Three scenarios for the next phase of the Ukraine war and what each means for China
Beijing is positioning itself to increase its global power at the end of the Ukraine war. But the question right now for China’s president Xi Jinping is which scenario is most likely to happen, what role China can play, and what each outcome will mean for China.
As the war continues, the strength of the Sino-Russian alignment will be tested as never before. Whether Russia wins or loses, or whether the war remains unresolved resulting in a frozen conflict, all pose a dilemma for China, which has been deliberately raising its profile as a peacemaker during the conflict. There are various scenarios that are the most likely ways the war could proceed, or end.
Scenario 1 – Ukraine wins
Russia’s loss in Ukraine would send a powerful signal confirming both the west’s resilience and weakness of authoritarian aggressors. Such a development would explicitly undermine one of the key narratives shared within the Chinese Communist party, at least since the 2008/09 global economic crisis, that the west is in decline and its rivals, China in particular, are in the ascendancy.
The victory of Ukraine supported by the west would put Xi in a particularly uncomfortable position, challenging his favourite phrases of the “east wind prevailing” and “changes unseen in a century”.
However, wars tend to end messily. Were Russia to be defeated, much would hinge on the nature of the defeat. If defeat implied the departure of not only Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, but also his inner circle, a new Russian government might deprioritise relations with China and reprioritise good relations with the west, which would be a blow to Beijing.
Scenario 2 – Russia wins
Russia’s victory amid crumbling support for Ukraine in the west would empower China. Beijing might be tempted to move to much more risky behaviour, especially in its neighbourhood.
Under such circumstances, Taiwan would probably face massive pressure from Chinese armed forces, forcing the US, which has pledged to support Taiwan, to decide whether to respond militarily. Moreover, China’s position towards Europe would be much stronger, allowing Beijing to successfully discourage European states from siding with the US both globally and in east Asia.
It could also be argued that a weakened or defeated Russia could be an opportunity for China. For example, it could take a more active role in central Asia, or force Moscow to accept further dependence on China in economic and financial sectors.
Scenario 3 – stalemate
It is entirely plausible that the war will continue in a state of stalemate for some time. In some ways, this might suit China as it can continue to benefit from cheap Russian commodities.
Russian dependence on China which has been growing since 2014, will be even greater – making Russia permanently reliant on China for raw materials. This was always the stuff of nightmares for Russian policymakers in the 1990s. But under this scenario it could turn into a reality.
The frozen conflict scenario allows Beijing to continue its policy of alleged neutrality while promoting its peacemaker role, without having to make any difficult choices.
China’s current position
China has already attempted to position itself as a peacemaker. Its “peace plan” announced in February was less a plan and more a reaffirmation of existing positions. However point 12 spoke of “offering assistance” with post-conflict reconstruction, a reminder that in 2019 China was Ukraine’s top trade partner.
Despite China’s robust partnership with Russia, it is attempting to position itself as peacemaker in the event that Russia loses, in order to be in prime position to reap the rewards of economic reconstruction of Ukraine. Xi’s recent call with Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky would seem to point to this.
While the peace plan was lacking in detail, it symbolises China’s increasingly active stance in global affairs. Note its high levels of contributions among the permanent UN security council members to UN peacekeeping, in terms of both troops and financial contributions,and its involvement in Africa as well as in the Middle East. This all forms part of Xi’s global security initiative which seeks to broaden the scope of China’s diplomacy, upholding multilateralism and the role of the UN, while pushing back against western ideas of a liberal international order, based around Washington.
The challenges for Xi consist of how to square China’s support for Russia’s reading of the global order with Chinese principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty. Strategically, China’s tangible support for Russia may bring the US and European nations closer together and strengthen transatlantic unity, a result Beijing has been trying to avoid for the past two decades.
In the shorter term, Beijing is exploiting a sanctioned Russia by benefiting from cheap Russian commodities. Chinese companies have seized emerging opportunities in the Russian market. But the continuation of the war means the disruption of global supply chains, including deliveries of grain and fertiliser on which China is heavily reliant.
The impact of war on China’s policies in east Asia remains ambiguous. Russia’s invasion has diverted US resources away from the Asia-Pacific. But Beijing’s threat to Taiwan has become more acute in the light of developments in Ukraine.
The US responded by mobilising its Asian alliance network and accelerating the importance of security cooperation groups of nations such as the Quad (Australia, India, Japan and the US) or Aukus (Australia, the UK and US). The Taiwanese government has also intensified its efforts to reinforce the island’s defences.
China sees Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a proxy war - a war against the west (and specifically against US power) - just as Russia does. A victory or a defeat for Russia in the war is not simply an issue for Russia, but rather could represent either the victory or the defeat of the liberal international order.
The bottom line for Beijing is, however, to avoid Russia’s complete failure in Ukraine. The role of peacemaker is one way to prevent such a development. Should this not succeed, Beijing may decide to step up its support for Moscow, ranging from financial assistance to arms deliveries.
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