Artyom Lukin: China will be the principal winner in the battle for Ukraine
In the Ukraine crisis, there is one player who is going to win regardless of the outcome of the standoff. Yet this player has apparently nothing to do with the whole story. That is China.
The leadership in Beijing must be secretly delighted watching the struggle between Russia and the West. The Ukraine crisis can seriously poison Moscow’s relations with Washington and Brussels for a long time to come, thus reducing their mutual ability to coordinate policies on the major issues in world politics. One of such issues, perhaps the most important among them, concerns geopolitical risks associated with the rise of China.
Up to the present, Russia has pursued a very balanced policy toward its giant Asian neighbor. Although the Chinese side has recently been increasingly signaling that it would like closer strategic ties with Russia, even an alliance perhaps, Moscow would not cross the line that would transform their current “strategic partnership” into a full-blown geopolitical bloc. In particular, Russia was not ready to back China’s assertive stance on the territorial disputes in East Asia.
Political and economic sanctions, which are now being threatened against Russia by the West, will inevitably push Moscow toward Beijing. This, in turn, will reinforce the Middle Kingdom’s strategic positions in Asia. Having acquired Russia as a safe rear area, as well as access to its natural resources and military technologies, China would feel far more confident in its rivalry with the United States for primacy in the Asia-Pacific.
China’s response to the recent developments around Ukraine is telling. Throughout the crisis the Chinese media have tended to blame the Western meddling for what was happening there. After Russia declared its readiness to use military force, the PRC’s Foreign Ministry urged “the relevant parties in Ukraine to resolve their internal disputes peacefully within the legal framework so as to safeguard the lawful rights and interests of all ethnic communities in Ukraine,” with no sign of condemnation of the Russian takeover of the Crimea. According to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the phone conversation of Russian FM Sergey Lavrov and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi showed “a considerable convergence of Russian and Chinese views” with regard to the Ukraine events. China’s official press commentary are quite sympathetic with Moscow, stressing that Putin’s determination to protect the interests of Russia and Russian-speaking citizens is “quite understandable.”
Such a stance by China can be interpreted as nothing other than benevolent neutrality toward Moscow. One may suspect that, in exchange China would expect from Russia the same kind of “benevolent neutrality” regarding its actions in East Asia and the Western Pacific.
In the 1990s, Zbigniew Brzezinski likened Eurasia to a grand chess board, emphasizing the geopolitical interconnectedness of various parts of the supercontinent. That metaphor is now even more valid, with Eurasia being geopolitically interdependent more than ever. What is now occurring in Ukraine and around it will inevitably affect the games being played out on the opposite side of the board, if only because the players are oftentimes the same. This is well understood by some strategists in Washington, who worry that, excessive pressure from the West “may alter the geopolitical balance by putting Russia closer to China.” However, the US has not still made up its mind as to who is America’s top geopolitical foe in this grand chess game – Russia or China?
When the US enjoyed its “unipolar moment” in the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s, Washington could easily pursue a dual containment policy – against both Russia and China. Since that time, the balance of power has changed significantly. Now America is hardly in a position to confront two great powers in Eurasia simultaneously. Americans have to decide which region is more important to them – the post-Soviet Eastern Europe (whose heart is constituted by Ukraine) or East Asia? Today engaging Russia in the battle over eastern Ukraine, the US may, in ten or fifteen years from now, pay the price of losing East Asia.
Artyom Lukin is Associate Professor of International Relations and Deputy Director for Research at the School of Regional and International Studies, Far Eastern Federal University (Vladivostok, Russia). Email: email@example.com