A world split asunder

| February 27, 2022

Events on the ground in Ukraine as Russia attacks the UN member state and its people are rightly absorbing the world’s attention: 190,000 heavily armed troops invading another country and inflicting death and injury is a level of armed force on the scale of the nasty conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and during World War II.

It’s also absolutely right for there to be a focus on what powerful nations and groupings—like all EU member states, NATO, the US, Japan and Australia—are doing to sanction and condemn Russia and to support Ukraine and its people as the conflict unfolds.

It’s likely that no level of sanctions and harsh words will constrain Russian President Vladimir Putin now. This is already a growing source of criticism of the UN, the EU, NATO, US President Joe Biden and other world leaders who are joining the sanctions.

What’s happening in Ukraine is about 44 million people with lives and families, not just some piece on the geopolitical chessboard. The real-time feeds of Russian attacks in Kyiv and Kharkiv bring home the brutal reality of what Putin is doing to people who just days ago were living in a free and democratic society.

We must also examine who is not joining the international action against Russia’s aggression and what this means for now and over the next few years.

This ‘long game’ will become more important and more apparent whenever the intensity of the immediate crisis in Ukraine lessens. But we can identify one big dynamic about this from the now emerged and operating Russia–China partnership.

China is the single major power that not only is not working with a unified international community in  condemning and sanctioning Moscow, but is working against that unified international community.

The Chinese foreign ministry has made opaque statements about needing to ‘respect the legitimate security interests of any country’, along with startlingly out-of-touch assertions like, ‘On the Ukraine issue, lately the US has been sending weapons to Ukraine, heightening tensions, creating panic and even hyping up the possibility of warfare.’

China is signalling support for Putin, wrapped in language of de-escalation and diplomatic paths. The invocation of ‘legitimate security interests’ echoes Putin’s false premises for attacking Ukraine—that Ukraine threatens Russia’s security, so Russia needs ‘security guarantees’ aimed at ‘reducing military risks’ it apparently faces.

More than this, Beijing is working against broad international sanctions on Russia. Its foreign ministry stated: ‘We consistently oppose all illegal unilateral sanctions’, carefully avoiding the uncomfortable fact that the sanctions are not unilateral, given the broad set of UN members joining them, including every EU nation, the US, the UK, Japan, Australia and Canada.

None of this should be surprising, because these are all symptoms of and indicators from a much bigger development, the Russia–China partnership.

Back in the pre-pandemic days of November 2019, defence policy expert Paul Dibb wrote a report titled, How the geopolitical partnership between China and Russia threatens the West.

His core assessment was crisp and disturbing:

“China and Russia have commonly perceived threats with regard to the West and are now sharing an increasingly close strategic relationship. If the China–Russia military partnership continues its upward trend, that will inevitably affect the international security order, including by challenging the system of US-centred alliances in the Asia–Pacific and Europe.”

At the time, this analysis was greeted with scepticism, with critics focusing on the differences between Russian and Chinese interests, capacities and civilisational approaches. The happy result of this line of thinking was to discount having to think about or act on the implications of this disturbing analysis—which now looks prescient and correct.

This year looks entirely different to the hopeful ideas of the past when limitations and differences in the Russia–China relationship outweighed their grounds for cooperation.

Instead, as we see in Kyiv and Kharkiv and across Ukraine, the defining element of the Russia–China partnership now is how it’s enabling Russia to reorder security in Europe—with global implications for the rest of us—including folk like Australians who live in the Indo-Pacific.

It’s now hard to sustain an argument that what happens in Europe is a distraction from what happens in the Indo-Pacific, or that the Indo-Pacific is a distraction from pressing concerns in Europe.

Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping have made their authoritarian nations a common strategic challenge for European and Indo-Pacific partners. They even did us the courtesy of announcing it in writing after their meeting in Beijing on 4 February.

Xi and Putin’s joint statement describes their deepening relationship and active support for each other’s ‘core interests’, along with themes of exerting power and excluding others ‘in their common adjacent areas’.

Putin is now acting on these ideas and Xi’s support as he works to create a sphere of influence around Russia, through either invited occupation—which he has achieved in Belarus—or the brute force and war we are witnessing in Ukraine.

The arc of development of the Russia–China strategic partnership has enabled the Russian war against Ukraine: Putin knew from his summit with Xi that Beijing would support him as the conflict and its later broader effects unfolded.

We should expect Beijing not just to oppose and complicate international efforts to inflict damaging consequences on Russia for the war, but also to provide Moscow with material financial assistance and access to China’s market for resources and goods as a way of diluting any international actions against Russia.

The Chinese customs agency opening up China’s market for Russian wheat yesterday, as Russia’s attack began, is a simple but crystal clear example of engagement designed to undercut international action and enable Russia.

This complicity at the highest level between Beijing and Moscow will be obvious and palpable in the weeks and years ahead.

The underlying realisation from all the governments joining the sanctions discussions and measures must be that, beyond Ukraine, Europe and the Indo-Pacific are now a single strategic system joined by the actions of Putin and Xi. That’s the common strategic challenge we can no longer hide from or deny.

This will be a difficult realisation for India and Germany because both nations, for different reasons, have accentuated the potential of engaging Russia and seen the differences between Beijing and Moscow as more important than they are turning out to be. Realising that hope is not a method, or a basis for policy, is always hard, although German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s swift move to halt approval of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia is a signal of this shift in mindset occurring.

The larger strategic contest is not between the ‘authoritarian world’ and the ‘democratic world’. It’s between two particular aggressive autocratic states—Russia and China—and the collective action, wealth and power of the democratic nations of Europe and the Indo-Pacific, joined by every other UN member state that believes in the principles of the UN charter.

This will remain true while Xi leads China and while Russia is led by Putin.

So, we don’t get to choose whether to focus on Europe or the Indo-Pacific. Together we must do both. In this way, the UK’s 2021 integrated review got things more right than I and others realised back then, when it said the UK would remain a Euro-Atlantic-centred security actor but undertake an Indo-Pacific shift at the same time. That’s a much better frame for our strategic world in 2022 than superficial debates about whether Europe or the Indo-Pacific should be the single priority.

In the months and years ahead, stronger military forces in Europe must be built to deter further Russian aggression, through a reinvigorated NATO and an awakened EU.

And here in the Indo-Pacific, the efforts to shift the military balance away from China will accelerate through frameworks like AUKUS, the Quad and the other powerful US alliance relationships here.

Economic diversification and technological decoupling from Russia and China must be accelerated to reduce the shocks and dislocations that the existing interdependencies create (energy supply to Europe from Russia is one example).

It’s a crystallising moment for the world, as we enter a more divided and more dangerous future. Let’s approach that future with an understanding of the actual challenge we face, and from whom.

This article was published by The Strategist.