As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, China’s position has been thrust firmly into the spotlight. With the war dragging out longer than anticipated, Beijing finds itself only hemmed further into an increasingly difficult position.
However, more broadly, the war also offers key insights and developments.
Namely, the invasion offers lessons on how the West could respond to China’s potential military expansionism in its own neighborhood. Meanwhile, China’s own geopolitical weight and especially its expanding partnership with Russia has turned Beijing into a potential deal-broker.
China’s Balancing Act
Thus far, China has abstained from condemning Russia’s moves while also eschewing any direct mention of the conflict as an invasion. Beijing also underlined its negative approach to the sanctions regime imposed on Russia by the West. China’s posture is based upon a decades-long expansion of bilateral relations with Moscow, best exemplified by lofty statements and ambitions communicated in a joint declaration on the new era of international relations at the Beijing Olympics.
The support came officially too. China abstained from voting on a UN Security Council resolution condemning Moscow’s actions. China was also among the only five states which withheld from condemning Moscow’s aggression in the United Nations General Assembly. Yet, these developments came at the very beginning of Russia’s invasion. At that stage, the extent to which Russia was unprepared to subdue Ukraine was unclear. As such, many assumed it was unlikely that the conflict would last for more than a matter of days and Russia would be a clear winner.
The ideal scenario for China would have been a swift Russian operation with quick results which would appear more as fait accompli to the West and would dilute the latter’s ability to mount coordinated sanctions and foreign policy responses. Swift victory is perhaps what Putin expected himself when he likely made Xi Jinping privy to his military ambitions before the invasion. On the contrary, Putin’s army got bogged down in Ukraine’s plains, frustrating Moscow’s aims and perhaps also Beijing’s expectations.
Though China has been insistent on describing the relations with Russia as “rock solid”, gradual changes in China’s perception of the conflict are nevertheless taking place. On March 9, China’s Red Cross announced it would provide $791,000 in humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Moreover, insistence on the need to cease hostilities and engage in negotiations has been, rather conspicuously, on the rise in the official Chinese rhetoric.
As the war continues and Russian military atrocities pile up, China has good reason to feel uncomfortable about its image. At present, it is seen in part as the country that failed to prevent the invasion and ensuing death of thousands of Ukrainians, especially as Chinese officials remain publicly ambivalent about the war. Russia’s adventurism presents real foreign policy dilemmas and threatens to irreparably tarnish Beijing’s image as an abettor of the aggressor. As the war drags on, and Russian actions turn increasingly brutal, criticism aimed at Beijing will inevitably grow stronger as well.
Yet, even these concerns have not been enough to prompt a major foreign policy shift. In Beijing’s view, Russia has legitimate security concerns that need to be addressed. It thus echoes similar grievances China harbors when it comes to US involvement in the South-China Sea and its immediate neighborhood. But Beijing has hardly chosen any side. For example, with alleged Russian military and economic requests toward China, it is still unclear whether it was addressed by Xi’s government. At least in one case, Moscow was turned down for its behest to have spare aircraft parts.
Long-term, however, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a development that can benefit China. The West is bogged down in the conflict with Russia and presently has little time and energy to focus on China and the wider Indo-Pacific region.
For China, this is the second grand opportunity it has been offered in the last 20 years. At the turn of the century, America was distracted by terrorist threats and concerns in the wake of 9/11, which then manifested in entrenched military presence across the Middle East and nation-building in Iraq. Amid this hyperfocus on the Middle East, it would be more than a decade before Washington began to adjust its focus on China once again.
With Russia’s military adventurism, Beijing is now presented with yet another opportunity to fly under the radar. The focus on Ukraine offers breathing space to mobilize its resources, and prepare for future economic and, potentially, limited military confrontation with the US and its Asian allies. This could explain China’s vociferous defense of its neutrality. The longer tensions continue, the greater the opportunity for China to raise its international profile and keep the US at bay.
More specifically, the way the West has responded to Russia’s aggression is a precious lesson for Beijing on what might follow if the ‘Taiwan question’ is to be decided forcefully. China would likely face intense economic pressure through sanctions and US’ growing military presence near its borders. Washington’s Asian allies and partners could ramp up their security and military cooperation through QUAD and AUKUS.
The war is also a good experience for China as the country, similarly to Russia, seeks changes to the present global order and has territorial disputes with the neighboring countries. China understands that changes in global order do not take place solely because a rising power upends the existing balance of power by the virtue of the growing economic and military clout. For the power ascent to be successful, rivals should also be kept fighting each other. The US would not be able to rise to the world power status as quickly and effectively as it did in the 1940s had not it been for Europeans undermining each other. Similarly, the Russia-West crisis, especially in the economic domain, dilutes the West’s strength and ultimately helps China.
Whatever the results of the Russian aggression, many facets of the Beijing-Moscow axis are unlikely to remain unchanged. One of them is a military dimension where Putin must be feeling uncomfortable knowing that Xi has now little regard for Russia’s military effectiveness and the Kremlin’s ability to withstand Western pressure. This would further tilt the balance in the bilateral relations definitively in China’s favor. Beijing could rely on greater support from Russia, while Moscow will be increasingly unable to resist Chinese requests to sell its cherished military tech. China could also aim for broad Russian concessions in Central Asia’s security where Beijing has been making inroads into the security area.
Changes are also to be expected in the economic sphere. As the sanctions pressure Russia, Moscow’s pivot to Asia will become more pronounced. Kremlin-linked analysts might be trying to find a positive spin to the crisis in relations with the West, but the political dependence on China will only grow. This will be much to Russia’s detriment to keep the balance in relations with Beijing.
Moreover, even if Russia accepts its subordination to Beijing, China might still be hesitant to help Russia financially because of the fear of sanctions. China’s international payment system will not be of much help either, at least for now, as it depends on SWIFT. Infrastructure projects in Russia’s north where Beijing has had an interest in financing the expansion of the Northern Sea Route could also be stalled.
Beijing’s Big Dilemmas
However, China also sees that while America’s Middle East commitments caused ruptures in the Western unity in previous decades, Russia’s reckless actions at present might push Western institutions and major powers to act in unison across contexts. Reinvigoration of the Western unity is what Beijing fears most as the divisions in the Euro-Atlantic alliance were the crucial factor that allowed China to wedge itself into the European economic market and sow differences between the EU and US.
With a strengthened and unified stance on Russia, China is now worried that a revitalized collective West will also assume a more assertive posture against China. More importantly, this follows China’s recent stumbles in eastern Europe, NATO, and EU framing of China as a distinct geopolitical challenge.
Russia’s invasion also tears apart what China holds most dear, at least officially – Westphalian principles of non-intervention into another country’s internal affairs. Beijing must now square this challenge with its close relations with Russia. This threatens China’s prestige as a champion of new and fairer world order and, worse yet, threatens to erode the facade of its neutrality and non-interventionist economic diplomacy.
In the end, Moscow’s aggression puts Beijing in a difficult position. It does not want to see Russia losing the war, as it will strengthen the West. Beijing is also wary of the conflict turning into a wider global confrontation given the potential security and economic blowback it would not be able to evade. Amidst these considerations, a continuous and long-term Russia-West standoff that would not spill into a ‘hot war’ would be most beneficial to China, offering it breathing space to adjust to new geopolitical realities as the US focuses on regions far from the Indo-Pacific.
Author’s note: first published in chinaobservers.eu
Assad’s visit to China: Breaking diplomatic isolation and rebuilding Syria
The visit of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to China to participate in the opening of the Asian Games came as a serious step to try to break the diplomatic isolation from Syria. Syrian President “Bashar Al-Assad” was keen to meet his counterpart Xi Jinping in the city of Hangzhou in eastern China, where the Asian Games are being held, as this was the Syrian president’s first visit to China since 2004. According to the Syrian regime’s Al-Watan newspaper, Al-Assad will attend the launch ceremony of the (nineteenth edition) of the Asian Games, which will open on September 23, in the Chinese city of Hangzhou. This visit to Bashar al-Assad reflects the great coordination between Moscow and Beijing, as it is likely that the Russians pushed for this visit at this precise time. Perhaps, through his visit to China, Bashar al-Assad is trying to deliver a specific message about the start of “international legitimization” of his regime. Syria’s accession to the Belt and Road Initiative in January 2022 is an indication of the possibility of implementing vital Chinese projects, especially since it is located between Iraq and Turkey, making it a vital corridor for land routes towards Europe.
Bashar Al-Assad’s visit to China also comes in an attempt to attract it to reconstruction projects in the affected areas in Syria, as China has the ability to complete reconstruction infrastructure in residential and civilian areas with exceptional speed. This is the same as what the Chinese ambassador to Syria “Shi Hongwei” announced in August 2023, that “Chinese companies are actively involved in reconstruction projects in Syria”. The war in Syria led to massive destruction of infrastructure and the destruction of many vital sectors of the Syrian economy, including oil, while the Syrian government is subject to harsh international sanctions. We find that the Chinese side has shown great interest in the reconstruction projects in Surba, such as the presence of more than a thousand Chinese companies to participate in (the first trade exhibition on Syrian reconstruction projects in Beijing), while they pledged investments estimated at two billion dollars.
China played an active role through diplomatic movements in Syria, as it participated in the “Astana” process, and obstructed Security Council resolutions related to Syria, to confirm its position in support of Damascus, using its veto power more than once in the Security Council, against resolutions considered to be a blow to Assad’s “legitimacy”. In September 2017, the Syrian regime classified China, along with Russia and Iran, as “friendly governments” that would give priority to reconstruction projects. Therefore, Al-Assad affirmed during his meeting with Chinese President “Xi Jinping” that: “this visit is important in terms of its timing and circumstances, as a multipolar world is being formed today that will restore balance and stability to the world, and it is the duty of all of us to seize this moment for the sake of a bright and promising future”.
According to my analysis, China follows the policy of “breaking diplomatic isolation on presidents and countries against which America is angry”, so the visit of “Bashar al-Assad” comes within a series of visits that China witnessed during the current year in 2023, to presidents who are isolated internationally by the United States of America, such as: Venezuelan President “Nicolas Maduro”, the Iranian President ”Ibrahim Raisi”, and the Belarusian “Alexander Lukashenko”.
China is also keen to conduct interviews in its newspapers and official websites affiliated with the ruling Communist Party with many presidents and officials of countries isolated internationally and diplomatically by the United States of America and the West, such as the Chinese keenness to conduct and publish an interview with Syrian Foreign Minister “Faisal Mekdad” on September 21, 2023, and the Chinese reviewed his statements, saying that “the United States of America has plundered oil, natural gas, and other resources from Syria, causing losses worth $115 billion”. The Chinese newspaper “Global Times”, which is close to the ruling Communist Party, also focused on the United States’ greater role in the deterioration of “Syria from stability to chaos” . The Chinese newspaper compared this to China’s policy, which constantly calls for peaceful dialogue and opposes “foreign interference” .
Through his visit to China, Syrian President “Bashar Al-Assad” is trying to lay the foundations for joint cooperation between China and Syria within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, with full Chinese support for Syria’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a dialogue partner. China has always affirmed its firm support for Syria’s efforts against foreign interference, with the Chinese rejection of the stationing of illegal forces on Syrian territory. China is also making great efforts with many countries to lift sanctions and the illegal economic blockade on the Syrian people, in addition to Chinese support for building Syrian capabilities in the field of combating terrorism. Knowing that despite its alliance with President “Bashar Al-Assad”, China did not participate in supporting him militarily, but it used the right of criticism to obstruct the passage of resolutions against him in the Security Council.
We can reach an important conclusion that Bashar Al-Assad’s visit to China has a greater political track, and that Beijing is trying to play a greater role in the issue of resolving conflicts or to have a greater actual role in negotiations related to sensitive issues in the region. The implications of Assad’s visit to China are also politically significant, as China is trying to play a greater political role in the region, as China has been trying since the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war and the emergence of a vacuum in the Middle East as a result of the decline of Russian influence due to its preoccupation with the war, so Beijing is trying to expand in the Middle East and Africa.
China’s Inclusive Diplomacy for Global Cooperation
President Xi Jinping’s address at the recently held 2023 CIFTIS resonates as a powerful call for inclusive development and cooperation in the services trade sector. China’s commitment to expanding market access, increasing connectivity, and aligning policies with global standards demonstrates its commitment to ensuring a level playing field for all nations.
This commitment extends across different sectors, including telecommunications, tourism, law, vocational examinations, and the larger services sector. President Xi’s address emphasized China’s intention to expand broader, broaden market access, and support inclusive development in the services trade sector. His sentiments resonate with the global world as China seeks to create new prospects for openness, cooperation, and economic equality.
Over the last few decades, the services trade landscape has changed drastically, becoming an essential component of international business. However, this expansion has not been uniform, with developing countries frequently encountering difficulties such as limited market access, complex rules, and capacity limits that prevent them from fully participating in international services trade.
Notably, China is committed to promoting inclusive growth in the services trade sector. It assured of taking continuing steps to accelerate Chinese modernization through high-quality development, to open up new avenues for openness and collaboration for all countries.
Through openness, cooperation, innovation, and shared services, China emphasized the need for inclusive growth and connectivity. Recognizing that a rising tide in services trade should raise all boats, particularly those from nations with limited resources, China has launched a series of ground-breaking initiatives. Additionally, China is actively expanding its network of high-standard free trade areas, participating in negotiations on the negative list for trade in services and investment.
China is setting an example by aligning its policies with international standards. President Xi highlighted in his speech that national integrated demonstration zones for increased openness in the services sector, suitable pilot free trade zones, and free trade ports will be at the forefront of aligning policies with high-standard international economic and trade regulations. These zones demonstrate China’s commitment to fostering an atmosphere conducive to international cooperation and growth.
Real-world examples vividly demonstrate the practical impact of China’s assistance to developing countries in the services trade. China’s investments in transport infrastructure, such as the Standard Gauge Railway, have considerably facilitated the flow of goods and people in Kenya, boosting the services sector indirectly.
Pakistan’s experience with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is similar, with improved physical connectivity catalyzing the expansion of digital services and e-commerce. Various infrastructure developments in Indonesia have resulted in spectacular advances, opening up new potential for services trade.
Ethiopia, too, has reaped the benefits of China’s commitment, with active participation in industrial parks reviving the services sector, which includes logistics, banking, and education. These real-life success stories highlight China’s critical role in facilitating the expansion and development of services trade in developing countries.
China’s commitment to capacity building and technical aid is critical in its support for developing countries in the services trade. China provides these countries with the knowledge and skills they need to participate effectively in the services trade by offering specialized programs. Furthermore, China’s significant investments in infrastructure projects such as ports, logistical hubs, and telecommunications networks play an important role in facilitating the smooth flow of services.
Furthermore, China’s commitment to reducing entry barriers and optimizing regulations indicates the country’s persistent commitment to creating an equitable environment. This approach not only promotes equitable possibilities but also simplifies market access, making it easier for developing countries to export their services to China’s enormous and dynamic market.
Furthermore, China gives significant financial support in the form of loans and grants for service trade-related initiatives, recognizing the financial problems that many developing countries confront. This financial assistance enables nations to overcome economic challenges and invest in the expansion and improvement of their service sectors, thereby encouraging economic equality and cooperation.
As the world continues to evolve, services trade will play an increasingly important role in global economic growth, and China’s leadership in this realm is helping to shape a future where opportunities are shared, disparities are reduced, and cooperation knows no bounds. It is a vision worthy of appreciation and support since it is consistent with the ideals of justice and equality, moving the globe closer to a more linked and wealthy global community.
China’s Multilateral Engagement and Constructive Role in the G20
The recent G20 Summit in India has once again taken center stage, attracting global attention as it gathered together leaders and delegates from the world’s 20 most powerful economies. This high-profile event was significant in shaping international relations and addressing serious global concerns due to its broad presence and crucial talks. This high-stakes gathering occurs at a pivotal juncture, marked by escalating divisions among major powers on a multitude of pressing global issues, including the Russia-Ukraine conflict, global economic recovery, food security, and climate change.
The recent inclusion of the African Union (AU) as a permanent member within the G20 serves as a positive signal, signifying consensus among major economies. However, lurking concerns persist about the formidable challenges involved in achieving unity and issuing a joint declaration in the midst of these complex global dynamics.
Chinese Premier Li Qiang’s opening remarks at the 18th G20 Summit in New Delhi resonate as he underscores the paramount importance of unity and collaboration among G20 member nations. He emphasizes the critical need for effective coordination of macroeconomic policies to restore hope and generate momentum for long-term economic growth.
Premier Li eloquently highlights the interconnectedness of humanity’s destiny and calls upon nations to demonstrate mutual respect, seek common ground while momentarily setting aside differences, and work tirelessly towards peaceful coexistence. In a world characterized by profound crises and shared hardships, he aptly observes that no nation can thrive in isolation. Therefore, the only plausible pathways for guiding humanity forward are those rooted in cooperation and harmony.
The G20, originally established to navigate global financial crises and forge collective strategies for addressing economic challenges while fostering global economic development, has, regrettably, experienced a decline in consensus and a rise in differences among major powers. This shift has been particularly evident since the onset of the Ukraine crisis and the United States’ strategy of containment against China. Consequently, the G20 is increasingly devolving into a forum marked by discord, rather than the once-productive and constructive multilateral mechanism it was intended to be.
Nevertheless, the G20 retains its significance as a pivotal forum for international collaboration in confronting global challenges. With the increasing contributions of developing nations like China, India, and African countries, the voices within the G20 have diversified, no longer solely dominated by Western perspectives. As a response, the United States seeks to regain control of the multilateral process to further its agenda of great power competition. However, this approach is unlikely to be warmly received by the broader international community.
China remains steadfast in its commitment to deepen reforms and open up further to foster high-quality development and its unique brand of modernization. China views itself as a catalyst for additional momentum in global economic recovery and sustainable development. China stands ready to collaborate with all stakeholders to contribute to the well-being of our shared Earth, our common home, and the future of humanity. Despite Western media’s attempts to sensationalize China’s stance and magnify perceived differences, China continues to play a constructive role within the G20, dedicated to its multilateral mission.
To ensure that the G20 remains a platform focused on global governance rather than being overshadowed by geopolitical conflicts, China remains determined to fulfill its constructive role within the group, regardless of attempts by Western powers to politicize the mechanism. China’s efforts have expanded the G20 to include the African Union, effectively transforming it into the “G21.” China was the first nation to endorse African Union membership in the G20 and advocates for the African Union to assume an even more significant role in international governance.
The growing divisions and disputes within the G20 have eroded its effectiveness as a platform for addressing global challenges. These divisions, primarily driven by American actions and policies, have spawned tensions with far-reaching global implications, from the Ukraine crisis to escalating tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea. These developments underscore the critical role the G20 plays in promoting cooperation and unity.
Amid the current geopolitical landscape characterized by major powers’ divisions, tensions have surged, resonating globally and causing ripple effects. From the Ukraine crisis to tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea, the significance of the G20’s role in fostering cooperation and unity cannot be overstated.
All G20 member nations must recognize the urgent imperative of cooperation in building a world that is safer, more prosperous, and increasingly peaceful. Given the global challenges that transcend narrow national interests, effective responses can only be crafted through international cooperation. The G20 stands as a pivotal arena for this cooperation, with China’s positive contribution being indispensable in promoting cohesion.
Despite Western media’s efforts to sensationalize China’s position and magnify perceived gaps, China remains a committed multilateral partner within the G20, dedicated to constructive engagement. The G20 continues to serve as a critical platform for addressing global concerns, fostering unity, and promoting international collaboration. As the world grapples with intricate issues, it remains imperative that nations adhere to the principles of multilateralism and collaborate relentlessly to secure a more prosperous, peaceful, and sustainable future for all.
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