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Tighter Ties with China Signal Ukraine’s Multi-Vector Foreign Policy

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Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Ukraine is eager to cut deals with China as it confronts the West’s moves to allay Russian concerns. Whether Kyiv’s moves are a sign of a larger foreign policy adjustment or just a bluff aimed to mitigate faltering ties with the EU and the US, they could beget big consequences.

‘Chinese Card’

On June 30, Ukraine touted an agreement with China, which proposes revamping the country’s decrepit infrastructure. The decision comes following a US-German resolution to finish the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, despite longstanding concerns of Kyiv and other CEE nations. Yet, perhaps the biggest motivation was the growing unwillingness in the West to advance Ukraine’s NATO/EU aspirations.

The current state of affairs pushes Ukraine to find alternatives in foreign policy. China, with plenty of cash and political clout, comes as an obvious choice resulting in the signing of the bilateral agreement in June. The document outlines China’s willingness to invest in railways, airports, and ports, as well as telecommunications infrastructure across Ukraine. But otherwise, the agreement details few specifics.

The available details from the deal fit comfortably into the pattern China has been following across Eurasia. For example, China signed similar deals with Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia among others, demonstrating its willingness to penetrate those states’ vital infrastructure. Still, the documents can be also characterized as an umbrella agreement that serves as a roadmap rather than an accord listing concrete details and commitments.

The China-Ukraine agreement is all the more surprising as Kyiv rebuffed earlier this year a Chinese proposal to buy a Ukrainian aerospace company, Motor Sich.

Nevertheless, there are several reasons behind the rapprochement. First and foremost, it is about Ukraine adjusting its foreign policy stance to the state of economic relations. China is now Ukraine’s biggest single-country trade partner outstripping Russia and having a 14.4 percent share of the country’s imports and 15.3 percent of its exports. Perhaps fearful of possible Chinese countermeasures over the Motor Sich decision, Kyiv has been open to mending ties with Beijing with the June agreement.

Secondly, it paves the way for a more active role in China’s near-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims at connecting China with the European market across the heart of Eurasia. Ukraine was among the first to endorse the initiative but has avoided signing memorandums on cooperation similar to what China has done with many others.

More immediately, the tilt toward China follows Kyiv’s decision to remove its name from an international statement about human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang. While Ukraine initially joined the initiative, together with 40 other states, Kyiv abruptly changed its mind on June 24. It has been confirmed that the withdrawal followed Chinese threats to limit trade and deny access to COVID-19 vaccines for which Ukraine had already paid.

Multi-Vector Policy

Some larger geopolitical dynamics are also at play, such as Kyiv’s attempt to acclimate to the changing world order and the growing global competition between Beijing and Washington. In this environment, Ukraine might want to carve out an equidistant place between the two powers so as to avoid possible backlash from siding clearly with either of them.

As such, Ukraine appears to be embarking on a multi-vector foreign policy. It would allow Kyiv to alleviate its dependence on the West and seek lucrative economic and political ties with large Eurasian states. Put simply, relations with the West did not deliver on the expected benefits. The country was not offered NATO or EU accession, while the collective West’s consistent concessions to Russia undermine Ukraine’s interests. Ukraine has also often tended to look at China and other Eurasian powers from the ‘Western perspective’, which limited its options.

In Kyiv’s understanding, elimination of this obstructive dependence would enable it to find new partners able to bring in investments and ideally political support in multilateral organizations. China undoubtedly can be such a partner.

Kyiv’s calculations are more understandable when taken in view of its larger diplomatic readjustment in the region. For example, Ukraine recently began building closer relations with another Eurasian power in Turkey. When Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky visited Istanbul in April 2021, nascent bilateral military ties were seen as a new chapter in the countries’ relations. Most indicative of this shift, a memorandum was signed on the creation of joint defense-industrial projects, which includes joint development of unmanned aerial vehicles in Ukraine.

The story of Turkey could serve as a microcosm, whereby Kyiv displayed that it is more interested in balancing the pressure from Russia and mitigating the failures in its pro-Western foreign policy course. Ukraine thus foreshadowed its increasingly multi-vector foreign policy as a solution to its geopolitical problems. In Kyiv’s understanding, rapprochement with China and Turkey could mitigate threats emanating from Russia as both Beijing and Ankara enjoy closer ties with Moscow, but nonetheless consider it a competitor.

The multi-vector foreign policy for Ukraine however does not mean abandoning its pro-Western cause. It rather involves seeing its NATO/EU aspirations as complementary with the closer economic ties with China and others. It will require an agile foreign policy and leveraging the country’s geopolitical assets.

New Type of Bilateral Relations 

Ukraine’s behavior might herald the birth of what could be characterized as a Eurasian model of bilateral relations. Across the continent, the notion of traditional alliances is being gradually replaced by partnerships. Devoid of formal obligations, China, Iran, Turkey and Russia find more space for interaction and see a larger pool of opportunities across the vastness of the supercontinent. Bigger maneuverability makes their foreign policy more agile in finding a common ground for cooperation.

The Eurasian model is a byproduct of an evolving global order in which each state with geopolitical influence recalibrates its foreign ties to fit into the post-unipolar world. Russia and China officially refuse to have an alliance – indeed, they claim an alliance would undermine their purportedly benevolent intentions toward one another. More specifically, the concept relates to how China sees the future world order. It opposes alliances – the ‘relic’ from the Cold War era.

Thus, the shift in Kyiv’s foreign policy could be part of this Eurasian trend where Ukraine seeks to construct its Asia policy which would better correspond to the unfolding China-US competition, Asia’s economic rise, and most of all, the failure to become a NATO or EU member state.

Reality Check

However, closer ties with China and most of all the dependence on Beijing’s investments also involves risks. China’s infrastructure projects are mostly financed through loans, which poorer and weaker countries are unable to repay. Often, ownership of the sites ends up in Chinese hands.

Chinese involvement in Ukraine’s critical infrastructure could also risk giving control over strategic technologies to Beijing, which would be channeled to China and successfully used to advance Chinese interests.

For Kyiv, dependence on Beijing also involves risks because of China’s close partnership with Russia. Dangers could be manifested in a concerted pressure on Ukraine in international organizations, or even China heeding Russian fears and abandoning infrastructure projects which would harm Russian interests.

The June agreement is an umbrella deal that lays out the foundation for deeper cooperation, but in no way guarantees its fulfillment. This could mean that Ukraine only sought to restore worsening bilateral relations with China following the Motor Sich saga. Alternatively, Kyiv might merely be trying to raise stakes in its stagnated relations with the West and hold Washington to account, signaling that it can successfully navigate between geopolitical poles if need be. One way or another, China looks set to play a bigger role in Ukraine‘s foreign policy.

Author’s note: first published at chinaobservers

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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Eastern Europe

The Stewards of Hate

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A big bear is rattling the open door of his cage.  He cannot abide a NATO spear in his belly.  Hence Valdimir Putin’s demand for Ukraine to remain out of it, and for the military alliance to stop its advance into eastern Europe.

For 72 years until 1991, Ukraine was a republic of the Soviet Union, and before that for centuries an oblast of the Imperial Russian empire.  In 1939, parts belonging to Poland were annexed.

It was during the breakup of Russia following an independence referendum that Ukraine opted to separate.  But NATO is another story.  After the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact (NATO’s eastern counterpart), Russia had expected the West to do the same.  Instead, NATO became a US fig leaf for its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Apparently, everyone in the world saw through this — except the US — as it embroiled itself in both countries, and the bill for the misadventures rocketed from $80 billion to an estimated $5 trillion.

The EU, a path to riches for East Europeans, is a Ukrainian dream, and Russian troops the reality when they wake up.  Such are the facts, no matter how much the Ukrainians are trying to ignore them. 

If the powerful Russian bear is the Ukrainian bete noire, its polar opposite is the case in India.  A powerful Hindutva movement abhors the Muslim minority.  It blames them for India’s problems, very much akin to the situation for Jews in pre-WW2 Germany.  Not unsurprisingly given the roots of the RSS, which modeled itself after the Nazis, instituting uniforms and drills.  A former member assassinated Gandhi for being too soft on Muslims.  Post independence, the RSS was banned by India’s first government which was led by Jawaharlal Nehru, a secular socialist.

The current prime minister, Narendra Modi, is a former RSS pracharak —  that is an active member who devotes himself full time to promoting RSS doctrine and, like a missionary, in seeking new members.  As an ambitious politician, he shed RSS ties when he entered politics and as leader expresses the wish for unity — sentiments not shared by his BHP colleagues.

There is the yogi elected chief minister of India’s largest state, and his undisguised derogatory opinions of Muslims.  Worse, at a political event at the end of December, leaders called openly for the killing of Muslims, and India’s leaders kept silent.  After general social media outrage at the speeches, the police  finally registered a case against some of the speakers for ‘promoting hatred between religious groups.’

Videos show many of the speakers are prominent religious leaders often present with senior ministers in the BJP government.  Imagine, calling for genocide in 2021.  The world reacted to the effort to eliminate Tutsis in Rwanda where it also began with reviling and dehumanization.  Genocide and even incitement to genocide is a crime.  Hence the prosecutions.  Incitement to genocide is recognized as a separate crime under international law and an inchoate crime which does not require genocide to have taken place to be prosecutable.

The founders of post-independence India, Gandhi and Nehru who took pride in being secular, must be in agony over international outlaws wanting to become the stewards of their child.

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Eastern Europe

Lithuania is left in the dust

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The nearly completed Nord Stream 2 is again in focus. It has become known that the U.S. Senate on January 13 failed to pass a bill to slap sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline sponsored by Republican Senator Ted Cruz. The tally was 55 in favor and 44 against the bill that needed 60 votes to pass. Those who voted against his bill said it risked breaking unity in Washington and in Europe. U.S. senators said also Cruz sanctions on Nord Stream 2 could harm relations with Germany which is very important for the U.S. foreign policy and economy.

Top Ukrainian officials, as well as Lithuanian government supported Cruz’s bill, arguing the United States should do everything in its power to halt the pipeline project.

The link is designed to export gas from Russia directly to Germany by bypassing Ukraine, through which Russia has sent gas to Europe for decades. That would deprive Ukraine of lucrative transit fees and potentially undermine its struggle against alleged Russian aggression. The decision will allow the completion of the gas pipeline to Europe without the imposition of further US sanctions. Earlier Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that the a deal between the United States and Germany on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was a “mistake”. It is interesting that the vote came as U.S. and European officials held high-level talks with their Russian counterparts. It is quite possible that the decision about Nord Stream 2 pipeline was the result of these negotiations.

This fact has sparked anger and has become great political disappointment for the Lithuanian officials who view the project as a security threat.

Lithuania, positioning itself as the main Ukraine’s patron in Europe, is confused with such U.S. decision. Lithuania promotes the U.S. interests and support all American initiatives even to the detriment of its own interests. Only this month Lithuania took a number of steps to prove its commitment to US policy. Lithuania even has dared to challenge China, one the main US strategic competitors. It continues to spend millions of dollars on military purchases from the U.S. using the narrative of “the threat from the East”. In December Lithuania signed an agreement with the U.S. to improve military interoperability.

The more so, the Lithuanian government has decided to accelerate its planned purchase of a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) amid Russia’s military buildup on its border with Ukraine. The decision to buy US’ Lockheed Martin system in 2026, two years earlier than Vilnius previously planned.

The country also regularly holds political consultations with the U.S. officials to coordinate its further actions. But the U.S. in its turn does not pay attention to Lithuania’s opinion and makes decision in its favour.

Lithuanian government should gain Lithuanians’ support and pay attention to their needs. The matter is discontent in Lithuanian society is growing every day. Thus, on January 13, the usual commemoration of Freedom Defenders saw loud booing and heckles from the crowd of protesters who called on the government (and the parliament) to resign.

It is obviously that the threat from the East is not so real as threat to be fired due to loss of confidence in near future.

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Eastern Europe

Rebuilding of Karabakh: Results of 2021

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Image source: azerfocus.com

The restoration work in Karabakh entered the active phase in 2021 as several projects had been completed and the foundations for new ones were laid down. The restoration process in Karabakh started right after the November 10th declaration that ended the 44-Day War between Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the war, Azerbaijan liberated its territories that constituted about 20% of the total territory of Azerbaijan and were occupied by Armenian forces in the early 90s.

During the occupation, about thirty years, Karabakh was subject to ruthless destruction and looting by the occupants. As a result, most of the social infrastructure, including residential buildings, schools, and hospitals, were totally destroyed, and most parts of the occupied territories were left empty. Despite the fact that the total destruction in Karabakh makes the restoration process complex and time-consuming, Azerbaijan immediately started the restoration process. For this purpose, the plan for socio-economic development of the liberated territories was prepared, and for the implementation of this plan, “Coordination Headquarters” and 17 working groups on different areas were established. In 2021, $2.2 billion was allocated from the state budget for the restoration process. The same amount of funds is planned to be directed to the restoration process in 2022 as well. The allocation of the necessary financial resources and the establishment of the state bodies for the efficient organization of the recovery process led to the rapid implementation of projects in 2021.

The most notable project that was almost completed in 2021 was the Fuzuli International Airport. The inauguration of the airport took place in Azerbaijan’s liberated city of Fuzuli in Karabakh on October 26. It was the first airport built by Azerbaijan in the liberated areas, and its construction took only eight months. It was built in accordance with the highest international standards, which enables it to accommodate any type of aircraft. A runway with a length of 3000 meters and a width of 60 meters has been put into operation at the airport. The first test flight to Fuzuli International Airport was performed on September 5, 2021, when the largest passenger aircraft of Azerbaijan Airlines, named Karabakh, landed at the airport. Because of its location, the new airport is considered as an “air gate of Karabakh”. Along with Fuzuli airport, the foundations of the other two airports in Lachin and Zangilan districts were also laid down in 2021.

The year 2021 was also marked by the establishment of the Horadiz-Jabrayil-Zangilan-Agband highway. The foundation of this road was laid on October 26, with the participation of the leaders of Azerbaijan and Turkey. With a length of 124 km, it is part of the Zangezur Corridor, the establishment of which was envisioned in the November 10 declaration. The Zangezur Corridor is a very important project that is going to change the transportation architecture of the South Caucasus and its neighborhood. Its proximity to the Karabakh and connection to the main roads in the region will accelerate the restoration and development of the Karabakh.

Within the framework of the restoration process, another important event in 2021 was the foundation of the first “smart village” in Agali village in the Zangilan district on April 26. As of October, the construction work on more than 110 hectares in Agali village was underway. It includes the construction of 200 ecological houses, 4 non-residential buildings, a smart school for about 360 students, and a kindergarten for 60 children. Work on establishing smart agricultural infrastructure on approximately 600 hectares of land is also ongoing. According to the restoration program, it is planned to re-establish cities and villages in the liberated territories based on the “smart city” and “smart village” concepts. Thus, after the Agali village, this concept will be implemented in other areas of Karabakh.

In 2021, the highway that connects the Fuzuli and Shusha cities was also opened. As this highway passes through the territory that was used to liberate Shusha city, it has a symbolic meaning for Azerbaijan, and therefore it is named “The Road to Victory.” The Fuzuli-Shusha highway is part of the Ahmadbeyli-Fuzuli-Shusha highway, one of the main highways in Karabakh. It is 101.5 km in length and reduces the distance from the capital Baku to Shusha to about 363 km. The foundation of another important transport project, the Horadiz–Agband railway, was also laid in 2021 and its construction continues. This railway is 100 kilometers long and has strategic importance as it will connect the mainland of Azerbaijan with Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan’s landlocked exclave, through the Zangezur corridor.

Along with the mentioned roads, the opening ceremony of the 28-kilometer highway that connects the city of Tartar with the villages of Sugovushan and Talish took place in 2021. The length of this road is 28 kilometers, and as planned, the extension of this project will include 22 kilometers of highway from Talish to Naftalan. Construction and planning work on various transportation projects such as the Barda–Aghdam railroad, the Fuzuli-Shusa railway, and the Toganal-Kalbacar highway were also continued.

Comprehensive works in the energy sector were also carried out within the framework of the restoration program, based on the strategy for transforming the liberated territories into “green energy” zones and connecting the energy infrastructure in those territories to Azerbaijan’s general energy system. In 2021, with a total capacity of 20 megawatts, “Gulabird”, “Sugovushan-1” and “Sugovushan-2” small hydroelectric power stations (HPS) were reconstructed and put into operation in the liberated territories. In total, nine digital substations were built in the Karabakh and East Zangezur regions. Simultaneously, in the Aghdam and Jabrail regions, the construction of “Aghdam-1,” “Aghdam-2,” and “Jabrayil” substations as well as the Karabakh Regional Digital Management Center has been completed.

The other important project in the energy sector was the foundation of the Digital Station Management Center in Fuzuli. This project, implemented for the first time in the South Caucasus, allows through automation to reduce the impact of the human factor on the operation of the network, increase reliability and reduce losses during the transmission of electricity. All these projects in the energy sector serve to maintain the energy security in liberated territories and to transform these territories into “green energy” zone.

All the mentioned projects show that Azerbaijan has actively worked for rebuilding Karabakh in 2021. It will enable Azerbaijan to fully integrate the Karabakh economy into the Azerbaijan economy and to use its economic potential in upcoming years. As the liberated territories have great potential in sectors such as agriculture and energy, it will also positively affect the development of the non-oil sector in Azerbaijan. Implementation of all projects that were started in 2021 will not only contribute to the economic development of Azerbaijan, but will also transport Azerbaijan and Karabakh to the transport and economic center of the region.

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