The geopolitical continuity of the Eurasian continent is millennia old. It harks back to Indo-Europeans spreading to Europe and South Asia, from the Eurasian heartland to the Huns, the Turks, and the Mongols roaming around the huge landmass following their strategic goals. It is a constant pattern, until recently when the Soviets stoked fire in Asia—in the 1950s war in Korea and only a little later in the war in Vietnam, first against the French then against the Americans—to distract the West from the main theater in Europe.
Perhaps the same is happening now with Ukraine.
Will China get entangled in a low- or high-intensity war in Ukraine along with Russia? Would Russia support China if it decided to move on Taiwan or in the South China Sea? Would the two countries coordinate parallel attacks on Taiwan by China and Ukraine by Russia to divert American attention?
Ties between Russia and China are not easy or straightforward. China, for centuries, has been wary of strategic threats coming from the north. Invasions or just pressure from the northern nomadic and semi-nomadic populations have been a main concern since the establishment of agricultural societies in the Yellow River basin.
Since its westward drive in the 18th century, Russia has been pushing against the power in Beijing, and after the fall of the USSR, has been worried that semi-deserted Siberia could be taken over by dynamic and overpopulated China from the south. They fought one last border war in the early 1970s, and in 1979, when China attacked Vietnam, Moscow supported Hanoi.
Still, the two countries know each other well, have an old tradition of mutual dealings, and felt drawn together by the separate pressures coming from the United States and its allies to the east and west in the past decade.
Moreover, despite all its old concerns about Russia, China is buying over $400 billion dollars of gas from Russia, brought in through new pipelines. The agreement didn’t go forward for years because the two sides were haggling over the price. Then it became a strategic move.
China started feeling that the American navy could cut off its maritime routes, so the Russian supply lines became strategically very important. This gas deal, of course, works both ways. It is vital for Russia, too, especially if the Russian-European pipeline Nord Stream 2 doesn’t come to full fruition because of the growing attrition in Europe.
This month, Russia “regained control” over Kazakhstan, which was improving ties with the US. Therefore, it solved a problem for Beijing, worried that Kazakhstan could become a base for destabilization in Xinjiang.
On the other hand, Beijing may be watching how the situation in Ukraine is playing out. If the US shows weakness there, Beijing might get the message that America is not willing to draw a line with Russia and maybe not even with China. On the other hand, if the US or the West gets bogged down in a conflict in Ukraine, then Beijing may think that Washington is distracted from the Asian front.
Furthermore, if Russia is concentrated on Europe, this leaves more room in Asia for China. Still, Russia’s agenda in Asia is specific. Greater Russian involvement in Central Asia means less breathing space for China, although Beijing botched many Central Asian moves. Moscow has traditionally good ties with Hanoi and New Delhi, both Beijing’s adversaries, who have recently grown closer to Japan, Australia, and America.
These may not be the only differences.
Russia wants to push NATO as far back as it can to recover an old Soviet space, but China has little to do with this. Russian actions are reviving NATO, which was almost a zombie-like institution. It could be a necessary price for Moscow, but for Beijing? Why should it align itself against NATO, when there are Europeans who were previously reluctant to engage against China but could become more eager if they see China siding with Russia? Then bringing back from the dead a military alliance that could also be used against China, when it was in slumber until a few months ago, is not good news for China.
The Russian troops around Ukraine are facing a distracted Europe that was still dreaming of becoming a giant Switzerland, independent but neutral, until a few weeks ago.
In a little more than a decade, Russia broke up Georgia, stopped the jasmine revolution in Syria and secured its naval base there, annexed Crimea, sent troops to Libya and Africa, supported Armenia against Azerbaijan, and “took over” Kazakhstan. This can’t go on forever. Europe is getting scared, including Germany, which had been willing to appease. If Ukraine falls, the Baltics and Poland are next, and Germany goes back to being on the frontline.
On the other hand, if Beijing supports Moscow in handling NATO, it doesn’t necessarily mean Russia will reciprocate in the near future. There are mutual suspicions, and the diverging interests in the face of Ukraine show the deep fissures in the “alliance.”
China can afford to sit back and watch, but Putin’s Russia might be overstretching. Reawakening NATO in the West and giving China cold feet brings Russia back to the strategic isolation it evaded for two decades. In about twenty years American hyper-activism in Central Asia and the Middle East progressively irked many supportive allies. Now, the whole Eurasian game is changing and Russia and China may have different priorities here.