeting that “Nord Stream 2 will strengthen Russia, undermine America’s national interest, and threaten the security of Ukraine — a key U.S. ally,” while Democratic Representative Marcy Kaptur said that “Congress must reject any deals that fail to protect transatlantic security and Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

The only thing affecting Ukraine in the Nord Stream success story is the resultant inability to charge the 3 billion dollars a year which it receives for permitting transit of gas through its territory. This is capitalism.  Many people may not like it, but that is how America works and it is strange indeed that US legislators can bring themselves to stand against the movements of free enterprise.  On the other hand, the LA Times noted that “Nuland said the U.S. continues to oppose the pipeline but said Biden had waived sanctions against the German company constructing the pipeline and its top executives because the penalties would have been counterproductive to broader U.S. interests.”  So the campaign against Nord Stream 2 had nothing to do with people or principles.  It was entirely anti-Russia and centred on “US interests”.  Which brings us to another success story that the West doesn’t like.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a global project, described by the Council on Foreign Relations as “one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects ever conceived. Launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, the vast collection of development and investment initiatives would stretch from East Asia to Europe, significantly expanding China’s economic and political influence.  Xi’s vision included creating a vast network of railways, energy pipelines, highways, and streamlined border crossings . . .”

The Economist Intelligence Unit notes that in the second quarter of 2021 the level of trade along the BRI “continues to increase, despite ongoing Covid‑19 waves, with China’s exports of electronics and furniture benefiting from the work-at-home trend . . . merchandise trade with the countries along the BRI increased by 38% year on year in the first half of 2021, accounting for 29.6% of China’s total trade with the world . . . China’s imports from countries along the BRI increased by 66.6% amid a rise in commodity prices,” which is all impressive and seemingly positive for China and its partners.  But US legislators do not see the BRI that way.  It is considered a menace to the world, and especially to the United States.

The US Senate’s Strategic Competition Act of 2021 can be expected to become law in amended form but with the unchanged thrust that “The People’s Republic of China is leveraging its political, diplomatic, economic, military, technological, and ideological power to become a strategic, near-peer, global competitor of the United States. The policies increasingly pursued by the PRC in these domains are contrary to the interests and values of the United States, its partners, and much of the rest of the world.”  There could be no clearer declaration by Washington’s legislators that, no matter what may have been said by President Biden in his telephone call with President Xi on September 9, there will be no reduction of US pressure on China  —  as indicated by the farcical US-UK-Australia nuclear submarine agreement.

Mr Xi made the point that “Whether China and the United States can properly handle mutual relations is a question for the century that concerns the fate of the world, and both countries must answer it,” but there is no evidence that the US Congress or Executive Branch are approaching Sino-US relations with other than the proverbial Big Stick.

The opinion of Congress is that “although it casts the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a development initiative, the People’s Republic of China is also utilizing the BRI to advance its own security interests, including to expand its power projection capabilities and facilitate greater access for the People’s Liberation Army through overseas military installations.”  And it is this sort of twisted declaration that sets a low for Washington’s conduct of international affairs.  Because China has only one “overseas military installation” (a port facility at Djibouti in the Horn of Africa), while on September 10 it was reported that “the US controls about 750 bases in at least 80 countries worldwide and spends more on its military than the next 10 countries combined.”

It is not surprising that so many nations find it difficult to regard US foreign policy with equanimity when legislators in Washington indulge in such unashamed exaggeration.  It may be unpleasant for those in power in Washington, and, unfortunately, very many other people in the United States, to have to realize that Russia and China are important nations that wish in a perfectly legal manner to extend their economic influence.

It seems they cannot understand that when Russia outlays ten billion dollars on laying a pipeline and stands to earn annual billions from sale of its transported gas, it would be economic insanity for the Moscow government to in any way attempt to use the pipeline to indulge in “aggression and malign activities.” Similarly, China would be economically unwise and indeed strategically foolish to jeopardize the growing success of the Belt and Road by being other than cooperative and responsible in dealing with its 138 BRI partner nations.

Washington should face up to facts and accept that the US must cooperate with China and Russia rather than maintaining its current aggressive stance.  The New Cold War is entirely counterproductive and it should be recognized that there are benefits for all nations in developing and improving means and methods of trade.  The US administration might imagine it will show weakness if it decides to work together with Beijing and Moscow, but it would demonstrate common sense and foresight to ditch the Cold War and concentrate on cooperation. It beats the hell out of nuclear-powered submarines.

Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.