The Russian invasion of Ukraine has sharpened the prospect of a Chinese-Russian political offensive against the democratic and Western group of nations. How real or dangerous is this?
Geopolitical divisions are certainly intensifying and were so before Ukraine. China is more on the defensive as its internal challenges grow and has revealed this through increasingly aggressive behaviour internationally. President Putin’s disillusionment with the West has grown steadily over the past fifteen years, as has his determination to control Russia’s neighbourhood. The inconsistency of US foreign policy, reflecting the serious polarisation of American domestic politics, has encouraged both Beijing and Moscow to believe that the West is in decline and can be challenged more actively. The apparent US retreat from the Middle East; the failure to challenge President Assad over chemical warfare; the Western response to Crimea and to the China’s advances in the South China Sea; and, finally, the messy Afghanistan withdrawal; have signalled a geopolitical opportunity for the autocracies. Putin has snatched at this perceived strategic step-back to try to re-establish Russia’s Soviet-era levels of international influence and prestige.
The interests of Russia and China, however, are not dovetailed. China’s economy is much more advanced and diversified than Russia’s, with deep global interdependencies in trade and investment that outstrip Russia’s much narrower connections with primary resource markets. Its outreach to the developing world is founded on a funding capacity that Russia cannot match; and its independent technological strength across many industrial and defence sectors is far more comprehensive than Russia’s. The depth and spread of the CCP’s internal dominance outweigh Putin’s much more personalised grip on power, however prominently the figure of Xi Jinping looms. Simply put, the world is more dependent on China – however acute the current energy supply squeeze may feel.
But there are reasons why Beijing will be holding serious reservations about the Ukraine invasion. China did not need the pot stirred quite so violently. The concept of a ‘peaceful rise’ retains high relevance in Chinese thinking: they have time to watch the world moving their way. Nevertheless, Putin’s strike at the Western grip on Eastern Europe and its dominance of the international institutional machinery was too good an opportunity for Xi to ignore. He can profit from this major distraction for the US away from the Asia-Pacific and find ways of testing Western weaknesses in other theatres. The sense of alignment with Russia in this political strategy is comforting for Beijing, normally short of allies on the international stage.
The Ukraine invasion has also underlined an important multilateral development. Whilst, in the initial phases of the conflict, the news headlines have focused on Western cohesion, the undercurrent in global forums has seen a repudiation of the West’s ‘values-led’ moral positioning. The decades-long confidence of the West in its systemic victory and subsequent dominance is crumbling. No longer can the free market democracies blithely assume that developing countries will fall into line because they should want ‘to be like us’. There is a more complex swirl of factors, highly influenced by access to finance in the short term, that will shape the behaviour of non-aligned nations.
These developments also give Xi a chance to refine his thinking on Taiwan. A victory for Russia in Ukraine (however defined) would add to the sense of Chinese leverage over its neighbourhood; a defeat, and the lessons from it, would enable him to sharpen his tactical options. In the meantime, he does not need to expend energy or resources, just watch. I suspect that Beijing would be content if Russia neither wins nor loses by any distance in this fight.
Within this evolving relationship there lies the energy interests of each country. Russia’s loss of the European oil and gas market means two important things for China: the greater dependence of Russia on China as a source of demand, and the chance to buy oil and particularly gas at discounted prices. This will not lead to a strategic understanding between the two nations. China will not wish to rely on Russia for more than, say, a quarter of its energy supplies, and Russia will not want to depend on China as a customer for more than a quarter of its exports. There is too much distrust in their bilateral history for that. Moreover, Xi – especially if he wins a prolonged tenure this winter – will be wondering how long he can count on Putin to survive as Russia’s ruler if the war drags on and the Russian economy is progressively weakened by sanctions.
This complex mix of factors will have wider international implications. The UN and other international institutions will be even more constrained as forums for solving global problems. The search for a collective climate change strategy will grow harder. The competition between the democracies and the autocracies for influence in the developing world will intensify, with consequences for the chances of resolving regional conflicts. The new non-aligned will be furiously hedging their bets.
Then we need to consider the American response. The Biden Administration has already disappointed its allies and admirers with its uncertain diplomacy and poor delivery. A win for the Republicans in the November midterms will immediately conjure up the prospect of a change in the White House in 2024 and sow strong doubts about the consistency and effectiveness of American foreign policy thereafter. China is better positioned to exploit this than Russia, but there will be consultation between them on how to rock the Western boat to the maximum, including through cyber warfare and political interference. Europe will be too preoccupied with its own, mainly economic, problems to play much of a role in these wider tensions.
The output is greater dysfunction. The systems and mechanisms that shape international order are visibly unfit for purpose. In the short term, there is too much advantage for non-establishment powers in the current chaos. The question for all stakeholders is: how long can an unreformed system persist, with its incoherence and inefficiency, without giving way to more direct confrontation?
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