Beware Putin amid US-China rivalry, Hillary Clinton warns Bloomberg forum

US Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, US on Sept 27, 2016.
PHOTO: Reuters

Amid the United States' rivalry with China, Washington and its Western allies must remain wary of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his use of dubious "non-state actors" to sharpen his global projection of power, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said.

Speaking via video link on the final day of the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore, Clinton noted that earlier expectations that Russia's border problems with a rising China would lead to improved ties with the West had not materialised.

While Putin has sought to "hug China more" in the hope it would stave off bilateral problems, he had also continued to sharpen his power elsewhere through non-state actors, Clinton said.

She was speaking as part of a panel on the emerging world order with Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and former British prime minister Tony Blair.

"He has a very large mercenary force that has been operating everywhere from Syria to the Central African Republic [and] he has a very large stable of hackers and those who deal with disinformation, cyber warfare both in and outside of the government," she said.

Nation states need to pay greater attention to these "asymmetric power centres" which operate with the approval or "even in full co-operation" with state actors like the Kremlin, Clinton said.

On a broader level, countries must start paying greater attention to the rise of cryptocurrencies, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee said.

While cryptocurrencies were being viewed as "interesting and exotic", they also had the potential to be wielded by adversaries to undermine fiat currencies - including the US dollar as the world's reserve currency.

Putin's propensity to use non-state actors and unconventional methods to advance his goals represented part of the new world order, Clinton suggested.

"We can't just think about nation states," she said. "Putin is a great example of that, because with his oligarchic coterie, he has utilised many non-state actors to pursue personal as well as nationalistic goals."

The US-China rivalry, an omnipresent theme in the three-day forum, was also discussed during the panel session. Blair, among the speakers who was physically present in Singapore, said he believed the West was still calibrating its relationship with the newly assertive China.

The new state of affairs would ideally be one of "maximum engagement but with superior strength", he said. "In other words, people will understand that you have to engage with China, whether it's on climate or pandemic, or the stability of the global economy," he said.

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At the same time, Blair said there has to be recognition that China had taken a "different path" in the last few years and had become "internally repressive, more externally aggressive".

Clinton said Washington's recent diplomatic moves - including the Aukus security pact with Britain and Australia - were part of an effort to bring together a "visible alliance of democratic nations" to make clear to China that while there are areas of co-operation, there were also issues that needed to be dealt with.

Monday's virtual talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden were part of this diplomatic balancing act, she said. On the retention of tariffs the US and China first imposed on each other during the tenure of President Donald Trump, Clinton predicted "there will be some changes but they will not all disappear".

Jaishankar, the top Indian diplomat, said the emerging world order should not be cast as a bipolar system dominated by the US and China, as a new multipolar order has led to countries increasingly hedging diplomatic ties and pursuing autonomous partnerships that are "issue based".

Asked by the moderator, political scientist Ian Bremmer, about ties with China and whether Beijing was aware of "how badly" they had recently "mishandled" relations with New Delhi, Jaishankar said he disagreed with the premise of the question.

"I don't think the Chinese have any doubt on where we stand on our relationship and what's not gone right with it," said Jaishankar, who has been foreign minister since 2019, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a second term in office.

India-China ties took a nosedive following last year's fatal border clashes in the Himalayas.

"I've been meeting my counterpart Wang Yi a number of times … I speak fairly clearly, reasonably understandably, there is no lack of clarity," said Jaishankar, who formerly was the top civil servant in the foreign ministry. "So if they want to hear it, I am sure they would have heard it."

He agreed with Bremmer that some elements of India's recent geopolitical strategy - such as being part of the Western-centric Quadrilateral Security Dialogue grouping - was about China.

"Some of it is about China because they are our neighbour and we are going through a particularly bad patch in our relationship because of they have taken a set of actions in violation of our agreements for which they still don't have a credible explanation," he said. "That appears to indicate some rethink about where they want to take our relationship, but that's for them to answer."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.