Though the conflict between Russia and Ukraine will likely continue for weeks if not months, some of the war’s effects on international relations are already evident. China will face a pliable Russia but a stronger Europe, a weaker global economy, and a more divided world, which will also challenge the United States and other countries.
The war has increased Beijing’s leverage over Moscow, but Russia’s value to China as a partner has declined due to Russia’s weakness and isolation. Russian policy makers will likely become more flexible in offering Chinese traders discounts for imported goods as well as open even more sectors of the Russian economy to Chinese investment, including in sensitive areas such as Arctic resource extraction and Russia’s high-tech industry. The Russian government will reorient its outer space collaboration away from Europe, Japan, and the United States and more toward China. But the Western sanctions on Russia will over time further widen the gap between the Russian and Chinese economies in the latter’s favor, diminishing the value of partnerships for Chinese business. Recent weeks have seen an enormous brain drain from Russia. Thousands of Russia’s best and brightest, such as entrepreneurs and IT experts, are departing for more benign conditions in Armenia, Georgia, Israel, Turkey, the Baltics, and other locations. The Chinese government is likely to accelerate the country’s dual-circulation policy to insulate China better from the kinds of newly developed sanctions imposed on Russia.
The prospects for combining the Russian and Chinese Eurasian integration projects—Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union along with China’s Belt and Road Initiative—also are falling given how Central Asian companies are trying to limit their exposure to sanctioned Russian entities and activities. In violation of EEU rules, the Russian government has banned the export of some goods to all foreign countries, including EEU members. The Russian attack on Ukraine will likely intensify Central Asian states quest for southern trade routes. Not only does the fighting in Ukraine complicate transit routes through Russian territory, but trade through China has also become disrupted by post-COVID transit barriers and the China-U.S. trade war. China will likely need to render these countries additional assistance due to the war. The declining value of the Russian ruble has been placing downward pressure on their currencies and shrunken the volume of the remittances sent back from their workers in Russia. If Russia pulls forces out of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to reinforce its contingents in Ukraine, China may feel compelled to deepen its security involvement in Central Asia.
The crisis has seen European power rebound from its post-Cold War depression. Despite Brexit, southern immigration disputes, and other divisive issues, European governments have acted with greater cohesion in confronting Russia in recent months than many observers expected. Long-standing divisions between the EU and NATO have withered, as have perennial differences between the countries in the east and west of Europe. The sweeping nature of the EU sanctions imposed on Russia have underscored Europe’s weight in the international economy.
The elevated attractiveness of partnering with Europe is manifest in how Asian democracies are striving to deepen their security ties with the EU and NATO. Though not members of NATO, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea have formally participated in the recent alliance ministerial dealing with Ukraine. The decision of Japan and South Korea to apply sanctions on Russia has led to a deterioration of these countries’ relations with Moscow. As a result, Russia will likely render greater support for Beijing’s territorial claims against Japan in the East China Sea and will reduce Russian pressure on North Korea to curb its missile launches. The growing divisions in the UN Security Council, seen in its recent deliberations, will give Pyongyang more maneuvering room to evade sanctions.
At the global level, the war has inflicted yet another blow, after COVID, on the globalization of world politics. In recent weeks, we have seen a clear division between “The West and the Rest,” with such important non-Western countries as China, India, and many states in the Middle East refusing to rebuke Moscow for invading Ukraine. The Russian information sphere is following China’s example in detaching from Western media corporations, further splintering the Internet and other information networks. The conflict has diverted attention from limiting global climate change and made cooperation with Russia on this issue more difficult—the leading official in charge of cooperating with the world on sustainable development, Anatoly Chubais, has resigned over the war and fled Russia.
As Secretary-General António Guterres observed, the war is threatening the global economy. “Due to the fighting, “Food, fuel and fertilizer prices are skyrocketing. Supply chains are being disrupted. And the costs and delays of transportation of imported goods – when available – are at record levels.” The war has compounded the strains on the global economy already present due to COVID and China-US trade war. We could soon see more shortfalls in grain supplies due to the importance of Russia and Ukraine in producing grains and fertilizers. The open-ended nature of the war is complicating planning by countries, businesses, and individuals due to the massive uncertainties regarding the timing, price, and availability of goods. The World Trade Organization has recently cut its forecast for the growth of world trade in 2022 from 4.7% to 2.5%. The ability of the G20 and other international institutions to respond to these challenges has been weakened by their war-induced divisions.
Russian threats have highlighted how countries with a nuclear deterrent can prevent foreign military intervention in a conventional war. Some Ukrainians have openly regretted relinquishing the nuclear weapons they inherited from the Soviet Union. Interest in acquiring nuclear weapons will grow in Japan, South and North Korea, and other Asian countries despite Chinese and U.S. agreement that nuclear proliferation is dangerous to everyone.