Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has revealed a rift between where China geopolitical heart resides and where its economic interests lie. Europe and the United States rank as Beijing’s most crucial economic partners in terms of trade, investment and capital market relations. And yet China has widely supported Russia during the Ukraine war and refused to condemn the country’s invasion or move away from its “strategic partnership” with Moscow.
Last week, Beijing strengthened this position and issued a new warning to the west. Le Yucheng, China’s deputy foreign minister, drew parallels between what he sees as the causes of the war in Ukraine and the West’s self-assertion in the Indo-Pacific.
“NATO has continued to strengthen and expand and intervened militarily in countries such as Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan,” Le said one day after Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden made a two-hour phone call.
“The Indo-Pacific strategy is as dangerous as the NATO strategy for Eastern enlargement in Europe,” he added. “If it were allowed to go unchecked, it would bring unimaginable consequences and ultimately push the Asia-Pacific region [region] beyond the edge of an abyss. “
Raising the ghost of an “Indo-Pacific NATO” reveals China’s worldview. Beijing suggests that there is experience from the Ukraine conflict to be applied to tensions in the Indo-Pacific. When Xi and Vladimir Putin met in early February – just weeks before Russia launched its invasion – they warned NATO against any further enlargement in Eastern Europe.
Western leaders should take China’s warning seriously, but also point out the flaws in its articulation. A key to understanding the volatility of the game is an international relational concept called the “security dilemma” – the dynamic by which an increase in a state’s security causes other states to fear for their own security.
Thus, NATO’s enlargement to the east in Europe – which Putin had protested against for years before his invasion – was motivated by fears of Russian expansionism. And why are some countries in the Indo-Pacific showing signs of ties with the United States? Because they are worried about a rising China.
China, on the other hand, is disturbed by western overtures in a region that it increasingly sees as within its sphere of influence. Late last year, the United States clarified what it means by its advocate of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” a region that Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, defined as home to two-thirds of the world’s economic growth and more than half of its population.
Blinken said that the meaning of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” was that people should be free in their daily lives and live in open societies. Countries should be able to choose their own path and partners, while goods, ideas and people flow freely across land, cyberspace and the open sea, Blinken said.
Such a vision is in part at odds with how China organizes its own authoritarian system. Adding to Beijing’s concerns is a stiffening of Western-led military groupings in the region. The quad, which includes the United States, India, Australia and Japan, is widely seen as a counterweight to Chinese power. Aukus – a trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the US – has a similar but more blurred mandate.
The brutal war in Ukraine should focus the minds of Chinese leaders and those in the US-led West. If diplomacy does not win, the Indo-Pacific could prove just as flammable as Ukraine today. A concerted effort by China and the United States to establish the ground rules and a modus vivendi for a patchwork of regional security groups is urgently needed.