Yes Ukraine and Russia - but the Varsity Game is China
among the ruins of the old order
The longer this war goes on, the more dangerous it is not just for Putin's hold on power, but for the hope the conflict can be contained. For those keeping an eye on the big picture, the question is how this effects China.
Located on the other side of the Eurasian landmass, China is looking west to see not just how they can work this to their advantage, but also how they can maneuver themselves so that Russia's adventures do not derail China's plans and priorities.
She is on cusp of greatness and she knows it. She has been given a small taste of primacy and she wants all of it. The Russo-Ukrainian War will either be a catalyst for an accelerated grasp on global power for China, or an unexpected headwind for what she sees an an inevitability.
Irrespective of what is happening on the ground, the great power dislocation the invasion of Ukraine by Russia this winter is bringing out all the China watchers to see who can read the tea leaves best.
Two articles - both from different perspectives - this weekend had me pondering all sorts of different options. About all I came away with in the end was that almost no one really knows how this will impact China and the US/Europe-China competition for the global stage. We all have a variety of scenarios we can come up with, but really it is still early in this conflict to see firmly where things are headed. If anything, there are more possible futures now than there were in the already chaotic international world of January 2022.
One thing in common is that most people are trying to construe some outcome other than an expanded global conflict that brings in all the major powers. We are not out of those woods yet. Remember, WWI began with a conflict between a 2nd-rate power, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and a 3rd-rate power, Serbia.
Russia is a 2nd-rate power. Ukraine is a 3rd-rate power. We've seen this game before. The only thing giving everyone some time here is neither party has entangling alliances so the diplomats and luck have a chance to slow things down to a human scale.
For those too focused on military issues, it is very easy to come up with a whole host of reasons this war will spin out of the control of any well meaning people, but is that the most likely outcome?
No one knows. I lean towards the conflict being contained with some kind of diplomatic outcome involving border and status changes, but I know that I lean that way simply because the other option, expansion of the conflict, it something I simply do not want to imagine.
I'm not alone.
Let's look over at something that is a little Eeyore-ish from China - but in the end sees an opening for something positive. I had to read it a couple of times and the best I can come away with is the author is suffering from something I am struggling with as well - trying to find some way to believe this can be contained because to think the opposite is to invite all sorts of horrors in to your mind.
I see nothing good for the USA and the West coming out of this getting out of control, and the first author sees nothing good for China either.
The Carter Center's (yes, that Carter) U.S.-China Perception Monitor has a translation of an article written on March, 5th 2022, Possible Outcomes of the Russo-Ukrainian War and China’s Choice, by Hu Wei, vice-chairman of the Public Policy Research Center of the Counselor’s Office of the State Council, the chairman of Shanghai Public Policy Research Association, the chairman of the Academic Committee of the Chahar Institute.
Some of the below I'm not aligned with - though I do enjoy the "West will win" Sino-pessimism - but it is worth a read. An interesting perspective.
... Even if the Russian army were to occupy Ukraine’s capital Kyiv and set up a puppet government at a high cost, this would not mean final victory. At this point, Putin’s best option is to end the war decently through peace talks, which requires Ukraine to make substantial concessions. However, what is not attainable on the battlefield is also difficult to obtain at the negotiating table. In any case, this military action constitutes an irreversible mistake.
As people’s livelihoods are severely affected and as anti-war and anti-Putin forces gather, the possibility of a political mutiny in Russia cannot be ruled out. With Russia’s economy on the verge of collapse, it would be difficult for Putin to prop up the perilous situation even without the loss of the Russo-Ukrainian war. If Putin were to be ousted from power due to civil strife, coup d’état, or another reason, Russia would be even less likely to confront the West. It would surely succumb to the West, or even be further dismembered, and Russia’s status as a great power would come to an end.
At present, public opinion believes that the Ukrainian war signifies a complete collapse of U.S. hegemony, but the war would in fact bring France and Germany, both of which wanted to break away from the U.S., back into the NATO defense framework, destroying Europe’s dream to achieve independent diplomacy and self-defense. ... With Nord Stream 2 put on hold indefinitely, Europe’s reliance on US natural gas will inevitably increase. The US and Europe would form a closer community of shared future, and American leadership in the Western world will rebound.
The unity of the Western world under the Iron Curtain will have a siphon effect on other countries: the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy will be consolidated, and other countries like Japan will stick even closer to the U.S., which will form an unprecedentedly broad democratic united front.
3. The power of the West will grow significantly, NATO will continue to expand, and U.S. influence in the non-Western world will increase. After the Russo-Ukrainian War, no matter how Russia achieves its political transformation, it will greatly weaken the anti-Western forces in the world. The scene after the 1991 Soviet and Eastern upheavals may repeat itself: theories on “the end of ideology” may reappear, the resurgence of the third wave of democratization will lose momentum, and more third world countries will embrace the West. The West will possess more “hegemony” both in terms of military power and in terms of values and institutions, its hard power and soft power will reach new heights.
4. China will become more isolated under the established framework. For the above reasons, if China does not take proactive measures to respond, it will encounter further containment from the US and the West. Once Putin falls, the U.S. will no longer face two strategic competitors but only have to lock China in strategic containment. Europe will further cut itself off from China; Japan will become the anti-China vanguard; South Korea will further fall to the U.S.; Taiwan will join the anti-China chorus, and the rest of the world will have to choose sides under herd mentality. China will not only be militarily encircled by the U.S., NATO, the QUAD, and AUKUS, but also be challenged by Western values and systems.
...the primary goal of the U.S. is to contain China from becoming the dominant power in the Indo-Pacific region. Under such circumstances, China’s top priority is to make appropriate strategic adjustments accordingly, to change the hostile American attitudes towards China, and to save itself from isolation. The bottom line is to prevent the U.S. and the West from imposing joint sanctions on China.
4. China should prevent the outbreak of world wars and nuclear wars and make irreplaceable contributions to world peace. As Putin has explicitly requested Russia’s strategic deterrent forces to enter a state of special combat readiness, the Russo-Ukrainian war may spiral out of control. A just cause attracts much support; an unjust one finds little. If Russia instigates a world war or even a nuclear war, it will surely risk the world’s turmoil. To demonstrate China’s role as a responsible major power, China not only cannot stand with Putin, but also should take concrete actions to prevent Putin’s possible adventures. China is the only country in the world with this capability, and it must give full play to this unique advantage. Putin’s departure from China’s support will most likely end the war, or at least not dare to escalate the war. As a result, China will surely win widespread international praise for maintaining world peace, which may help China prevent isolation but also find an opportunity to improve its relations with the United States and the West.
Next let's go over to Steven Lee Myers and Chris Buckley at NYT who see something I am more aligned with - that the smart money has the war in Ukraine will be significantly to China's advantage;
In the end, China’s leadership has calculated that it must try to rise above what it considers a struggle between two tired powers and be seen as a pillar of stability in an increasingly turbulent world.
“This means that as long as we don’t commit terminal strategic blunders, China’s modernization will not be cut short, and on the contrary, China will have even greater ability and will to play a more important role in building a new international order,” Zheng Yongnian, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, who has advised senior officials, wrote after the invasion in a widely circulated article.
“All the difficulties and all the balancing and all the embarrassment that we’re talking about, those are short-term,” said Yun Sun, the director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, who has studied Beijing’s actions in the lead-up to the war. “In the long run, Russia is going to be the pariah of the international community, and Russia will have no one to turn to but China.”
China’s path ahead is by no means certain. Drawing too close to Russia would risk entrenching animosity toward China in Europe and beyond, a possibility that worries Mr. Xi’s government, for all its bluster.
And if Germany, France and other allies build up their defenses as promised, the United States could ultimately be freed up to shift more of its military resources toward countering China. Mr. Biden has vowed to rally an “alliance of democracies,” while American military leaders say they will not let Ukraine distract them from China.
“We also feel very, very anxious because the Russia-Ukraine war will force Europe to lean to the U.S., and then China will be dragged deeper into a dilemma,” said Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University. The United States’ allies in the Pacific, including Japan and Australia, “will also adopt a stronger military posture. So it all seems unfriendly to China.”
Aleksandr G. Dugin, has written extensively on what he sees as a growing clash between the liberal, decadent West and a conservative Eurasian continent with Russia as its soul.
“The West should not have become a hegemon in defining universal standards because the West or Europe, or the West in general is only part of humanity,” Mr. Dugin told a Chinese state television interviewer in 2019. “And the other part, a majority of human beings, live outside the West, in Asia.”
“The old order is swiftly disintegrating, and strongman politics is again ascendant among the world’s great powers,” wrote Mr. Zheng of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen. “Countries are brimming with ambition, like tigers eyeing their prey, keen to find every opportunity among the ruins of the old order.”
That quote from Zheng is sticking with me. The "old order" really was a historical exception to the normal course of human events and experience. The new order he sees as ascendant is, really, a regression towards the mean.
Free nations need to prepare for that.