From the first week of February, the world has watched with bated breath as global geopolitical shifts have rapidly evolved, culminating with the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 after all efforts at negotiation made little headway. While the writing on the wall was fairly evident in how President Vladimir Putin would respond to Russia’s concerns over Ukraine’s impending NATO membership, particularly as the 2008 Georgia and the 2014 Crimea incidents reveal, the actual moves on the ground still left the international community in a state of shock.
For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the European security architecture is fully under threat as Putin has even warned about the use of nuclear weapons in dealing with any kind of a retaliatory response from the international community in Ukraine. Since Ukraine is still a non-NATO power, this leaves little political option other than the use of sanctions against Russia, which has already begun. The Ukraine crisis escalation takes place in the aftermath of the China-Russia Summit held earlier this month at the opening of the Winter Olympics 2022. Understanding the consequences of strengthening China-Russia ties and its implications for the reshaping of the global order is necessary, for it critically impacts not just Europe but also the immediate neighbourhood.
The China-Russia summit identified the core areas on which Beijing and Moscow would stand in support of each other against the US and its western allies, a harbinger of the approach during the Cold War. Even as the US-China rivalry was being touted as a new Cold War, the emphasis on the ideological divide was seen as less significant given that the level of economic integration between Washington and Beijing was extremely high. When the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the imagery of the ‘end of history’ propounded by Francis Fukuyama spoke of the victory of the liberal order, which was seen as the prevailing global order, leading to greater democratisation politically and an economically open system. Increasingly, the authoritarian states, represented by countries like China and Russia, are looking at the imminent decline of the US as the natural end of the liberal order while the rise of the illiberal order is once again evident. Moreover, the economic shift eastwards is clearly visible. China’s rise makes it the second largest economy globally and is today capable of challenging the US presence both in the regional and global order. The visible dichotomy is revealing how the authoritarian countries have used economic leverage while the space for political change remains negligible. As this rivalry widens, the impact on the normative approaches to the global order are constantly being challenged.
The China-Russia summit had two key elements that make it distinct—first, it identified that the relations between the two had ‘no limits’, indicating the trajectory of support given to one another. Second, it highlights that there are ‘no forbidden areas’ of cooperation. A close reading of the Joint Statement of the China-Russia summit provides clear evidence of the support that Beijing extended vis-a-vis the Russian opposition to the expansion of NATO. Even though there is no clear reference directly on the Ukraine issue, the mention of NATO expansion is indicative of the position China has taken on the Ukraine crisis. The official statements of China blaming the US for furthering a Cold War mentality and its refusal to identify the Russian action as an invasion clearly indicate where Beijing stands on the matter.
The larger implication of the Chinese position has an impact on how regional shifts may evolve, particularly on the Taiwan issue. The Joint Statement between the two countries also addresses the Taiwan question, where Russia is clear in supporting the One China policy. It emphasises that Russia views the island as “an inalienable part of China and opposes any forms of independence of Taiwan”. This has raised larger concerns over Taiwan’s security, particularly as the Joint Statement is very critical of the AUKUS agreement in the Indo-Pacific region. China’s position on Taiwan has always been in violation of the island’s sovereignty. It has never acknowledged the existence of Taiwan. Significant shifts have been visible in recent times with regards to how China has been opposed to the growing US-Taiwan relations, even as Beijing’s ties with Washington have consistently deteriorated. This has brought to focus the implications of the bilateral relations on issues of regional security in East Asia.
If the war escalates in Europe, which is a likely possibility, Taiwan will become a frontline state as China may stand in support of Russian actions against the West— which implicates the larger security interests in the Indo-Pacific as well. China’s increasing ruthlessness in dealing with political views that oppose the CCP’s approach is evident within the country, particularly with the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. Whatever special status concerning Hong Kong was agreed upon in 1997, it has now been revoked under increasing pressure from Beijing. This limits the scope for an exceptional status based on the historical realities under which Hong Kong was ceded to Britain. In January, China also enacted new border laws that implicate the regions of Arunachal Pradesh and its security relations with India. New Delhi finds itself on a foreign policy fault-line as the complex bilateral ties it shares with all three systemic powers comes into glaring focus. As geopolitical shifts become starker, Chinese assertions over areas it considers as its “rightful” space historically will have implications on the immediate region too.
Professor at School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi