April 2023

Geopolitical game plans

When playing a chess game, it can be useful to stand up and walk around the board in order to view pieces from alternative angles. Positions themselves do not change, but seen across a different landscape, a nuance, an advantage, a blunder, even a truth, can become apparent.

A similar technique can be applied to narratives swirling around the Sino-Russian relationship and Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow last month.

The bromance between two nuclear-armed authoritarian leadershas been profiled as a front against the alliance of American-led democracies.  With statements of intensifying friendship, an apparent meeting of minds on Ukraine and a shared mission to revolutionise the current world order, a picture can be painted of the world splitting irretrievably into hostile camps.


But then again, perhaps not because, to achieve its aims, China needs both Russia and the United States in more or less equal measure.

From one perspective, similarities between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are chilling. Each has built himself up to be a strongman cult figure within his own nation. Each has embedded the recovery of lost territory in his sense of legacy. Each has grown intolerant of criticism,meaningdecisions are not undergoing the scrutiny needed for good leadership. Each berates the rules-based international order and blames the US and its allies for trying to stunt their growth.

In Putin’s case, these elements, fuelled by a paranoid inner circle, led to the invasion of Ukraine,which abruptly switched Russia’s trajectory from that of a vast, complex nation going through the rough and tumble of modernisation to one of an enemy rogue state that needs unequivocal containment.

The question for Chinais how to exploit the situation to achieve its long-term goals, which is where the differences between the Chinese and Russian leaders come into play.

Putinleads only his own very personal, corrupt fiefdom. Beyond imagining the recovery of a lost empire, his long-term vision is unclear.  Xi, on the other hand, is a product of and beholden to the massive and sophisticated Chinese Communist Party, which has been responsible for the country’s astonishingly rapid accumulation of wealth and power.  

He slots in with his recent predecessors who set China on the path to becoming a supreme global power and, despite, fiery rhetoric over Taiwan, China needs to achieve its goals without war. Its economy cannot afford to be upended because of trade severed with Western markets.

Much ice remains unthawed within China and Russia’s declarations of unlimited friendship.

Memories of the Cold War Sino-Soviet alliance and ugly split in the 1960s sit heavily with both countries. In 1969, they fought a seven-month war across a shared border that stretches for 2,672 miles, roughly the width of Europe.

In Putin, Xi is dealing with an unreliable dictator with whom he has shared interests but no shared values.He cannot afford distraction by anyunrest stirred up by a Putin on the border or in neighbouring Central Asia. Xi’s focus must remain onwresting Indo-Pacific influence from America.

The Sino-Russian relationship, therefore, should not be seen in binary terms either as authoritarianism against democracy or as the level of support China gives Russia on Ukraine. 

Paradoxically, the USneeds Beijing’s close relationship with Moscow because they have a shared interest in keeping Putin’s wrath within a box. Cornered, the Russian leader could become even more dangerous, not least by unleashing his nuclear threat.

In many respects, China is exploiting the Ukraine war as it did the War on Terror. For those two decades, with Western eyes focused on Afghanistan, Iraq and the wider Middle East, China built its economy, manufacturing base and technical prowess.  It now needs time to expand its diplomatic reach and show itself a leader in creating a new world order.

Evidence arrived last month in the Middle East with the China-brokered rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two aggressive beasts whose governments have been fighting a long-running proxy war in Yemen. If that conflict ends and bilateral relations strengthen, China will have implemented an important strategic shift, proving it has the diplomatic skills andthe leverage to resolve one of the world’s most challenging problems.  

Beijing’s 12-point Ukraine peace plan is next on the list, implemented through diplomatic initiatives with Kyiv and face-to-face meetings in Moscow.

A China-delivered internationallyaccepted peace formula for Ukraine would further dilute US influence while ending war in Europe. It would also increase Beijing’s reputation with the Global South, which continues to look to China as an alternative model to the Western concept of democracy. 

Beijing simultaneously needs to strike a fine balance because siding too much with Russia and risking isolation from the wealthy West is not an attractive scenario.

The US shares an interest in a Ukraine peace because Beijing would be the main beneficiary of a prolonged war that grinds down both Russia and Western alliances. In the cold truth of geopolitics, the final arbiters of any settlement may not be Kyiv and Moscow, but Washington and Beijing.

Far from being a junior partner in a new authoritarian alliance,Russia may then prove to be merely a piece skilfully played on China’s chessboard.

If the role of peacemaker is part of Xi’s toolbox in his quest for global supremacy, he has other conflicts awaiting resolution,not least the one between India and Pakistan.  A breakthrough there would give him even more traction with the Global South.

China currently needs the West but believes it will become less relevant, raising the question as to how much America would allow China to expand its influence by ending conflicts.

Let’s first see how Ukraine unfolds.