Chinese President Xi Jinping was among the first world leaders that Russian President Vladimir Putin called last week.
Whenever Russia and the West fight, China’s geopolitical leverage goes up. This trend, which stood the test of time for more than a century, is now playing out again in the deepening crisis in Ukraine. As Washington and Moscow squabble over Ukraine, both are reaching out to Beijing. China, unsurprisingly, is playing hard to get.
Chinese President Xi Jinping was among the first world leaders that Russian President Vladimir Putin called last week. When Moscow put out the word that China was in sync with Russia’s position on Ukraine, Beijing hinted, “not exactly”. Sensing the gap in the positions of Beijing and Moscow, US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel reached out to Xi this week. The Chinese president, of course, is neither endorsing Russia nor the West. He is calling for calm, restraint and a diplomatic solution.
Through the Great Game, a contest between Britain and Russia on the fringes of the subcontinent in the 19th and early 20th centuries, London often cut slack for Beijing, ignoring the advice of Calcutta and New Delhi. Although China was weak at the turn of the 20th century, London deferred to Beijing’s sensitivities in inner Asia, for example in Tibet. After a brief period of hostility with China in the early years of the Cold War, America quickly aligned with the Chinese communists against the Russian communists and took full advantage of the Sino-Soviet rift. This Western tilt towards China in the 1970s was one of the defining moments of the Cold War and set the stage for China’s integration with the global economy.
Over the last decade, China’s partnership with Russia has deepened and the two countries have cooperated in regional and global issues against the US. A widespread assumption was that Beijing’s current distrust of the West might move it closer to Russia on Ukraine. On the other hand, Beijing’s opposition to intervention in the internal affairs of other countries and its growing economic stakes in Ukraine underlined China’s discomfort with Russia’s attempt to detach Crimea from Kiev. Yet, Beijing has been unwilling to criticise Moscow in public.
China may have reasons to be relieved if a Cold War-like situation re-emerges in Europe and American attention is drawn away from Asia. When George W. Bush was elected US president in 2000, his initial focus was on limiting Chinese power in Asia. As America plunged into two prolonged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after the events of 9/11, China had the time and space to build its comprehensive national power.
If China is carefully nurturing its leverage with both America and Russia, Japan continued…