What is Beijing’s geopolitical interpretation of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict?
What Russian President Vladimir Putin described as a “special military operation” in Ukraine has devolved into a full-scale war with no end in sight.
Russian forces continue to advance in Ukraine’s east, testing the endurance of the resistance, which continues to demand military support from the West.
The United States and its allies have been willing to oblige, sending billions of dollars in advanced defence capability and support military equipment to Ukraine.
Most recently, the US Department of Defense announced a new US$270 million (AU$391 million) military support package for Ukraine — up to US$175 million (AU$253 million) via the 16th presidential drawdown since August 2021 and US$95 million (AU$137 million) via the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI) fund.
Equipment funded by the drawdown include:
- four additional High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and additional ammunition for HIMARS;
- four command post vehicles;
- 36,000 rounds of 105mm ammunition; and
- additional anti-armour weapons, spare parts, and other equipment.
This latest package took the value of the United States’ total military contribution to Ukraine to US$8.2 billion (AU$11.8 billion).
The narrative underlying the West’s zealous support for Ukraine has been defence of the global rules-based order, threatened by authoritarian regimes like Putin’s Russia.
But overshadowing the Russian threat is President Xi Jinping’s China, which has accused the US and its NATO allies of intervening in a regional dispute while itself propping up Moscow and defending its claims.
According to Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, the West needs to pay more attention to Beijing’s counter-narrative.
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Drawing from insights from a fellow Chinese academic (who requested anonymity), Leonard unpacks the “fundamental” differences in the CCP regime’s interpretation of the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
“It’s not just that they are more likely to blame the Ukraine war on NATO enlargement than on the Kremlin; it is that many of their core strategic assumptions are also the opposite of our own,” Leonard writes.
“While Europeans and Americans see the conflict as a turning point in global history, the Chinese see it as just another war of intervention — one that is even less significant than those launched in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 75 years.”
“To them, the only material difference this time is that it is not the West that is intervening.”
Leonard observes that despite some suggestions Washington’s support for Ukraine signals a return to US-led global interventionism following the non-interventionist Trump administration, the Chinese view it as “further confirmation of the incoming post-American world”.
He continues: “To them, the end of American hegemony created a vacuum that is now being filled by Russia.
“Whereas Westerners see an attack on the rules-based order, my Chinese friends see the emergence of a more pluralistic world — one in which the end of American hegemony permits different regional and sub-regional projects.
“They argue that the rules-based order has always lacked legitimacy; Western powers created the rules, and they have never shown much compunction about changing them when it suits their purposes (as in Kosovo and Iraq).”
Leonard points to the Western experience in the Middle East, adding Chinese observers view the Russia-Ukraine crisis as a “revision of post-colonial borders following the end of Western hegemony”.
Further, the conflict in Ukraine is seen as a proxy war between great powers, resembling conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.
“Who are the main beneficiaries? My Chinese friend argues that it certainly is not Russia, Ukraine or Europe,” Leonard writes.
“Rather, the United States and China ultimately stand to gain the most, and both have been approaching the conflict as a proxy war in their larger rivalry.”
According to Chinese observers, Leonardo writes, Washington has benefited by “locking Europeans, Japanese and Koreans into a new alignment of US-dictated priorities”, while also “isolating Russia and forcing China to clarify where it stands on issues such as territorial integrity”.
Meanwhile, he adds, China has benefited by “cementing Russia’s subordinate position” and “prodding more countries in the global south to embrace non-alignment”.
Leonard continues: “While European leaders cast themselves as 21st-century Churchills, the Chinese see them as mere pawns in a bigger geopolitical game.
“The consensus among all the scholars I spoke with is that the war in Ukraine is a rather unimportant diversion when compared to the short-term disruptions of COVID-19 or the longer-term struggle for supremacy between the US and China.”
Given this Chinese counter-narrative, Leonard calls on the West to “think harder” about the rest of the international community’s perception of the global order.
“Yes, it is tempting to dismiss Chinese arguments as mere talking points, designed to stay on the good side of a hostile, undemocratic regime (public discussions about Ukraine are heavily controlled in China). But perhaps some humility is in order,” he writes.
“The fact that Chinese observers have such a radically different perspective may help to explain why the West has not garnered near-universal support for its sanctions against Russia.”
Leonard concludes: “At a time when the politics of ‘taking back control’ is ascendant, we should not be so surprised to see other governments discounting the importance of Ukraine.
“Where we see a heroic self-defence of the rules-based order, others see the last gasp of Western hegemony in a world that is quickly becoming multipolar.”