How the Ukraine crisis is pushing two superpowers together

Western sanctions will inevitably push Moscow toward Beijing, increasing the likelihood that China and Russia will align their foreign policy toward the West.

East Asia Forum

There is one international player that stands to gain from the recent turn of events in Ukraine, regardless of its outcome. This player apparently has nothing to do with the crisis that has engulfed Russia, the EU and the United States, and makes a point of staying on the sidelines. This player is China.

The leadership in Beijing must be secretly delighted watching the struggle between Russia and the West. The Ukraine mess 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 such issue is the rise of China.

Up to the present, Russia has pursued a relatively balanced and circumspect policy toward its giant Asian neighbour. Although China has recently signalled that it would welcome closer strategic ties with Russia -- perhaps even a security alliance -- Moscow so far has been reluctant to transform their current ‘strategic partnership’ into a full-blown geopolitical entente. In particular, Russia has not been ready to back Beijing’s assertive stance on various territorial disputes in East Asia.

Western political and economic sanctions will inevitably push Moscow toward Beijing, increasing the likelihood that China and Russia will align their foreign policy toward the West. This, in turn, will reinforce the Middle Kingdom’s strategic positions in Asia. Having acquired Russia as a safe strategic rear area, as well as privileged access to its vast energy and minerals base and advanced military technologies, China would feel far more confident in its rivalry with the United States for primacy in the Asia Pacific. Events in Ukraine are likely to finally clinch a Russia–China gas pipeline deal long delayed by haggling over fuel prices. Western sanctions will certainly make Moscow more compliant with Beijing, landing China a bargain that will provide it with a stream of cheap Siberian gas.

China’s response to the recent developments around Ukraine is telling. Ever since the crisis began to develop late last year, Chinese media have tended to blame Western meddling. After Russia took over Crimea and declared its readiness to use military force, the Chinese Foreign Ministry blandly 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’. Discussing the crisis with Putin, China’s President Xi Jinping remarked, somewhat enigmatically, that ‘the situation in Ukraine, which seems to be accidental, has the elements of the inevitable’. China’s official press commentary is sympathetic with Moscow, stressing that Putin’s determination to protect the interests of Russia and Russian-speaking citizens is ‘quite understandable’.

Beijing has abstained at the UN Security Council vote on Crimea, and made it quite clear that it disapproves of using the UN to pressure Russia, with China’s foreign ministry commenting that the Security Council’s vote on the US-prepared draft resolution ‘will only lead to confrontation among all parties, which will further complicate the situation’.

What really matters is China’s willingness to go along with the sanctions against Russia. However, there is zero probability that Beijing will support any political or economic penalties on Moscow. China’s stance amounts to a sort of benevolent neutrality toward the Kremlin. One suspects that, in exchange, Beijing will expect the same kind of benevolent neutrality from Moscow: for example, with respect to its actions in East Asia and the Western Pacific.

In the 1990s, Zbigniew Brzezinski likened Eurasia to a grand chess board, emphasising the geopolitical interconnectedness of various parts of the supercontinent. The metaphor is now even more relevant. 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 often the same. This is well understood by some American strategists, who worry that excessive pressure from the West ‘may alter the geopolitical balance by putting Russia closer to China’. However, Washington has not still made up its mind as to who is America’s top geopolitical competitor 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. Since that time, the balance of power has changed significantly. 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 -- post-Soviet Eastern Europe or East Asia. The choice may be unpalatable, but indefinitely postponing it will have consequences.

It is eerily fitting that the Ukraine crisis should have broken out on the hundredth anniversary year of the First World War, which was triggered by a dispute in the seemingly insignificant Balkans. Russia’s current stance toward Crimea and eastern Ukraine is reminiscent of past Austro-Hungarian attitudes towards the Balkans. The fear of losing control over the Balkans drove Austria-Hungary into the embrace of Imperial Germany, even though Vienna and Berlin had traditionally vied for control of Central Europe and fought a war in 1866. The alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary contributed to Europe’s splitting into two camps and eventually the general war.

Sino-Russian relations, of course, have been historically complicated, but this may not preclude them forming an entente, as long as they perceive a common adversary. Hopefully, the current Ukraine situation will not result in war, but it could well become a major step toward transforming the international order into a confrontational bipolarity, with the US-led West facing a Sino-Russian axis. The Western push to ‘isolate’ Russia may prove self-defeating. Rather than forcing Moscow to withdraw from Ukraine, it will draw it closer to Beijing.

Artyom Lukin is Deputy Director for Research at the School of Regional and International Studies, Far Eastern Federal University (Vladivostok, Russia). He is also Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations.

A version of this article originally appeared here on the Foreign Policy Research Institute website and was first republished on the East Asia Forum. Republished with permission.