Does Beijing benefit from US-Russia confrontation over Ukraine?
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have met face to face ahead of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics on 4 February against the background of Russia-Ukraine tensions. According to Chinese state media, they discussed Sino-Russian relations and a series of major issues concerning international strategic security and stability. It appears that a new deal for more Russian gas to be supplied to China was also a highlight of the discussions. Zaobao’s associate editor Han Yong Hong explains why it is not China’s aim to goad Russia on or get involved in the Ukraine crisis, and any suggestion of “Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrrow” may be overstated.
The situation between Russia and Ukraine remains tense, with both sides seeming to be on the brink of war.
Russia has gathered 100,000 troops as well as medical and blood supplies at Ukraine’s eastern border. As tensions peak, analysts think that if Russia launches a full invasion, Europe would face the biggest war since 1940. Last week, two US military experts wrote in The National Interest, warning: “What both sides need is a grand strategy that redefines relations between the West and Russia, gives each what its pride and security interests require, and averts a conflict that could escalate into World War III.”
Over the past week, Russia and the US — the leader of the Western world — have been caught in public verbal spats. Following an intense exchange between both sides on 31 January at the United Nations Security Council, on 1 February Russian President Vladimir Putin broke his silence since December last year, publicly accusing the US and NATO of ignoring Russia’s security concerns, and claiming that the US is using Ukraine as an instrument to contain Russia’s development and push Russia into military conflict. White House press secretary Jen Psaki borrowed an earlier analogy by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, derisively likening it to “when the fox is screaming from the top of the henhouse that he’s scared of the chickens”.
All just empty talk?
Quarrelling aside, the rhetoric from both sides signals that they do not want to fight. The US reaffirms that the door is still open for a diplomatic solution, while Putin has denied plans to invade Ukraine, and blaming the US for forcing a war on itself is not a bad way to get out of the situation.
In Putin’s bilateral talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on 4 February ahead of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics, most people do not expect him to spoil things for the host by starting a fight at the border and stealing the limelight from the Winter Olympics.* However, only Putin knows what cards he intends to play. While the US and European powers have prepared economic sanctions and may even sanction Putin himself to make him pay a heavy price, analysts remain worried that Putin will do whatever it takes.
The current Ukraine crisis began in early 2014, with the overthrow of the pro-Russia Ukrainian President; Russia acted swiftly, annexing the Crimea peninsula to the south of Ukraine in March. Russia has always seen Ukraine as its “backyard” and safety buffer, and when the pro-Russia Ukrainian government fell and the anti-Russia regime came into power, it was like a geopolitical earthquake for Russia.
And after Russia annexed Crimea, Western players like the European Union (EU) and the US imposed many political and economic sanctions on Russia, while European powers stood more firmly in support of Ukraine. Until now, the West has not officially included Ukraine in NATO, but NATO is willing to have Ukraine as a Western bastion against Russia, while Ukraine yearns to play this role — in 2019, joining NATO was written into Ukraine’s constitution as a national objective.
Signals that Russia might invade Ukraine began surfacing in July last year, as flagged by Putin’s essay that Ukraine’s leaders are implementing an anti-Russia project; also, Putin’s calls to prevent NATO expansion, bar Ukraine from joining NATO, and pull out NATO troops in eastern Europe were all rejected by the West.
Fears of ‘Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow’
The escalating situation in Ukraine has the US and Taiwan public talking about “Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow”. Taiwan’s pan-Blue coalition warned that if Taiwan leans towards the West too much, it could end up like Ukraine and face the threat of a military reunification from the mainland. On the other hand, American academics warned that if Beijing and Moscow join forces and invade Ukraine and Taiwan, that would be a nightmare for the US. Western scholars also worry that if the US does not show toughness and determination on the Ukraine issue, it would be sending a wrong signal to Beijing and emboldening it to invade Taiwan.
However, a deeper analysis of the situations of the stakeholders involved will show that Beijing does not think this way and will not be overly embroiled in US-Russia competition.
Beijing is clearly aware that it is the rise of mainland China that is the US’s greatest concern, not Russia. At the same time, the geographic location of Taiwan in the US’s security design for the Asia-Pacific region is also unmatched by Ukraine. In other words, Beijing knows for a fact that mainland China is the US’s top competitor, and that the US will not spend too much energy on Russia. While the US-Russia confrontation could partially ease Beijing’s pressure, Beijing does not have much to gain from the situation. On the contrary, Russia can take advantage of the tension between China and the US to expand its influence, which may not be a good thing for Beijing.
In recent years, amid intensifying US hostility towards China, Beijing and Moscow have elevated their bilateral relations to that of a “quasi-alliance” to jointly resist US pressure. However, it is not in the interests of China to aggravate its rivalry with the US for the sake of Russia — China still needs the US in the areas of technology and trade.
Besides, Beijing is in no rush to achieve military reunification within one or two years either, and the pressure of their presidential terms expiring is less on Xi than Putin. To Beijing, Taiwan is part of its territory and on a whole different level than Ukraine, which the UN recognises as a sovereign state. The momentum and manner in which Beijing chooses to handle the Taiwan issue does not need synchronisation with events in other countries or be used as a bargaining chip.
Putin received a grand welcome to Beijing this time, and also gave an exclusive interview to Shen Haixiong, president and editor-in-chief of the China Media Group. He also did a signed article for Xinhua News Agency, in which he said that a “mutually beneficial energy partnership is being formed between our countries”, and that trade cooperation between both countries would also be strengthened. He added that “an important part of the visit will be a discussion of relevant international topics”, and that both countries would work towards “promoting greater democracy in the system of international relations to make it more equitable and inclusive”.
The Ukraine crisis would likely be discussed at the Xi-Putin summit. But as mentioned earlier, Beijing would perhaps pay more attention to Sino-Russian bilateral cooperation as it does not wish to see war erupt, and neither are the Chinese people concerned over the Ukraine issue. Zhang Jun, China’s permanent representative to the UN, said on 31 January, “Under such circumstances, what is the basis for the countries concerned to insist that there would be a war?” Hopefully, his confidence is justified and the world can get through this month in peace.
*Initial reports of the meeting say that Putin told Xi that Russia would supply 10 billion cbm of gas per year to China from the Far East under a new contract. He also said that conditions between the two countries were of an “unprecedented nature and an example of a dignified relationship”.
Author: Han Yong Hong, Think China