As Russia continues to attack Ukraine, the international community, barring a few countries, has strongly criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked war against a neighbor.
The US, EU members, Japan and others have imposed severe sanctions on Russia. The UN General Assembly met on Monday last week to discuss the Ukraine crisis. Its draft resolution has termed the Russian act as “deplorable.”
Amid these developments, the actions of Asian powers — China, Japan, India and others — are also being closely observed.
As far as China is concerned, the government of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has adopted a pro-Russia policy, blaming the US for the invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, China has also talked about utilizing diplomacy to end the crisis, keeping the door open for dialogue with the US and European countries.
Understandably, by adopting such a policy China wants to convert the Ukrainian crisis into an opportunity to realize its larger interests.
First, while the relationship between China and Russia has been transformed largely due to the US containment policy toward the two countries, the sanctions of Western nations would make Russia more dependent on China. In turn, this would make Russia subordinate to China.
On the other hand, China also has huge economic, strategic and energy interests in having close ties with Russia. For example, Russia is China’s second-biggest oil supplier, averaging 1.59 million barrels per day last year.
Second, for more than a decade, China has been the major target of the US’ containment policy. The Ukraine war would force the US to shift its attention from China to Russia, and to work with European countries to strengthen their military capabilities and foster unity to fight a common enemy.
The need to manage Europe would also force the US to scale down the priority of promoting peace, security and development through its Indo-Pacific strategy. Consequently, China would get a window of peace to further boost its military strength and emerge unchallenged.
Third, the outcome of the Russian invasion would be crucial in the sense that it would give an idea of the extent to which the US and other NATO members come together to punish Russia. This would help China to draw its plan of action against Taiwan.
Fourth, the return of the Cold War conflict between Russia and the US, as well as European countries, has finally ended the possibility of cooperation among these centers of power against China.
However, the four benefits are not without challenges for China.
First, the Chinese position on the Ukrainian crisis has further complicated its ties with European countries. While China already has turbulent trade ties with the US and European countries, Russia cannot become a substitute for the EU, given that bilateral trade between Russia and China is only US$140 billion compared with US$709 billion between China and Europe.
Second, China has close ties with Ukraine, as well. Beijing has been Kyiv’s largest trading partner since 2020 and the two sides last year signed a US$2 billion agreement for Chinese investment in the basic infrastructure of Ukraine.
At the same time, Ukraine’s strategic location makes it important for China to connect to the rest of Europe. Undoubtedly, the current crisis would affect China’s economic and other interests in Ukraine.
Domestically, Xi faces opposition. Several groups have begun to criticize the Russian invasion, although the communist regime has launched a massive crackdown on opposition voices.
Third, while China is heavily dependent on energy imports, Russian energy exports meet only 15 percent of its needs. Certainly, the rise in the price of oil from US$94 per barrel to more than US$120 per barrel would affect China’s energy prospects.
Fourth, the Ukraine invasion would impact China’s Belt and Road Initiative. For instance, the train route connecting China to Europe through Russia and other countries has emerged as a major pillar of the initiative. Now, the European sanctions on Russia would affect exports of Chinese goods to Europe.
Fifth, Russia’s invasion has also gone against China’s position of respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other countries. Beijing’s support of Moscow has placed it in a difficult situation, as it is also facing strong separatist movements in Tibet, Xinjiang and elsewhere.
However, another Asian power — Japan — supports the US-led Western block against the Ukraine invasion. What could also alarm China is Japan has not only increased its budget to modernize the military, but former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has said that Tokyo should have an internal debate about “nuclear sharing,” an arrangement in which US nuclear weapons are deployed and jointly operated in another country’s territory.
If this idea crystallizes, the possibility of which is high, China’s military adventuring against its neighboring countries, especially Taiwan, would face a major setback.
Of course, India’s position on the Russian invasion can prove to be a major stumbling block to the consolidation of the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. The administration of US President Joe Biden has already indicated its disapproval of the Indian stance on the crisis.
However, India’s move is not a good sign for China. It is the emergence of close ties between China, Russia and Pakistan among other factors that has led India to toe an independent line.
Whatever the reason for India to not join the US in sanctioning Russia, a country with ambitions to play a major role in global politics needs to rise to the occasion.
In contrast, as countries are assessing the costs and benefits of taking a side on the Ukraine war issue, one nation — Taiwan — did not remain silent, despite facing a similar threat from China.
While the US sanctions on Russia have already begun to bite in China, India’s stance on the Ukraine crisis is a big dent in the transforming ties between New Delhi and Washington. On the other hand, Japan and Taiwan have proved to be valuable allies of the US.
This raises three focal questions:
Will this geopolitical and geostrategic scenario lead to the emergence of a new power dynamic in Asia?
Will countries rise above their national interests to save humanity?
Will powerful countries remain checked in bulldozing life elsewhere?
Sumit Kumar is a former Ministry of Foreign Affairs visiting fellow at National Chengchi University and a postdoctoral fellow at the Indian Council of Social Sciences.
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