Despite its self-proclaimed status as a defender of state sovereignty and of the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of others, China has found itself unable to criticize its close strategic partner Russia over its “military operation” – Beijing won’t even refer to it as an invasion of Ukraine – blaming instead (surprise, surprise) the United States for forcing Moscow to defend itself from the mere prospect of Ukraine possibly one day joining NATO.
The best it would do was abstain at the UN Security Council, while calling on “all sides” to exercise restraint.
China’s position has some short-term advantages. As the rest of the world refuses to buy Russian oil, gas, or wheat, China will shamelessly step in to keep the Russian economy from collapse by buying these commodities, no doubt at reduced prices.
As Moscow becomes more and more dependent on China’s assistance, its real status as the junior partner in the Sino-Russian relationship will be further confirmed and solidified. Russia will join the club of third-world countries that have become increasingly indebted to Beijing and thus more willing – if not compelled – to do its bidding.
Putin’s recent speeches have made it abundantly clear that his real motivation in invading Ukraine – which he has called a fake country – is the rebuilding of the historic Russian empire.
Like Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Stalin – the Not-So-Great – before him, he sees the Ukrainian breadbasket as rightfully belonging to Russia, and he means to take it back.
But Chinese leader Xi Jinping would do well to look at the maps of the former empires. Ukraine was not the only area they had in common. The whole of Central Asia was Russia’s so-called “near abroad.”
Like Ukraine, there are many Russian-speaking citizens in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics who could one day be called upon to declare independence within the individual post-Cold War republics and call on Mother Russia for help, as the separatists in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine did to “justify” Putin’s intervention there.
The country with the most to lose in this scenario is China, whose growing influence throughout Central Asia must be seen by Putin as a threat that must be tolerated today but eventually redressed.
Given Moscow’s historic reign over this entire region, one can only imagine how much it upsets the Russian leader that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – the organization through which both Beijing and Moscow extend their influence in Central Asia – is named after a city in China rather than a Russian one.
The “Great Game” of the 21st Century may still end up pitting Moscow against Beijing in a region historically seen as Moscow’s soft underbelly. China’s silence about if not tacit support for Moscow’s effort to re-establish the western boundaries of Russia’s former empire will eventually come back to haunt Beijing when Putin the Great eventually – and I would argue inevitably – turns his attention southward.
Meanwhile, pundits are spilling a lot of ink speculating on how the Russian invasion of Ukraine will lead to or somehow justify or make inevitable a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
They overlook the significant differences between the two, including 90 miles of ocean and a “rock-solid” US commitment to help Taiwan defend itself in a form and manner yet to be determined.
Putin was able to factor out a US/NATO military response in planning his invasion; Xi will need to factor the US – and perhaps its Asian allies – in.
While Washington continues to maintain its policy of “strategic ambiguity” as to whether or not it would respond militarily to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, it has become significantly less ambiguous about its support for Taiwan democracy.
That has come in the wake of China’s heavy-handed pressure tactics toward Taiwan and its blatant violation of the Sino-UK Joint Declaration, which was supposed to assure basic freedoms in Hong Kong for 50 years after the 1997 turnover of the former UK colony to the Mainland – two earlier strategic blunders by Xi.
This is not to say that how Washington and the rest of the free world respond to the Ukraine invasion won’t be noticed in Beijing.
One of the consequences intended by planners of the concerted effort to inflict a heavy economic cost on Russia for its adventurism should be a strong message to China that it could expect the same if it were ever to invade Taiwan.
Beijing also needs to understand that, if the situation is reversed, Russia is unlikely to be able to return the favor and bail China out.
Putin’s narrative should also be sobering to Beijing. It began with a group of separatists (this time in Donetsk and Luhansk) – dare we call them “splittists”? – declaring independence.
A major power (in this case, Russian) then recognized these newly independent states and decided to militarily intervene to defend them. Is this the type of precedent Xi really wants to support?
Ralph A Cossa is the WSD-Handa chair in peace studies and president emeritus at the Pacific Forum, which first published this article. It is republished with kind permission.