Russia’s war with Ukraine has, for the time being, saved the Communist Party of China (CPC) and therefore the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The isolation of Russia as part of the US-led global information warfare campaign has completed the process of driving Russia “back into the arms of Beijing”. This was occurring at a time when the economy of the PRC was imploding and the CPC, under General-Secretary Xi Jinping, was attempting to retain global power while essentially ring-fencing its economy from outside influence.
The situation does not guarantee the PRC’s revival as a wealthy power, but, even though it now becomes more dependent on Russia, it does at least allow the Communist Party of China to survive.
The PRC, as the world’s largest importer of food and energy, and now with diminishing foreign currency reserves, sees that Russia has nowhere else to go except to elevate the PRC to the position of Moscow’s most important trading and security partner.
And because this is literally an issue that could save a declining PRC, Beijing’s assessment of the ongoing conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine has to be along far more pragmatic lines than Western assessments, which tend to be either based around irrational fear or euphoric optimism.
General Secretary Xi and his team are, as a result, evaluating ongoing lessons from the current Russian military conflict against Ukraine, and the new phase of the Russian strategic war with the US. Their assessments cannot follow the unrealistic views being promulgated by Western analysts.
Beijing’s views on how to seriously confront the world galvanized, essentially, in the 1990s. The wake-up call for Beijing came with the May 7, 1999, “accidental” strike by US aircraft, using direct attack munitions (DAM) on the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Belgrade, during US/NATO Operation Allied Force. The strike did far more than just anger the PRC public and Government; it served to trigger a sober internal assessment of the state of the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The incident — a direct and deliberate provocation — had a similar impact on strategic planners on the Russian General Staff and in Pres. Vladimir Putin’s office.
This may have been the single most important act of self-inflicted damage that the US perpetrated on itself since US Pres. Jimmy Carter withdrew the US from control of the Panama Canal in 1977.
From that point, both Beijing and Moscow began examining ways to leapfrog US technological leadership and operational doctrine in the military sphere, creating, as a result, capabilities which have overtaken the US in many areas. It was not surprising that the CPC accepted, in 1999, the findings of a study that could have been overlooked a year or two earlier: the study by two PLA Senior Colonels entitled Unrestricted Warfare. It defined new approaches to the conduct of warfare which were to prove powerful, and which were subsequently to be incorporated even into Russian strategic doctrine.
The watershed of the 2022 Russian direct action against Ukraine has stimulated the next phase of Beijing’s evaluation of the prospects of conflict and competition over the coming decade. Watershed One was the 1999 Belgrade attack. Watershed Two was the start of Russian hostilities (and subsequent Western reactions) in late February 2022.
What, then, are some of Beijing’s conclusions being considered by early March 2022?
1. Moscow Now Dominates the Eurasian Balance: CPC leadership, which is not subject to mainstream media pressures, takes a far less pessimistic view of Russia’s military success rate in the early days of the Ukraine conflict than does the Western media or Western politicians. Beijing recognizes that, however the conflict settles down, Moscow emerges stronger from the conflict, both militarily and strategically, even if it is isolated from Western markets and capital.
This is not necessarily seen as a universally positive development for Beijing overall, but something that does give the PRC short-term comfort. In other words: short-term relief; long-term uncertainty.
Beijing, on this basis, now understands that Russia dominates the Sino-Russian relationship in the way that, during much of the Cold War, the USSR dominated the Sino-Soviet relationship. That had changed with the massive post-Cold War growth of the PRC economy, making a weak post-Soviet Moscow a supplicant to seek trade and support from Beijing. At that point, up until perhaps 2012, Russia was forced to sell its crown jewels — its latest military and space technology, in particular — to the PRC, and to tolerate the PRC theft of Russian intellectual property to attempt to build its own defense, aerospace, and high-tech industries.
However, the PRC’s economic difficulties since about 2012 gradually gave Moscow more opportunity to regain dominance over the relationship. This then moved to a tipping point switch to Moscow dominance following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. Russia moved rapidly in late 2021 to re-consolidate influence in Central Asia; the PRC gained far less than it had hoped from that event, both in Central Asia and with regard to Iran and Afghanistan.
The January 2022 Kazakhstan staged “attempted coup” consolidated Russia’s ability to dominate Central Asia.
The PRC assessment of the Russian approach to the intervention in Ukraine, therefore, was far less emotional than Western assessments. It became, in a sense, an existential event for the CPC. Furthermore, it confirmed Russia’s longstanding commitment to resisting encroachments on its borders, including the unresolved Sino-Russian borders.
Russian isolation from the Western world offers profound relief for Beijing, including the prospect that Russia’s significant strength in global grain markets could be turned to providing food support for the PRC, which is the largest net importer of food in the world. Similarly, the creation of an internal Eurasian market could ensure that more Russian energy finds a home in PRC markets. All of this pre-supposes that Beijing will, in the coming years, be able to afford to pay for it.
But Beijing, at least, has recognized that Russia has in recent years become a massive net exporter of food, a factor that has seemingly been ignored by the West.
There has been, for several years, a great impetus to create an internal marketplace between the PRC, Russia, and several smaller states, such as (particularly) Iran, with some interchange with the more independent Central Asian states and other states in Africa and the Americas. Indeed, to a substantial extent, the neutral position of the Central Asian states could provide the buffer for the import and export of goods to and from Russia, and also to and from the PRC.
2. Ukraine Offers Few Parallels for Beijing’s Hope to Conquer Taiwan: There are few military parallels between the Russian military operation in Ukraine and a proposed amphibious operation by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to conquer Taiwan, other than to assess the merits of various weapons systems, particularly air defenses. However, Ukraine’s piecemeal evolution of an air defense capability, heavily based on Soviet-built weapons, in no way mirrors the complex air defense capability of the Republic of China (ROC) Armed Forces on Taiwan.
The real tactical and military focus for the PLA would be on the success and challenges of the Russia-Ukraine cyber warfare, but it would be clear to Beijing that Russia had, by early March 2022, scarcely deployed anything like its full cyber (or even its military) capability. What was interesting, possibly, was the level of success that Ukraine’s own cyber capabilities may have achieved in impacting Russian tactical and strategic capabilities, if at all, and how much US/NATO cyber support may have entered the conflict.
Of far greater importance to Beijing would be the extent to which the Ukraine crisis gave an indicator of US, Western, and global political galvanization in resisting Russia, and whether this would give an indication of a possible global response to a PRC attack on Taiwan. Russia’s portrayal of the historical relationship of Ukraine and Moscow, along with the promises toward the end of the Cold War by US Pres. Ronald Reagan and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to refrain from NATO expansion, will be key to Beijing’s search for parallels applicable to Taiwan.
Beijing is paying particular attention to the use, or maneuver, of Russian strategic forces — essentially nuclear and hypersonic capabilities — in order to compel US/NATO onto the sidelines of the Ukraine dispute. Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin has used the “re-positioning” of strategic assets very, very carefully to highlight Russian determination without hinting at an inevitable escalation to nuclear conflict.
Beijing should be expected to raise the nuclear deterrence aspect with regard to the ROC. Not deterrence of others from directly undertaking a nuclear first strike against the PRC, but to intimidate foreign forces away from supporting the ROC; to create, in psycho-political terms, paralysis in its opponents.
Significantly, Beijing cannot claim that Taiwan — more specifically the ROC as a sovereign entity — is a defecting part of “China”. The Republic of China (ROC), now based in Taiwan, can, however, claim that the People’s Republic of China (PRC), created only in 1949, is an illegal defector from the Republic of China. That profound difference is locked into US and Japanese history, with the US maintaining a chain of recognition and responsibility with regard to Taiwan, even if it today recognizes the PRC as the representative of the geographic entity of China.
Nonetheless, Beijing attempts to portray the Taiwan issue as an “internal dispute”, and this will continue to be promoted and expanded as a means of keeping foreigners out. Indeed, the real issue for the CPC will be to determine whether Ukraine “conflict exhaustion” could be married, through psychological operations, to dampen US (in particular) enthusiasm to resist a PLA Taiwan operation. Alternately, the CPC must consider whether the West’s reluctance to commit more to the defense of Ukraine means that it merely continues to keep its powder dry in readiness for a PRC break-out.
In any event, Beijing’s key consideration for a Taiwan operation relies more on the independent responses of India and Japan. It also considers whether the PRC’s quiescence on the Kazakhstan issue in January 2022 and its tacit and diplomatic support for Moscow over Ukraine, would earn it some direct military and political support from Russia in the event that Beijing attempted the Taiwan operation.
[Having said that, even Xi Jinping’s consolidated strength within the CPC is almost certainly insufficient to counter his Party and PLA opponents’ argument that an invasion of Taiwan would be a reckless, unnecessary, and possibly unsuccessful — even suicidal — gamble.]
In the purely military assessment by Beijing of the Russian operations in Ukraine, the CPC is more aware than any other power of what is actually occurring. This includes the realization of Russian goals, which do not include an ongoing occupation of Ukraine. It almost certainly recognizes that Russia has a series of phased, or alternative, acceptable outcomes, but of overriding importance would be the creation of a post-conflict neutral buffer state out of what remains of Ukraine.
It would also include an absolute guarantee of its position in Crimea and almost certainly the full establishment of the Donbas’ new republics, Luhansk and Donetsk, as part of the buffer system protecting Russia’s control of the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. This would help consolidate for Russia a range of geographic buffer zones.
How Russia will deal with Turkey, post-Ukraine, remains to be seen, but the newly-emerging Eurasian bloc dominated by Russia, the PRC, and Iran could well offer some salvation to Turkish Pres. Reçep Tayyip Erdo?an, whose economy has entered a final downward spiral. The European Union (EU) is unlikely to offer any political or economic solace to Turkey as long as Erdo?an remains in power, and potential trading partners such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have already indicated that they could be a link into the Russian-dominated new bloc.
So, for all that Pres. Erdo?an had pinned some hopes on punishing Russia over Ukraine and seeing Ukraine as a possible revival avenue for Turkey in Europe, Moscow might once again be the only means of saving the embattled Turkish President. And Mr. Erdo?an has already made it clear he would value an improved economic relationship with Beijing.
In any event, Beijing is aware that the “correlation of forces”, despite the anticipated sanctions, works in favor of a strategically strong Eurasian bloc under Russia. Beijing is keenly aware that the Russian military action was nowhere near a “full invasion” of Ukraine, and that Moscow has considerable theater-level escalation capability. Moscow has been judicious in its use of precision-guided munitions and yet has still been able to achieve air dominance in the campaign. It has also, by acting with great deliberation and an avoidance of mass tactics, been able to overmatch Ukrainian ground force capabilities, regardless of the qualities of many individual Ukrainian combatants.
3. Common Cause to Minimize Sino-Russian Competition: Beijing is aware that the Ukraine conflict, more than any other action since the end of the Cold War, has driven Moscow into the arms of Beijing.
Moscow, while it may emerge as the stronger of the two in the “alliance”, will be a different player on the world stage than the one it wished to be after the collapse of the USSR. A new economic framework will be needed for the new Eurasian bloc and its global affiliates, and this has been considered for some time.
The fact that Russia was able to counter the loss of access to the SWIFT financial transfer system by March 1, 2022, indicated that Moscow had been preparing for some years for the final rupture of what it had hoped would be a Russian integration into the Western-dominated trading system. The introduction of the Financial Message Transfer System of the Bank of Russia (SPFS) some six years earlier, was well thought out, and has already been perfected in operational use by banks in Belarus, Armenia, and the Kyrgyz Republic. It already had 399 users by March 2022, and the PRC was negotiating to join the system.
The SPFS system was conducting more than two-million messages a month in 2020, some 20.6 percent more than SWIFT. SWIFT, however, has the advantage of widespread global use, which the SPFS does not.
Certainly, this does not compensate for the degradation of Russian and PRC currencies vis-à-vis the US dollar, sterling, and the euro, but what it means is that the new Eurasian bloc is merely divided from the Western trading system. But Russia (and, to a lesser extent, the PRC) has high reserves of gold to provide a solid underpinning of its currency, and this will eventually begin to tell as Western debt levels begin to erode confidence in the US dollar and the euro. It also explains why Russia and the PRC focus efforts on developing good relations with gold-producing states (ie: Mali and South Africa).
The world has, in any event, been moving gradually back to a greater bilateralization of trade since the end of the Cold War, and this lends itself to barter and counter-trade which will again feature heavily for Moscow and Beijing.
4. Forcing the US/West to Focus on the Euro-Atlantic Theater Rather than the Indo-Pacific: Beijing is looking at the US/NATO/Australia response to the Ukraine crisis and has recognized that this contributes significantly to leveling the power balance in the Indo-Pacific. Beijing has for some time attempted to find Euro-Atlantic distractions which would force the US and UK (in particular) to diminish their Indo-Pacific focus.
The Ukraine conflict, then, has been a major success for Beijing. The “correlation of forces” it faces in the Indo-Pacific have been altered, at least for some time, by a US political need to re-focus on NATO. This will make it more difficult for the nascent AUKUS bloc of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US, to gain priority traction in Washington.
Even within the loose Quad (quadrilateral) alliance of India, Japan, the US, and Australia, India is now in an ambiguous position with Russia, which had long been a major national security partner of New Delhi. The changes initiated by the August 2021 withdrawal by the US from Afghanistan opened the way for the resumption of “the Great Game”, allowing India to compete against Moscow and Beijing for influence in the Central Asian states in a way not possible since the late 19th Century.
But India, now, may find itself having to find a new modus vivendi with a consolidated Eurasian power bloc, which may dampen the Indian ability to directly challenge the PRC on the Tibetan Plateau, or over Pakistani-occupied Kashmir, as easily as might have been the case when Russia was less intimately linked to the PRC. This, in turn, positions Pakistan in a new light. It might now once again be seen as a stable link for the PRC into the Indian Ocean.
Everything has, once again, become ambiguous, and this works well for Beijing. Its certain decline has been given a safety net.
The bottom line is that while Beijing may feel a certain sadness that it has slipped into a subordinate position again, with regard to Russia, the reality is that the Ukraine war has stabilized the position of the CPC and PRC as Xi Jinping moves toward consolidating his domestic position in history at the XXth CPC Party Congress in October 2022.
Xi’s position in PRC domestic power struggles was, after all, made even more ambiguous because of the clear failure of the February 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics to restore prestige and credibility to an increasingly isolated PRC. To be sure, that poor investment in staging the Winter Olympics would not be enough to derail Xi’s bid for re-election at the XXth Party Congress, but it hardly helped him.
What ultimately emerges for the CPC is something that was imagined during the Cold War: a harmonious (if expedient) Sino-Russian bloc that could build a global position of allies and partners. What helped end the Cold War was the West’s move to exacerbate the Sino-Soviet rift, and that process also included the promises by Reagan and Thatcher to Russia and US Pres. Richard Nixon’s promises to Beijing.
But the West is not in a position to use those same tools so easily in the future.
By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.
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