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What the Crisis in Ukraine Reveals

Dec 14, 2022
  • Zhou Bo

    Senior Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

The first thing I want to say about the Ukraine crisis is that China was completely unaware there would be an outbreak of war. But China is no less concerned about this war than is the United Kingdom. Why? Because the war has seriously harmed China’s interests and investments in Europe, as well as impaired the development of the Belt and Road Initiative on the continent.

To make matters worse, China’s neutral and impartial stance has led to a considerable degree of misinterpretation and misunderstanding by many European nations, causing tensions in China’s international relations. At a time when the United States is intensifying its competition with China, the last thing China wants is a deterioration in its relations with European countries. It is very important to us that Europe is not always on the side of the U.S.

Why is China not taking sides over the Ukraine crisis? As I have written in The Economist, if the enemy of my enemy is my friend, is the enemy of my friend my enemy? Not necessarily. In fact, it is not easy not to choose sides. On one hand, China is Russia’s strategic partner; on the other, China is Ukraine’s largest trading partner. Therefore, we are trying our best to find a fair balance in this war between our two friends. Even President Vladimir Putin has said he understands that China has its own concerns about the war.

China understands Russia’s legitimate concerns about NATO expansion, but at the same time emphasizes that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected. There is no need to say more about respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, but I want to emphasize that, from the leaders of the Soviet Union to the leaders of Russia — that is, from Gorbachev to Yeltsin to Putin — there has always been a clear opposition NATO’s eastward expansion. Putin’s difference is that he translated this verbal opposition into military action.

Is Chinese neutrality what the two combatant countries need most? Of course not, but this position is acceptable to both parties. If China joins the West in condemning Russia, then of course the United States and most European countries will applaud and cheer, but China will lose Russia as a partner. And it will not be long before the United States will turn around and deal with China. China is very aware of this.

The biggest misunderstanding others have about the Sino-Russian strategic partnership is this: Because we once said that the friendship between the two countries has no end, it is widely speculated that China and Russia have an alliance. However, the Ukraine crisis proves that the ties between China and Russia are not a military alliance. Instead of providing military aid to Russia, China has provided food, sleeping bags, and other types of humanitarian assistance and donations to Ukraine at least twice.

One of the reasons for the non-alignment between China and Russia is that while both countries call for a multipolar world, we have different views of the world. Russia, under the leadership of Putin, misses the halcyon days of the Soviet empire. Putin himself once lamented that the disintegration of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century, and Russia considers itself a victim of the existing international order.

By contrast, China is a beneficiary of the postwar Western-led international trade and financial system and the biggest beneficiary of globalization. As a result, it is willing to defend the existing international order. This is why China and the West, despite their ideological differences and occasional tense relations, have at the very least maintained strong economic exchanges, with neither side willing to sever the relationship.

Regarding the future of Europe, Putin is right about one thing: This is not a war between Russia and Ukraine, but a war between Russia and the West. In other words, it is a war between Russia and NATO member states. Now that the West is continuously supplying weapons to Ukraine, this reminds me of the 1980s, when the Soviet army in Afghanistan was worn down by the American-backed Afghan mujahideen. But such a result is unlikely this time, as Russia enjoys the geographical convenience of fighting near home.

Europe’s security dilemma lies in this: The more popular NATO becomes, the less secure Europe becomes. All military alliances rely on threats to survive, like leeches relying on blood. NATO hopes to maintain its vitality through expansion, but its expansion has pushed Europe to the nuclear brink.
European security is actually a matter of how NATO and Russia compromise with regard to their spheres of influence. The term "spheres of influence" may not seem attractive, but if Russia believes it has a sphere of influence and is willing to use force to secure it, then spheres of influence truly do exist.

There is currently no end in sight for the Ukraine crisis. One possible outcome is that a decade from now, European strategic autonomy will emerge. Thus far, strategic autonomy is only a slogan used by French President Emmanuel Macron. Starting this year, propelled by the crisis in Ukraine, Germany aims to spend 2 percent of its GDP on building its military every year, meeting the military expenditure target set out by NATO. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also announced the unprecedented establishment of a special defense fund of 100 billion Euros. But will European strategic autonomy strengthen or weaken NATO?

European countries are generally concerned about Russia’s use of nuclear weapons in this war. As I pointed out in my article in the Financial Times on Oct. 27, China should clearly oppose Russia’s use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield, as this violates the joint statement issued by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council in January this year stating that a nuclear war cannot be won and cannot be fought. Russia’s use of nuclear weapons would also pose a very difficult situation for China, as China has maintained a no-first-use policy for more than half a century. China’s nuclear policy is the most transparent, consistent and stable of all nuclear-weapon states.

I am very happy that on the second day after the article was published, President Putin stated at the Valdai Club Meeting that Russia does not intend to use nuclear weapons. On Nov. 4, when Chancellor Scholz visited China, President Xi Jinping told him that the international community should jointly oppose the use or threat of nuclear weapons, advocate against nuclear war and prevent a nuclear crisis on the Eurasian continent.
In response, Scholz stated that his visit to China was worthwhile, if only for this one consensus. When President Xi met with U.S. President Joe Biden at the G20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia, he once again emphasized China’s position on the nuclear issue. This was an important and rare consensus between China and the United States.

So, how can Europe’s security dilemma be solved? Thus far, no single solution can completely satisfy the security needs of Europe, so I personally think that the flames of war will linger for a while longer before everyone is truly willing to sit down and negotiate.

In this regard, I have three suggestions: First, NATO should unilaterally promise not to use nuclear weapons first against Russia. Second, NATO should stop its expansion in exchange for Russia’s promise not to use nuclear weapons. Third, NATO should reduce its vast amount of conventional weapons in exchange for Russia’s reduction of its nuclear weapons. Even though each of these three suggestions is not easy to implement, I believe they are balanced and address the concerns of both parties involved.

Last, I will say a few final words about the future world order. I believe the Ukraine crisis will greatly weaken Russia’s national power and global influence. At the same time, the influence of Western democracy in the world will also continue to decline. According to data from the United States’ Freedom House, Western democracy has been in decline for 15 consecutive years, and such decline will accelerate in the future. According to the report from the Munich Security Conference, not only is the world becoming “less Western” but even the West is becoming less Western. These are the West’s own statistics and conclusions.
I would further argue that global geopolitics and economics are shifting eastward at an accelerated pace. This is not only because of the rise of China but also to the rise of India and ASEAN. Everyone is familiar with the so-called liberal international order, but there was no such order in the past and I do not think there will be such an order in the future. The term reflects a sort of narcissism and is a fabrication of the West.

To be sure, many rules and institutions, such as the IMF and World Bank, were created by the West after World War II, but these alone do not define the international order. The postwar international order was also shaped by major events such as independence movements against colonialism in Africa, the Cold War, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the rise of China. The international order includes different religions, cultures, customs, national identities and social institutions, some of which may have existed for thousands of years.

Today’s international order is also shaped by globalization, climate change, pandemics and nuclear proliferation. In fact, the period that seems closest to resembling a liberal international order is the 15 or so years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, before China fully emerged. However, a mere 15 years is but a blink of an eye in human history.

If there were no liberal international order, of course, there would not be discourse over “democracy versus autocracy.” According to the 2021 Democracy Index released by the Economist Intelligence Unit, out of a total of 167 countries and regions, only 21 are considered to be fully “democratic countries” and account for only 6.4 percent of the world’s population. The notion of a liberal international order cannot explain why democracy is declining globally if the model indeed stands on moral high ground.

China and the United States are not enemies, and China is not Europe’s systemic rival. The Ukraine crisis reveals a consensus: We must coexist despite our differences.

(Speech delivered at King’s College, London, on Nov. 24, 2022. It has been lightly edited for clarity.)

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