April 2022

Limits without compromise

As international resolve hardens against Russia, the Chinese Communist Party is confronted with difficult choices of a game-changing nature.

Modern China has been driven to avoid a situation known as ‘luan’, or chaos, the uncontrollable unknown. Chaos raged so destructively through the country during the Cultural Revolution that the CPP regards this as a dark place where the country must never go again.

But Russia’s Ukraine war has produced precisely this danger which, in many respects, is already opening doors to an era of chaos.

The violence directly contravenes the much-cited doctrine of Sun Tzu’s Art of War – that an enemy should be subdued without fighting – thus emphasising a critical difference in thinking between Beijing and Moscow on how power should be deployed.

As a developing nation, China could have stayed quiet and out of it. Butas a rising world power and at this pivotal point of a global crisis, Beijing needs to show leadership.

Siding unequivocally with either side – essentially the United States or Russia –is fraught with problems which could embed themselves for decades.

Being too pro-American risks delaying China’s long-term goal of leading a group of authoritarian-minded nations that will eventually overtake the democratic ones that now run the world order.

Being too pro-Russian to the level of risking US or European sanctions would damage its own economy and security, thus jeopardising the government’s pact with its citizens to focus on wealth-creation, living standards and keeping people safe.

A third option, sitting on the fence, exposes China’s weakness as a global leader.

There has been much discussion about what Vladimir Putin told Xi Jinping when they declared a ‘no-limits’ partnership during their February meeting in Beijing. But it is near inconceivable that Xi would have supported a full-scale invasion, precisely because of the chaos that was bound to ensue.

Yet on February 23 the Chinese foreign ministry’s chief spokesperson, Hua Chunying, made a statement that the US was exacerbating the situation by ‘sending weapons to Ukraine, heightening tensions, creating panic and even hyping up the possibility of warfare’. Ms Hua, an assistant foreign minister, also accused America of expanding NATO to Russia’s doorstep, asking provocatively: ‘Did it ever think about the consequences of pushing a big country to the wall?’

Such open support for Russia on the eve of the invasion may come to be seen as a major foreign policy blunder and reports from Beijing speak of Xi’s fury at being hoodwinked.

While holding the line in public, Beijing has distanced itself, abstaining in United Nations’ votes and constantly liaising with US officials on how to prevent escalation.

Three elements come into play here.

First, how much does China think it actually needs Russia at its side for the decades ahead as it competes with America for global power? And can it trust this type of violent and unpredictable Russia to stay the course? It remembers too well the rapid fracturing of the Cold War Sino-Soviet pact.

Second, does China really want to bite the hand that feeds its wealth and has enabled it to be in the position it is today? The North American and European markets remain a large slice of its economy.

And third, how much should it take note of the United Nations General Assembly votes that overwhelmingly went against Russia?  Most of the 141 were from poorer countries, including those in Europe, that China has been courting for influence. Hungary and Serbia, both members of Beijing’s 17 + 1 trade grouping, joined the Russian condemnation.

The UN vote also clarified Beijing’s thin political sway in its own backyard. Eight of the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations stood against Russia. Only two, Vietnam and Laos, joined China in abstaining.

For its part, Russia only managed to win support from five impoverished, failing and rogue states such as Syria and North Korea. Are these the nations with which China wants to forge a prosperous long-term future?

Enough evidence is piling up for Beijing to show leadership and ease itself away from its ‘no limits’ partnership with Moscow. It can do so without compromising its values. This is not about siding with America. Nor is it about human rights and democracy.

Beijing can point out its aversion to chaos caused by war and the unpredictable unknown and, without China at its side, Russian powerbrokers might think again about the type of leader they need to give their country a safer and wealthier future.