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Foreign Policy

What Does It Mean If the Russia-Ukraine Conflict Turns Long-term?

Sep 19, 2022
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has lasted more than six months, showing no signs of easing on the battlefield or diplomatically so far. Considering its all-round blows to international conditions and spillover effects on multiple fields, the conflict becoming long-term will also yield complex influences on China-U.S. relations.

The conflict has rebuilt the dynamic between Western nations, which means significant changes have taken place in the background for China-U.S. interaction. Judging from the present situation, the Russia-Ukraine conflict’s biggest impact lies in the fact that it has conspicuously accelerated a new round of integration of the Western world, the “West vs. non-West” pattern of major-country relations that has re-emerged, mirroring the end of the Cold War. The U.S. has rapidly rallied Western countries after the conflict broke out, and step by step realized a “great unity” of the Western world by imposing sanctions against Russia, offering aid to Ukraine, and consolidating global supply chains. Against such backdrop, European “strategic autonomy” has obviously been suppressed, and such countries as Japan, South Korea and India have all demonstrated inclination to seek greater international influences taking advantage of the West’s “great unity.”

The China-U.S. relationship is increasingly scrutinized by the international community through the prism of “Western” and “non-Western” rivalry. In step with the new round of integration of Western countries, the U.S. has taken advantage of the “political clique” to mount pressures on China. The U.S. and European strategic perceptions of China and security threats have further converged, while the QUAD countries’ China strategies synchronized in an all-round manner. Major Western nations, which have reunited because of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, have displayed the evident strategic posture to bind China and Russia and suppress the latter together. The alliance system has always been a main U.S. advantage in dealing with rivals. Taking advantage of the prolonging Russia-Ukraine conflict, the U.S. has gradually activated the advantages of its alliance network in its containment of China, and will also seek to dismantle the layout of China’s major-country relations. 

The conflict has dealt all-round blows to the international security environment, which means the scope of the China-U.S. game and the realms of potential crises may increase. The Russia-Ukraine conflict took place against the backdrop of the global pandemic, meaning traditional security challenges and non-traditional security threats have unprecedentedly fermented and reverberated together to affect the global security situation. The conflict has triggered greater fear of regional, and even global, wars in countries, turning increasing military investments and seeking security through alliances into a universal tendency. Meanwhile, as the conflict continues into the long-term, problems have been mushrooming in emerging realms such as energy and resource security, supply chain safety, financial security, nuclear security, as well as network and space security. International governance deficits surrounding these new security concerns will become even more prominent.

Simultaneously, frequent incidents of traditional challenges and non-traditional risks may prompt the U.S. to expand fields of suppression and enlarge the inherent China-U.S. security dilemma. In the past, U.S. security pressures imposed on China were mainly in the forms of military deployment and security alliances in the Asia-Pacific. Security contradictions between China and the U.S. were also reflected on China’s periphery. In emerging areas, though China and the U.S. have shown a momentum of continuous competition, such contradictions have yet to gain prominence. As the Russia-Ukraine conflict rages on, more and more non-traditional security issues will become obvious, and further exacerbate aspects of China-U.S. security contradictions. For instance, that the U.S. and Western countries drove Russia out of the SWIFT and seized Russian overseas assets reflected the potential risks China faces in such fields as economic and financial security and overseas interests protection. Western nations’ attempts to rebuild the supply chain security system will inevitably increase China-U.S. contradictions surrounding key energy and resources. 

To what degree the conflict changes comparative international strengths will have significant impacts on the long-term dynamism of the China-U.S. game. The U.S. and Western powers attempt to drag Russia down by taking advantage of the conflict to thoroughly dismantle the latter’s major-power status. Though the German and Japanese economies have taken blows, they aspire to bounce back quickly, while India, Turkey and South Korea strive to take advantage of all favorable factors and further improve their international positions. Key international capitalists like Elon Musk and new actors like numerous small and medium-sized tech companies have proactively taken part in the conflict and showcased their strengths, illustrating non-state actors’ important influences on comparative international strengths. More importantly, it remains unknown whether a long-term Russia-Ukraine conflict will change the trend of global economic development over the past decades.

China has shown tremendous resilience under the all-round pressures the U.S. mounted over the past few years, fundamentally reflected growth in Chinese national strength and changes in comparative international strengths. Since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, while facing various development conundrums at home, the U.S. has kept hyping up new variables in comparative international strengths, attempting to darken the prospect of China’s development. China, for its part, has coordinated various aspects of socio-economic development via effectively structuring a new development pattern, actively and properly coping with significant changes in global conditions. Maintaining concentration, taking the initiative, and planning beforehand will be the fundamental guarantee for China to cope with what the U.S. called “long game” in the new period of paradigm change. 

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