China’s stance on Russia-Ukraine conflict forcing world towards Cold War

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BEIJING: China might pretend to be neutral but Chinese President Xi Jinping has deliberately hitched his chariot to Russia’s warhorses. The Chinese leader refuses to criticise Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and instead accuses the US and NATO of prolonging it.

China likes to accuse the US of harbouring a “Cold War mentality”. However, perhaps closer to the truth is that China itself is pushing the world into two opposing blocs.

Russia’s war against Kyiv has exacerbated fault lines between democracies and autocracies, something China does not necessarily want since it has toughened anti-China stances in many parts of Europe.

Chinese President spent three days in Moscow from March 20 to visit comrade Putin. There the two autocrats professed undying appreciation for each other and reiterated close strategic relations. It was a Chinese show of solidarity for the embattled Putin, right after the International Criminal Court had issued an arrest warrant for his war crimes.

“There are changes happening, the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years,” Xi told Putin as they farewelled each other. “Let’s drive those changes together.” The Russian leader responded, “I agree.”

Then, on April 16, Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu was in Moscow to meet Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Li exulted that their relationship “outperforms the military-political unions of the Cold War era. They rest on the principles of nonalignment, and are very stable.”

It is doublespeak to call this “nonalignment”, for China and Russia are closely aligned in their support for each other and their antipathy to the West. On February 4, 2022, Xi said their relationship had “no limits” and there were no “forbidden areas of cooperation”. Xi has assessed that the benefits of this friendship outweigh the costs.

Interestingly, more than half of Putin’s team in the first round of talks with Xi were officials involved in Russia’s weapons and space programs. This suggests one priority was military cooperation. With Russia scraping its equipment barrel, it is keen to utilize China’s vast industrial capacity, and Xi would doubtlessly like to obtain Russia’s most treasured secrets.

American political scientists like Hal Brands and John Lewis Gaddis say “It is no longer debatable that the US and China…are entering their own new Cold War. Chinese President Xi Jinping has declared it, and a rare bipartisan consensus in the US Congress has accepted the challenge.”

China’s violation of the sovereign airspace of the US and many others, via its high-altitude surveillance balloon program, made it even more obvious that China is engendering a wintry freeze as this new Cold War emerges.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation in the US, commented: “The increasingly ferocious competition between the United States and its allies on the one hand, and China and the ‘axis of autocratic states’ on the other, has taken on unmistakable signs of a ‘new Cold War’.”

Lam continued: “The leadership of President Xi Jinping, who is a hawkish nationalist convinced of the fact that ‘the East is rising and the West is declining’, is committed to challenging American dominance in fields ranging from economics and technology to geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific area. President Joe Biden has crafted a so-called ‘anti-China containment policy’ together with NATO in Europe, as well as Japan, South Korea and Australia in Asia. The Chinese response has been to continue supporting their long-time quasi-ally Russia and to build up a coalition consisting of non-democratic states in Central Asia together with Pakistan, Iran and North Korea so as to prevent the ‘eastern expansion’ of NATO.”

“And given that flashpoints such as Beijing’s possible military action against Taiwan and the commitment of the US and its allies to protect the ‘renegade island’, there is even a possibility of the Cold War turning hot,” Lam warned.
Indeed, Taiwan is a unique problem with no parallel to the original Cold War. Would Xi gamble and do what Mao Zedong was never able to achieve, the forcible unification of Taiwan with communist China?

Lam concluded: “Given such dire scenarios, the possibility is growing that the establishment of mutually acceptable and sustainable ‘guardrails’ for bilateral ties requires a level of perspicacity and flexibility that is beyond the current leaderships of both countries.”

Unfortunately, China will try bending guardrails in its direction until they snap. This has been demonstrated time and again by broken promises such as the militarization of the South China Sea, bullying of foreign ships and aircraft in international waters, blatant human rights violations, mass incarceration of Uyghurs, and the usurping of international organizations and norms.

The Chinese government stated after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022 that it did not recognize the Taiwan Strait median line. Afterwards, its military aircraft and ships routinely crossed this line that for decades served as a de facto boundary between China and Taiwan.

In April, after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s stopover in California, China again conducted coercive military drills around Taiwan. This time it said Taiwan’s contiguous zone, an area immediately outside its coastal waters, does not exist either. Step by step, China is inexorably defanging Taiwan and reducing its space for manoeuvring.

When CNN asked Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu whether China is threatening Taiwan with war, he replied, “Yes, indeed. Look at the military exercises and also their rhetoric. They seem to be trying to get ready to launch a war against Taiwan, and we condemn it.”

Later, a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officer appeared on state-owned CCTV, criticizing Taiwanese people for not accepting Beijing’s rule. He dehumanized them as “tumours” that need to be removed by the PLA. He asserted, “The body will feel pain. But what causes this pain? The scalpels or the tumour?” The problem is that China’s diagnosis is completely wrong, for it is stuck in a Cold War mentality of militarism.

Xi earlier said that “efforts to form cliques and to foment a ‘new Cold War’, ostracism and intimidation…will only push the world toward disintegration and even confrontation.” Yet part of the problem is China’s chameleon-like definitions depending on the audience. For example, Xi once told Biden: “This wide world can accommodate the developments of China and the US. China never aspires to change the existing international order, to interfere in America’s internal affairs, or to challenge and replace the US.”

Yet at home, Xi proclaims the Chinese path as superior and that within a decade China will claim superpower status and be the final arbiter of events first in Asia and then the world. Similarly, soon after his appointment, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang warned there “will surely be conflict” with the USA unless Washington changes course.

Bilateral ties soon went bad when it became obvious Xi was determined to displace the USA as the status quo superpower. Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have vowed that the USA is not looking for a Cold War, but nor is it blind to Chinese efforts to topple them as the preeminent power.

Washington DC knows perfectly well that China is its greatest strategic competitor. In mid-2022, Blinken acknowledged, “China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order – and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to do it.”

The USA is weaving together alliances that help contain China, including AUKUS and the Quad. Yet some warn that American policies will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and that a Thucydides trap (an “inevitable” conflict between a status quo hegemon and a rising challenger) must be avoided at all costs.

However, such arguments ignore Xi’s belligerent culpability in stoking tensions and bullying all and sundry. As well as military coercion, China projects power through worldwide propaganda and the United Front work. This might occur as grants to universities and think tanks, exploitation of academic research for military purposes, networks of Confucius Institutes, contributions to foreign political campaign funds, interference in foreign political systems, threats against dissidents, industrial espionage, acquisition of specialist companies to gain intellectual property, cyberattacks or extensive spying.

Indeed, Martin Purbrick, an Honorary Fellow at Keele University in the UK, wrote for The Jamestown Foundation:

“These offensive activities have become far more apparent during the tenure of…Xi (from 2012), and seem to be part of efforts to move from a defensive to an offensive posture in a variety of areas. This can be characterized as a ‘strategy of sowing discord’, a Chinese proverb that refers to efforts to make internal disputes amongst the enemy so deep that they become distracted from the conflict. By taking offensive influencing measures against the US and other Western societies, the Chinese Communist Party aims to distract foreign attention from repression within China’s borders and also to pressure the increasingly broad diaspora of dissidents from the Mainland, Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang as well as Taiwanese separatists. In addition, this offensive posture is part of efforts to promote a more positive perspective of the PRC around the world…”

Purbrick concluded: “Either by design or by default, the extent of PRC government offensive activities in the US and Western countries are so significant that it is perceived to be undermining societies within those states. This undermining of US and Western societies is not as systematic or effective as Russian political subversion, but the PRC may learn more effective execution if it sees a benefit in using a ‘strategy of sowing discord’ to pressure the US government.”

Lam of The Jamestown Foundation noted that two important differences between the old and new Cold Wars exist, however. The first is that US-USSR relations were always poisoned, whereas Sino-US relations enjoyed warmth at one stage until Xi’s appearance.

The other difference is that Chinese global influence is far more extensive than the USSR’s ever was, primarily through economic and technological facets. It has spearheaded cross-continent trade and security blocs such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative envisages bringing whole swathes of the globe under China’s clout, and not even the USSR had such grand ambitions.

Despite their avowed loyalty to each other, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in the USA highlighted three weaknesses in the China-Russia relationship.

The first is that historical and structural factors engender strategic mistrust between Beijing and Moscow. They have a checkered history, and their current closeness is something of a historical anomaly. Russia was privy to the “unequal treaties” that forced China to cede territory, money and spoils during its so-called “century of humiliation”. Their tensions even spilt over into a 1969 border war and a split that lasted till the 1980s.

The second weakness identified by CSIS is that Russian stagnation renders Moscow a less useful partner and contributes to a growing power asymmetry. China is now the largest trading partner of all former Soviet states in Central Asia, and Moscow is wary of Chinese influence in Central Asia, the Arctic and along their shared border.

Moscow and Beijing might cast themselves as equal partners, but China is increasingly on top. China’s economy was ten times larger than Russia’s in 2021.

Russia accounts for only 2 per cent of Chinese trade, but Russia, it accounts for 18 per cent of trade. Despite this disparity, China covets Russian supplies of oil, gas and coal.

The third point raised by CSIS is that Russian military aggression has sparked blowback for China. Russian military actions in Ukraine have caused undesirable criticism against China, plus the strength of the Russian military is seriously depleted.

In a United Nations General Assembly vote in March 2022, for example, 141 nations favoured a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion, whereas China abstained.

Just as Russia has dehumanized the people of Ukraine, labelling them Nazis, China does the same with its potential adversaries. Alarmingly, the world is one day going to confront headfirst the ideological fanaticism that Xi is fostering in China’s youth.

This was demonstrated in a video clip circulating in China, which shows a teacher asking a chubby primary school boy which countries he hates the most. “It’s the US and Japan,” because he had learned about the Korean War and Nanjing Massacre. “I know all the history.”

Then, when asked what he wanted to do when he grew up, he unhesitatingly replied, “Kill. I want to kill the Japanese. I want to kill the Americans.” China, who is it again that is harbouring a Cold War mentality? (ANI)