The writer is a professor at Georgetown University and served on the US National Security Council staff from 2009-2015
With each passing day it becomes more likely the war in Ukraine will spark the most consequential shift in geopolitics since the end of the cold war, if not the second world war. China is driving this conclusion. Its strategic alignment with Russia before the invasion, combined with its enabling of Russia since the first missile struck, is evocative of the 1950s Sino-Soviet alliance.
Indeed, China is now crossing some dangerous thresholds. According to reports in the Financial Times, China has responded positively to Russian requests for military assistance. Beijing is co-ordinating with Moscow to spread disinformation about US biological weapons labs in Ukraine. Its compliance with global sanctions remains an open question.
China’s ultimate position on the conflict — either to maintain its support for Russia, or to re-embrace the geopolitics of stability, growth and integration — will eventually define the world order. Europe now has a historic opportunity to shape China’s strategic choices. To do so, European leaders must reject the fantasy of Beijing mediating with Moscow and explicitly convey the costs of its continued or expanded support for Russia. China will dismiss anything short of such a clear signal.
The war in Ukraine is putting substantial stress on China, creating an opening to shape its perceptions and policies. As Xi Jinping prepares for the leadership transition this autumn, the last thing he needs is a geopolitical distraction or, worse, ammunition for his critics. China also faces its worst economic outlook in two decades. Both the structural and cyclical drivers of growth are flagging as covid surges. The war has created historic price spikes and supply disruptions in critical energy and agriculture imports.
Diplomatically, the war reinvigorated US alliances and revitalised sanctions as a diplomatic tool. Now China is presented with an uncomfortable strategic trilemma. First, Beijing wants to remain aligned with Moscow given their common vision, values and substantial energy and military-technology interests. Second, China needs to adhere to the most sacrosanct principles in its foreign policy: protecting sovereignty and territorial integrity. Third, it wants to minimise the damage to its relations with the US and Europe, its top trading partners over the past decade.
Yet, in response, China’s top diplomats have rejected the studied neutrality of 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. It openly expresses sympathy and support for Moscow’s actions, avoids any responsibility, denies the contradictions in its position, blames the US and Nato and calls for diplomacy. Thus, the war and its geopolitical and economic consequences puts multiple pressures on China during an exceptionally challenging year for its leaders.
This is where Europe has an opportunity because it enjoys a moment of maximum strategic value to China. The war is a growing liability, China is openly aligned with the aggressor and, most importantly, Beijing has concluded that the US-China relationship has transitioned to a long-term rivalry. In this equation, Europe is the key geopolitical swing vote. By contrast, China has long undervalued Europe as a global power centre, believing it has neutralised the continent via EU-China economic ties and divide-and-conquer strategies. Now is the time to change that, but the message from European capitals must be sharp, clear and unified.
For Beijing, a future in which the US and major European powers — together with Asian allies — are aligned against China is a decidedly detrimental one. European leaders’ message to Beijing must be two-fold. The first is that China will be the target of opprobrium and sanctions if it arms Russia. Europe should also push China to increase humanitarian assistance to the Ukrainians and call publicly for a halt to Russia’s strikes on civilian targets.
The second message is a strategic one. Europe and the US need to emphasise their view that Vladimir Putin’s actions will create global disorder and a new type of cold war. This undermines the international structures that facilitated China’s rise. Europe must press China to recalibrate its relationship with Russia — at least put a ceiling on it — or risk all it has accomplished in the reform era.
These are hard messages to deliver, and even harder for China to hear. If it does not work, then at least Europe and the US will have a clarifying moment about China. They can then be more aligned on the complex and costly policies necessary for the long, hard slog of strategic competition with the world’s second-largest economy.
Chinese officials are reportedly telling European diplomats in Beijing: “You have lost Russia, you can’t lose China, too.” Europe should reply that if China has lost the US and is shackled to Russia, then it can’t afford to lose Europe as well.
Source: Financial Times