Ukraine war offers China opportunity fraught with pitfalls
US President Joe Biden potentially made a strategic mistake when he framed the struggle for Ukraine as a battle between democracy and autocracy. In doing so, he did America’s main rival, China, an unintended favour.
Ukraine is not about democracy vs. autocracy; from America’s perspective, that may be a good thing. Instead, Ukraine is about adherence to international law versus a world order based on civilisationalist rather than nation states in which might is right, and the law of the jungle rules supreme.
The framing of democracy vs. autocracy can easily be dismissed by leaders like China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who proudly tout the virtues of their autocratic rule.
However, the framing of the rule of law and adherence to international law puts in a bind civilisationalist leaders like Mr. Xi, who, in line with Mr. Putin, define their countries’ borders in civilisational rather than national terms while simultaneously paying lip service to international law.
These leaders see their international and/or domestic societal boundaries not as defined by internationally recognised frontiers but by civilisational reach.
In Russia’s case, Russian-speaking populations and adherents to Russian culture constitute the Russian world and mark its borders.
In China, civilisationalism constitutes the framework for conflicts in the South and East China Seas and governs Chinese attitudes towards ethnic Chinese communities across the globe.
In many ways, China follows the path of the United States, using trade, investment, infrastructure financing, and lending to countries across the Global South as its primary tools in shaping policies of other countries in its mould.
Nevertheless, Mr. Putin’s invasion, and even more so, his most recent annexation of Ukrainian territory that constitutes civilisationlist thinking taken to its extreme, complicates regional geopolitics for Mr. Xi.
In contrast to Mr. Putin, who openly professes his desire to topple the current world order, Mr. Xi still sees an advantage in maintaining existing arrangements, albeit tweaked to be more accommodating to China.
Mr. Xi seeks to ensure that China, at least for now, is primus inter pares alongside the United States and that it can propagate its notion of a totalitarian surveillance state shielded from criticism.
This Russian Chinese divergence creates a double-edged sword for China. It generates geopolitical opportunity, nowhere more so than in Afghanistan and Central Asia, a region crucial to Chinese security, when the Ukraine war has altered the balance of power in the Chinese Russian relationship.
Russia has turned itself into a pariah state in Western eyes. It has put a bull’s eye on itself by brutally challenging the international order and proving not good at it.
At the same time, the war in Ukraine threatens to dash Messrs. Putin and Xi’s hopes of papering over differences in their diverging notions of a 21st-century world order while presenting a unified vision.
That was first evident in September at a summit of the China-Russian-backed Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) that includes Central and South Asian states. Mr. Putin was forced to concede that China had “questions and concerns”’ about the Russian invasion.
Two months later, Mr. Xi warned Russia not to employ nuclear weapons in Ukraine in his first public rebuke of Mr. Putin.
The warning reflected China’s genuine rejection of nuclear war in Eurasia while offering Mr. Xi a low-cost way of garnering brownie points as he hosted German chancellor Olaf Scholz, the first European leader to visit Beijing since the eruption of Covid-19 and the Russian invasion.
Mr. Putin did not spell out China’s questions and concerns, but what they involved is obvious.
Even if Mr. Putin’s justification of the invasion on the basis that Ukraine and Russia were one nation resembles, in some ways, Chinese claims to Taiwan, the war still violates China’s principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of others.
To be sure, in contrast to Russian claims on Ukraine, China can point to an endorsement of its designs for Taiwan by an international community that, by and large, has accepted the One China policy as the basis for establishing relations with China.
China’s reluctance to back Russia in its challenging of international borders shouldn’t come as a surprise. China has refused to recognize Russian-inspired declarations of independence in 2008 by two regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Russia’s grab of Crimea in 2014.
More recently, on a visit to Kazakhstan in September, Mr. Xi pledged to support Kazakhstan’s “territorial integrity,” a veiled warning to Mr. Putin not to act on his past statements that Kazakhstan, like Ukraine, never was a state.
Nonetheless, China does not want to see Russia defeated.
At the same time, the poor performance of Russian weapons and other military hardware calls into question past Chinese reliance on key Russian technology. It is likely to encourage China to become even more technologically self-reliant.
That was already happening before Ukraine with the rollout in 2017 of the fifth generation Chengdu J-20 Chinese fighter that is believed to be technologically superior to Russia SU-57E.
Add to this that the Ukraine war has strengthened NATO and demonstrated the power and efficacy of Western weaponry in battle.
Furthermore, the Ukraine invasion is likely to be the death knell for the presumed division of labour between Russia and China, whereby in broad lines, Russia focused more on security in Central Asia and the Caucasus while China played to its economic strengths with some forays into security.
Russian setbacks undermine cohesion within Russia’s regional defense alliance, the Central Security Treaty Organisation or CSTO.
Today, it would be hard to imagine that CSTO forces would be called for help like in January, a month before the Ukraine invasion when they intervened in Kazakhstan to restore law and order amid mass anti-government protests.
Six months later, CSTO failed to respond to a request by Armenia in renewed fighting with Azerbaijan. In September, Kyrgyzstan pulled out of joint CSTO military exercises after the power vacuum in Central Asia enabled border clashes with Tajikistan.
Last month, Kyrgyzstan, home to a Russian military base, rejected a demand that it expels the Ukrainian ambassador.
The division of labor breakdown occurs as regional uncertainty rises with political violence in Afghanistan, social unrest in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and potential conflict between Russia and Kazakhstan.
China fears that Uygur militants will use Afghanistan to foster instability in its troubled northwestern province of Xinjiang and that other adversaries might seek to use Afghanistan as a base to target China or its interests from Central and South Asia.
Sharing an almost 1,800-kilometre-long border, Central Asia is critical to China.
That is why the region was the starting point in 2013 for the Belt and Road Initiative, Mr. Xi’s flagship foreign policy initiative.
A decade later, Central Asian attitudes are shifting as the region becomes warier of Russian security guarantees and/or dependence on a single external power.
That is particularly true for Kazakhs, whom Mr. Putin has, at least twice, described in similar terms to how he looks at Ukrainians, a people that never were a people and a state that never really existed.
Much like the Gulf states, Central Asians seek to reduce their dependence on an external power, Russia and diversify their foreign relations.
Helped by the Ukraine war, the Central Asians have, so far, been more successful compared to the Saudis at not antagonizing external powers in ways that erupt in open animosity.
As a result, China’s world changed when Russia invaded Ukraine.
For one, China has to reconfigure priorities in Eurasian transportation infrastructure that links it to Europe.
By taking itself out of the equation, Russia breathed new life into seemingly moribund routes allowing goods to travel across the Eurasian landmass without traversing Russia.
In doing so, Russia has complicated Chinese aspirations and boosted Turkish efforts to carve out a sphere of influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus that would cooperate and compete with China.
The fallout of Ukraine also enhances Iran’s potential geopolitical significance at a time that the tightrope is tightening that China walks in maintaining a balance in its relationships with the Islamic republic and Saudi Arabia while seeking to capitalize on strains in the Saudi-US relationship.
China may welcome Turkey and Iran, two states opposed to US domination, making inroads in Central Asia in the hope that, to some degree, they may compensate for the degrading of Russia.
However, it may also find that Turkey’s vision of a Turkish Century and Iranian rejection of a revival of long-dormant Pan-Turkist ideology could play roughshod on China’s regional approach.
“In the context of BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), China regards Turkey as both a bridge and an obstacle. Since 2017, Turkey has stayed silent on the Uyghur issue. However, China’s mistrust continues. I don’t think China believes it can be a real strategic partner with Turkey,” said Umit Alperen, an expert on China’s foreign policy toward Iran.
Nevertheless, Turkey, with close cultural ties to the Eurasian heartland, and Iran will be critical nodes in any alternative transportation route.
The alternatives have garnered a sense of urgency with China-EU shipments along the Northern Corridor, which connects China to Europe via Kazakhstan, Russia, and Belarus, already dropping by 40 per cent since the Russian invasion began.
The sanctions make transportation from China to Europe more complex and expensive.
At the same time, geography offers former Soviet republics leverage as China exploits opportunity to capitalise on the weakening of Russia’s position in the region.
While transport along the Trans-Caspian route, dubbed the Middle Corridor, may not be able to replace the Northern Corridor immediately fully, it does help reduce bottlenecks and positions it strategically for the longer term.
The Middle Corridor’s building blocks are already being put in place with the Trans-Kazakhstan railroad and the Baku–Tbilisi–Kars line that make the Trans-Caspian the shortest and most cost-effective railway corridor between China and Europe. The newly built 826-kilometer-long Baku Kars line connects Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea port of Alat with Kars in Turkey.
Moreover, the China-Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway project, estimated to cost around US$4.5 billion, aims to connect China to Europe via Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Turkey. Doing so would reduce the journey to Europe by some 900 kilometers and eight days.
Uzbekistan has long asserted that the railway would offer the shortest route from China to markets in the Middle East and Europe. The new railway would feed into the rail line connecting Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan’s Turkmenbashi International Seaport on the Caspian Sea.
That would then connect Central Asia to the International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC) that would link the region through the Caucasus, the Black Sea, and Turkey to Europe via the Azerbaijani port of Baku, and Iran, India, the Gulf, and East Africa using the Iranian port of Anzali, and potentially Chabahar.
If successful, the corridor, a 7,200-kilometre patchwork of independently operated railroads, highways, and maritime routes, would reduce travel time from China from 40-60 days to 25-30 days and cut costs by 30 percent.
Iran’s enhanced regional potential comes as China emphasized Saudi Arabia’s importance in Beijing’s Middle East policy and amid Saudi reports, yet to be confirmed by China, of a pending visit by Mr. Xi to the kingdom before the end of the year.
The Saudi reports did not mention the Chinese leader stopping in other countries, particularly Iran.
The reports’ focus on the kingdom boosted Saudi hopes that China may abandon its balancing act between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic republic.
To be sure, Mr. Xi may not want to include Iran in his itinerary, unlike when he last travelled to the Middle East in 2016, to avoid the optics of visiting Tehran at a time of sustained anti-government protests.
Even so, China’s ability to remain aloof from the Middle East’s myriad conflicts may be shrinking.
Mr. Xi’s problem is that with Ukraine shifting geopolitical realities in Eurasia, exploiting cracks in the Saudi-US relationship highlights opportunity as well as the minefield the Chinese leader has to navigate.
If experience is anything to go by, Mr. Xi risks becoming the latest leader to be sucked into Middle Eastern conflicts, irrespective of whether they want to get involved or not.
Worrisome for China, the weakening of Russian influence and the vacuum it has created in Central Asia and the Caucasus has prompted former Soviet republics to attempt to turn new realities to their advantage, sometimes by firing up local conflicts.
Emboldened by higher oil prices and wooed by Europe hungry for non-Russian energy, Azerbaijan attacked Armenia in September.
Neither Russia, which in 2021 mediated an end to three weeks of fighting in the Caucasus, nor China moved to negotiate a ceasefire. Instead, it was left to the United States to help silence the weapons, indicating that Armenia no longer relies wholly on Russia as a security guarantor.
China and Russia’s reluctance to manage, if not help resolve, regional conflicts, much like China’s, and to a degree, Russia’s approach to the Middle East, points to an Achilles heel of their policies.
Both concentrate on their narrow interests, with little regard for the interests of others.
China limits itself to supporting strong regimes that welcome its Belt and Road Initiative.
For example, China made clear that Central Asians should find venues other than the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation for solving intraregional territorial disputes.
That message was loud and clear when the organisation made no efforts at its latest summit to end clashes along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border that was just a relatively few kilometres away.
In an outburst at the Central Asia-Russia summit in Astana in October, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon had an implicit message that China should heed. Mr. Rahmon demanded Russia start treating Tajikistan with some respect and “not like some African country.”
China may not have been a colonial power, but its dealings often risk evoking a similar sentiment.
Afghanistan is a good place to turn to as a prime example of the limits of Chinese capabilities and influence.
China has helped get Taliban officials included in various regional forums and has provided aid since the US withdrawal in August last year. Moreover, China has consistently called on the United States to release US$7 billion in frozen Afghan central bank funds.
Nevertheless, Chinese support has not advanced its goals. In line with many in the international community, China has unsuccessfully pressured the Taliban to form an inclusive government. Moreover, it has failed to persuade the group to hand over Uyghur fighters or, at least, entirely curtail their activities.
Similarly, Taliban efforts to rein in militants threaten Chinese interests in Pakistan have been disappointing.
The moral of the story is that China’s ascendancy does not mean that it can rely on its economic heft to draw red lines.
As a result, China has sought to broaden its pallet of soft power tools.
Chinese embassies have begun to focus in the region on local civil society organisations – a segment of society they had long ignored. The embassies’ generous donations mirror longstanding Western support for non-governmental organisations aimed at shaping societal norms.
China has also significantly enhanced its offering to local media of content in local languages that are often published and/or broadcast through state-controlled Central Asian media outlets. Furthermore, China is increasingly enlisting online influencers who echo China’s party-state narratives.
The impact of China’s media strategy is magnified by the degree of state control of media in some countries and the independent media’s lack of resources in others.
Nevertheless, the going for China has been challenging. For example, Kyrgyz media, academia, and youth organisations have proven successful in efforts to fend off Chinese influencing operations.
Independent Kyrgyz media frequently counter Chinese narratives with alternative views and often focus on involvement in corruption of Chinese companies and aligned politicians.
Kyrgyzstan, which has a 1,000-kilometre-long border with Xinjiang, is a particular target of Chinese influencing operations, including an effort to put a Chinese language teacher in every Kyrgyz primary school.
Bishkek-based China-Central Asia scholar Niva Yau warned that “the Chinese whole-of-society influence building approach is becoming more and more visible in Central Asia. In practice, the Chinese approach to influence is founded on creating dependencies between targeted sectors and PRC (People’s Republic of China) actors.”
“As the PRC continues to establish its authority over sources of news and information about the PRC, countries without independent capacity and access to a variety of views about Chinese affairs risk inability to make informed decisions when it comes to bilateral cooperation,” Ms. Yau added in a 45-page report on Chinese information operations in Kyrgyzstan.
This article is based on remarks by the author at the Danish Institute of International Studies.
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