How Ukraine Fits into China’s Long Game
AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW
APLN member Kevin Rudd points out that for the first time since the 1960s, China – which has never before taken a position on NATO expansion – has directly supported Russian security interests in Europe. Read the original blog post by the author here.
The world’s eyes are on Ukraine. However events play out, Vladimir Putin has proved his determination to challenge the prevailing security order in Europe. But there is an even broader geopolitical challenge to the international order, beyond Europe, now coalescing between Moscow and Beijing.
The joint statement issued by Putin and Xi Jinping in Beijing at the start of February marks a definitive new period, not just for China-Russia relations, but for the world.
At just over 5000 words, it is easily the longest joint declaration ever issued since the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s. It declares their intention to advance “unprecedented” bilateral economic and security cooperation, from energy to space colonisation. There are “no limits” to the China-Russia relationship, it concludes.
The most striking line is China’s agreement to “oppose further enlargement of NATO” and its call on the alliance to abandon “ideologised Cold War approaches”.
This is the first time since the 1960s that China – which has never before taken a position on NATO expansion – has directly supported Russian security interests in Europe. It departs from China’s declaration in 2014, ahead of the Russian occupation of Crimea, that it opposed any violation of the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”.
The joint statement marks a major shift in Chinese foreign policy under Xi. Defending the inviolability of national sovereignty and territorial integrity has long been at the heart of Chinese foreign policy doctrine. It is fundamental to Zhou Enlai’s “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” which China adopted in 1954.
It runs counter to China’s recent efforts to supplant the US as the “true defenders” of the UN-based multilateral system, and the principles of the UN Charter on the absolute sovereignty of states. And by openly supporting Russian security interests on NATO, it jeopardises China’s bilateral relations with individual European countries and the European Union.
China could abstain from the inevitable UN Security Council vote condemning the Russian invasion as illegal, rather than formally joining Moscow to veto it. But this won’t overshadow the impact of China’s tacit support on global public opinion. Nor will China’s rhetoric, through its Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, of blaming Putin’s actions on Washington! It just doesn’t cut the mustard.
Crossing this line has been big step for Xi, even if China-Russia relations have been steadily strengthening over the past decade. It signals that China is willing to side with Russia against the West by helping Moscow mitigate the financial and economic sanctions imposed over Ukraine. It also reveals Xi’s self-confidence that China can stare down opprobrium from Brussels or Berlin, given Europe’s economic reliance on China.
Why has Xi decided to take such a large foreign policy gamble? The chemistry between Xi and Putin is deep. They admire each other’s ruthless political skills. They share a visceral distaste for the West, and both fear democratic “colour revolutions”. And both see significant structural convergence in their national interests spanning energy supply, internet governance, human rights, the legitimacy of authoritarian states and their common American adversary.
Moreover, since the imposition of Western sanctions in 2014, Russia has seen little alternative to economic dependency on China. Beijing has quickly obliged, turning the great Kissingerian strategic triangle of 50 years ago on its head; no longer do the US and China counterbalance Russia.
Beijing and Moscow have resolved, or at least shelved, many underlying concerns that previously limited their relationship. Increased trade has eased Russian fears of China re-invading its far east. Moscow’s concerns about Chinese dominance in Central Asia, a traditional sphere of influence, have been managed through heightened cooperation and regional institutions.
Most importantly, Moscow seems finally to have accepted its status as the junior partner – unlike the “glory days” of global communism in the 1950s when even Mao accepted the Comintern.
Meanwhile, Beijing sees Russia as a reliable energy exporter – crucial since China considers itself dangerously vulnerable to a future US blockade. Even as Xi preaches “self-reliance”, Russia provides cutting-edge military technology in domains where China struggles. And by keeping Washington preoccupied in Europe and the Middle East, Russia distracts the US and its allies from the Indo-Pacific.
Beyond these transactional factors, China’s Communist Party leadership weighs a more fundamental ideological and strategic equation. Xi believes China can soon become the most powerful country on earth and wants everyone to know it.
This is unmistakable in the Sino-Russian joint statement: “Today the world is going through momentous changes” and “humanity is entering a new era”. Because of China’s rise and the West’s decline, “a trend has emerged towards the redistribution of power in the world and the international community is showing a growing demand for leadership”. The time has come for a “transformation of the global governance architecture and the world order”.
This phraseology is a direct lift from China’s domestic ideological declarations over recent years; Russia has simply signed on. It is political code for China’s strategic decision to directly challenge the prevailing US-led security order. Beijing concludes the regional, and increasingly global, balance of power is now shifting decisively in its direction.
Beijing also concludes this trend is enhanced by locking in a deeper strategic relationship (or de facto alliance) with Moscow. Both resent what they view as the American strategic straightjacket of the “liberal international order”. They view the West as terminally weakened by the Global Financial Crisis, the polarisation of American politics, and the dismemberment of Europe through Brexit.
Now, in near-complete strategic condominium, China and Russia are willing to move boldly in directly challenging the US for global leadership, seeking to fundamentally reshape the world order to suit their interests and values. Meeting this challenge will take a degree of unity and statecraft that the liberal-democratic world has, in recent decades, struggled to marshal.
Cover Photo Source: Oleksii Liskonih/Shutterstock