By James M Dorsey
US President Joe Biden potentially made a strategic mistake when he framed the struggle for Ukraine as a battle between democracy and autocracy. In doing so, he did America’s main rival, China, an unintended favour.
Ukraine is not about democracy vs. autocracy; from America’s perspective, that may be a good thing. Instead, Ukraine is about adherence to international law versus a world order based on civilisationalist rather than nation states in which might is right, and the law of the jungle rules supreme.
The framing of democracy vs. autocracy can easily be dismissed by leaders like China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who proudly tout the virtues of their autocratic rule.
However, the framing of the rule of law and adherence to international law puts in a bind civilisationalist leaders like Xi, who, in line with Putin, define their countries’ borders in civilisational rather than national terms while simultaneously paying lip service to international law. They see their international and/or domestic societal boundaries not as defined by internationally recognised frontiers but by civilisational reach.
In Russia’s case, Russian-speaking populations and adherents to Russian culture constitute the Russian world and mark its borders. In China, civilisationalism constitutes the framework for conflicts in the South and East China Seas and governs Chinese attitudes towards ethnic Chinese communities across the globe. In many ways, China follows the path of the United States, using trade, investment, infrastructure financing, and lending to countries across the Global South as its primary tools in shaping policies of other countries in its mould.
Nevertheless, Putin’s invasion, and even more so, his most recent annexation of Ukrainian territory that constitutes civilisationlist thinking taken to its extreme, complicates regional geopolitics for Xi. In contrast to Putin, who openly professes his desire to topple the current world order, Xi still sees an advantage in maintaining existing arrangements, albeit tweaked to be more accommodating to China.
Xi seeks to ensure that China, at least for now, is primus inter pares alongside the United States and that it can propagate its notion of a totalitarian surveillance state shielded from criticism.
This Russian Chinese divergence creates a double-edged sword for Beijing. It generates geopolitical opportunity, nowhere more so than in Afghanistan and Central Asia, a region crucial to Chinese security, when the Ukraine war has altered the balance of power in the Chinese Russian relationship.
Russia has turned itself into a pariah state in Western eyes. It has put a bull’s eye on itself by brutally challenging the international order and proving not good at it. At the same time, the war in Ukraine threatens to dash Putin’s and Xi’s hopes of papering over differences in their diverging notions of a 21st-century world order while presenting a unified vision.
That was first evident in September at a summit of the China-Russian-backed Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) that includes Central and South Asian states. Putin was forced to concede that China had “questions and concerns”’ about the Russian invasion.
Two months later, Xi warned Russia not to employ nuclear weapons in Ukraine in his first public rebuke of Putin. The warning reflected China’s genuine rejection of nuclear war in Eurasia while offering Xi a low-cost way of garnering brownie points as he hosted German chancellor Olaf Scholz, the first European leader to visit Beijing since the eruption of Covid-19 and the Russian invasion.
Putin did not spell out China’s questions and concerns, but what they involved is obvious. Even if his justification of the invasion on the basis that Ukraine and Russia were one nation resembles, in some ways, Chinese claims to Taiwan, the war still violates China’s principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of others.
To be sure, in contrast to Russian claims on Ukraine, China can point to an endorsement of its designs for Taiwan by an international community that, by and large, has accepted the One China policy as the basis for establishing relations with China.
China’s reluctance to back Russia in its challenging of international borders shouldn’t come as a surprise. China has refused to recognize Russian-inspired declarations of independence in 2008 by two regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Russia’s grab of Crimea in 2014. More recently, on a visit to Kazakhstan in September, Xi pledged to support Kazakhstan’s “territorial integrity,” a veiled warning to Putin not to act on his claim that Kazakhstan never was a state.
Nonetheless, China does not want to see Russia defeated. At the same time, the poor performance of Russian weapons and other military hardware calls into question past Chinese reliance on key Russian technology. It is likely to encourage China to become even more technologically self-reliant.
That was already happening before Ukraine with the rollout in 2017 of the fifth generation Chengdu J-20 Chinese fighter that is believed to be technologically superior to Russia SU-57E.Add to this that the Ukraine war has strengthened NATO and demonstrated the power and efficacy of Western weaponry in battle.
Furthermore, the Ukraine invasion is likely to be the death knell for the presumed division of labour between Russia and China, whereby in broad lines, Russia focused more on security in Central Asia and the Caucasus while China played to its economic strengths with some forays into security. Russian setbacks undermine cohesion within Russia’s regional defense alliance, the Central Security Treaty Organisation or CSTO.
Today, it would be hard to imagine that CSTO forces would be called for help like in January, a month before the Ukraine invasion when they intervened in Kazakhstan to restore law and order amid mass anti-government protests. Six months later, CSTO failed to respond to a request by Armenia in renewed fighting with Azerbaijan. In September, Kyrgyzstan pulled out of joint CSTO military exercises after the power vacuum in Central Asia enabled border clashes with Tajikistan. Last month, Kyrgyzstan, home to a Russian military base, rejected a demand that it expels the Ukrainian ambassador.
The division of labour breakdown occurs as regional uncertainty rises with political violence in Afghanistan, social unrest in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and potential conflict between Russia and Kazakhstan. China fears that Uygur militants will use Afghanistan to foster instability in its troubled north-western province of Xinjiang and that other adversaries might seek to use Afghanistan as a base to target China or its interests from Central and South Asia. Sharing an almost 1,800-kilometre-long border, Central Asia is critical to China. That is why the region was the starting point in 2013 for the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s flagship foreign policy initiative. (IPA Service)
By arrangement with the Arabian Post