A limitless partnership with limits

True test of the Chinese leadership during the current period is where it stands on the Russian invasion of Ukraine


Dr Muhammad Ali Ehsan July 10, 2022
The writer is associated with International Relations Department of DHA Suffa University, Karachi. He tweets @Dr M Ali Ehsan

China is the world’s largest oil consumer and Russia is one of the world’s largest oil producers. In this mutually benefiting relationship between the producer and the consumer what brings both Moscow and Beijing together is naturally more geo-economics than geo-politics. The Biden Administration is trying hard to work out a method, any method, to dissuade Beijing from accepting Russian partnership and to work with the wider world in isolating Russia but so far this is not happening. Under sanction and its revenue-generating capacity confined largely to exporting oil and gas, Russia needs the Chinese big oil and gas consumer market especially when its energy integration with the outside world is being pushed back and is getting quite limited.

Ideally, one may think that both these authoritarian states with anti-western and anti-democratic governance models with a huge land mass and sharing a 2600-mile-long border may also have a similar world view. But that is not the case. While both countries have been referred to as the greatest threat to the world in the 21st century in the 2018 US National Defense Strategy, China despite calling its partnership with Russia ‘limitless’ has its limits when it views its relationship with the western world.

China’s economy is the world’s second-largest and is more than seven times the size of Russia’s. While Russia primarily relies on oil and gas exports, China’s exports are more diversified, including cellphones, computers, cars, etc. Beijing’s trade with the US and the EU is five times the value of trade that Russia conducts with them. China has a huge population with a buzzing and vast middle class which looks up to the government to maintain its higher living standards achieved when the Chinese economy consistently grew at a double digit rate and above during the previous decades.

Thus, considering that China is a greater beneficiary of the world economic order and far more vulnerable to geopolitical disruptions than Russia, it is difficult to assume how China can ever land up in a ‘limitless’ partnership with Russia and sacrifice its greater interdependence with other leading world economies. This, it is least likely for China to follow Russia into an anti-Western geopolitical crusade. Its ‘limitless’ partnership with Russia will get moderate when it will come to extending support to Russia in matters of military cooperation and military aid.

But China’s progress and advance may be cut down into three periods in its recent history and how it constructed its goals and objectives and their achievement during these given periods of history. In the first period, led Deng Xiaoping, a shape of reality philosophised in the 80s that “it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white so long as it can catch the mice”. His cautious advice for the country was to ‘observe calmly’, ‘secure your position’, ‘cope with affairs calmly’, ‘hide your capacities and bide your time’, ‘be good at maintaining a good profile’.

After Deng Xiaoping’s important period of Chinese transformation came the information age and the period of globalisation that China embraced with both hands. It is during this period that the Chinese economy grew at an extraordinary pace. All this time China, even if it had revisionist aims, never shared them with the outside world as its eye were well set on achieving a bright future for its people — a future which could only be achieved not by challenging the liberal international order but by being part of it.

In the second period, strategic patience and focus was on the long-term guided China’s rise during the first decade of the 21st century. Its citizens became more educated, its economy boomed and it very smartly handled all its geopolitical insecurities with the calmness and politeness that Deng Xiaoping advocated. The western hypothesis that China’s exposure to the global world will finally end Chines Communist Party’s rule over the country as China will democratise never materialised.

Academically, one may only quote a simple example as a matrix to determine how happy Chinese people were with the functioning of their government during this period — nearly 130 million went abroad annually for vacations and a similar number returned home. If there was any discontentment or unhappiness many people should have disappeared to a foreign land or achieved political asylum. Nobody did that.

During the same period, China began creating global governance structures that could potentially challenge the very liberal international order of which it was a part, including the New Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the Belt and Road Initiative. This was the very time period in which the US indulged in the global war on terror and in invading countries that many considered unnecessary.

China acceded to this global war on terror but never physically contributed any troops or participated in it. So, during this period while the US was making all the wrong choices and declining as a military and economic power, China was rising and much to the US discontent was tipped to replace it. With the future looking bright and despite the pandemic and a difficult political and economic relationship with the Trump administration China found no plausible reason to challenge the US hegemony, it still concentrated on biding time to sustain its growth and development.

This brings us to the third period — the second decade of the 21st century. Although China’s GDP growth between 2000 and 2010 was extraordinary, it slowed down considerably in the second decade from 2010 to 2020. It has fallen from a peak of 14% in 2007 to something closer to 2% in 2020. So, the Ukraine war has come at a moment when the Chinese economy like the rest of the world has slowed down.

One can understand why China showed strategic patience and forbearance but can one expect it to showcase the same during the current economically troubled times? The readers may be reminded that President Xi’s agreement to ‘friendship without limits with Russia’ came prior to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. More critically, it came prior to this enormous western economic and military response against Russia. After four months of the war, the world is already paying a huge economic cost with reports that over 70 million people have fallen down the poverty line all over the world in this period.

The true test of the Chinese leadership during the current period is where it stands on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Global public opinion is against Russia but countries that seek multipolarity as the guiding principle of a future world are taking a neutral position on the issue — countries such as India, Turkey, and even Israel.

China can continue to buy Russian oil and gas and provide Russia with economic relief; but under the given international environment, the friendship which China, termed limitless, will have its limits.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 10th, 2022.

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