Vijay Gokhale: ‘The challenge for China is how to hold firm on the partnership with Russia, without there being collateral damage on the Sino-US relationship’

What is your understanding of how China is viewing the conflict in Ukraine, given its own close relationship with Russia, and also simultaneously its tensions with the US?

I am not aware as to whether the Russian President discussed his plans regarding Ukraine with the President of China when the two met in Beijing on February 4 this year. What can be reasonably surmised is that (from) the joint statement that was issued, Russia would have drawn the conclusion that China had their back. After the invasion took place, of course, I think the Chinese found themselves in a difficult situation.

To my mind, they are still grappling with a policy to come up with. So far we have seen a general statement regarding upholding the principles of the United Nations Charter and talk of safeguarding sovereignty and territorial integrity in all countries. Secondly, they have described the issue as complicated. That means it is not only a matter that concerns the security of Ukraine, but of other parties, including Russia.

Currently, they have called for negotiations and peaceful settlement through dialogue. They have also clearly stated that those actions are not conducive to promoting a diplomatic solution. And I suspect that this is the idea that the United States and the European Union not aggravate matters by providing military material and support to Ukraine but should try to bring both parties together through negotiations. And we know the Chinese have been quite specific about supporting Russia’s position that while addressing the crisis in Ukraine, the larger issue of Russia’s security in Europe has to be addressed. So everybody can take something away from the Chinese statements. It suggests they are still grappling with the specific course of action.

They must also be worried about the sanctions on Russia, isn’t it?

Yes, I presume the sanctions on Russia will have a knock-on effect on the global economy. So it’s reasonable to expect that China will be watching the actual implementation of sanctions carefully, since they are very interconnected, both in terms of global trade and in terms of global financial flows.

So what is the big picture? What is at stake for China in this conflict? How does it affect China’s aspirations, its rise as a global power, its competition with the United States?

A little historical context: Since the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921, Russia — first the Soviet Union, and now the Russian Federation — has been front and center of Chinese foreign policy for the past 100 years. After the Cold War ended, it is important to recognise that China adjusted its outlook towards the new state of Russia very quickly.

We have now, as a matter of public record, a speech that Deng Xiaoping gave to the Central Committee in March 1990, within months of the fall of the Berlin Wall, in which he said Russia will remain a pole. And that China needs to steadily expand relations with Russia. And he said this because, I think, China’s biggest worry was that a democratic Russia, aligning with the West was, for China, the worst possible global outcome they could face. So as early as 1990, they already understood the strategic value of Russia once the threat of the Soviet Union against China had degraded, and what you see beginning with Deng and through his successors right up to the current president is a steady focus on the improvement of China-Russia ties.

After the current Russian president came to power, we have seen a sustained and substantial convergence of interests based on common concerns. Some of their biggest concerns are American hegemony, the idea of containment, and the concern that the objectives of the West include regime change, not just in Russia but in China as well.

Of course, along with this convergence, there are some dissonant factors. The relationship is becoming more and more asymmetric with Russia.

The strategic partnership that has been formed between Russia and China would suggest to me that for the current leadership in China, the Russian Federation is the key factor that underpins their foreign policy. The February 4 joint statement, for instance, is a full-on theoretical counter position to Western narratives.

It says there is no “one- size-fits-all” template for democracy. It also goes on to say that China and Russia have had a positive effect in multilateral and international institutions on issues relating to global development, including through the BRI, and through the Eurasian Economic Union, as compared to the West. And, finally, of course, they stood together by saying that external forces are undermining security and stability in their common adjacent areas. Now, this last formulation is an important, it doesn’t talk simply of external forces undermining security in the homeland. The adjacent areas, essentially, are Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Indo Pacific. So to my mind, the Sino-Russian relationship has evolved into an extremely close strategic partnership,

Of course, the Ukraine crisis, and the way it will develop in future will have a very fundamental impact on China. In the short term, I would think its concern is the stability of the Russian government, because President Putin’s continuance in office is critical to China’s security. If for whatever reason, there is a change in government, any government that comes to power in Russia will be less accommodative towards China… China will be less secure than it feels today.

They (China) are waiting, watching to see whether Russia falters in Ukraine or is able to achieve its objectives, because these will have an impact on the domestic situation in Russia. They are also watching to see whether the sanctions the West imposes are so debilitating to the Russian economy that it leads to a collapse of the Russian economy, and, therefore, to weakening of the regime, and even, in an extreme case, to the collapse of the regime. Over the next six to 12 months, I presume they will have to craft a policy, which will allow them to play some sort of a role in the resolution of this crisis, because it will enhance their global acceptability.

The US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, and Wang Yi, the foreign minister of China, have spoken twice in the last two weeks, they had a conversation (on Saturday) as well. That suggests to me that it is not beyond the realm of possibility that both of them are discussing ways and means to bring the crisis to some sort of resolution, although each has, of course, sort of taken a position.

In this context, it’s also very interesting that there was acknowledgement of the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s visit to China by the Chinese side…

The speech was on February 28. That was four days after the Russian invasion began. The challenge for China is how to hold firm on the partnership with Russia, without there being collateral damage on the Sino-US relationship. We do know this is a relationship of rivals filled with tensions already. China, I think, nonetheless recognises that in the world of today, the United States is still the greatest power. And, therefore, I think the objective of that speech was to flag areas of commonality that would allow the United States and China to maintain their relationship, and to avoid it becoming collateral damage.

Because when it comes to Russia, and the Ukraine crisis, the Chinese have been fairly blunt in pointing fingers at the United States and NATO. They have said, in as many words and more than once, that it is the NATO expansion since 1990, which is the cause of the Ukraine crisis and not Russian actions. So to maintain that balance, I think that speech is important.

What might the impact of this be on the Belt and Road Initiative, given the willingness of the Russians to cooperate with China on this through the Eurasian Economic Union. How is this going to be affected with Russia’s preoccupation with its own security?

Two general observations: while there is some willingness on the part of both to acknowledge each other’s grand economic plans, which is the Belt and Road of China and the Eurasian Economic Union of Russia, I don’t believe there is a complete convergence on this issue.

The second point is that long before the Ukraine conflict started, there has been a rethink or a readjustment in China’s policy on the Belt and Road Initiative, as a result of the impact of the coronavirus. If you look at the investments that China has made in the Belt and Road Initiative, going by reports in the public domain, it fell by half since 2019. And my sense is that they are looking at spreading the risk.

One sentence that actually leapt out of the text of Wang Yi’s Shanghai Communique anniversary speech was the foreign minister acknowledging that China was willing to consider coordinating with President Biden’s Build Back Better initiative to provide quality public goods to the global community.

This is perhaps the first time at a leadership level that China is signalling its willingness to dovetail the Belt and Road Initiative with specific infrastructure initiatives of the United States. It has already done so with the European Infrastructure Initiative. But this is an important point that underlines that it is looking at risk mitigation.

One further point: in the entire work report annually presented by the Chinese Premier to the National People’s Congress – the report was presented on 5 March 2022 – what struck me was that although the Belt and Road Initiative is the Chinese President’s signature project, there was hardly a mention of it in the entire text. The text of the speech runs into several dozen pages. BRI gets such a brief mention, you have to scour through the text to find it.

But what was interesting was what premier Li Keqiang said — he actually said that, going forward, on the Belt and Road initiative, China should adopt and act on market principles, and that it will set up a sound and diversified investment and financial framework.

It’s also interesting that China raised its 2022 defence budget by 7.1% over the previous year. What does that say about how China’s viewing the new security order that will take shape after this conflict, and of course, its own issues in the region?

The defence budget this year does not give any new insight into China’s approach on the geopolitical and geo-strategic situation, in the region and in the world. Since 2013, if you look at the white papers, published every two years, China has clearly declared that it has overseas interests, and that it must develop a military that is capable of preserving and protecting those overseas interests as well. And China has never defined what these interests are. Are they limited to economic objectives? Or are there also geopolitical and geo-strategic and security objectives?

On the other hand, the fact that they have their first military base in Djibouti, and given the reports of possibly another Chinese logistics facility or base in Cambodia, as well as the probability that Gwadar port will also become a dual use facility for China, we must presume that there is a larger objective, which is to establish by the end of this decade, a permanent or semi permanent presence in the Indian Ocean. And to that extent, the defence budgets over the last certainly 15 years and, more particularly, after the current leader has taken office are consistent with that strategy, consistent with that plan.

My sense is that their study of the Ukraine crisis is to make a hard assessment of United States and Western capabilities of waging a financial war and of learning lessons from that to harden their economy against a weapon of that nature being deployed against China in the future. I think this will be the central focus of all study in China today. On the financial and economic side, the American and Western sanctions of Russia, the speed with which they were imposed, the spread of the sanctions, and also whether these are going to be actually applied as well as what its impact is going to be on Russia will serve as an “Aha” moment.

We are also talking of a systematic policy that has been expressed by the Chinese leadership since 2013, to harden their economy, and to firewall their economy in many ways, while remaining connected to it.

India is part of the Quad and sees China as a direct rival for influence in the Indian Ocean. How is the Quad going to be impacted by America’s preoccupation in Europe, in European security, and how much attention is it going to have in the Indo Pacific and in the Indian Ocean?

It’s too early to assess the impact. If one was cynical, one would say that the prolongation of the Ukraine conflict actually helps China, because the attention of the United States is divided. Their focus is also on the situation in Europe, and not just on the situation in the Indo Pacific. But on the other hand, the statement made by Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Secretary Blinken also suggests that both sides realise that in a new global situation, these are the two anchors of the global economy. It does not suit either side, to allow the ripple effects of the Ukraine crisis and the economic boycott of Russia to have a wider impact on an economy just coming out of the Coronavirus epidemic.

As yet, we have seen very few writings by Chinese strategic experts and think tanks on how the Ukraine crisis will play out in the Indo Pacific.

Russia’s preoccupation on the continent, is that going to change its attention to its eastern borders, and in that way change China’s influence or role in the Central Asian republics?

I don’t think that the Ukraine conflict is going to change what was a clear trend even earlier. My own sense is that rightly or wrongly, the Russians perceive that the Europeans are unwilling to accept Russia as a legitimate European power with reasonable security interests. And, therefore, there has been an eastward or a China-ward turn for a long time before this crisis has happened.

We have to only read the joint statement of February 4. It talks of both sides standing together so that no external forces can undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions, which automatically suggests Central Asia, and the Pacific. One would have to assume the Ukraine crisis is going to deepen an existing trend.

After the “Long Game: How the Chinese Negotiate with India”, and “Tiananmen Square:The Making of a Protest”, you’re working on your third book on China. What’s it about?

One of the reasons I wrote The Long Game: How the Chinese Negotiate with India, as well as Tiananmen Square: The Making of a Protest, because I’ve been convinced for a long time that as a general population, we are poorly informed about China.

Tiananmen Square covers the entire period of 10 years of the reform from 1978 to 1989. And I have tried to give it an Indian perspective. And one of the points I’ve made is that we have to stop looking at China from a Western prism. I’m in the process of writing another book, which is about the post-1989 situation. We are facing a situation we have not faced in our 75 years of independence, which is a superpower at our doorstep. It’s an absolute necessity to understand China, and anybody who can write on China should write.

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