Russian War on Ukraine Is Strafing China’s BRI

As compared with the Russian annexation of Crimea eight years ago, in the current Ukrainian war crisis not only China’s stakes are high but that Beijing just cannot afford to appear more than a neutral bystander. Analysts in China would like us to believe that in the ensuing propaganda war over Ukraine, China has typically lost out to the western “fake news” and has been projected in the world press as “firmly standing behind Russia.” Looking at the Ukrainian war-torn region from China’s One Belt One Road geopolitical strategic point of view, Xi would emerge as the biggest loser if the “war crisis” situation is allowed to drag on, an influential Chinese scholar wrote a week after the Russian assault began.  

The new Biden administration, it is believed, inherited as Trumpian legacy twin China-specific policies of bipartisan consensus among the US political elite, among other things – to contain and to isolate China. Biden’s new China team (but) with old thinking, led by Antony Blinken, Jack Sullivan and Kurt Campbell at the top, swung into action from the word go looking for a new “China strategy,” a strategy that would be more effective and result-oriented. However, so far the White House new China Team has not done any better than the previous Trump administration. It is here we find it extremely interesting what a veteran Washington observer has recently revealed, that a very influential political science professor advised Biden’s China team to engage with Russia in order to stop the Chinese threat. “US should prevent China from dominating Asia by bringing Russia into a balancing equation against China,” the distinguished academic is believed to have said.  

However, rejecting the professor’s suggestion the Asian Perspective editor-in-chief Mel Gurtov thought no advice could have been more wrongheaded such as the one above. In sharp contrast, Gurtov, even a day after the Russian missiles were bearing down on Kyiv, put forward a no less ridiculous suggestion that the Biden administration policy should have been exactly opposite: engage China in order to weaken Russia. Not far away and not so far behind, the fear of a similar situation unfolding in the near future led a former foreign secretary of India calling it an extremely worrying scenario for New Delhi. “The nightmare scenario for India would be,” Ambassador Shyam Saran averred in his column recently “if the US comes to the conclusion that it confronts a greater threat from Russia and that this justifies a strategic accommodation with China.”   

Perhaps unaware of Saran’s concerns for India, a seasoned observer of diplomacy and politics in Asia, Antonia Graceffo, a US-based Asian Affairs expert who has studied and lived in Asia for over twenty years, has opined: “This Ukraine crisis will strengthen Western resistance toward China’s rise. And while the CCP may be looking at the US reaction to Russia to decide its next move, the United States can look at Moscow’s response to predict the CCP’s behaviour if similar sanctions and economic isolation are imposed on China.” Remember, Brzezinski’s The Grand Chessboard “prophecy” and Kissinger and several others too have in the past written on these lines. Not unsurprisingly, and as if having sensed Washington’s future game plan to play Beijing against Moscow and not side with either Beijing or Moscow, a Chinese news daily not long ago carried a report titled “US cannot break China-Russia strategic partnership…”

Be that as it may, it really doesn’t matter what the professor of politics or the editor or Saran or Graceffo think, does it? Far more important is, as the war drags on, as the Russian tanks and missiles flatten the Ukraine nation, it will be President Xi, neither Biden nor Putin, who will be losing sleep worrying over what a prolonged war in Europe will mean for a rising China which is already slowing down economically.

Now, if the latest reports claiming Putin had told Xi of Ukraine move at their Beijing Olympics Opening summit on February 4, and Xi asked Russia to wait until the Games ended are not true, then we have all the reasons in the world to believe that the Russian “Special Military Operation” is scaring Xi out of his wits. First, because Xi might have been standing firm like a rock with Putin in the latter’s fight against NATO and the West, he (Xi) must not have been taken into confidence by Putin for the ultimate move. Moreover, what must be frustrating for Xi is his post-Russian military pounding on Ukraine – now into day twenty one – advice to Russia to diplomatically resolve the crisis seems to have fallen on deaf ears in Moscow.    

Second and more important, many analysts in China fear that in an environment of escalating war tension and prolonged confrontation, China’s “Belt and Road” land projects may either face “blockade” or “OBOR” connectivity in the region may become increasingly dependent on Russian “protection.” Perhaps not so well known outside the People’s Republic, it is the “Belt and Road” factor that led scholars and experts in mainland China to claim their country has consistently maintained a “neutral” stance in Russia-Ukraine war. “China has close economic cooperation with Russia and Ukraine, and both countries are key transportation hubs for “Belt and Road” initiative, so China has a policy of ‘neutrality.’ But, the US administration describes China as biased toward Russia and supporting Russian expansion,” wrote Wang Yingliang recently, who teaches international politics and finance at Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University. 

Finally, in addition to the domestic debates on “what should China do?” with the ongoing Russian assault on Ukraine getting “noisier” by the day, a larger and far more crucial dilemma facing the Chinese leadership is: what if the Russian military presence in Ukraine turns into a protracted war between NATO and Russia? On the one hand, no one denies that the China-Russia relationship today is rather special. Do not forget, China declared as recently as in June 2019 when President Xi visited Moscow that it would be committed to developing the China-Russia comprehensive partnership of coordination for a new era. Since then the two countries have already inked a series of pipeline natural gas trade agreements worth over 140 billion US dollars – in December 2019, in January 2022 and on February 4, 2022, among others). The fundamental spirit behind the natural gas trade and cooperation “for a new era” between the two countries is: to help each other and give each other more firm and powerful strategic support. (My emphasis)

On the other hand, most Chinese analysts agree that the US-Europe-Japan-New Zealand-Australia combined economic sanctions have seriously damaged the Russian economy, especially being kicked out of the SWIFT – Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Transaction) system, which is forcing Russian financial system to restructure and seek new external connections. “Europe is a crucial market for China’s ‘Belt and Road’ land projects. The war between Russia and Ukraine and the European political elite’s complaints about China not sanctioning Russia have made Beijing’s decisions to be cautious. Among them, an important issue involving international economic and trade is to protect and safeguard the BRI as well as to maintain its smooth flow and minimize risk,” Wang Yingliang said. Or, referring to the risk facing the Iron Silk Road – the rail trade system between China and Europe – which transported $75 billion worth of Chinese goods to Europe last year alone, as the Reuters reported recently.

With no one (outside of Beijing, of course) in Washington and all across capitals in Europe in doubt, that the war on Ukraine launched by Putin in delirium will end only after the Russian leader has taken it to its logical end, signs of nervousness are already visible in the contradicting official statements and as well as in the conflicting positions reflected among divided Chinese strategic affairs community. Accusing a section of China’s mainstream academia, media, public intellectuals, and political elite, of indulging in “western speak” and openly condemning Russia, an influential leftist scholar, Wen Anjun, has named several such people in his recent column. “Professor Sun Jiang, Nanjing University; Professor Wang Lixin, Beijing University; Professor Xu Guoqi, Hong Kong University; Professor Zhong Weimin, Beijing’s Tsinghua University and Professor Chen Yan, Shanghai’s Fudan University along with several other public intellectuals have publicly condemned Russia…but they have not said a word about the US and its role.”

To Wen Anjun and others of his ilk, what is most worrying about the people mentioned above is their worldview, their view of the US, and above all their perception of the CPC-led China. “Once China’s re-unification war [with Taiwan] is launched in the future, all these people may endanger China by siding with the US and Taiwan independence,” wrote Wen Anjun. Now, to return to the question of China’s overriding concerns regarding the BRI, or the Iron Silk Road, two things are crystal clear: one, irrespective of what is the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine war, China remains the unknown factor in what may be a West (NATO) versus Russia war; second, there is growing unease in China – among specialists and the top leadership alike, that (especially in the context of the Iron Silk Road) “Russia is destroying what China is trying to build.”   

Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha is professor of Chinese, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He is also vice chairperson and an Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), Delhi.