How the West’s focus on China’s ties with Russia misses the bigger geopolitical picture

Posted: April 19, 2022 in South China Morning Post
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Almost caught up, but then will invariably get behind, another short piece for the South China Morning Post inspired by events in Ukraine, this time trying to tackle the obsession in the west about China’s support for Russia.

How the West’s focus on China’s ties with Russia misses the bigger geopolitical picture

  • The US and EU’s condemnation of Russia and repeated calls for their allies to do the same reflects a world view in which democracies stand united against autocracies
  • In reality, drawing battle lines is far more difficult when interests and values rarely align
Illustration: Stephen Case, South China Morning Post

The single-minded focus on China’s friendship with Russia misses the far wider range of supporters around the world that Moscow has been able to muster. It is this wider web that really highlights the difficulty the US and Europe will have in marshalling international support to condemn Moscow’s actions.

The myopia reflects the difficulty in playing the complicated game of three-dimensional chess that is international geopolitics, where relationships are coloured by shades of grey and focus on interests rather than values.

There is no doubt China has chosen to side with Moscow over the conflict in Ukraine. But it is important to note that this choice has been carefully couched as not being against Kyiv, but in opposition to the US and Nato’s missteps in causing the problem in the first place by antagonising Moscow.

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Beijing’s choice is also the result of a calculation that Russia remains a critical ally in China’s wider confrontation with the West.

This framing may anger the West, but it is one that Ukraine seems willing to (at least in public) accept. In recent comments, the head of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office, Andriy Yermak, described China’s position as “neutral”, while saying that Ukraine’s leader was expected to talk to President Xi Jinping soon.

China was Ukraine’s largest trading partner before the invasion, and there is every chance that this economic relationship will pick up where it left off should stability ever return to the country.

Such commentary stands in contrast to Kyiv’s views on India, the other Asian giant that has stood behind Moscow. As the invasion unfolded, Western leaders called on New Delhi to stand behind them in condemning Russia.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government declined, leading Ukraine’s Ambassador to India Igor Polikha to declare he was “deeply dissatisfied” with India’s stance, calling on New Delhi to be “much more actively engaged, given the privileged relations India has with Russia”.

Few who had been paying attention would be surprised by India’s position. The country’s military-industrial relationship with Russia is a long-standing sore in US-India relations, fuelling concerns about defence and intelligence transfers.

Neither New Delhi nor Beijing, however, are outliers. Both have chosen to abstain in United Nations Security Council votes. And, in the wider UN General Assembly vote demanding humanitarian access to Ukraine and condemning Russia’s actions, they stood alongside South Africa, Pakistan, Iran, Vietnam, a range of African powers and much of Central Asia in abstaining (only a few predictable powers like North Korea, Syria, Belarus and Eritrea joined Russia in voting against the resolution).

South Africa even sought to follow up on the vote with another focused solely on the humanitarian disaster in Ukraine, omitting any refence to Russian action.

But there is further complexity within these positions. While Central Asian powers chose to abstain from the UN vote, both the Uzbek and Kazakh governments have chosen to openly reject recognition of the breakaway territories of Luhansk and Donetsk that Moscow has recognised, while also appearing to more actively reach out to Ukraine.

This seeming stand against Russia is one that flies in the face of Kazakhstan’s decision early this year to call on Russian forces to support the government in the face of mass protests, and the Uzbekistan government’s reliance on Russian security to help bolster their border with Afghanistan as the republic’s government collapsed last year.

Looking beyond UN voting, Russia also appears to have a number of friends in the Middle East. On the one hand, Iran has openly sought a closer relationship with Moscow, in large part for the same reason as Beijing – as a bolster against a confrontational relationship with Washington.

But, on the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both also shown support for Russia while snubbing Washington – a choice that is driven by a concern about reliability of US alliances and irritation at condemnation of their own actions (their conflict in Yemen) by the West.

The reality is that international relations are grey. Countries are driven by interests that are both short and long term. An adversary today can become an ally tomorrow. The one immutable truth in international relations is that nothing is permanent.

But this is a critical problem for a West that is seeking to build a binary world of autocracies versus democracies, painting this as the defining struggle of our time. It also reflects a core tension within the approach being driven by Washington, where there appears to be a desire to create an alliance of democracies alongside a shifting constellation of coalitions focused on outcomes.

While, in theory, this is not impossible – countries are often willing to maintain contradictory policies while focusing on interests – it becomes difficult when a single-minded obsession with one adversary clouds everything else.

While American and Chinese strategic thinking may be centred on a world in which the other is the main adversary, to the rest of the world, this narrative is more complicated. And these complications do not always hold across interests, and may in fact undermine each other in crucial ways.

There is no easy way to thread this needle. But maintaining a resolute focus on interests rather than values is a disappointing place to start. This is not going to be appealing to those who want to see a world of like-minded allies or democracies ruling the waves, but is more likely to reflect the brutal reality of geopolitics, where values are not as transcendental as we might like to believe.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore. He is co-author, with Alexandros Petersen, of “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire”

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