It is commonly accepted that democracies do not go to war with one another. There is, however, much less consensus about what happens when one superpower wages a virtual war on the world, and another would rather it did not. This can be seen right now with Russia’s war in Ukraine, and China’s less-than-warm response. Assuredly, anything that bloodies the nose of the West will be welcomed in Beijing, but there is a difference between a flesh wound and a fatal one. China’s challenge is to do the dance of opposing the dogma of Western liberal capitalism while presenting itself as inextricably linked with the future of the same (something that Russia has openly given up on) – not something that can be achieved if much of the world is either against you, or no longer extant.
President Xi (soon to be awarded an unprecedented third term) has been one of the few leaders willing to meet with Putin since the start of the war, and to have not outrightly castigated the Kremlin for its atrocities. However, China has been a lot less fulsome in its support of Russia than the latter would have liked. Becoming the primary purchaser of Russian oil and gas means that Beijing is propping up the Russian economy, but crucially this remains a transaction rather than a beneficence.
Chinese assistance with cyber-led disinformation campaigns (of which more later) benefits Beijing as much as it does Moscow, and official military support has so far not been forthcoming. Even the Xi-Putin summit was conducted under the banner of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, a China-led body that, perhaps, is now more confident about infringing on what Russia would have previously deemed its own ‘turf’. In this regard, China is using the war, and Russia’s plummeting prestige and friends, to increase its own – and if that means that Russia will ultimately suffer by comparison, then that is of no consequence to China. While Beijing may prefer a ‘united front’ against the West, the invasion of Ukraine has blown Russia’s equanimity out of the water, and it is for China to work the situation to its best advantage. Just as the Chinese Communist Party exists solely to perpetuate the Chinese Communist Party, so too is China’s every action calculated only to preserve or further China’s interests.
Putin’s three key watchwords in Ukraine have been devastation, disruption, and distraction. Devastate the territory in an attempt to force surrender, disrupt communications/economies/supply chains, and distract the world from what the Kremlin is doing elsewhere. These latter two are also deeply embedded within Beijing’s playbook. Chinese cyber-manipulation has been long-standing and highly dangerous, and the current focus on Russian activities in this area, cannot be allowed to pass under the radar. In a September speech, the head of GCHQ, Sir Jeremy Fleming, re-confirmed that Chinese capabilities in technology, information manipulation and cyber-warfare are all at the highest level of the threat portfolio, all of which offer myriad ways to disrupt the West without actively showing your hand, or even admitting that you are playing at all.
In terms of distraction, meanwhile, the invasion of Ukraine has handed China (in true Maoist fashion) the ability to kill two sparrows with one slingshot: not only a ready-made distraction on its own terms, enabling China to be confident about conducting other activities with less scrutiny than they otherwise might have, but a distraction that can itself be actively turned to China’s advantage. With Russia’s direct allies shrinking to a pool of such luminaries as Iran and North Korea and increasing sanctions either already levied or likely against key Russian political and business interests worldwide, there is a gap in the geopolitical market that China is more than ready to fill. Not for nothing is the third plank of Sir Jeremy’s warning that China has the intent to create ‘client economies’ (across Africa, Central and East Asia) that will be in financial and political thrall to Beijing and, by extension, to swing the long-term pendulum of influence and power firmly in an eastern direction.
Two examples currently demonstrate how the battle lines between China and the West are being drawn. The first is a ‘technological cold war’ largely led by the USA, which is making efforts to both halt the flow of chips and semiconductors to China and minimise Chinese domestic capabilities to produce these. Working on the assumption that there is so little between Chinese business and political (read: military) interests as to make no difference, this is an attempt to hamstring Beijing both economically and militarily, with not only restrictions on product and knowledge transfers between the US and China, but restrictions and sanctions applied directly to Chinese companies, in a macrocosmic version of the ongoing Huawei scandal – not for fear of what said companies might do, but of what they already are.
America clearly feels that it has little other recourse, given China’s increasing self-sufficiency drive in chips and semiconductors to position itself as the world’s pre-eminent tech power and its habitual practice of infiltration and corporate espionage, but this will inevitably push China to react to apparent US imperial aggression. While Russia responds with bellicosity and threats of nuclear warfare, China responds with quiet measures aimed at disrupting and distracting supply chains, global economies, and political certainties – which, in their own way, amount to ticking that third box and providing a very Beijing form of devastation.
The second issue is Taiwan. A scenario where a superpower invades a sovereign neighbour which it erroneously believes needs to be liberated or re-integrated, could easily be imagined in East Asia just as much as Eastern Europe. That China has thought about this, and desires it, is undoubtable. But the strength of the international response to the invasion of Ukraine has probably stayed their hand, at least for the short term. While China would arguably be likely to achieve a swift territorial victory (albeit that the Kremlin assumed the same…), the wave of economic sanctions and political opprobrium that would follow, would serve no purpose for Beijing. It wants to rule the world through economic and influential means, and voluntarily cutting yourself off in the same manner as Russia would work against this. Besides, so long as Taiwan remains the great Sword of Damocles in the South China Sea, all the better for China to work on matters elsewhere, be that moving direct investment and opportunities away from Hong Kong to mainland cities or continuing to strengthen ties with the assorted resource- and territory-rich island nations. Disruption and distraction are being put to good use, and China does not even need a ground war of its own to see this.
Ultimately, these are variations on the use of unconstrained power. Putin uses his to enforce decisions that were overreaching to begin with and have since been proven to be exceedingly poor on all counts, following a single-minded strategy that arguably is rooted only in a past that never existed the way he wants to believe it did. While Russian disinformation and cyber-warfare remains pertinent, the invasion, its justification and consequences, will be a permanent black mark on Putin personally. Xi, on the other hand, is focused on the future in all its possibilities; playing both sides through trade deals and debt diplomacy, utilising cyber and industrial espionage to increase China’s self-sufficiency and capability, and wielding weapons that he knows will likely never be needed. Fighting a war this way might seem fanciful, until you remember that the Sword of Damocles did not, in fact, exist.
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