February 25, 2022 ☼ The Intersection ☼ geopolitics ☼ China
The Ukraine war is not merely an embarrassment for Xi ahead of China’s Communist Party session later this year. It is a damning indictment of his foreign policy.
This is an unedited draft of The Intersection column that usually appears every other Monday in Mint. This was published on Friday 25th February 2022.
There is little doubt that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a result of the West’s policy failure. The United States, the European Union and NATO were together unable to deter Vladimir Putin from launching a long-planned military attack. But that’s not all. The war in Ukraine is not only a failure of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy, but also a major setback for China’s geopolitical ambitions.
Vladimir Putin has cleverly dragged Xi Jinping into a position that the Chinese president is unlikely to have desired. That photograph of the two leaders 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. By overdrawing on the bilateral relationship, Putin has implied Chinese support for his actions.
Yet there is little reason to believe that Beijing was fully aware of Putin’s plans, less a consenting party to them. While grand declaration of partnership and cooperation were made, there was no reference to Ukraine and the complaint against NATO’s expansion was buried deep in the joint statement. In January, Xi himself wrote the Ukrainian president that he attached “great importance to the development of the China-Ukraine strategic partnership. Right up to Putin’s speech recognising the two separatist regions, Chinese diplomats referred to the Minsk agreements. Until the invasion, they called for de-escalation through dialogue and negotiation. After all China is Ukraine’s biggest trading partner and Kyiv had signed up to Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative. 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.
That’s not all. China prefers a world where the United States, Britain and the European Union are divided. It also seeks to attract developing countries to itself and its vision of a new global order. As much as China is challenging the United States for global supremacy, Beijing does not see bipolarity and a new cold war as being in its interests — just yet.
Unfortunately for Xi Jinping, Putin jumped the gun. He tore up the Minsk agreements that the Chinese had put so much diplomatic stock in. He invaded a country whose sovereignty and integrity 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 to support as basic an interest as your sovereignty. The only thing that Putin did to assuage Chinese sensibilities is to wait until the end of the Winter Olympics before launching his invasion.
Confused and shocked, China’s diplomats found themselves grasping for something intelligent to say after Putin quasi-annexed the two separatist Ukrainian regions. After mouthing generalities for a couple of days they decided that the only safe line they could take was to criticise Western interference in the matter.
So this is where the Chinese are at the time of writing: forced into a situation where they cannot explicitly support Russian aggression but cannot oppose it either. They can criticise Western sanctions on Russia for being unilateral, but do nothing to stop their imposition. They cannot avoid providing financial and economic assistance to Russia. But they can do nothing to stop Putin from doing as he pleases.
This is not merely a public embarassment for Xi Jinping ahead of the Communist Party session later this year where he is expected to secure another term. It is also a setback for China’s geopolitical interests.
To the extent that China takes the pressure of sanctions off Russia, it will antagonise the United States and the European Union. China cannot afford to lose access to European technology eco-systems 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 in the United Nations, developing countries will see it as abetting an aggressor.
Putin’s most generous gift to his adversaries, however, is in galvanising their solidarity. In 2020, the pessimistic policymakers at the Munich Security Conference were contemplating “Westlessness” amid widening trans-Atlantic divisions. Today the West is back and NATO has a newfound sense of purpose. China now faces a more consolidated, more front-footed West than it did just last week. If Xi’s actions gave birth to a countervailing coalition in the Indo-Pacific in the form of the Quad and AUKUS in the past decade, Putin’s invasion has now rejuvenated NATO.
It is possible that the some in the West will try to engage Beijing to split the China-Russia partnership. This will prove futile as Xi has made countering the United States the fundamental foreign policy goal. It is also possible that some will now believe Russia has diverted the West’s resources away from the Indo-Pacific. They too will be proven wrong because a West that is on a war-footing will allocate more resources.
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So now Xi is walking a tightrope between criticising the West and discouraging Russia from further escalation. Even as Putin is shaking it vigorously.
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