China and the World, Talking Point

Blocked out

How the Ukraine crisis and China’s rise are splitting the world into blocs


G7 leaders at the Schloss Elmau in Germany had China in their sights during discussions over global security

G20 summits are typically pedestrian affairs, based around photo opportunities and bland closing statements. But this year’s gathering in Indonesia has the potential to be rather more explosive.

Few will envy the organisers of the G20 meeting in Bali in November, which Vladimir Putin still has plans to attend in person or via video link, according to reports in the Russian media. That is going to put Western leaders on the spot, as they will be reluctant to share the stage with him.

Much will depend on what happens next in the war in Ukraine, although it’s unlikely that G7 leaders will boycott the summit completely.

In a bid to foster compromise the Indonesians have invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, despite Ukraine not being a G20 country. And Indonesia’s leader Joko Widodo, who said he wants to be a “communication bridge” between Russia and Ukraine, has set foot in both countries in a recent peace mission.

The separate but back-to-back gatherings of the G7 and the BRICS nations in June have served as a reminder that some governments are not exactly enthusiastic about helping the world’s richest democracies in confronting Putin. And another summit in Madrid last week, during which China was designated by NATO members as a new challenge, has just added to the fractious mood.

What happened at the NATO meeting?

The media had been flagging for a few days that China was going to be named for the first time in NATO’s so-called ‘Strategic Concept’, the strategy outline in which it maps out its priorities in the years ahead.

Sure enough, China did feature when the blueprint was released last week, with references to the “systemic challenges” that it posed to NATO members, with its “coercive” policies, “malicious” cyber-operations and “confrontational” rhetoric.

Also a concern: a “deepening strategic partnership” between the Russians and the Chinese that runs counter to NATO’s “values and interests”.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, was careful to make the point that China wasn’t being classed as an “adversary”, although he gave a blunt assessment of how the military alliance was “clear-eyed” about the challenges that it presented.

“China is substantially building up its military forces, including nuclear weapons, bullying its neighbours, threatening Taiwan… monitoring and controlling its own citizens through advanced technology, and spreading Russian lies and disinformation,” he warned.

How did the Chinese react?

Despite expecting to be cited in the review, Chinese officials were furious, with China’s mission to the EU slamming the NATO outline as “Cold War thinking”.

“Who’s challenging global security and undermining world peace? Are there any wars or conflicts over the years where NATO is not involved?” it scoffed.

The fusillade came shortly after China’s foreign ministry had given a spiky response to a separate statement following a meeting of G7 leaders in Bavaria last month that unveiled a $600 billion ‘Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment’, a programme clearly designed to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The G7 – which features Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States, plus the European Union – styles itself as a group of like-minded democracies. The Biden administration has been encouraging its members to band together against China’s growing global influence (see WiC545) and the Chinese see NATO’s revised strategy as part of the same effort at containment, with Xinhua accusing the US government of “forcibly pushing” the security alliance into an anti-China stance.

It was also evidence of the same kind of mission creep from NATO that Beijing thinks has triggered conflict between Russia and Ukraine. And it was made even worse by the presence in Madrid of the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, all of whom had been invited to the NATO summit for the first time (none are geographically in the ‘North Atlantic’ from which the alliance gets the first two letters of its acronym).

NATO’s “recklessness” was spilling over into Asia, far beyond its remit in Europe, the Global Times argued, skewering the attendance of the Asia-Pacific government heads as “an extremely unwise choice… inevitably leading to consequences”.

“The sewage of the Cold War cannot be allowed to flow into the Pacific Ocean,” it warned colourfully.

Is the war in Ukraine changing the calculus in Europe’s ties to China?

Kishida Fumio, the Japanese prime minister, drew a direct line between the conflict in the Ukraine and why it is important for Asia-Pacific democracies to join NATO meetings, saying that he felt “a strong sense of crisis that Ukraine may be East Asia tomorrow”.

The shadow of the war is also doing damage to China’s standing with European governments, which have been frustrated by Beijing’s refusal to condemn the Russian advance.

If anything, Sino-Russian ties seem to have strengthened since February, when the two governments announced a friendship of “no limits” as Chinese leader Xi Jinping welcomed Vladimir Putin on a visit to the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Russian tanks crossed into Ukrainian territory a few days later, fuelling suspicions that Putin had held back on the invasion at Chinese request until its Olympics was over.

China has refused to criticise the Russian war effort in the months since then, and has spoken out against the economic and financial sanctions imposed on Moscow by Western governments.

There has been implicit support in the buying of Russian energy supplies as well, something Putin acknowledged at the BRICS conference last month.

This sense that the Chinese are choosing to align more closely with Moscow was evident again this week in comments from Andrey Denisov, the Russian ambassador to China, who praised Beijing for its “reasonable and balanced” approach. “Basically, our colleagues here in China say that they clearly know where the roots of the Ukraine crisis are,” he added in a further rebuke to NATO.

The stance is creating new strains for Sino-European ties, however, including a tense mood at a bilateral summit in April when the Europeans pushed hard for the Chinese to do more to bring an end to the Ukrainian conflict. China’s delegates refused to engage on the issue, wanting to talk about deepening economic ties with the EU instead.

“The European side made clear that this compartmentalisation is not feasible, not acceptable,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, chided the Chinese approach. “For us the war in Ukraine is a defining moment for whether we live in a world governed by rules or by force.”

For years Beijing has counted on the economic interests of European nations, particularly Germany’s, to soften the impact of their political disagreements. But there are signs that the strategy is starting to wear thin. China was identified as a “systemic rival” in the EU’s foreign policy review three years ago and there have been clashes since then over China’s policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, a row over Beijing’s trade boycott of Lithuania, and growing unease around rising levels of Chinese investment in Eastern Europe.

The war in Ukraine seems to be accelerating the rethink in European capitals, with Ursula von der Leyen, the EU president, even trying to turn the economic argument on its head to get the Chinese to influence Putin, with warnings that daily trade between the EU and China far exceeds that between China and Russia. All of this is more significant at a time when Washington is working on reversing the impact of the Trump era by bringing together a coalition of nations against the Chinese. Some of these efforts were tempered at last year’s G7 summit by European leaders including then German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who cautioned that China was “our partner in many aspects”. But 12 months later the indications are that sentiment is hardening, because of the backdrop of the fighting in Ukraine.

Is Beijing going to increase its outreach to other allies in response?

Warnings against the ‘Cold War mentality’ and ‘bloc-based’ thinking have been a staple in the Chinese press for weeks. In other examples, Xi has spoken out against building “a small yard with high fences” and “small circles built around hegemony” – presumably swipes at some of the US-led diplomatic activity.

The swirling undercurrents in the geopolitical world are forcing the Chinese to think more about bloc-building themselves, however.

One such grouping is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a political alliance first established in 2001 between China, Russia and the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and since joined by India and Pakistan. It has just celebrated its 20th anniversary and the Chinese would like to add new nations. Iran, which began its application process last year, is set for full membership in September. Belarus is also pushing to be upgraded from its status as an observer.

Yet talk of the SCO as a potential counterweight to NATO is far-fetched. It has no basis in collective security, with no obligation in its charter for members to defend one another against military aggression. Founded with goals more focused on combating extremism, separatism and terrorism (or what the Chinese government calls the “three evils”), the grouping lacks joint military capacity and NATO-style command structures.

Perhaps in recognition of some of those limitations, Xi launched the concept of a Global Security Initiative (GSI) earlier this year, with ideas that draw more closely on the principles of shared security between member states. Although details are sparse, the underlying objective is clear: to create a bloc of countries that comes closer to China’s views on security and global governance than American ones.

In a similar vein the Chinese want the BRICS to become more of a counterbalance to the G7 in economic and political terms.

As part of that effort they invited 13 other developing nations to last month’s BRICS summit, an online gathering organised from Beijing, and they have also been lobbying for Iran and Argentina to be next to join as full members.

Both Russia and China are pushing for more action in areas where BRICS nations might cooperate further. Vladimir Putin has promoted the idea of a new reserve currency based on a basket of the currencies of the five members (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and he also wants them to rely more on Russia’s financial messaging system as an alternative to the Western-dominated SWIFT network. China’s vice-commerce minister Wang Shouwen has even proposed a free-trade deal among the five as well, which represent about a fifth of world trade between them.

Can China count on the BRICS?

In early March India, China and South Africa all abstained from a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Brazil supported the resolution, although it criticised the “indiscriminate” sanctions imposed by the West.

Nonetheless, the chances of a groundbreaking pact between the BRICS nations that creates a more direct challenge to the established order look limited. Indian officials are said to have boasted that they watered down the joint statement that came out of last month’s BRICS summit into something more “neutral”, preventing attempts by China and Russia to grab more of a propaganda victory against the US and its allies, for instance.

Talk of a free trade agreement also looks unrealistic when none of the five members even have bilateral deals with one another. And getting agreement on enlarging the group has been hard going: although the expansion proposals were accepted in principle at last month’s summit, there were no deadlines for moving forward. Brazil and South Africa don’t see it as an urgent priority, while India is said to be particularly cautious about diluting its influence inside the group and handing greater clout to China.

Like Brazil and South Africa, India wants more of a say on the international stage. Yet that doesn’t mean that it shares the bulk of China’s plans to reshape the BRICS in a way that benefits Beijing. In fact, India’s complicated relationship with China highlights some of the obstacles to closer ties, not least that the two countries continue to stare one another down across a contested frontier in the Himalayas, where there were a number of deaths after clashes between troops two years ago.

The difficulties Chinese businesses have faced recently in India also reveal tensions between the two most populous Asian powers.

“The split between China and India over border tensions has left the BRICS largely a talking shop even before the Ukraine crisis when it comes to substantial cooperation rather than empty words,” Shi Yinhong, an expert on international affairs at Beijing’s Renmin University, also admitted to the South China Post last month.

By contrast, America’s bloc-building strategy is far more established and militarily far more potent.

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