How Vladimir Putin jumped the gun and jeopardised Xi Jinping's global ambitions
This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.
There is little doubt that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a result of the West’s policy failure. The US, the EU and Nato were unable to deter Vladimir Putin from launching a long-planned military attack. But that’s not all. The war in Ukraine is also a failure of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy, and a big setback for China’s geopolitical ambitions.
Putin has cleverly dragged Xi Jinping into a position that the Chinese president surely did not desire. That photograph of the two standing side-by-side days before the war will be interpreted as a sign of Sino-Russian collusion, or at least a Chinese green signal for Russian aggression.
Yet, there is little reason to believe that Beijing was even fully aware of Putin’s plans. While grand declarations of partnership and cooperation were made, there was no reference to Ukraine in their joint statement. The complaint against Nato’s expansion was buried deep inside. In January, Xi wrote Ukraine’s president that he attached “great importance” to the China-Ukraine strategic partnership. Right up to Putin’s speech recognizing Ukraine’s two separatist regions, Chinese diplomats had referred to the Minsk agreements. Until the invasion, they had called for de-escalation through dialogue and negotiation. After all, China is Ukraine’s biggest trade partner and Kyiv had signed up to Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Beijing has also long been seeking technologies like advanced aircraft engines that Ukraine controls. China’s position was put across by its ambassador to Kyiv, who had a few weeks ago declared support for Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. More broadly China prefers a world where the US, UK and the EU are divided and wants to attract developing countries to itself and its vision of a new global order. While China is challenging the US for global supremacy, Beijing does not see bipolarity and a new cold war as being in its interest—just yet.
Unfortunately for Xi, Putin jumped the gun. He tore up the Minsk pacts that the Chinese had placed so much diplomatic stock in and invaded a country whose sovereignty Beijing had publicly committed to uphold. He showed that being a BRI member only gets you Chinese loans and infrastructure, and you can’t rely on Beijing for survival. The only thing Putin did to assuage Chinese sensibilities was to wait for the Winter Olympics to end before invading. China’s confounded diplomats found themselves grasping for something intelligent to say after Putin quasi-annexed the two Ukrainian regions. After mouthing generalities, all they could manage was to criticize Western interference in the matter.
So, at this point, China has been forced into a situation where it cannot explicitly support Russian aggression, but cannot oppose it either. It can criticize Western sanctions on Russia for being unilateral, but do nothing to stop their imposition. It cannot avoid providing Russia economic assistance. Nor stop Putin from doing as he pleases.
This is not merely an embarrassment for Xi ahead of China’s Communist Party session later this year, where he hopes to secure another term, it is a damning indictment of his foreign policy.
To the extent China takes the pressure of sanctions off Russia, it will antagonize the US and EU. Beijing cannot afford to lose access to European technology ecosystems and markets too. To the extent that Western sanctions affect Russia’s global trade, Chinese financial institutions and firms will be affected. To the extent that China opposes sanctions at the United Nations, other countries will see it as abetting an aggressor.
Putin’s biggest gift to his adversaries, however, is in galvanizing their solidarity. In 2020, pessimistic policymakers at the Munich Security Conference were contemplating “Westlessness” amid widening trans-Atlantic divisions. Today the West is back and Nato has a new-found sense of purpose. China faces a more consolidated, front-footed West than it did just last week. If Xi’s actions of the past decade gave birth to a countervailing coalition in the Indo-Pacific in the form of the Quad and Aukus, Putin’s invasion has rejuvenated Nato.It is possible that the some in the West will hope to engage Beijing and split the China-Russia partnership. This will likely prove futile, as Xi has made countering the US his fundamental foreign policy goal. It is also possible that some will believe Russia has diverted the West’s resources away from the Indo- Pacific. They too will probably be proven wrong because a West that is on a war-footing will allocate more resources overall for defence.
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Thus Xi is walking a tightrope between criticizing the West and discouraging Russia from further escalation. Even as Putin is shaking that rope vigorously.
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