China is going to be the great winner from Putin’s strife

Jul 5, 2023
Russia and China are much closer together today.

Russia’s failed attempt to make Ukraine into a buffer state is only helping China’s statecraft on its own western borders.

If the author of the Art of War, Sun Tzu, was marking President Xi’s statecraft from some lofty place in heaven, he may well give Xi a special distinction. For Sun Tzu, the best way to defeat an enemy is through strategy and diplomacy. The use of “soldiers” is the least desirable.

Since the expansion of the Russian Empire to the Far East, initially under Ivan the Terrible, in the 16th century Russia has been an ever-menacing presence on China’s borders. Its occupation of Central Asia in the 19th century brought the two empires into direct contention over Xinjiang.

Legendary travel writer, Colin Thubron, in his recent book, documents the octogenarian’s sojourn along the Amur River which borders Russia and China for some 3000 kilometres. This dull book is enlivened by his many accounts of the visceral animosity and deep mutual suspicion between Russians and Chinese on either side of the border. Ancient battles, slights, offences, unequal treaties are all remembered as if they were yesterday.

No number of protestations of good will and enduring friendship will alter that. For both countries, the 4300 kilometre long border, which was finally settled only in 2008, must be defended and continues to absorb a substantial share of each countries’ military expenditure. Although on the Russian side, big numbers of troops, tanks, aircraft have now been drawn down and sent to the battle in Ukraine.

As in the first decade of the Cold War, boosters in the West of conflict with China readily raise the spectre again of an alliance of the dictators lined up against the West. This simple-minded Manichean choice of good versus evil plays well with politicians of limited historical knowledge and with the public.

As argued in these pages last year, Putin and Xi’s embrace should best be understood as a concert of convenience. Most Western analysts did not see the Sino-Soviet split (1960-1989) coming. When it occurred, for years many Western analysts were frozen in an ideological state of denial.

Mutual assurances and speeches about “friendships without limits” are useful only so long as they are useful to both parties. When no longer useful to one or the other party, they disappear. The grand von Ribbentrop/Molotov Treaty of non-aggression galvanised the world with a vision of the dictators ganging up on the ‘free world’ until Hitler’s panzer divisions surged east into Russia two years after it was signed.

The attempted putsch would have alarmed China’s leadership – as a vision of how it could end for them.

Elites in China do not usually see Russia as a natural partner, no matter how much they adore Russian classical music and ballet. When not home, their children are studying mainly in the US. US consumer culture and soft power still capture people and hold sway.

A recent attempt by the Chinese government to “diversify” away from so many secondary children studying English was largely defeated by parents voting with their feet and sending their children to schools teaching English as a second language.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed the geopolitical landscape of Eurasia. The invasion itself reinforced the argument that Russia seeks its security by controlling buffer states on its periphery. Underestimating this was a fundamental miscalculation by the West. Underestimating the West’s resolve to resist territorial aggression together with Ukraine’s resilience and determination to defeat the invaders were fundamental miscalculations by Putin.

The protracted stalemate in the war on Europe’s eastern flank and the prospect that it could endure for years exhausting all participants has seriously weakened Russia as a competitor to China for dominance in Central Asia and thus Eurasia. It has also exposed itself militarily to China.

In contrast to Russia, China seeks its security through having pliant accommodating states on its borders. It maintains this through a statecraft that involves a mix of soft and sharp power, trade and investment, and its diaspora.

The origins of the Belt and Road Initiative launched in 2013 in Astana, Kazakhstan, was motivated both by China’s quest for security from its dependence on hard-to-defend sea lanes for its energy and raw materials needs, and for expanding its influence in Central Asia and beyond.

The sight of Yevgeny Prigozhin, yet another mad man, of which Russia’s political history is replete, threatening ruin as he marched his Wagner mercenaries towards Moscow was theatrical. This attempted military putsch, however, would have alarmed China’s leadership. Not for portending more chaos in Russia, as most commentators assert, but as a vision of how it could end for them. This is the existential nightmare for all authoritarian rulers.

As a heavy shadow falls across Russia as it seeks to hold even its marginal territorial gains in Ukraine, China is set to dominate Central Asia with little or no resistance from Russia. For Russia, this is the great long-term price of the Ukraine war – increased dependence on China economically and diplomatically, and, as a result, waning influence across its former empire.

The war has been entirely to China’s advantage: Russia is now a depleted power in Central Asia; its authority and threat to Central Asian states increasingly hollow; China (and others such as India) have had access to cheap Russian oil; and US-led Western financial sanctions have seen greater efforts by non-western countries to de-dollarise trade and investment transactions.

China has moved rapidly to secure its advantages. It has upped its Central Asia, Afghanistan, Middle East and Gulf diplomacy and its economic statecraft. A few months ago, it hosted a summit of Central Asian states without Russia’s presence.

Significantly, it has dealt itself into the nascent Ukraine-Russia peace process as the only major state that can deal directly with both sides.

Although too soon to know, it may well emerge that China could become the peacemaker for the dangerous conflict on Europe’s eastern front. Many European states would welcome this. The US would be aghast.

Were this to transpire. China would become the pre-eminent power of Eurasia without ever having fired a shot. Sun Tzu would applaud.


Original article first published by the Australian Financial Review on 30 June, 2023

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