By Dost Muhammad Barrech

China’s foreseen dilemma in Ukraine war

May 16, 2022 - 9:39

The ongoing war in Ukraine triggered by Russia has started a fascinating debate among the experts; viewing the Russian military operations in Ukraine will alter the complexion of international politics, and posing a grave challenge to the Western democratic values.

The invasion invites the U.S. to untie its Western allies seeking to perpetuate the war. Washington is accustomed to embroiling itself in such wars since the end of WW II. Meanwhile, China accuses the U.S. of provoking Russia with its support for NATO expansion which impelled Moscow to wage a war.

However, Beijing may reassess the strategy of supporting Moscow because of multiple factors. The war has deepened political polarization within China, supportive group endorsees alignment with Russia while the opposition bloc is apprehensive of China’s support. The anti-Russia camp still remembers the Treaty of Aigun inked in 1858 resulted in the cession of China's nearly 230,000 square miles of territory to Russia. 

Beijing’s reluctance to condemn Moscow witnesses the deterioration of ties with immediate neighbors and the members of the Belt and Road Initiative BRI. China’s mantra of a win-win situation and peaceful rise in the evolving Ukraine crisis turns out to be dubious. Supporting Russia has exacerbated China’s ties with U.S. and its economic counterparts such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan.

The war will further galvanize the members of Quad and AUKUS in the containment of China. The above-mentioned members vowed that they would join the bandwagon of the U.S. in imposing secondary sanctions on Chinese companies. 

The Ukraine war, presumably, is a part of the great powers competition in Eurasia. The region, presently, appears to have been the locus of the great powers’ rivalry. Eurasia in past remained a battlefield, currently, is exceedingly important for China’s BRI, Russian, and the U.S. influence. Against this backdrop, Halford Mackinder articulates that “whoever rules Eurasia, controls the world”. Great powers will leave no stone unturned to increase their influence in this crucial region. Instability in the New Eurasia Land Bridge Economic Corridor connecting BRI with Europe through Kazakhstan, Russia, and Belarus would pose a grave challenge to BRI. China’s led BRI is unlikely to remain immune to the worsening situation in Ukraine. 

The war disrupted supply and chains roiled commodities markets, and caused billions of dollars of losses for Chinese firms. Nickel titan Tsingshan Holding Group of China has approximately lost USD$8 billion on ill-timed trades. The war has also resulted in China’s export order cancellations, enfeebling Chinese industrial productivity overwhelmingly. Biden in his speech in Poland on March 26 says that “This battle will not be won in days or months either. We need to steel ourselves for the long fight ahead.”  His speech clearly manifests that the U.S. intends to prolong the war. The perpetuation of war will augment China’s economic losses in the coming days.

After the initiation of BRI in 2013, Ukraine was believed to have been pivotal in the strategic calculation of China. Beijing is the biggest trading partner of Ukraine more than 6,000 Chinese citizens are in the country. Kyiv’s nearly 15.3 percent of exports go to China but the former has seriously been irritated by the latter’s support to Russia. Deepening ties between Moscow and Beijing to some Chinese experts does not serve China's national interest. They reckon Beijing needs the West more than Russia in the sphere of trade, technology and investment. The rift between China and the West will force the members of the EU to get introspection and ponder over the success of the Build Back Better World (B3W) planned by the G7 group consisting of the world's richest democracies. B3W is an alternative to BRI, the U.S. including the western countries will start propaganda and an ideational war against BRI in a bid to make B3W more successful.        

Moscow is expected to attack Moldova to exert pressure on the Baltic States including, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland, and convince other the former socialist states not to join NATO. If Russian expansions occur in the future, they will intensify Chinese worries about disturbing BRI projects. Russia, presently, is dissatisfied with China's growing foothold in its backyard and Eurasia. The invasion of Ukraine with a fragile economy can be assumed to be a calculated move of Moscow to increase its influence in Eurasia and international politics.      

Between 1958 and 1971, during the Cold War, China was also trapped in the shackles of great powers' rivalry. The People’s Republic of China, at that time, met strategic threats from both the U.S. and the Soviet Union simultaneously. The strategic threats forced China to remain thoroughly prepared for a full-scale war against the foreseen threats of the two great powers. To secure its economic zones from the attacks, China shifted factories from the developed eastern region to underdeveloped western areas concealing them in artificial caves. Reallocating industries caused significant economic hardships and rampant poverty.  

During the Cold War, the People’s Liberation Army Navy PLAN’s main concern was Taiwan-based Kuomintang KMT forces that were perceived to be attacking the mainland of China. At the same time, the Soviet Union threat also emerged when China’s relations continued to strain with the former. In the later part of the 1960s PLAN shifted its focus from East and South to North to cope with the Soviet threats. Though the invasion was expected to be land-based, PLAN was alerted to avert any threat from the sea. This situation motivated Beijing not only to spend on its land forces but also on its naval and maritime forces to thwart threats emanating from the Soviet Union.

However, there has been a steep rise in convergence in interest between Moscow and Beijing on account of the U.S. hegemonic designs, impelling the latter to support Russia in the Ukraine crisis. It is equally important to guess the contemplations of Russia in the ongoing war. Over the last three decades, the declining role of Russia in great powers' rivalry due to its weak economy and the U.S. sanctions in the current war gives an impetus to revitalize its position. Arguably, joining NATO Kyiv was one of the leading factors that forced Russia to start its military operations in Ukraine. The Russian move, by and large, is also attributed to consolidating its position in the great powers' competition. China would ponder over the Ukraine war; the war is likely to be prolonged. The perpetuation of war could cause a huge blow to BRI, uniting the West strengthening Quad, and AUKUS against China. In short, the already divided world will witness further political polarization democracy vs. authoritarianism.     


Dost Muhammad Barrech is a former Research Associate of Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI), currently, teaches in the International Relations (IR) Department, University of Balochistan (UOB) Quetta. He is also a PhD (IR) candidate at (IIUI).He can be reached at bareach87@gmail.com 
                    
 

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