The Ukraine war is now seemingly headed for a climax. Given how things have gone so far, it would be foolhardy to offer a prediction of the future. Russia has suffered grievous blows, but it retains a vast capacity to bring even more death and destruction in Ukraine. As for Ukraine, it has probably surprised itself by its performance. Steeled by war, it has few options but to continue the fight.
At the diplomatic level, the developments of the past 50 days are generating pulls and pressures which will reshape the regional and global landscape. For example, reports suggest that European officials are now drafting plans for an embargo on Russian oil products to follow on their earlier ban on Russian coal. Russia is the largest oil supplier to the EU providing it 25 percent of its imports. A stoppage would cause a huge disruption in the EU, especially its powerhouse Germany, but Berlin may be willing to bite the bullet. The EU has layered its sanctions against Russia since the beginning of invasion, and has been under massive pressure to adopt the “nuclear option”—ban oil imports. (Gas imports are simply too important to touch.) Such a ban would have huge consequences for the longer term relationship between Europe and Russia.
Closer to the scene of action, countries that were “neutrals” through the Cold War—Sweden and Finland—are finding their situation untenable and are considering throwing in their lot with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Then there is Germany which made itself self-consciously dependent on Russian energy, but is today looking at ways to exit that mould.
Effects on EU-China ties
This indicates that the exercise of sitting on the fence that China and India have undertaken is going to get progressively more difficult. New Delhi is fortunate, it has the Biden Administration in its corner, and the Americans see considerable value in supporting India’s stand on pragmatic grounds relating to their contest with China.
But the choices for China are more difficult. So far Beijing has stuck to its strong support for Russia. Most recently, when pressed at the end of March during the EU–China summit not to support Russia, the Chinese side-stepped the appeal, and reiterated their stand that they had been promoting talks for peace and continue to work for “cessation of hostilities, prevention of a larger scaled humanitarian crisis and a return to peace at an early date.” In his remarks at the summit, Xi Jinping, too, avoided the issue and spoke of an EU–China relationship which seems to have already become history. This was one where they were two major markets promoting globalisation through cooperation and promoting openness and cooperation. The issue of Ukraine was dismissed in two sentences: “The two sides exchanged views on the situation in Ukraine. The EU leaders introduced the EU’s views and propositions on the Ukraine crisis.”
It was not surprising that the EU Foreign Policy Chief Joseph Borell described the summit as a dialogue of the deaf. He told the EU Parliament that the Chinese didn’t want to discuss the issues even while the EU had made it clear that it was no longer possible to compartmentalise issues when it comes to the basic point of whether “We live in world governed by rules or by force”.
Domestic Chinese commentary, too, has been strongly supportive of Russia and has squarely blamed the Americans for the current developments. A great deal of Chinese commentary squarely bales the US for the Ukraine crisis. A commentary in 10 parts by “Jun Sheng Voice of the military” in the PLA Daily has attacked the US as “a willful and arrogant destroyer of international rules and order”, arguing that the Ukraine crisis mirrored US’s role on the international stage.
An article by Chen Zi in People’s Daily Online attacked the US for being the “evil backstage manipulator behind worldwide turmoil,” far from promoting peace, the US has actually “poured fuel on the flames”. Indeed, said Chen, there was a “trace of the US in almost every dispute and conflict that has happened around the world.”
Chinese commentary has attacked the US for pressuring the Europeans to take a tough stand. This has led to an angry response from the EU leadership whose High Representative for Foreign Affairs Borrell said that the EU condemnation of Russia was not as China suggested “ because ‘we follow the US blindly’…but because it is our genuine position.”
Though China has been an insistent supporter of the need to uphold sovereignty and territorial integrity, it seems to have forgotten this when it comes to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Call it “special military operation” or anything, the fact is that it is an invasion of the territory of a UN member and a friend which had been a significant military partner of China.
In 2017, when India intervened in Doklam, China refuted India’s actions in a long document in early August which was replete with references of sovereignty. It noted that “According to UN General Assembly Resolution 3314 adopted on 14 December 1974, no consideration of whatsoever nature, whether political, economic, military or otherwise, may serve as a justification for the invasion or attack by the armed forces of a state of the territory of another state.”
The Chinese decision to take the stand that the country has taken is clearly premised on expectations of geopolitical gains. This doesn’t mean merely servicing the sanctions-hit Russian economy since China probably loses more in terms of the blowback in Europe. China’s calculation probably was that a quick Russian victory would lead to a neutralisation of Ukraine and greater security for Russia. This would have damaged the credibility of US–NATO and strengthened the Russia–China bloc.
But things have not gone according to the script and uncertainties are now looming over Beijing. The US is doubling down in the Indo-Pacific with its new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. And there has been some kite-flying over the possibility of Japan joining the AUKUS.
The changed mood in Europe could have both economic and political consequences for China. The mood is not based just on perceptions, but the reality of the Ukraine war and the nearly 5 million refugees that the region is having to deal with.
So far, China has viewed Europe, the destination of its Belt and Road Initiative, as its key partner, a source of technology and investments, as well as a market for its high-value goods. Now leaders, especially in Germany are articulating their worries about dependence on not just Russian oil and gas, but also the Chinese market and supply chains.
Trouble had been brewing between China and Europe in the past few years with issues like European sanctions on account of Hong Kong and Xinjiang as well as the Chinese blockade of Lithuania. In 2017, the US National Security Strategy said that China and Russia were seeking to challenge US power, influence, and interests, and the US needed to outcompete rather than engage them. Two years later, in 2019, the EU declared that China was “a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.”
Today for the Americans and the Europeans, this is looking more and more as an ideological contest between “democracy” and “authoritarianism”.
It is leading to closer US-EU ties and could, in the coming period, lead towards a tougher European stance towards China, especially as Beijing doubles down on its support for the Russian action in Ukraine. In recent years, European countries had indicated an interest in developing their Indo-Pacific policy. Now, enhanced EU military spending and closer coordination with the US could manifest itself in a changed EU geopolitical posture around the world, not just in Europe.