The hyper-calculative power

Shanghai 1 © PP

          Some analysts are already considering China as the great winner of the war in Ukraine. But they are wrong and it is in any case far too premature to assert it with so much confidence.

It is true that Beijing was possibly pleased at first that the crisis, starting from the Donbas, somewhat diverts, for a time at least, the pressure that was beginning to weigh more and more heavily on it, with regard to Taiwan in particular, For example, it was materialized by the constitution of AUKUS, a western alliance in the Indo-Pacific. 

For China, its West lies in the East of the Pacific but also in the extreme West of the Eurasian continent in a geo-strategic vision on a world-wide scale. That Ukraine, far from its borders, becomes a fixation abscess and that Russia serves as a “ram” by causing a Western shock and by shaking the confidence of those who are now quick to make it a “systemic rival” can a priori have advantages. 

But no doubt that Beijing would have preferred a minor incident, to refer to a language unfortunately used in Washington. A crisis of great magnitude and lasting is indeed likely to undermine its vital need for growth, the source of its internal balance and power, in addition to the violation of the sacrosanct principle of the territorial integrity of States, key to China’s vision of the international system.

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The handshake between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, on the margins of the Beijing Olympic Winter Games, left a lasting impression. If it has more than that, in retrospect, shaken the world and perhaps given rise to over-interpretation, it can be said that those absent from the inaugural ceremony were wrong practicing a policy of  “empty chair”.

The Russian President then spoke of a “boundless friendship”, to which China continues to echo by today using the termeternal friendshipand strongly criticizing the United States for their attempt to make anIndo-Pacific version of NATO”. A spectacular sign of strategic partnership – which has existed since 1996 – and a strengthening of ties, was the construction of a new gas pipeline and the signing of a 30-year contract for the supply of Russian gas have been announced.

Indeed, China did not condemn the war in Ukraine or utter the term “invasion” and it only imperfectly relays the reality of the terrain of the clashes so as not to undermine Russia’s image with its public opinion. But it has twice abstained at the United Nations, at the Security Council first of all on the condemnation of the invasion, on which Moscow has vetoed, and in the General Assembly in the call for an overwhelming majority of the latter addressed to Moscow to withdraw its troops. In addition, she deplored from the outset the violence and suffering by civilians and many Chinese students were trapped in the fighting in Ukraine. 

China nevertheless stressed to the Wehrkunde of Munich, which coincided with the outbreak of the crisis, its strong attachment to the principle of the territorial integrity of States. It has renewed this position, through its Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi, and it is thus emitting mixed signals. 

The relative understanding that Beijing continues to show publicly for its Russian partner is not incompatible with a certain distancing that translates into a willingness to exercise a form of mediation in the conflict. Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs, reported on March 5 that his Chinese counterpart had said a few days earlier that “China was interested in ending the war”. 

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A scrupulous analysis of the world economic situation and the consequences of war on its own interests actually determines the Chinese position. Beijing must balance its strategic partnership with Moscow and her relations with the rest of the world.

The two great revisionist powers of the international system, China and Russia, have an interest in maintaining unity, even if it is more apparent than real in every respect. Like Pakistan with Afghanistan, but we are not at all in the same dimension here, it needs a “strategic depth” facing the West. 

This approach is also a component of the tensions with the United States around Taiwan from which Beijing intends to loosen “the lock”. Surprisingly, China is relatively landlocked because the South China Sea – 3.5 million km2 in size – is semi-enclosed and controlled by six straits and the Taiwan Strait is the most direct passage for its nuclear submarines heading from the island of Hainan towards the immense pit of the Philippines. Regardless of this military dimension, it should be noted that 90% of China’s foreign trade and nearly 50% of world trade transit through this area. If we go back to the West, cooperation with Russia, because of its size and the influence it still retains in Central Asia, is essential in the future of the New Silk Roads. 

Chinese growth can be severely disrupted by the prolonged war in Ukraine. The 5.5% growth recorded over the past year – which many economies would dream of – is in fact the lowest result for China in 30 years. Maintaining growth is essential for China to satisfy its middle class, to guarantee social peace and even the stability of its economic order.

Trade with Russia grew very strongly in 2020, exceeding 40% bringing the value of these flows to $147 billion. This impressive result must be compared with China’s trade with the countries of the European Union and the United States, of which it represents only about one-tenth.

Ukraine itself is a significant trading partner of China, particularly in the agricultural sector. China is the world’s largest agricultural importer and over 80% of cereal imports come from Ukraine.

If we go back to the huge energy projects between China and Russia, it should be noted that the construction, for example, of the last gas pipeline announced on the margins of the Beijing Olympics will require considerable investment. These will no doubt be largely financed by China itself on the basis of what has already been done with certain countries in Central Asia. This will therefore involve Chinese public banks that are likely to fall under international sanctions.

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In view of these data, the compilation of which is of course not exhaustive, it is difficult to imagine the hyper-calculator power – the opposite of Russian irrationality – selling off its national interests and jeopardizing the economic growth that is vital to it. Beijing has strong arguments to steer the war in Ukraine towards a diplomatic exit. Our interest is also to encourage it (cf. “Our Chinese trump card” article published on 🟦🟪 Perspectives Europe-Monde 🟦🟪 on last 25 February)

 

Shanghai 2 © PP

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