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China at a Loss in the Ukraine War

China at a Loss in the Ukraine War

Wednesday, 2 March, 2022 - 12:45

Russia’s all-out war on Ukraine seems to be totally unexpected for the Chinese leadership. When the war is over, whoever prevails in the Eastern European theater, China would be the one who loses the most in East Asia.

China was one of the most surprised by the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Blitzkrieg set off on February 24. Early in the same month, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping embraced Mr. Putin on the opening day of the Beijing Winter Olympics and proclaimed that their friendship has “no limit,” standing up side by side with each other against the NATO expansion in the Eastern Europe and AUKUS alliance in the Indo-Pacific. In the joint statement issued in February 4, two leaders felicitated the rise of a new international order in which notions of democracy, development and security are all reconsidered by the interpretation of the new superpowers. If Chinese leadership foresaw Mr. Putin’s volte-face right after the closing of the Beijing Olympics, such a statement could not have been agreed.

In a matter of weeks, Mr. Putin threw the entire world into a huge uproar. By its aggression into Ukraine and the rampant assault on the international law and order, Mr. Putin achieved what anyone could not have achieved for a long time: the unity of the western world. On the verge of the aggression by Putin’s Russia, EU, NATO, and other non-aligned countries of Europe regained their consciousness of their common ground and are suddenly united. Most of all, Germany, the largest economy in Europe and the most lenient to China as well as Russia, suddenly changed the course and is now heading toward a huge rearmament.

That was an unwelcome course of event for China and the one most unexpected. China’s global rise in its dominance has been enabled by the divided Europe and the estranged Trans-Atlantic relations. For the majestic “China Dream” is to be achieved under Xi’s third term which is expected to be affirmed at the Chinese Communist Party’s Congress in the next Autumn, the divided western world is a prerequisite.

For Chinese leaders, Russia might have seemed to be junior partner bolstering China’s rise in the emerging new world order which constitutes a Chinese century. Mr. Putin’s ambition, in fact, turned out to be none of such limited one. Mr. Putin is challenging the established order of the Post-Cold War in which China thrived. The act of defiance dramatically changed the situation in Europe and is seriously shaking the foundation of China’s rise.

China’s miscalculation and misperception of Mr. Putin’s intention and behavior suggest a possible intelligence failure, in view of the reports by the New York Times on the US effort in courting China for its help in averting Mr. Putin’s war. Even when US has shared unclassified intelligence with China on the Russian troops gathered in a mass on the Ukrainian border, Chinese authority gave the cold shoulder to the Americans and upheld the “unprecedented” relationship with Russia. It turned out their dreams were far apart.

When the Russian onslaught on Ukraine broke out, all eyes in East Asia were on China, expecting the same calamity would fall on any of them when Mr. Putin accomplished it unscathed. It triggered a call for defense build-up in countries around China like Japan and Taiwan. There are sense of unity quickly brewing among them, in the face of a clear and present danger, reaffirming the need for a common alliance with US. Mr. Putin’s rampage did have affected distant East Asia and achieved what anyone could have achieved, and that was what China would rather avoid.

In the eyes of the neighboring nations, China’s failure to stop Russia on the eve of the aggression stigmatized it for its connivance, even though China most probably just overlooked it to happen.

Willy-nilly positioned in Mr. Putin’s fold, in order for China to stand after the war as part of the winning camp, Mr. Putin must have achieved a clear goal. He had to seize the capitol Kiev in a couple of days, carrying out a decapitation campaign neutralizing leading personalities in Zelensky government, being applauded by Ukrainian people and forcing western countries to silence on it. All these things never happened, and never will. It never existed except in the grandiose vision within Mr. Putin.

No matter how the war progresses, there’s going to be pure destruction and carnage, which entails dangers of the World War III or even a nuclear war. When Mr. Putin’s audacious attempt ends a devastating defeat for his nation, the US will unload the burden of two-front war and turn to and contend with China more strongly, with more determined Asian neighbors, backed by a unified Europe. That is the situation Mr. Xi desires to avoid in the year he enthrones himself and should consolidate it.

The unprecedented unity among the western nations, the extreme severeness of concerted sanctions on Russia, and Mr. Putin’s unpredictable decisions which is impossible for China to cope with, would constitute a heavy burden and pose a non-negligible risk for China, not an opportunity.

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