Source Asia Sentinel
SACRAMENTO, U.S.--The war in Ukraine has lasted a month. Russian President Vladimir Putin badly miscalculated and Xi Jinping followed him into a strategic dead-end with no easy exit.
We will never know exactly what Putin told Xi Jinping when they met before the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics on 4th February and declared that their partnership had “no limits.” That Putin waited until the Olympics ended before invading Ukraine, argues for a degree of foreknowledge on China’s part.
But Beijing nevertheless seems taken aback by the scale of Russia’s attack, the resoluteness of Ukrainian resistance, and by the tough and united Western response to the invasion. Putin may well have misled Xi because he misled himself.
The key strategic issue for Beijing is its competition with the US. The war in Ukraine has sharpened the line between them. Beijing wants to stabilize relations with Europe as far as possible to focus on dealing with the US.
China is putting on a brave face, but is in a serious dilemma. It is confronted with three mutually irreconcilable objectives.
First, China does not want to become collateral damage from sanctions directed at Russia. The Ukraine war has disrupted an already fragile global economy. China’s growth was already slowing for a variety of reasons and Beijing is grappling with complex economic issues. It does not need additional problems.
Second, China has always been neuralgic about preserving respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference as key norms of international relations. The reasons for this can be summarized in three words: Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was a direct challenge to these norms.
Third, and most crucially, China wants to preserve its partnership with Russia. The Sino-Russia relationship was never as idyllic as Moscow and Beijing liked to portray. But whatever difficulties China may face because of the invasion of Ukraine, China will not break with Russia. Beijing has no other partner anywhere in the world with Russia’s strategic weight who shares China’s distrust of the current global order.
Which other country is prepared to go as far as Putin’s Russia to work with China to create a less Western-oriented multipolar order? Reclaiming what China believes is its rightful place in such a world lies at the heart of Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’.
Beijing has indicated that it is prepared to play a role in brokering a ceasefire or a settlement in Ukraine. A quick negotiated end to the fighting would be in China’s interest.
Having failed to secure a swift victory, Putin must secure a decisive victory. Putin’s right to rule rests on the claim that he had restored Russia’s strength and the world’s respect for Russia’s strength. But the perception of Russia’s strength and respect for its strength are among the casualties of Putin’s war in Ukraine.
I am among those who think that the West mishandled relations with post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s. But that is now moot. Not only does it not justify aggression, but that may no longer be the relevant issue. The botched Russian invasion has changed the stakes.
What outcome in Ukraine would be acceptable to Putin, Ukraine, and the West? What does China mean when it says that Russia’s legitimate security interests must be considered? How far would China be prepared to push Putin to accept a compromise?
At present, I do not think anyone – China included -- has clear answers to these questions and only events will bring clarity. But I doubt Beijing will be prepared to go so far as to fundamentally jeopardize its relations with Russia or do anything that would undermine Putin’s grip on power.
Still, despite their shared distrust of the current global order, China is far more integrated into it than Russia, and has benefited more from it than Russia. The ‘China Dream’ is certainly revanchist and assertively so, but to call China ‘revisionist’ or a ‘systemic competitor’ is an overstatement.
Under its ‘Dual Circulation’ approach announced in 2020, China aims to become more self-reliant in key technologies and depend more on domestic household consumption to drive growth. Sanctions against Russia will lead Beijing to try and accelerate its drive for self-reliance and internally driven growth. But this is all far easier said than done and will not show significant results for a long time, if ever.
As the name suggests, Dual Circulation has two aspects and the other is still reliant on overseas markets. China is Russia’s most important economic partner.
Being subject to sanctions of an unprecedented scope, and with about half its reserves frozen, Russia has nowhere to turn to except China. Russia will almost certainly become even more dependent on China, but will this be a liability or an asset for Beijing?
The US and Europe will not cut China any slack in implementing sanctions against Russia. China will certainly protect its own interests, as for example in its decision to deny Russian airlines spare parts. I doubt China is eager to throw good money after bad to support the ruble.
Such questions have already been asked by a few Chinese intellectuals. They certainly do not represent mainstream views and will be ruthlessly suppressed. But the implications for the Party and Xi personally, should such views seep into the wider public will be a serious concern.
There is no easy way for China to reconcile its objectives. Beijing will have to walk a fine and precarious line, and that line has got even finer and more precarious now that the US has revealed that Russia asked China for military and economic assistance and warned that agreeing will have serious consequences for US-China relations.
China’s Ukraine dilemmas come on the back of other foreign policy errors. The most prominent mistake was the premature abandonment of Deng Xiaoping’s sage approach of ‘hiding strength and biding time.’
China’s history and political culture have instilled in Chinese leaders the conviction that strong central authority is essential to good government. This perhaps leads them to underestimate the resolve and resilience of decentralized Western systems.
Strength and ambitions, once revealed, cannot be easily concealed again. Trade and investments and glib talk about ‘a community of common destiny’ cannot erase anxieties about China.
The concerns are not all the same for every country, and are not held with the same intensity by every country, but they exist and are reshaping the security architecture of the Indo-Pacific.
Russian aggression and China’s reluctance to criticize Russian aggression, has also catalyzed some broader geopolitical trends that were largely tentative and inchoate before the invasion.
Putin has succeeded where successive post-Cold War American presidents have failed: he has got Europe to take its own defense seriously. Overnight, Germany doubled its defense budget and weaned itself from its taboo on arms transfers.
Without external intervention, the sheer mass of Russia will probably eventually overwhelm Ukraine and force a surrender. But that will not be the end of the story.
Equally importantly, Russian aggression and China’s support for it, has dispelled a dangerous Western illusion about the nature of post-Cold War international relations.
There are many good reasons to criticize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but this particular criticism assumed – probably unconsciously – that your rival ought to share your values and if they did not do so, this was somehow unnatural.
This is an important shift of intellectual framework because a similar cast of mind has bedeviled American and European relations with China. From 1972 to the end of the Cold War, US-China relations were primarily based on clinical geopolitical calculations.
I do not think anyone was quite so deluded as to think that the Chinese system would become exactly like the West, but the expectation was that it would evolve in the same broad direction.
Assuming your rival shares your values or ought to share them, can only lead to unpleasant surprises. More generally, it would be prudent not to over-emphasize values in international relations. Framing strategic competition as between ‘Democracy’ and ‘Authoritarianism’ limits rather than expands support.
China’s misjudgments began towards the end of Hu Jintao’s second term. Xi Jinping has doubled down on them. That these errors spanned the administrations of two very different leaders suggests that their root causes are systemic and not due to the folly or mistakes of any individual. It will not be easy for any Chinese leader, however powerful, to change course.
China is a communist country. Not any longer in its ideology, but certainly in its political structure. China is a Leninist state led by a Leninist-type vanguard party that legitimates its right to rule not by class-struggle, but by an ethno-nationalist historical narrative of humiliation, rejuvenation, and the attainment of the China Dream.
A Leninist vanguard party insists on control over every aspect of state and society; the Party’s interests must always take priority over all other interests. This attitude is the root cause of the Chinese behaviors that many countries find concerning.
An authoritarian state does have some advantages. It is better placed to set goals and pursue them relentlessly over the long-term. A Deng Xiaoping capable of taking a cold hard look at his life’s work, deciding it was at risk of failing, and radically changing direction with minimal opposition, could not have succeeded in any Western democratic system.
But the ability to set and relentlessly pursue long-term goals is an advantage only if the goals are correct in the first place. Deng’s decision to reform and open up was correct.
Deng introduced the principle of collective leadership to ensure that the excesses of Maoist China would not be repeated. By discarding term limits and concentrating power around himself, Xi has reintroduced something akin to a neo-Maoist single point of failure into the Chinese system. There is good reason to wonder about the quality of information being fed upwards to decision-makers.
China has insisted that the situations of Taiwan and Ukraine are not the same, and indeed they are different. Taiwan is a more important node in the global economy and more strategically important to the US and its allies in East Asia.
China’s strategic dilemmas are real. Still, we should not assume that they will necessarily make China change course. China has no good options. But precisely because it has no good options, Beijing might well conclude that American, and more generally, Western, hostility is so implacable, that it is a sunk cost and that no basic adjustment of policy is necessary because it will not make any difference to how the West regards China.
The coalescing of the West does not imply that a China that continues to tie itself to Russia can be isolated or ‘contained’ as the Soviet Union was contained.
The US and the Soviet Union led two different systems which were connected only at their margins. The US-Soviet competition was over which system would prevail.
These supply chains are what distinguish 21st century interdependence from earlier periods of interdependence. Disentangling them is no easy matter. Just as it is easier for China to talk about becoming more self-reliant than to do it, it is easier for the West to talk about diversifying supply-chains to become less dependent on China than to do it.
The US and China will continue to compete within this single global system. Competition within a single system is fundamentally different from competition between systems.
Competition within a system is not and cannot be about one system displacing another system. It cannot even be about any vital part of the system disrupting any other vital part of the system in any way that could fundamentally damage the entire system. In this kind of complex, non-binary competition, it is as impossible to ‘contain’ China as to contain yourself.
None of this means that the geopolitical and intellectual shifts catalyzed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine can be disregarded by China. Broad global geopolitical trends are moving in directions that Beijing will not find comforting. Ukraine has underscored the importance of regional balances and the vital role of US leadership in such regional balances.
Even if not every country was prepared to say so explicitly, anxieties about China had always made Asia more aware of this strategic reality than other regions. This strategic reality is now clear in Europe, and will eventually dawn on countries in the Middle East as well.
At the same time, the nature of US leadership is in the midst of a long-term redefinition. Russia is a dangerous adversary; China is a formidable competitor, but neither poses an existential threat to the US in the way the Soviet Union posed an existential threat. Competition within a single system cannot be existential because it takes place within a common framework; it is not about changing the framework.
This is the thread that links the Clinton administration through the Obama and Trump administrations to the Biden administration. With the George W. Bush administration as an exception forced by 9/11, the chief priorities of all the other administrations were domestic. This is not the ‘retreat’ from the world or neo-isolationism that some have portrayed, but a recalibration of the terms of America’s engagement with the world.
More than fifty years ago, as part of the process of disentangling itself from intervention in Vietnam, the 1969 Guam Doctrine heralded the US moving from direct intervention in Asia to being the offshore balancer. The US has been remarkably consistent in the offshore balancer role ever since.
An offshore balancer is not in retreat, but demands more of its allies, partners, and friends in terms of sharing the burdens of upholding order. The Biden administration has engaged and consulted allies, partners, and friends more than its predecessor.
As AUKUS has demonstrated, Biden is prepared to go to unprecedented lengths to provide tools to allies who are prepared to step up. The last time the US shared nuclear submarine propulsion technology with an ally was more than sixty years ago.
In Southeast Asia, ASEAN has not sufficiently internalized these new realities and the hard fact is that while the US under Biden will still be polite to those not prepared to step up, it will not take them seriously either. That Thailand, a formal US ally, was bypassed twice in 2021 by Secretary of Defense Austin and Vice-President Harris ought to have been a salutary lesson for all ASEAN members.
ASEAN need not – indeed should not – do everything the US wants it to do any more than it should do everything China wants it to do. But unless ASEAN finds the strategic imagination and political will to define the parameters of what it is prepared to do and, equally important, what it is not prepared to do, with both the US and China, ASEAN will be marginalized.
Finally, Ukraine has drawn attention to the nuclear dimension of regional balances. In a speech to the Munich Security Forum before the invasion of his country began, President Zelensky struck a tragically wistful note about Ukraine giving up the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union in return for empty promises. He was right. Would Russia have invaded if Ukraine had a nuclear deterrent? It is too late for Ukraine, but the lesson would not have been lost on others.
In Japan, former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has suggested that Japan should allow the US to station nuclear weapons on its territory as it does with some NATO members in Europe. Japan has in fact been quietly preparing for several decades – with American acquiescence if not complicity – for contingencies that may require it to acquire an independent nuclear deterrent.
For Japan and South Korea, the impetus was North Korea’s development of nuclear and ICBM capabilities and China’s modernization of its nuclear forces.
I do not think Japan or South Korea are eager to become nuclear weapon states. Such a decision will be politically very painful and internally divisive. But however reluctantly, the inherent logic of their circumstances will inexorably lead them in that direction.
I do not know how long it will take, but sooner or later, a six-way balance of mutually assured destruction between the US, China, Russia, the two Koreas, and Japan will be established in East Asia.
Independent nuclear deterrents will keep Japan and South Korea within the US alliance system. With India and Pakistan in the equation, a multipolar nuclear regional balance will freeze the existing configuration of the Indo-Pacific, preventing its domination by any single major power. A multipolar Indo-Pacific maximizes maneuver space for ASEAN and other small countries.
This is not the kind of multipolarity that China favors. Nuclear weapons are great equalizers. In so far as the China Dream is a dream of hierarchy with China at the apex, a multipolar nuclear balance will force Beijing to temper – de facto if not de jure – such ambitions. This will make for healthier relationships between China and its neighbors.
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