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How the Invasion of Ukraine Threatens China‘s Rise
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has caused a permanent shift in the balance of world power, shattering the notion that state sovereignty was sacrosanct among great powers and that military force was no longer a significant factor in European politics. Although much of the world has joined in condemning the invasion and imposing harsh sanctions designed to punish Putin, Russia’s long standing geopolitical ally China has avoided condemning the invasion and has taken limited measures to support the otherwise isolated Russian economy. The failure to deter the invasion of a democratic nation by its powerful authoritarian neighbor has caused policy makers to increasingly fret over another potential invasion target, Taiwan. However, contrary to the talking points of the day, Putin’s invasion appears more likely to strain the Russian-China alliance, putting the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) plan to rise to global prominence in peril.
After All, What Are Friends For?
China has long been a strategic ally of Russia, as both have sought to benefit from participating in global trade while protecting their interests from interference from western outsiders. They have done so through the aggressive assertion of the principle of national sovereignty, decrying any military intervention in the affairs of another state and bristling at diplomatic statements and economic actions, no matter how limited, designed to curtail human rights abuses (the assassination of journalists and dissidents in Russia and the genocide against Uighur Muslims in China for example).
They have sought to increase their influence in global affairs by offering themselves as allies to each other and other authoritarian regimes which are otherwise shunned by the global community, (Russian support of Assad in Syria and China’s long-standing relationship with North Korea are examples), claiming respect for national sovereignty as justification for ignoring human rights abuses. Both nations simultaneously use the United Nations to bolster their legitimacy and protect themselves from broader rebuke, while decrying any attempt to mobilize the global community to intercede in the affairs of other nations lest such mobilization eventually be brought to bear against them (ironic that Putin’s invasion has achieved the very mobilization and unity that he feared in Europe).
Guilt by Association
However, China’s continued support of Russia’s actions are uncertain, as shown in their decision to abstain when the United Nations Security Council voted on mobilizing to stop Russia’s invasion. National sovereignty is a sensitive issue for China, and Russia’s invasion blatantly violated Ukraine’s. To stand by Russia’s actions in the face of global condemnation, while Russia’s invasion becomes steadily more brutal in the face of Ukrainian opposition will likely invite criticism of China. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is incredibly sensitive to international criticism. This was shown in their comments condemning the Biden administration’s and other prominent countries decision to not send diplomatic delegations to the Winter Olympics hosted in Beijing, and their request for Russia to delay invading until after the games were over in order to ensure the international press was focused on an event China viewed as critical to its international image.
As brutal as broad reaching economic sanctions such as being cut off from the SWIFT banking system are on Russia’s economy, they would be even more catastrophic for China’s. Continued economic growth is the bedrock of the CCP’s domestic justification for rule and the use of invasive population control measures. A more assertive west that has already shown a remarkable willingness to accept the costs of imposing severe sanctions on Russia may decide now is the best time to challenge China economically.
With global supply chains still under strain from the pandemic, and political pressure in countries around the world to invest in making their domestic markets more robust and diversified, policy makers could reasonably believe now is the best time to announce a permanent move away from reliance on China. This would enable them to make future economic cooperation contingent on increased respect for human rights and civil liberties in China.
Also, having Ukraine be a warzone and Russia being sanctioned threatens China’s belt and road initiative, there ambitions plan for expanding their global reach that is key to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s CCP’s plan to continue growing the Chinese economy. This projected growth is the cornerstone of the CCP’s justification for staying in power and ensuring stability at home, as well as its plans to become powerful enough to challenge the United States for dominance in the international system.
“Never Tell Me The Odds” General Han Solo
It has become more rational for western policy makers in democratic nations to think they could maintain enough domestic political support to survive the consequences of open economic conflict with China than it ever was for Putin to consider an invasion of Ukraine as a rational policy decision for his country. It impossible to predict how far a resurgent west committed to rearmament, ready to accept economic hardships to an extent unimaginable prior to the war in Ukraine, and driven to protect fellow democracies may go, and that creates untold uncertainty and anxiety among China’s leaders.
This anxiety and doubt has two significant consequences. The first is straining China’s traditional post cold war alliance with Russia, and the second is to mellow plans for any near to mid term attempt at reunification with Taiwan through military force over fear of facing the same sanctions Russia now does. It is too soon to judge how this will shape the shifting geopolitical landscape and the implications it may have for China, Russia, the crisis in Ukraine and the future of Taiwan, though a potentially devastating and destabilizing public break between Putin and Xi Jinping is possible. It is becoming clear however that Putin’s invasion has created new obstacles for China’s growth as a world power and reminded the free world that aggressive economic and military confrontation, though uncomfortable and fraught with risk, is sometimes the best and only path to security and prosperity.