China should understand that Washington’s ultimate goal is to systemically curb Beijing’s very ability to exercise its sovereignty as it sees fit. The pressure on China will be constant, writes Valdai Club expert Ivan Zuenko.
There are different ways to assess the nature and consequences of the events that began in mid-February 2022. However, the following is obvious: they cannot be assessed in isolation from the historical context, which, at a minimum, should include the last eight years, starting from the overthrow of the Yanukovych government, but in reality covering the entire period of the post-bipolar world order. It is impossible to reduce them to merely being relations between two countries — Russia and Ukraine. The very situation in Ukraine was the result of the fact that after the end of the Cold War, the countries of the Euro-Atlantic bloc did not want to create a comprehensive security system on the continent which would include Russia. Now, most of the countries of the world have been drawn into the current conflict and its economic aspects in one way or another. Of course, China is no exception.
Moreover, in a situation where Russia’s foes have employed tactics such as “cancelling” the country and severing economic and humanitarian ties, the Chinese factor has turned out to be a key one. Of course, if there had not been an active rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing over the past decades, there would have been no Asian alternative to the European markets for Russian oil and gas, and nothing would have happened on February 24. At the same time, if China had not taken a position of benevolent neutrality with respect to the Russian special military operation in Ukraine, and hadn’t continued to buy Russian goods and provide a reliable strategic rear guard, no continuation of “February 24” would objectively have happened.
But is China the main beneficiary of the European crisis? Is the situation developing according to the Chinese plan? For me, the answer is obviously “no”.
The current development of events was not desirable for China and did not meet its interests. China itself is convinced that perhaps the only party that will now benefit is Washington — which it calls the “warmonger”.
In general, the conflict has made things more difficult for China. In recent years, the country has been preparing for the fact that sooner or later, its natural ambitions for the role of one of the world leaders (the concept of the “Chinese Dream” 中国梦) will have to be confirmed via a trial by combat. Economic pressure, anti-Chinese sanctions, and aggressive rhetoric from Western leaders over the past five years have simply left the Chinese no choice but to prepare for a future war, whether it is a “hybrid war” or traditional “trench warfare”. However, events have moved too quickly, and now Beijing still does not feel ready enough to move on to decisively taking action like Moscow did. Moreover, China thinks that time is on its side, and now Beijing’s task is to keep a neutral position for as long as possible, building up strength and hoping for a weakening of competitors.
Euro-Atlantic centres also understand this and have stepped up geopolitical pressure on China. The idea of “indivisibility of security in the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific region” has already appeared in the rhetoric, which actually implies the creation of a “global NATO” . From a European security perspective, the crisis is truly becoming a global one.
In practice, a “global NATO” is already being created, and the Madrid summit in late June testifies to that. For the first time in the alliance’s history, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea were invited to attend. Actions have been intensified to form so-far “quasi-alliances” such as QUAD (the Quadripartite Security Dialogue of the USA, Australia, Japan and India) and AUKUS (tripartite pact of the USA, Britain and Australia) and, finally, Partners in the Blue Pacific (AUKUS plus Japan and New Zealand). In contrast to the “classical NATO”, which for a long time was perceived in China as a vestige of the “cold war” and intra-Western conflicts, these alliances are unequivocally anti-Chinese.
In response, China is trying to launch a network of partnerships with the island states of Oceania, however, so far there has been almost no success in this field, and even a security agreement with the Solomon Islands so far, as it turns out, does not involve the construction of a PRC naval base. In other words, China has no other serious military-political partners in the Pacific, except for Russia.
Meanwhile, the visit of U.S. President Joe Biden to East Asia in May has expectedly launched a new round of tension in the region. Taiwan again acted as a “red rag for the bull” — a de facto independent island, the return of which to a united China has been a historical task of the PRC leadership. Therefore, it should be obvious to Beijing that the situation is not only limited to pressure on Russia, which has crossed the “red lines” and that supposedly there may be some clear and unchanging “red lines” in relation to Chinese behaviour, the “non-crossing” of which will be a guarantee against interference in internal affairs.
Therefore, in fact, there is no “dilemma of choice” that Chinese experts themselves speak of. Amid Western statements that “China is a systemic threat to NATO’s interests, security, and values”, a return to the model of relations between the globalised “Western world” and a globalising China that existed until the mid-2010s is simply impossible under Beijing’s current leadership.
They can only delay the moment of the final break as much as possible, maintaining partnership relations with Russia, rebuilding the economy, building up military and political potential and waiting for the West to swallow its own problems. As Silvio Berlusconi rightly noted in his recent essay, “The West achieved the isolation of Russia, but it itself became isolated from the world”; by “world”, he meant the vast “third world” (by the way, repeating Mao Zedong, whose annoyance at the fact that he again had to suffer from the “European war” was growing more and more.)
This, in fact, is the fundamental interest of China amid of the current crisis. The ultimate goal of the activities of the ruling party in the PRC, according to the documents of the current programme, is to build a communist society. Communism, that is, a society without any property division, is still far away, but there are plans to construct a “developed socialist state” by 2049 — the year of the centenary of the PRC. The formation of such, according to the ideologists of the Communist Party, is possible only in a multipolar world, in which none of the countries dictate the rules of the game to others, and these rules may be achieved through mutual compromises, on the basis of “sovereign equality” — as it is written in the Charter of the United Nations.