Photo by Thomas Despeyroux on Unsplash
Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping’s high-profile diplomatic manoeuvres in recent months, in particular his three-day visit to Moscow in March, have shed light on his geostrategic calculations and goals regarding the Russian-Ukrainian conflict as well as the global order. Trying to crack the transatlantic alliance is one of China’s strategies to achieve these goals, writes Jianli Yang.
Xi is convinced that China is tightly locked in an open-ended competition with the United States, the outcome of which will shape the future world order and determine his own political legacy. Xi’s primary goal, starting with playing the Russia card, is to form and solidify a global anti-American alliance with a “new rules”-based world order that extends from Eurasia to the Middle East and beyond. Although the CCP claims that Xi’s visit to Moscow was a peacemaking trip, the Chinese leader displayed more interest in showcasing China’s growing friendship with Russia than in making peace. Meanwhile, China is assiduously trying to create the right conditions to mediate the Russian-Ukrainian war in accordance with the CCP’s wishes—on the heels of stunningly brokering a Saudi détente with Iran.
Despite Beijing’s openly pro-Russian stance, China has positioned itself as a potential key mediator in the Russian-Ukrainian war. Understanding that the differences between the two sides in the conflict are now too great to resolve, and aware of Ukraine’s and its Western allies’ distrust of China, Beijing is not rushing to try to bring Russia and Ukraine together for negotiations. Indeed, so far, Xi Jinping has shown no interest in travelling to Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, or even to have a telephone conversation with him. Xi’s goals are to end the war in a way that preserves Vladimir Putin’s regime, secure for China postwar economic opportunities for Ukraine’s reconstruction and Russia’s recovery, and weaken the U.S.-led democratic world. Even if these aims prove beyond its reach, it will continue to provide Moscow with an economic lifeline, diplomatic support, and even military assistance to ensure that Russia is not defeated and that the West continues to drain its military, economic and political resources-as the protracted war shows few signs of abating.
For Xi, a Russian defeat in the conflict would be unacceptable—not only because it would embolden the U.S. and its allies, but also because it would likely lead to the collapse of Putin’s regime, which, in turn, could be a precursor to the emergence of a more pro-Western Kremlin. In that event, not only would Beijing lose a bulwark in the new Cold War with Washington, but the latter would try to play the Russia card to influence China, in a mirror image of the U.S.–China–Soviet strategic triangle of the 1970s.
Beijing has staked its success on the expectation that sooner or later, Ukraine will have to come to the negotiating table. Ukraine should not accept a non-neutral China as mediator, short of driving China to completely side with Russia and supply it with lethal weapons – a nightmare for Ukraine. Moreover, prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, 2022, Sino–Ukrainian economic relations were remarkably strong. Ukraine understands that fighting Russia and preparing for economic recovery must go hand in hand, and that no country, with the possible exception of the United States, can match China’s help to rebuild. It is unlikely that Zelenskyy would refuse financial aid from Beijing.
To achieve these goals, one of China’s most important strategies will be to divide the transatlantic alliance, not only for the war but also beyond. For Putin, China’s helping split the transatlantic alliance would arguably be even more important in the long run than its supply of lethal weapons and ammunition.
China has made no secret of its intention to drive a wedge between the United States and its European allies. At the Munich Security Conference in February, China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, sharply criticized the United States. But he spoke softly about Europe, urging Europeans to act on their own and support China’s peace plan for Ukraine. Moreover, the joint declaration issued by Xi and Putin at their recent meeting in Moscow spares the European Union (EU) while harshly condemning the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan.
Just five days before the start of Xi’s visit to Russia, the Global Times (the flagship mouthpiece of the CCP) published an editorial entitled “A fragile decade ahead?” The editorial said, “China’s most critical partner in the near future is most likely to be Europe, especially the developed countries of Western Europe, followed by Central and Eastern European countries.” On the subject of ending the war in Ukraine, the op-ed added, “If China can work together with Europe (especially Germany and France) to play a central role in the post-conflict negotiations of the Russian-Ukrainian war, it may be able to turn this crisis into an opportunity, win Europe’s respect, and promote the stabilization of China-EU relations.” As for the long-term strategy beyond Ukraine, the article asserts, “As long as Europe continues to have close economic ties with China and refrains from joining the ‘united front’ against China led by the U.S., China will have more room to manoeuvre.”
European leaders continue to line up to visit Beijing. Understandably, the European powers, especially Germany, cannot afford to alienate the CCP too much, as China is one of their most important trading partners. Moreover, despite their support for Ukraine, Western European countries are more likely than the United States to seek a diplomatic end to the war. And unlike the U.S., the EU is entertaining the faint hope that China could play a key role as peacemaker in Ukraine.
Europe must understand China’s strategic objectives regarding the war in Ukraine and the threat posed by the growing alliance between the world’s most dangerous political, strategic and military challengers to democratic values and the prevailing rules-based world order.
An end to the war in Ukraine on Beijing-brokered terms would markedly alter the global post-war landscape, leaving the democratic world in a much more difficult situation, which is not in Europe’s best interests. European officials visiting Beijing should observe that China is facing its worst economic outlook in decades. To maintain their political power, the Chinese government and Xi himself need China’s economy to recover rapidly. China is looking out for its own economic interests while helping Russia. For example, cheap and abundant energy from Russia has become a critical factor.
But China’s economic and trade relations with Europe are far more important than those with Russia. The European Union is one of the largest economic markets in the world, and Russia’s economy is much smaller than that of the EU. (For instance, in 2022, Russia’s GDP was about $4.7 trillion, compared with around $16.6 trillion for the EU.)
China is the EU’s largest trading partner, and the EU is China’s second-largest trading partner after the United States. In contrast, Sino–Russian trade is much smaller and therefore less important to China’s economy. The CCP has sought to develop closer ties with EU countries in order to access their innovation and advanced technology, which eclipse Russia’s. European officials visiting China should remind Xi of this fact and warn him that China will face severe consequences for propping up Russia’s economy.
During the Cold War (1947–1991), trade between the West and the Soviet Union was very limited. Today, the world’s democracies, including the EU, are highly dependent on Beijing, giving China the power to economically coerce these countries in future conflicts in addition to the war in Ukraine.
To overcome these economic vulnerabilities, and counter China’s divide and conquer strategy, the European powers and the United States should further strengthen their alliance politically as well as economically by forming a values-based economic “NATO” – starting from the transatlantic allies to expand to the entire democratic world.
This values-based economic zone would not be a military organization like NATO, nor would it be a U.S.-led security organization like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) or AUKUS.
Nor would it be a trade organization like the World Trade Organization (WTO), which promotes global trade and arbitrates trade disputes – while failing to incentivize improved human rights in China as predicted by advocates of China’s accession to the WTO two decades ago. A values-based economic community could help promote China’s human rights progress, but also coordinate its powerful economic bloc to respond collectively when members come into economic conflict with China over human rights, democratic norms, or a rules-based liberal international order.
This economic community would also serve as an indispensable complement and ultimately an umbrella for the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which the United States should join after President Trump left it’s predecessor; the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF); and the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) plan announced by President Biden and other G7 leaders in June 2022 to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
In the shorter term, such an economic community could help counter increasing pressure on democratic governance and a rules-based order in the Euro-Atlantic are—not just from Russia but a more powerful China.
The Author, Dr. Jianli Yang, is a Tiananmen Massacre survivor and a former political prisoner of China. He is founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China and the author of For Us, the Living: A Journey to Shine the Light on Truth.