At first sight, there are few tangents between China and the Ukrainian crisis in full development today. What connections could exist between the big emergent power of the Pacific and the continental state situated west of Russia, in the heart of Europe. Beyond the normal international interdependencies – members of several international organisations, commercial partners etc. – it might seem there is no such point of contact that would imply China’s major influence in the unfolding of the Ukrainian crisis. And yet…
The historic inheritance is a dossier that must be carefully read with this regard. In the 19th Century, Russia expanded to Asia and the Czar’s Empire soared to the gates of India, towards Korea and in the Asian territories of the Chinese Empire. The two big powers were thus in contact.
In the first half of the 20th Century, Soviet Russia was a strong presence in the evolution of Chinese extreme left, while the Chinese communist leaders did their ideological apprenticeship in the shadow of Moscow. The possibility that China, conquered by communists in 1949 and placed in the wake of USSR, represents a geopolitical pole influenced the global political planning in Washington after World War Two, which imagined the theory of containment that became state politics by decision of NSC in April 1950. Later, this ‘containment’ was tested by Stalin – according to latest research – through the war launched in the communist Korea in the summer of 1950 (June) that ended with the death of the Kremlin dictator (in March 1953). But, until then, communist Korea was rescued by the Chinese intervention across the Yalu River, which succeeded in stopping the advance of American forces (under UN mandate), which shows the substantiality of NSC-68. Later, the support provided by the USA to the French intervention in Indochina, aimed at preserving its colonial empire, as well as the involvement in the Vietnam war, which lasted almost two decades, until 1975, would strongly hamper the forming of an Eurasian block by which the communist powers China and USSR threatened to conquer the world due to their favourable geopolitical position. Starting with the famous visit paid to China by American president Richard Nixon, the ‘containment’ was decisively reshaped. USA then became the strategic partner of China, in view of halting the global geopolitical advance of the USSR. Until the Shanghai communique, which sealed this US-Chinese partnership in February 1972 – to which achievement Romanian diplomacy contributed significantly – there were however military clashes between China and USSR. These two big communist powers had committed themselves to an ideological struggle – over supremacy and power in the communist block – that gradually and irremediably eroded the unity of the global communist subsystem. Staged at the common Asian border established – as claimed by the Chinese at the peak of a troublesome ‘cultural revolution’ that generated terrible ideological excess – in the 19th Century by the advance of the Russian Empire, these military clashes threatened to turn into an apocalyptical blaze that could also end in the use of the atomic bomb. Mao, the charismatic leader of China, was preparing the defence against a Soviet attack that seemed imminent at the end of the ‘60s. The strategic partnership USA-China played a major geopolitical role in the last phase of the Cold War, ending the Vietnam War and trying to block the Soviet expansionism on other continents, thus bringing closer the end of the bipolar era.
A famous American expert – Robert Kaplan – recently wrote a book (also translated in Romanian) named “Revenge of Geography.” His main thesis is that, beyond the well-known indicators of a state’s power, such as size of GDP, demographic potential, tradition, military strength etc. – used in any top 10 related to power today in the vast structure of the system, one must also consider another, whose importance was too much downplayed lately, which is ‘geography.’ The geographic location of a power not only defines its historic destiny, but also provides continuity to its military-strategic doctrines and international behaviour. The position of USA between two oceans gave it the tonic sentiment of military inaccessibility, which generated the ‘Monroe doctrine’ along with internal political evolutions like isolationism. Similarly, the geographic position of Germany at the centre of Europe is reflected by its long history, as well as in its present international behaviour. Thus, the revenge of geography means the appearance, after a too long absence, of geopolitics in order to understand the current historic evolutions. The geopolitical ‘lens’ must be used today for understanding the close connection between China and the Ukrainian crisis, and for drawing pertinent conclusions on the evolution of the global system, now and in the future. For the current Ukrainian crisis, a dossier that must be studied is that of geopolitical interdependencies. The western neighbour of Russia, a buffer between it and Europe, Ukraine interests China to the highest degree. Will this power remain in the influence sphere of Russia, or not? If it will continue being pro-Russian and an alliance will take shape between Russia and the Germany-dominated EU, will this lead to a ‘Greater Europe’ from Vladivostok to Lisbon, as Kremlin says today, as an independent global power pole that will rival China (and equally the USA)? If Ukraine remains neutral, or even moves geopolitically closer to Europe, then Russia will be caught in the ‘grand game’ that already started in Asia, on positions that will be uncomfortable for it. It will have to place itself either in the wake of China, or of the USA, if it wants to have a ‘say’ in Asia, anyway without being a distinct strategic one. And, in the context of this scenario of the evolution of the Ukrainian crisis, this seems inevitable and will place Moscow in the situation of making painful choices. One must also mention that, in the post-Soviet Central Asia, the goal of the presumptive Eurasian Union imagined by Kremlin – among the states of this region, only Kazakhstan currently has an agreement with this regard – is under a dynamic political offensive launched by China, which searches for the resources necessary for its extraordinary economic development. Many analysts emphasise that this “backyard” of Russia is already lost, as China seems to emerge as winner in this contest, which would also imply a failure of the Eurasian Union project.
If we look at both possibilities, we observe that, through this geopolitical lens, China is interested that Ukraine rather is neutral or pro-European, because in the long run this removes a competitor/opponent with which it had a very rich contentious dossier. Without a global Eurasian pole of power represented by Greater Europe, China can share the systemic hegemony with the USA (“the duo-pole” as systemic leadership, already proposed by some experts in the context of the general crisis of 2007 -2008). With a weak Russia committed in Asia, China – on one hand – enjoys a substantial benefit in the relation with the USA, while on the other a Russia allied with the USA would be a serious rival for China. This is why, today, China – according to a simple geopolitical calculation – can try to weaken Russia through a constant action of commitment to the post-Soviet Central Asia, allowing it to secure a sustainable position in the future systemic competitions with the USA. And, from this perspective, the existence of an alliance between Russia and China, formalised in Shanghai-5, offers massive possibilities.