Ukraine: What does China see?

A neat explanation for why Vladimir Putin has found the suppression of Ukraine harder than he thought came to me from a very clever friend, who described how in recent years Putin has committed a series of outrages (assassinations in Berlin and London), provocations (Russian troops bringing ‘peace’ to Kazakhstan) and incursions (Syria, refugee influx’ through Norway and Eastern Europe, Russian money into Western politics) as a means of testing the West’s reaction function.

In most cases, the West had not reacted strongly to these incursions and the theory is that Putin read this and other events such as the disorganised retreat from Afghanistan, as signalling that there might be little international opposition to an invasion of Ukraine. He was wrong (many Westerners also could not have imagined the European response).

That he miscalculated shows that different ‘tribes’ or cultures can look at the same set of events and draw very different conclusions, something that has often struck me when hearing the Russian view of international affairs.

The question I now ask, is whether Beijing, given its cold, and apparently tone-deaf pronouncements on the invasion, have a view of international relations that is at odds with the Western view, and in detail, what lessons China is drawing from Ukraine.

I should preface my remarks by saying that really too few people in the ‘West’ have made enough of an effort to understand Chinese political culture and the forces that drive policy making. That is not made any easier by the veil of secrecy thrown up by the Chinese Communist Party, and the relative attractions for Westerners to live and study in China (I estimate that there are twenty times the number of Chinese students studying in Britain, as there are British students studying in China).

To that end, cultural differences mean that Chinese policymakers may simply not ‘get’ things we see, but that they may well be more keenly attuned to other aspects, such as the response of the emerging world to the invasion. It is also worth emphasising that people around Xi Jinping may draw different conclusions to him, such as the way in which Vladimir Putin is demonstrating the shortcomings of autocracy.

As a final caveat, most people will watch China in the light of its repeated threats regarding the place of Taiwan as a sovereign country (that echo the views of Putin regarding Ukraine) and the repeated sorties of Chinese fighter jets and bombers into Taiwanese airspace.

Broadly, China may notice several things.

First the rapid cohesion of European foreign policy, the increasing singularity with which (coupled with the re-election of Emmanuel Macron) European foreign policy has reformed, and the emerging power of eastern European countries like Poland, not to mention the ‘foreign policy tigers’ in the Baltic states. The immediate, concrete implication for all of this is that the extension of China’s ‘belt and road’ initiative into Europe and its ’16&1’ partnership with eastern European countries is all but dead. Chinese investment into Europe will also face even greater scrutiny.

The Chinese reading of America is more complicated. American intelligence and diplomacy have in my view performed well – and much of the latter has been sufficiently discrete. America has notably paid more attention to the Chinese reaction than Europe has (France will be glad it is not part of AUKUS now). Whether China realises it or not, its international stance on the invasion can see it move from a ‘strategic competitor’ to the US to an outright adversary. A profound breakdown in relations with the US would damage the international economy and international institutions severely, so there is much at stake.

One swing factor for China is the attitude of many emerging countries to the invasion. Several Asian countries – Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos and Sri Lanka abstained from voting in the UN resolution on the invasion, while notably half of Africa did too (including South Africa) and India’s closeness to Russia is laid bare. To note, many of these countries – across Africa and Asia – have been targeted by Russian info ops.

The fact that the emerging world appears split on the question of Ukraine shows several things – the lure of the Chinese economy and the notion of a ‘managed democracy’ in many countries, and correspondingly the perception that the ideas of democracy and the liberal order may only be something for the West. Pessimistically, it suggests that the post-globalized world order will be a contest between the models of democracy and non or managed democracy.

If this is true, China is in a more comfortable geopolitical situation than it thinks. Equally, parts of Asia are now taking sides – Singapore’s move to condemn the invasion of Ukraine was brave.

Geopolitics apart, there is also much China can observe on how this war is waged. In recent years the Chinese military and navy has undertaken several large-scale exercises with Russia, and the Chinese military is organised in a similar way to the Russians. Given that the Chinese have effectively no battle experience, they must surely wonder if they have the right training partner granted the poor performance of the Russian army (for instance multiple war games by the US Marine Corps University suggested that the Russians would have wrapped up the invasion within three days). Financially, China might well regard Russian assets as opportunistic and cheap.

China will also worry about the ability of the West, the US in particular to detail Russia’s moves before they happened and should be concerned that the US and Japan’s Public Security Intelligence Agency, in addition to other intelligence configurations (Five Eyes) have the ability to read its moves.

The area where China has the greatest scope to learn is in information wars, where President Zelensky and Ukraine have excelled. Globalisation has spread social media, which still retains its Western cultural bias internationally. I can think of very few Chinese media or social media outlets that have penetrated beyond China in terms of creating engaging, trusted content. In short, this means that in an increasingly contested world, China will struggle to ‘tell its story’.

In that respect, I suspect that China feels much less sure of its position on Ukraine/Russia, and will most likely continue to watch and wait, hopefully suing for peace.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

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