Problem of Russia and Ukraine or anywhere inextricably linked to China

Vladimir Putin would not be poised to crush Ukraine without the tacit support of President Xi Jinping. He received it when he was one of a handful of heads of state who graced the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics with their presence.

The statement that followed their meeting pledged mutual protection and stressed their common interests (Taiwan and Ukraine). But it fell short of a blanket approval for a Russian invasion.

China has too much to lose if Russia invades Ukraine and destabilises Europe and the US. It has spent many billions on its Belt/Road initiative linking Chinese factories to European markets. It wants those pesky Europeans to be able to buy Chinese goods. Beijing also holds over a trillion dollars in American debt. Full-throated support for a Russian invasion of Ukraine would hit the value of the dollar and devalue that debt.

The Chinese are an autocracy. They don’t like democracies. They see them as a threat to their interests, values and the all-embracing Chinese Communist Party. But at the same time their growing stake in the success of the economies of the democratic West dictates caution and a long-term approach.

China is a challenge to the West. It is not an immediate threat.

Russia is an immediate threat. Its historic paranoia; traditional ties with Ukraine; loss of its super power status; dismal economic performance; sense of inferiority; government-stoked nationalism; autocratic political traditions; and anger and humiliation over its loss of influence in the world combine with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and the world’s second largest military force (China is first) to push Putin towards military solutions.

Moscow’s power is now limited to guns and gas taps. Putin is prepared to use these only weapons in his arsenal to reverse the humiliation of the Cold War defeat and pursue what he believes is Russia’s legitimate super power destiny.

America’s Asian Pivot; its Afghan debacle, Middle East problems; lack of support for NATO and Europe in general has left the military door open to the Russian President. He is charging through.

The sweeping Asian Pivot initiated by the Obama Administration and reaffirmed by Trump and Biden was a mistake. The world’ second largest economy and 1.4 billion Chinese cannot be ignored. It is a looming shadow over half a millennium of Western dominance.  But, as Washington is discovering, the cost of a pivot away from Europe is unacceptably high.

One of the major reasons for Cold War success was America’s exploitation of the Sino-Soviet split. China and Russia are not natural allies. Both nations crave power. They are also at the centre of the geostrategic Eurasian land mass which British geostrategist Halford John Mackinder dubbed the world’s heartland. They have a string of territorial disputes in Siberia and the Russians have still remember two centuries under the yoke of Asian’s Golden Horde.

One of the basic stratagems of British foreign policy has been to prevent the rise of a single dominant nation which could threaten the stability of Europe and drag Britain into war.  When it was in the EU it regularly switched its support between the two continental power houses France and Germany. America needs to employ the same tactic in Eurasia.

That does not necessarily mean cosying up to Beijing. But neither does it mean continually bombarding it with threats. China will remain a challenge to be dealt with but Russia is the immediate threat and it is made worse by its growing relationship with the Chinese and Washington’s inability to deal with it.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain” that has sold out in the US after six weeks but is still available in the UK.

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8 Comments

  • One reason that sanctions against Russia will not be as effective as some might hope is that China will happily take any Russian oil and gas that the West doesn’t buy. They are already building new pipelines.

  • Correct Nick, but they won’t be operational until 2025 and will carry only a small percentage of what currently heads towards Europe.

  • China is probably the only country capable of altering Putin’s decision regarding Ukraine. It is not yet ready to assert itself globally militarily and would probably prefer Russia to postpone its invasion. Whether it feels strongly enough to influence his decision is uncertain.

  • John Marriott 19th Feb '22 - 12:03pm

    @Tom Arms
    I wrote as much on the Dodds thread. You are right about the Sino/Soviet split working in favour of the west during Cold War (1?). However, that split is closing and, as Mr Baird has written, how convenient for Putin in finding a new eager market for his gas and oil.

    As I wrote in the aforementioned thread, what happens if Russia attacks Ukraine and China attacks Taiwan at the same time? Which way will the US turn? What about Europe? It may be far fetched; but did we really expect the Soviet Union to collapse so suddenly?The U.K. is very much a sideshow, albeit one at least who pays its fully agreed whack into NATO. He wasn’t right about much; but #45 got it right about some NATO members not pulling their weight financially, didn’t he?

    With our form of democracy under assault like never before (the need to keep to 250 words prevents me from going into detail), we in the West are not in a very safe place, are we? One thing is for sure. We can’t just leave it to the USA to protect us now that we have three nuclear superpowers vying for control, with a few mini me’s like ourselves, France and a few others trying to mix it with the big boys. As the song goes; “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”. Now THAT’S ‘realpolitik’ for me!

  • Steve Trevethan 20th Feb '22 - 8:05am

    Might part of the problem be that the U. S. A also craves power and a unipolar World?

  • The other part of the problem is we ask USA how high they want us to jump, except when it comes to record breaking stupidity like Brexit

  • ”[Russia’s] loss of its super power status…etc.”

    Huh? Leaving aside the nuclear deterrent (which surely no-one should!), all military analysts I have read seem agreed that Russia has an absolute non-nuclear superiority within a few hundred miles of its western border. No further because Russian forces are configured and equipped for defence, not offense.

    Moreover, Russia has developed and deployed hypersonic missiles that approach their target at 8 to 9 times the speed of sound and can be launched from land, planes, ships or submarines. There is no known defence against them. Bye-bye aircraft carriers.

    The US has tried and failed to develop hypersonic technology.

    As for the Russian economy, it’s performance is not nearly so dismal as usually reported with exports strongly up last year. Oil and gas are still key to the economy and impart a strongly cyclical element but all exports, including the fast-growing non-oil and gas sector, have soared in the last two decades.

    https://www.statista.com/chart/26879/russian-merchandise-trade-balance/

  • Helen Dudden 20th Feb '22 - 7:26pm

    It wasn’t that long ago I noticed made in China stamped on so many items. These are large stores and many different items.
    When I was a child we manufactured quite a bit of things like clothing. M and S advertised the pride in the fact.

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