This Article is From Mar 21, 2022

Opinion: Has The War Made China Even More Important?

The story of Putin's attack on Ukraine is yet in its opening and harrowing chapter. The world will breathe more freely if - it's a huge IF - remarks like Zelensky's to CNN's Fareed Zakaria culminate in peace talks and, with luck, in a ceasefire. However, later chapters of this unfinished story may still speak of the attack as one of the most horrific international blunders of recent decades.

Other questions jump at us. Are Russian mothers already joining Ukrainian mothers in cursing Putin for the wanton deaths of their sons? How will NATO and Europe respond to the rising demand for more effective support for a battered-yet-battling Ukraine? Will Russia's use of hypersonic missiles to hit Ukrainian targets trigger an escalation ruled out thus far?

Then there is the dragon in the room. Has the war in eastern Europe made China more important in the world? Or more vulnerable?

While Biden and his NATO and EU counterparts are slated to meet any day in Brussels to discuss these and related questions, and India's security and defence experts are surely doing so round the clock, the rest of us too can try to understand what is happening.

Since China's Global Times is a party organ, its columns probably reflect the thinking of President Xi Jinping's advisers and perhaps of Xi himself. The paper's editorial comment on the two-hour virtual conversation that Biden and Xi had on March 18 is worth looking at: "At a special moment when the Ukraine crisis affects the entire world, the two heads of state of China and the US, two influential global powers, had a constructive interaction... The video [meeting] released a positive message to the world."

The previous day, an article in the paper by Xu Hailin and Liu Xin said: "Washington is eager to influence China's attitude over the Ukraine crisis, but as the situation evolves, China's largely neutral stance on the issue has been strengthened. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has significant impacts, but it has also opened up new geopolitical space, said observers."

The party paper (which in recent weeks has adopted a friendlier tone towards India) also speaks of "the US strategy to coerce and pressure China and force China to take sides between the US and Russia instead of keeping neutral. Such an act of bullying might work on some countries with no independent diplomacy, but the US will never get what it wants when it comes to China."

This objection to "bullying" and "coercion" may turn out to be less significant than China's insistence on its neutrality between Russia and Ukraine. Also intriguing is China's apparent refusal "to take sides between the US and Russia," and China's interest in the "new geopolitical space" that seems to have opened up for it.

Meanwhile the White House has said, without amplification, that China would face "consequences" if it significantly assists Russia's war in Ukraine. The US media is pointing out (a) that vast Chinese assets are being held in the US (b) that China's trade with Russia is less than ten percent of its trade with Europe and North America, and (c) that China is dependent on the rest of the world for more than 80 percent of its oil and gas needs.

The message seems to be that China cannot afford to invite the displeasure of the US, Europe and allied countries. Another assessment being voiced in the US is that after Ukraine's resistance to Russia, China will be more cautious about using force over Taiwan.

If China has been presented with dilemmas and also, perhaps, with an opportunity, Putin's actions have posed tough economic, security and diplomatic questions to India. India's dependence on Russia for maintaining current defence capabilities is considerable, and despite strong American misgivings, New Delhi has contracted with Russia for long-range S-400 surface-to-air missile defense systems.

India's continuing unwillingness to condemn the attack on Ukraine is drawing strong criticism in the US media, including through statements by US-based Ukrainian leaders like former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. However, some establishment voices in the US seem to hint at an understanding of India's compulsions.

The difficulty or challenge presented to India by the attack on Ukraine was much bigger than bringing trapped Indians back from Ukraine. It remains a national challenge. One hopes that the government is taking - or will take - Opposition leaders into confidence and, equally, that the Opposition will reject any temptation to play politics with the tricky difficulty that has emerged. However, that still leaves India's citizens free to criticize Putin's steps.

The wish to recreate the vast empire of Russian history was understandable. Through art and literature, the wish could have been implemented as well. Even in reality, respect for neighbours could have achieved the essence of past greatness. But using brute force to re-establish the physical control that might have existed in a distant past, and, while doing so, to obliterate the difference between military and civilian targets, and even between the healthy and the hospitalized, and between adults and babies, is not something the world or the people of Russia will forget. Even if Putin achieves some of his political goals, he has clearly lost the good opinion of much of the world.

It may be too early to assess the lasting impact on the US of Putin's actions and of Biden's response, but opinion polls have shown a significant bounce in Biden's favorability numbers. Trump is finding it difficult to get Americans to forget his oft-expressed admiration for Putin, which may become a handicap for him if he runs again in 2024. However, if gas prices continue to rise, Democrats will have serious problems in Congressional elections this November.

(Rajmohan Gandhi is currently teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.