Russia and China are friends of convenience but China has a lot more to lose than Russia – and now Putin may have ruined their grand plan.
It could have been everything Chairman Xi Jinping hoped for. A lightning-fast victory. A collapse of democratic unity. The final nail in the coffin for Washington’s credibility.
Instead, President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is turning into the exact opposite.
And that doesn’t bode well for Xi’s designs on Taiwan.
Beijing is yet to condemn Moscow for its invasion formally.
Like Russia, Chinese state-controlled media largely refuses to call it an “invasion” or “war”. Instead, it’s a “special military operation”.
It blames the US and NATO for forcing Russia to pre-emptively defend itself.
It criticises the West for applying “illegal” coercive sanctions against Moscow and its kleptocrat leadership (powerful thieves).
Despite being such a brazen act of aggression, China has reasons for backing Russia. It’s a scenario that, in many ways, mirror Beijing’s ambitions over Taiwan.
Both targets are democracies. Their ties with the West are limited. Existing promises to protect their sovereignty are vague. And both Russia and China have threatened military force to impose their will.
Now Moscow has done so.
Putin has a carefully crafted persona of being a “chess master”, a wily, clever strategist. He has the West figured out. He knows what strings to pull to get what he wants. He can get away with murder.
Just like Xi.
But Ukraine hasn’t been playing to the script.
War – a double-edged sword
“China would have liked this to have gone very, very well for Russia, and had it happened quickly and relatively uneventfully, they would have gained something from it,” says Australian National University international security professor John Blaxland. “But the untidy, very ugly scenes emerging from Ukraine are having the opposite effect. The crystallising of resolve internationally is really running against China’s interests in terms of its ability to divide and conquer and pursue its interests in the East China Sea, the South China Sea and Taiwan.”
The international manoeuvring surrounding the invasion are enormous.
It’s a matter of signalling. Of learning lessons. Of taking positions.
“Xi is no doubt watching what’s unfolding in Ukraine and the international community’s response with great interest,” says Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) analyst David Engel.
“He may well be questioning the prudence of Putin’s move. He may well have been struck by the solidarity of Europeans … in rallying behind their neighbour, imposing sanctions and supplying weapons on a scale hitherto hard to imagine.”
Then there’s the brutality of war as it unfolds on the ground.
“As he sees footage of destroyed Russian tanks and helicopters, and the sheer courage and resilience of Ukraine’s defenders, he may well be recalculating the prospective cost of a Taiwan invasion.”
But there’s no evidence of this. Yet.
And just as Putin has displayed signs of being removed from reality among his echo chamber of excessively loyal supporters, so too does Xi.
He considers Taiwan to be a “renegade” state “that very few nations recognise diplomatically and that even fewer would be prepared to help defend – least of all the countries in Taiwan’s neighbourhood,” warns Engel.
This week, China’s foreign affairs spokesman Hua Chunying asserted, “Taiwan is not Ukraine”.
Ukraine, he tacitly admitted, was a sovereign state recognised by China. But he insists Taiwan – the last hold out of the old Chinse regimen against a 1950s Communist revolution – is different.
“Taiwan has always been an inalienable part of China,” he says. Just not Communist China.
And Beijing’s outspoken insistence on the sanctity of sovereignty also seems to have been put to one side.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared, “China understands Russia’s legitimate concerns on security issues”, in response to the invasion this week. Russia had been “forced to take necessary measures” (invading Ukraine) through a perceived threat from NATO.
“This doublespeak is unlikely to fool anybody, despite the protestations of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, which is trying to walk an impossible tightrope,” Kevin Rudd argues for the Asia Society.
“Diplomatically, Russia’s aggression has put China in a very awkward position, given its extensive economic relationship with Europe. Now China is trying to have its cake on Ukraine and eat it too: pretending to a wider audience (including the Europeans) that it supports the inviolability of sovereign borders under international law, while also providing diplomatic and — more critically — economic support for Russia”.
The United States and NATO are not contemplating direct military action. Chairman Xi may see that as a positive.
Ukraine thought it had support. It surrendered the nuclear weapons held on its soil after the collapse of the Soviet Union for security guarantees under the 1994 Budapest memorandum.
Washington and Brussels have chosen to ignore that promise.
President Biden has clearly said the US will not go to war with Russia over Ukraine.
And that’s got another bullied democracy worried.
Taiwan is placing its faith in a similarly vague pledge of support from Washington. While the US has committed itself to provide Taipei with the means of defending itself, any commitment to fighting on its behalf is less … “rock-solid”.
Will the US back down once again in the face of conflict with a nuclear power?
Will it have the political resolve to back past guarantees of sovereignty?
It’s something Xi will no doubt be pondering.
But international resolve to assist Taiwan appears to be hardening.
“We’ve agreed that unilateral changes to the status quo with force like this should not be allowed in the Indo-Pacific region,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said of the Quad group of countries – Australia, the US, India and Japan. He was referring to the invasion of Ukraine. “We’ve also agreed this development makes it even more important to work toward realising a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
But, once again, the difference of opinions between Western partnerships is again evident.
India has refused to condemn Russia’s aggression.
To Beijing and Moscow, the world’s democracies appear to be a rabble. Vicious internal squabbling. Narky-points scoring in international affairs. Bluster. Empty promises. Short-term thinking.
Little wonder dictators such as Putin and Xi believe they are weak and disorganised.
But one thing appears to have once again united the West: the freedom to be what they are.
Immediately after President Putin ordered the attack on Ukraine, China’s embassy ordered its citizens there to display Chinese flags “for safety”. They were told to remove any “identifying symbols” for fear of retribution just two days later.
It’s just one sign of Beijing’s discomfort at the powerful international backlash against both Moscow and itself.
The fractures between NATO and Washington, and within NATO itself, have been openly displayed in recent years. President Trump’s disdain for the Cold War alliance saw trans-Atlantic relations fall to a new low.
But Putin’s invasion appears to have reversed this.
NATO responded swiftly through powerful sanctions, supplying weapons and equipment, and co-ordinating the rescue of refugees. Germany, while initially hesitant, has doubled its defence budget and loudly condemned the nation it depends upon for natural gas – Russia.
Such unity isn’t what China wants to see.
International affairs analysts say Beijing wants a “stable” but “fragmented” Europe that would remain susceptible to its diplomatic pressures. The same applies to NATO relationships.
Economically, Europe is far more important to China.
Strategically, the prospect of a united Europe creates another military superpower to contend with.
The takeaway could be unsettling. Ukraine has proven how a small country’s heroic resistance could win the hearts and minds of the world. It’s a sign of just how bad an invasion of Taiwan could turn.
With friends like these …
Moscow and Beijing are friends of convenience.
The two autocrats share ambitions and fears. But their interests are not closely aligned.
“China has a lot more to lose and hold at risk than Russia,” says Brookings Institution foreign policy analyst Ryann Hass.
“Putin is essentially an arsonist of the international system presiding over a country in terminal decline. Xi sees himself as a renovator of the international system to make it more accommodating of China’s vision and its values.”
Last year, Xi instructed his party faithful to build an image of a sober, “loveable” China in world affairs. But being linked to Russia’s murderous assault on Ukraine’s cities will feed international fears about China’s true character.
Not that such a contradiction would likely hold Beijing back.
“If shame was a driving factor in Beijing’s strategic calculus, China would be responsive to criticism over its gross human rights violations in Xinjiang and would adjust its actions in the South China Sea to adhere to international law,” says Hass. “In both cases, Xi doubled down.”
Backing down implies weakness.
But the need to appear strong may have backed Putin into a corner in Ukraine.
“Beijing’s jurisdictional pretensions in the South China Sea — and Taiwan’s, for that matter — have no more legitimacy than Russia’s claims to jurisdiction in Crimea, or than those which its satrapies in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and the two that Putin has just ‘recognised’ on Ukrainian territory,” says Engel.
Now China finds itself in a position where it must double down on its own assertive claims.
“Despite Beijing’s frequent condemnation of “Cold War thinking” and “Cold War-style blocs,” its political support of Russia’s flagrant violation of the principle of territorial sovereignty may well help propel existing geostrategic rivalry into a new Cold War,” warns Rudd.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter here.