Russia’s invasion of its neighbour, Ukraine, is now almost two months old. Many aspects of the war and its consequences are unknown because its outcome remains unknowable. But some things we do already know. The big thing still being debated, however, is the impact of this war on status of and relations with the country that, alongside a joint statement on 4 February, declared itself as being in a partnership with Russia that “knows no limits”: China.
Yet let us begin with the things we do know. The atrocities that have been witnessed in Ukraine, especially the deliberate killing of civilians, have shocked the world. The failure to prevail by the vast military forces of a country seen as a superpower thanks to its possession of the world’s largest nuclear weapons arsenal has also been surprising, and probably shocking both to the Russian elite and to their partners in China. Alongside that, we know that the threat by Russia to use its nuclear weapons has prevented America and others from entering the war on Ukraine’s side directly, though it has not discouraged them from providing large quantities of weapons and financial support.
The resistance shown by the Ukrainian military, helped by those weapons but also by years of preparation and a formidable communications effort, has been extremely impressive. So has been the personal leadership, in government and in communication, displayed by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Moreover, the unity shown by Europe, Japan, North America and some supporting democracies in imposing unprecedentedly tough economic sanctions on Russia has been remarkable, as has the willingness to continue to impose further restrictions including, so far in a small way, on energy. That surprising unity shows plenty of divisions too, especially over how much further to go on cutting off energy imports from Russia, and remains vulnerable also to far-right Putin sympathisers such as Marine Le Pen in France. Most likely, the real European debate on further anti-Russian measures will not take place until after 24 April, the final round of France’s presidential election, for fear of provoking a surprise Le Pen victory.
Finally, we know that from now on, unless there is an equally surprising settlement of the war in Ukraine, the world will see a new Cold War, with American-led measures seeking to isolate and contain Russia for many years to come. Many companies doing business in and with Russia, including Japanese ones, remain unsure about whether they should withdraw from trading with and thereby aiding a country officially deemed by their government as an enemy (for that is what the sanctions indicate), or whether they can keep their heads low and hold on to their investments.
All of these things are important. Yet they are not the most fundamental issues arising from the war in Ukraine for the future of the world. The world could live with the thought of what before the war was its 12th largest economy, Russia, being isolated, although it will hope that some sort of working relationship will be eventually established with that country’s future leaders. Such an isolation would not bring globalisation to an end. The crucial issue is what this conflict will mean for China and its place both in the region and the world.
One thing that the actions of President Putin have taught us is that we should take seriously the words spoken and especially written by powerful, deeply entrenched leaders of his authoritarian sort. So any consideration of the impact of Putin’s war on China should and must begin with that long and detailed joint statement between Putin and President Xi Jinping that was issued when Putin visited Beijing ahead of the Winter Olympics, just 20 days ahead of the invasion.
Reading that statement, the point that immediately stands out is how Putin’s invasion utterly contradicts what the statement says. The two countries said (according to the Kremlin’s official translation) that “the international community is showing a growing demand for the leadership aiming at peaceful and gradual development”. Just two sentences later the statement condemned “actors…[who] advocate unilateral approaches…and resort to force”. Which, of course, is exactly what Russia did less than three weeks later.
That huge contradiction, showing the sort of hypocrisy of which both Russia and China frequently accuse the West, tells us that much of the statement should be taken as a kind of mood music rather than as a detailed roadmap for the future conduct of international relations. The mood music that the two countries plainly share is an antipathy towards that broad democratic coalition we call the West.
Yet that western dominance has already been on the wane for at least two decades. The experience of the Covid-19 pandemic told us that collaboration in international multilateral institutions between the superpowers is either dead or dormant. The trade war between the United States and China that preceded the pandemic, along with harsh talk about technological competition, had already also told us that the future relationship between the world’s two most powerful countries is destined to be turbulent. Both the US and China have made the aim of reducing economic dependency on the other a key policy goal, though measures so far to achieve it have been limited.
What this recent history does not tell us, however, is either that China is a true ally of Russia in a profound sense, or that a new Cold War will encompass China as well as Russia. It has been notable since the invasion on 24 February that China’s stated support for Putin has been quite lukewarm. China has tried to avoid getting closely involved. Russia is a partner, but not an ally to which obligations are owed.
Some analysts speculate that this reluctance to get involved is a reaction to Russia’s failure to achieve Putin’s war aims quickly or smoothly. Certainly, China’s leaders will have taken note of that failure, both for what it tells them about the difficulty in subduing a neighbour that wishes to remain independent and for what it tells them about Russia’s systemic weaknesses. But this is unlikely to be the main reason for China’s ambivalence.
That reason for ambivalence is that China, as a vast country that sees itself as a civilisational as well as an economic and military superpower, really thinks only about its direct national interests. The partnership with Russia is useful for those interests, but is by no means central to them.
China’s attitude to Russia, and the West’s attitude to China, could of course be changed by the eventual outcome of the war in Ukraine, but this does not currently seem likely. The best prediction in present circumstances is that the new Cold War will involve the containment of Russia, but no more than that. There will not be a Russia-China bloc, still less a “Russia-India-China” collaboration as mentioned towards the end of the 4 February Russia-China statement. The mention of such collaboration, describing this threesome even as a “format”, probably came much to India’s surprise, having battled with Chinese troops over disputed borders during the past two years.
What we knew as 2022 began, that the most critical but also tense relationship in this 21st century will be that between the US and China, remains true, and it has not been greatly changed by Putin’s despicable actions in Ukraine. Globalisation, in the form of trade, financial flows and technological competition, will continue, even if always subject to the vagaries of politics and national weaknesses on both sides. Decoupling may occur, but for the purpose of avoiding dependency rather than to become detached altogether. For the West, including countries in Asia that partner with the West to varying degrees, China is a threat only when it becomes uncomfortably assertive but is otherwise a reality that has to be recognised and lived with. For China, and hence also for its neighbours in Asia, the future of its zero-covid strategy and of its property-related economic slowdown matters a lot more than Russia’s war. China’s national interests remain primarily domestic ones.
English version of the column published by Mainichi Shimbun in Japanese.
Bill Emmott is a writer and ex-editor of @theeconomist. Views are personal.
A version of this article originally appeared on Substack under Bill Emmott’s Global View.