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China warm to Russia but may work with US as part of global ambition: Vijay Gokhale

Beijing was not looking at the current conflict between Russia and the US in military terms, rather it was assessing Western capacity to wage a financial war and how to firewall its own economy if that same weapon was wielded against it, Gokhale said.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Chennai |
Updated: March 8, 2022 7:15:12 am
China warm to Russia but may work with US as part of global ambition: Vijay GokhaleFormer Indian Ambassador to China Vijay Gokhale. (File photo)

The conflict in Ukraine could see China and the United States arrive at a new modus vivendi aimed at anchoring the world economy even as their tension-filled relationship continues and Beijing steams ahead toward its objective of establishing a solid presence in the Indian Ocean, former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to China Vijay Gokhale said in an interview to The Indian Express.

Beijing was not looking at the current conflict between Russia and the US in military terms, rather it was assessing Western capacity to wage a financial war and how to firewall its own economy if that same weapon was wielded against it, Gokhale said. At the same time, it was also likely to be looking for more acceptability and partnership in a new world order that might begin to emerge over the next few months, he added.

“The American and Western sanctions of Russia, the speed with which they were imposed, the spread of the sanctions, and also whether these are going to be actually applied, and what its impact is going to be on Russia, will serve as an “aha” moment,” he said, and were likely “the central focus of all study in China today”.

China would also be concerned about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political future, Gokhale said. “I would think its concern, in the short to medium term, is the stability of the Russian government, because Putin’s continuance in office is critical to China’s security. If, for whatever reason, there is a change in government, any government that comes to power in Russia will be less accommodating…China will be less secure than it feels today” he said.

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With this on its mind, said Gokhale, Beijing may craft a policy that would allow it to play a role in the resolution of the crisis to enhance its own acceptability to the world.

“The US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Wang Yi, the foreign minister of China have spoken twice in the last two weeks, which does suggest to me that it is not beyond the realms of possibility that both of them are discussing ways and means to bring the crisis to some sort of resolution, although each has, of course, taken a position,” he said.

At a press conference in Beijing on Monday, Wang batted down a question about the health of the Russia-China relationship. “China and Russia are determined that our relationship is free from interference and discord,” he said.

Gokhale, who spoke to The Indian Express a day earlier, pointed to Wang’s speech on the 50th anniversary of the historic US-China Shanghai Communique that marked the normalisation of ties between the two nations in 1972, as signalling Beijing’s acknowledgement that despite their tension-filled rivalry, it still needed to remain engaged with the United States.

“That (speech) was four days after the Russian invasion began. The challenge for China is how to hold firm on the partnership with Russia, without there being collateral damage on the Sino-US relationship. We do know this is a relationship of rivals filled with tensions already. China, I think, nonetheless recognizes that in the world of today, the US is still the greatest power. And, therefore, I think the objective of that speech was to flag areas of commonality that would allow the United States and China to maintain their relationship, and to avoid it becoming collateral damage,” he said.

He also made the observation that “the one sentence that actually leapt out of the text” of Wang’s speech was the Chinese foreign minister acknowledging that China was willing to consider coordinating with President Biden’s Build Back Better initiative to provide quality public goods to the global community.

“Now this is perhaps the first time at a leadership level that China is signalling its willingness to dovetail the Belt and Road Initiative, with specific infrastructure initiatives of the United States. It has already done so with the European infrastructure initiative,” he said.

Declining to be drawn into how the Ukraine conflict might impact the troubled India-China relationship, especially the situation at the Line of Actual Control, Gokhale also said it was too early to predict the impact of the conflict in Europe on the Indo-Pacific and the Quad.

The 7.1 per cent increase over last year in China’s 2022 defence budget was not a response to the current conflict in Ukraine but consistent with its larger objectives, Gokhale said.

“Since 2013, if you look at the white papers published every two years, (China) has clearly declared it has overseas interests…China has never defined what these interests are (but) the fact they have their first military base in Djibouti, and…there are reports of possibly another Chinese logistics facility or base in Cambodia… we must presume there is a a larger objective to establish by the end of this decade a permanent or semi-permanent presence in the Indian Ocean,” said Gokhale.

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