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War, Risk and Relations

Mar 17, 2022
  • Xiao Bin

    Deputy Secretary-general, Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Chinese Association of Social Sciences

Wars involving major powers always result in great shocks to the international order and affect the relations of many countries. In an international system with no balance of power, major powers may easily overreact and resort to preventive wars in response to systemic pressures.

From a pessimistic perspective, no matter how the Russia-Ukraine war ends, it will throw the international order into a long-term “cold peace,” in which the United States and its NATO allies will inevitably continue to confront Russia. From a positive perspective, the international order will return to a state of “turbulent peace,” with the possibility that Russia and Western nations will repairing ties, though the likelihood is low.

Russia has tremendous reserves of fossil fuels and mineral resources that Western countries need, while Western countries have the capital, technology and markets that Russia needs. Whether it’s cold peace or turbulent peace, it will exert immeasurable influence on Chinese foreign relations, especially those between China and Russia.

Facing an international system featuring a power imbalance, the China-Russia partnership of comprehensive strategic cooperation has seen rapid growth in the past decade. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia-China relations have transcended traditional military-political alliances, while his Chinese counterpart said the China-Russia relationship is one of the world’s key relationships.

Against the background of constant Western moves to suppress China and interfere in its domestic affairs, the China-Russia relationship has become increasingly prominent in Chinese foreign strategy and affected Chinese diplomatic behavior, as well as domestic public opinion at the global, regional and state levels.

However, Russia does not represent China’s only relationship with major countries. The evolution of China-Russia ties is often subject to the influences of relations with a third party. In short, within a certain temporal space, benign China-Russia relations can only guarantee that there is no confrontation or conflict between the two. They engage in mutually beneficial cooperation, but China has no way to control whether it gain benefits or face dangers in relations with other major countries.

More important, the China-Russia partnership of comprehensive strategic cooperation emerged from a state of no war. In a state of war, however, there are far greater risks of various kinds than when peace prevails. Therefore, China-Russia relations certainly have upper limits, which are the interests of the Chinese people. In other words, relations are constrained to areas that don’t harm those interests.

Wars come to an end, but the price of war may include longstanding effects, and there is no way to foresee all costs. What we do know, though, is that the wisdom of an advanced country lies in the fact that it makes sure it gets benefits without offending other countries, while preventing others from taking oppressive action against it out of fear. Therefore, it is particularly important to reflect on China-Russia relations during the war.

Based on an analysis of changes in the Russia-Ukraine war, as well as likely changes in major-country politics, I believe Chinese diplomacy needs to pay attention to and do well in the following aspects:

The banner of an independent foreign policy of peace must always be held high. China’s diplomatic history and game theory both teach us that allowing any bilateral relationship to override the independent foreign policy of peace will inevitably reduce the flexibility of foreign strategy, and restrain the latitude of diplomatic decision-making.

Pressures on China evolve constantly inside the international system, and balancing forces may arise that will tilt the system toward relative equilibrium. Since any sovereign country may form an alliance with any other, these forces rise and fall all the time.  In fact, the more flexible Chinese foreign relations are, the more resilient Chinese foreign strategies are. So it will be more conducive to preserving our own interests in either “cold peace” or “turbulent peace.” Therefore, we need to rationally position China-Russia relations, avoid over-estimating the China-Russia relationship’s counterbalancing effects on pressures from the international system and adopt an approach of “dynamic clearing” for all negative factors that may affect the Chinese people’s interests, so that no major-country relationship can take those interests hostage.

Building a strong economy and indigenous technologies is a necessary precondition for responding to pressure from the international system. A high-quality economy and technological strength are the foundation of a country’s survival, as well as the only way to seek or preserve status as a major power.

Extraordinary military might could be effective in the short term in preserving major-power status; in the long term, however, military strength will decline accordingly as economic and technological capabilities do. Therefore, China must learn to continuously develop itself in competitive coexistence, and make sure its economic, technological and military capabilities grow in a balanced manner.

Last, changes in the international order don’t necessarily mean the hegemon’s decline; it's merely an outcome of China’s and other nations’ development. China needs to learn amid these changes, co-exist and interact both with other powers and weaker nations and build a national reputation that is positive and progressive.

According to Hans Morgenthau, a policy of prestige is an indispensable factor in effective foreign policy. The task of a wise country’s policy of prestige is to showcase its strength, neither too much, nor too little, to other countries. Today, as hegemony and clamor about a new cold war gain traction, China should not only promote internationalism but also preserve international justice and build a stable and prosperous world order through its own actions.

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