Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have met many times, but sometimes one man's vision does not correspond with another's. Photo: WikiCommons

China is experiencing three different forces that are shaking up its world.

One is the war in Ukraine and the spin of the propaganda about it. The second is its ties with Europe, also strained because of the war. The third is the wild card of North Korea incensing the situation in East Asia.

China initially believed that Russia would win easily in Ukraine and therefore blamed the “special operation” by Moscow on America because of NATO’s expansion.

“The eastward enlargement of NATO, led by the United States, is the root of the Ukrainian crisis,” said a People’s Daily article under the pseudonym Zhong Sheng, used by the party mouthpiece for commentary on key international issues.

“NATO has become a tool for the United States to practice its hegemony,” the commentary said. “The US-led NATO has for a long time created turbulence around Russia, including starting ‘color revolutions’.”

However, now the war is clearly turning against Russia, Chinese people realize it, and therefore America may come under a different light.

Yes, the United States may have been tricky and evil, fooling naive Russian President Vladimir Putin into the Ukrainian bear trap. However, by doing it, the US is also smart.

In fact, America is winning and Russia is losing, so if China is going on spinning the story that Russia was right in attacking Ukraine, it also sells the idea that Russia was stupid for failing against America.

Then why should China go with stupid Russia and not back the US, which is doing much better? This is a conundrum that Beijing so far is failing to address, probably because it fails to realize the hidden message it tells Chinese people.

EU versus China

The other issue is about Europe. For decades, China has been trying to play Europe as a counterbalance to the United States and perhaps pit European issues against those of America. This policy may have scored a few successes as both Americans and Europeans were eager to run alone and against one another for the Chinese market.

However, the Ukrainian war has created a deep weakness in Europe. The European countries didn’t believe Putin would actually invade Ukraine as the US had been saying for months.

Once Putin invaded Ukraine, it was as if the whole architecture of the European mindset fell apart.

China’s President Xi Jinping, then German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in happier times during the G20 Summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. Photo: AFP / Brendan Smialowski

They had strategically misunderstood Russia for many years, they realized. The backbone of European politics was German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s idea that Russia could be convinced to turn to the West and forfeit its old ways in return for some essential honey: profitable trade with the EU.

An embodiment of this idea was the pipelines bringing gas from Russia to Europe, mainly to Germany and Italy.

The thinking in Brussels was that Moscow’s interest at stake was too big to risk: gas was important for Europe but euros were even more critical for the Russian economy. Therefore, nobody would step on that essential bond.

War in Ukraine proved to Europe that Moscow could risk the euro supply in return for purely political and strategic gains. It was clear that if Russia had successfully incorporated Ukraine, two other areas would be at risk.

Transnistria, which borders Romania, and the corridor cutting Poland from Lithuania and linking Belarus to the Russian enclave in Kaliningrad. That is, all the gains of peace and security made by Europe by the end of the Cold War could be put in jeopardy.

Germany had been the biggest winner of the Cold War. It had managed to reunite the country and put two layers of security between itself and Russia: a layer of NATO new members (Baltic states, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, et cetera) plus a layer of neutral countries (Belarus and Ukraine).

All of this could end soon, Russia would again be at the German border, and 30 years of peace would be for nothing.

Moreover, in the course of contacts between delegates from old and new Europe – say Germany, Poland or Romania – the Chinese seemed to their EU counterparts somehow callous about developments in Ukraine. For many European countries, events in Ukraine have a strong personal and psychological value.

It brings back bitter memories of war and Soviet oppression that are still fresh in Europe. China had sounded particularly cavalier about these sentiments and oblivious to European security concerns, attributing all EU worries to the puppeteering of the US behind the scenes.

A recent essay said: “China-EU relations have reached an unprecedented stalemate. Reactions to the war in Ukraine and perceptions about the ensuing political crisis differ widely. The ongoing war in Ukraine can turn the already troubled China-EU relationship into an inoperable one.

“While Europe and China are at a crossroads, it is a crucial exercise to find ways out of this quagmire. It starts with recalling the key grievances on both sides.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, bottom right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, top left, during a videoconference to approve an investment pact between China and the European Union on December 30, 2020, in Brussels. Photo: AFP / Dursun Aydemir / Anadolu Agency

This had nasty consequences on April 1, when Chinese President Xi Jinping had a virtual summit with European leaders. The meeting was apparently frosty.

The president of the EU commission Ursula von der Leyen was tough with Xi, linking trade with the EU with Chinese pressures on Russia. She then dismissed the Chinese approach: “Let’s think of the economy creating greater difficulties in EU-Chinese relations.”

Europe is China’s main market and, with the US, it makes up the largest part of China’s exports. Beijing in recent years has been trying to wean off this dependency or transform it.

However, it is still there. Europe and especially Germany have very significant investments in China, but this in the future could be uncertain if Europe feels that China is in fact politically backing Russia in its Ukrainian adventure.

This feeling is reinforced by the official Chinese report of the meeting between Chinese and Russian foreign ministers, Wang Yi and Sergei Lavrov.

The People’s Daily wrote: “Lavrov briefed on the Russian-Ukrainian negotiations, saying that Russia is committed to cooling tensions and will continue peace talks with Ukraine and maintain communication with the international community. Wang Yi said that the Ukrainian issue has a complex history and context, which is both the outbreak of long-term accumulation of security contradictions in Europe and the result of Cold War thinking and group confrontation.”

But this is very different from how the EU, US and the developed world see things. It is not about the right of a big state to have a sphere of influence; it is about being against solving political frictions through war and invasion, redrawing the end of the Cold War in Europe.

For China, there appears to be little or no difference between the invasion of Iraq and the invasion of Ukraine.

The EU disagrees deeply with that viewpoint; although it didn’t approve of war in Iraq, it believes Ukraine is a whole different kettle of fish. The war in Iraq was to have a more orderly and peaceful Middle East; Ukraine was about spreading Russian naked power.

There is power in both instances, but one dons values and principles, the other is naked. Here, in Europe, there is an immense gap.

This trumps economic returns, that, as the Russia case proved, will not guarantee a peaceful and stable environment.

In sum, in Europe and its heart, Germany, geopolitics plus morals trump economics. Chinese seem to miss this, failing to address the morals of the Ukrainian situation.

Here lurks a deeper divide: We have an order based on country power or on rules power. Of course, there’s overlap, but there is also a difference. Here ancient Chinese history could help, as the issue was somehow present.

In ancient China, Confucians advocated an “international and domestic order” based on the rules of the Rites of Zhou 周礼 or, according to Mohists, based on the Will of Heaven tianzhi 天志.

Or could it be based on the power of one state guo 国 claiming the title of wang 王, righteous ruler? It was arguably clear to both Confucians and Mohists that if every state claimed to be wang they would fight with one another to annihilate the “wrong wang.”

Whereas, recourse to principles and common good would decrease friction. Therefore, if China buys into Russian rhetoric of NATO expansion, whereas Europe believes in general principles of peace and security, the gap with the EU could widen.

Ancient China is not the same as in modern times, but the analogy should help the Chinese understand their predicament.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been test-firing missiles at a particularly bad time for China. Photo: AFP / KCNA / KNS

Missiles from Pyongyang

The third threat comes from North Korea. Almost trying to steal the lousy limelight away from the Ukrainian fire, North Korea has been extremely busy launching missiles up in the air and posing as a new regional threat.

The latest attempt came on March 24 with the launch of a ballistic missile that could reach the whole of the US, the Hwasong-17. It was the 12th launch since the beginning of the year. Moreover, North Korea’s nuclear programs also appear to be very active. On March 7, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency reported “ongoing indications consistent with the operation of the 5-megawatt reactor at the Yongbyon site.”

The IAEA also said it continued to observe construction activities at the Yongbyon site, including constructing an annex to the reported Centrifuge Enrichment Facility, while commercial satellite imagery analysis indicated that there was renewed activity at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, the first time since its closure in 2018.

On April 15, the 110th birthday of eternal leader Kim Il-sung, grandfather of the actual leader Kim Jong-un, North Korea could test some more missiles. With Russia embroiled in Ukraine, China is the only viable lifeline to North Korea. Therefore it becomes easy for neighbors to blame China for abetting Pyongyang’s misbehavior.

Things have changed in South Korea, too. The new president elected in March, Yoon Suk-yeol, is firmer in his policies toward the North. Therefore the two elements are bringing about a firmer stance on North Korea: a more belligerent Pyongyang and a more resolute Seoul.

This is welding back together the northern security triangle of South Korea, Japan and the US. Then, the US is saying to China that either it manages to bring North Korea back to the table to discuss a true and effective disarmament or a new campaign of stronger containment against Pyongyang will have to be put in place.

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, the architect of the six-party talks, wrote: “It is time for China to again intercede with North Korea and, using its leverage, get the North to accept the unconditional invitation from the United States to meet anytime, anywhere.

“Once at the table, the United States and North Korea can resume a 27-year dialogue, with some hope that North Korea will realize that a path to normal relations with the United States in return for complete and verifiable denuclearization and appreciable progress on human rights issues in the North, is in Mr. Kim’s interest … If North Korea refuses to re-engage, then the only principled option, working with our allies in South Korea and Japan, is to intensify a policy of containment and deterrence, with additional sanctions imposed on North Korea when they continue to violate UN resolutions prohibiting ballistic missile launches and nuclear tests.”

This could mean that new missiles or even nuclear weapons could be redeployed in South Korea. Here, there could be a thinly veiled warning to Beijing. New weapons deployed in South Korea or Japan are officially aimed at Pyongyang, but unofficially could also be used against Beijing, which puts China in a difficult position.

New Russian temptation

These three elements are all external, and China is suffering internally as well. New waves of Covid are paralyzing big cities, creating panic and discontent. This can be made up for by telling people that life is also harsh in the rest of the world.

However, the news is trickling into China that life is back to normal in Western countries with more effective vaccines. Furthermore, there is the real estate crisis, with large developers practically going bust. The sector was, for two decades, the main driver of economic growth.

The state is buffering it by buying back properties from bankrupt private developers. This saves individual families but creates an even bigger burden for the state, already weighed down by the massive debt built up by financing the only residual big driver of growth, infrastructure expansion.

The Evergrande Center building in Shanghai is emblematic of China’s wider economic risks. Photo: AFP / Hector Retamal

All in all, this creates multiple pressures on China that it can try to patch with clever stratagems, propaganda and crafty diplomacy, but the more this goes on, the more it proves the whole architecture is failing.

In this, Beijing may be tempted to follow Russia once again. Moscow is allegedly finding a path for a truce in the war and withdrawal from Ukraine. However, Putin has opened two more issues that might keep tensions high in Europe.

He demanded to be paid in rubles for its gas and, on March 30, flew jets that violated Swedish airspace “equipped with nuclear devices.” He could keep Russians on a high alert with this brinkmanship, try to sell a new narrative of Russia under siege by NATO, and thus stay in power, fending off a possible domestic backlash.

But tying China’s destiny to Russia even more could pull Beijing down if Putin were to fall. Still, removing itself from this situation may hasten Putin’s political demise and open China’s northwestern front. Neither is a good choice for Beijing.

The West’s tide is too big to turn, and the West is economically and militarily vast, especially if one welds together the US, EU, Japan, South Korea and other countries. Then China should understand that it needs to change to survive.

Beijing may need a big plan to get out of this mess.

This essay first appeared on the Settimana News website and is republished with permission. To see the original, please click here. Follow Francesco Sisci on Twitter: @francescosisci