Ukraine’s post-war economic recovery could provide the setting for US-China cooperation
- With Russia isolated, China is left without an ally to challenge the US-led world order. However, Washington is in no position to provoke Beijing, either
- What is needed is a return to cooperation and the task of rebuilding Ukraine once the war ends may provide a starting point
In 1904, France watched helplessly as its most important strategic ally, Russia, suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Japan, crippling the alliance they had created in 1894 to balance Germany’s growing dominance in Europe. With Russia’s standing as a great power in ruins, France was left isolated, enabling Berlin to act with increasing impunity. The march to World War I had commenced.
Today, it is China that is witnessing years of strategic planning go up in smoke. Russia’s military assault on Ukraine, anticipated to be a simple, three-day operation, has instead turned into a devastating stalemate resulting in massive casualties that will leave the Russian army in tatters for years to come.
It has also resulted in Russia’s international condemnation, crushing sanctions, and the departure of hundreds of Western businesses – wiping out 30 years of globalisation in just three weeks. Only two months earlier, China and Russia had pledged an alliance without limits to challenge the worldwide dominance of the United States. With its key strategic partner in ruins, where does China go from here?
Geopolitically speaking, China faces an even worse crisis than France a century earlier. The rise of Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries not only prompted the Franco-Russian alliance, but it also convinced Britain to resolve its centuries-old rivalry with France and Russia and create the coalition that would defeat Imperial Germany in WWI.
China now lacks a similar peer ally. Instead, Beijing has seen the Western alliance unite in opposition to Russia’s invasion, reinvigorating the historic bloc that won the Cold War and dominated the post-Cold-War era.
This is problematic given China’s intent to challenge the US-led order. A critical first step in that plan is re-establishing control over Taiwan; Beijing’s naval build-up and escalating threats of military intervention against Taipei have led many to conclude that it plans to take back Taiwan, heightening the risk of war with the West.
How should the Chinese react to the Ukraine disaster? First, given Russia’s devastating battlefield losses and the shattered economy, Beijing needs to reassess its geopolitical goals. Does it alone have the power to challenge the US, Japan, and the European Union?
Second, China’s leaders must recognise that, despite its numerous problems, the US is not in decline nor is China on the cusp of becoming the leading global power. This belief stems from a misreading of America’s power transition and how it ultimately replaced Britain at the apex of world politics.
It was not a consequence of America’s steady rise and Britain’s corresponding decline, but instead the result of three massive shocks – World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II – which wrecked British power and opened the door for the US.
Without these catastrophic events, Britain’s century-old global dominance coupled with American isolationism would have left the US remaining as – in the words of historian C.K. Arnold – Britain’s “honorary dominion”. There are no contemporary parallels.
China certainly now realises that the West would denounce and sanction a military assault on Taiwan and might become directly involved. Though China is far stronger economically than Russia, Minxin Pei argues in Nikkei that sanctions could still have a catastrophic impact on the Chinese economy.
Furthermore, given Ukraine’s heroic stand against the Russians, the Chinese should not consider an attack on Taiwan an easy operation. Its forces have even less combat experience than the Russians and face a far more daunting challenge: an air-sea assault as complex as the Normandy landings in World War II.
Consequently, Beijing should consider scaling down its long-range ambition of creating a new China-centric world order and rethink its fundamental belief that it could isolate the US from its decades-old allies.
But the US must also be wary of aggressively challenging China. America is recovering from the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic that has killed over a million Americans in just two years, compared to around 405,000 killed in all of World War II.
It also remains deeply divided politically as forces loyal to Donald Trump continue to undermine American democracy. As Mathew Burrows and Robert Manning of the Atlantic Council argue, a long cold war is not in America’s interests, either.
Despite the enormous suspicions that have emerged over the past years, Beijing and Washington must find room to compromise; here, the recent past is instructive. It was not long ago that the international community was speaking of “Chimerica”, the increasing economic interdependence between China and the US that promised to reshape global politics and reduce the threat of great-power conflict.
We have seen during the financial crisis of 2008-2009 how China and the United States coordinated their policies to save the world from economic collapse. It should be the goal of Washington, Beijing, London, Brussels and Tokyo to return to that era of international cooperation.
Many would now consider such hopes naive. However, few could have anticipated that, after centuries of bitter warfare, France and Britain could forge a level of cooperation that would see them fighting side by side in the Crimean War and World War I.
Once the war is over, the reconstruction of Ukraine will become the central question facing the world’s leading powers. This can provide the starting point where both sides can relearn how to cooperate. Ukraine’s recovery is important not only to the West but to China as well: it was one of Beijing’s key European allies supporting the extension of the Belt and Road Initiative to Europe.
This makes China an important player in Ukraine’s revival; successful coordination with the West could not only save Ukraine but might also dampen the current mistrust and reduce the risk of great-power conflict in the 21st century.
Author: Gregory Mitrovich was co-principal investigator for the project “Culture in Power Transitions: Sino-American Confrontation in the 21st Century”, funded by the United States Department of Defence, Minerva Research Initiative, SCMP