Russia Could Have Been an Inspiration for China. Now It’s More Likely a Warning.

Putin’s struggles in Ukraine may be a sobering lesson for China.
Gavin Butler
Melbourne, AU
Russia Could Have Been An Inspiration for China. Now It’s More Likely A Warning.
SMOKE RISES FROM A RUSSIAN TANK DESTROYED BY THE UKRAINIAN FORCES ON THE SIDE OF A ROAD IN LUGANSK REGION ON FEBRUARY 26, 2022. PHOTO: ANATOLII STEPANOV / AFP

It’s impossible to know what China’s President Xi Jinping was thinking when his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, attacked Ukraine last Thursday morning. But at that point, it was easy to speculate.

After all, this was a move that in many ways echoed China’s own territorial ambitions in Taiwan, a self-rule democracy that Beijing has claimed as its territory. Both Russia and China had previously threatened to violate international norms and muscle in on their weaker neighbours. Now one of them had finally done it.

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Hours before the invasion, John Blaxland, a professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University, told VICE World News that countries like China were most likely viewing Putin’s Ukrainian power grab as a sort of canary down the geopolitical coal mine. If the U.S. and NATO failed to prevent Russia from expanding its territory into the Ukrainian heartland, Blaxland suggested, that would send “a very strong signal to Beijing that the West lacks the resolve to push back against additional Chinese assertiveness in relation to Taiwan.”

At that point, the swift and decisive fall of Ukraine had seemed like a foregone conclusion, as 190,000 Russian troops amassed in and around the country. But the developments of the past week have come as a surprise to almost everyone.

Russia’s advance into Ukraine has been stalled, stymied and in many cases deflected by local armed forces, with multiple Western military observers telling VICE News they were shocked at how bad Russia’s military is doing. The conflict is dragging out longer than many had expected, while a battery of economic and diplomatic sanctions from the West has threatened to cripple Russia on the home front and stir civil unrest.

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“China would have liked this to have gone very, very well for Russia, and had it happened quickly and relatively uneventfully, they would have gained something from it.”

The Russian canary isn’t quite as chirpy as it was six days ago—and those paying close attention are more likely to be heeding its message as a warning than a rallying cry, experts say.

“China would have liked this to have gone very, very well for Russia, and had it happened quickly and relatively uneventfully, they would have gained something from it,” Blaxland told VICE World News on Tuesday. “But the untidy, very ugly scenes emerging from Ukraine are having the opposite effect, and the crystallising of resolve internationally is really running against China’s interests in terms of its ability to divide and conquer and pursue its interests in the East China Sea, the South China Sea and Taiwan.”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is almost definitely serving as a trial run for what happens when a country brazenly defies Western pressure in pursuing its own interests. But while before, Xi might have looked at Putin as an inspiration, the Russian leader is now proving to be more of a crash dummy. According to Wen-Ti Sung, an academic fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World, that’s likely to give China pause when it comes to its own geopolitical strategies.

“I think Beijing is likely shocked or at least surprised by the degree of difficulty that Russia has encountered… and the degree of principally Western but, broadly speaking, international unity,” Sung told VICE World News from Taiwan, where he is currently doing fieldwork. “The amount of trouble Russia is having in Ukraine shows that it's very difficult even for a nuclear-armed great power to execute a blitzkrieg and do it successfully without much international pushback and sanctions. That will make China think twice [about Taiwan].”

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One previous hypothesis, Sung explained, was that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might embolden countries like China by being both a demonstration and a distraction. This time last week, there were fears not only that Putin’s aggression could prove the tenability of such a move in the face of Western resistance, but also that a war in Eastern Europe may draw U.S. attention away from the Indo-Pacific and dilute the amount of resources dedicated to countering Beijing’s threats and assertive behaviour.

Based on how the West responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the last few days, he now believes the opposite may be happening.

“The main takeaway is that the liberal international order has proven itself to be more resilient than many have given it credit for.”

The U.S.’ decision to not militarily intervene in the Ukraine crisis and instead provide support by way of sanctions and aid not only proves that they can effectively undermine enemy forces without having boots on the ground, it also indicates that they are no longer interested in sinking all their resources into European theatres of war. Continental nations like Germany and France are rising to the occasion—and that’s allowing the U.S. to pay more attention to other areas of interest, like East Asia.

“The Ukraine episode also reinvigorated Western cohesion, and we see that through all these very complicated but ultimately successful, coordinated international sanctions against Russia,” Sung added. “In that sense, there’s another trial run at work here, and that is that the West has successfully tried and implemented well-coordinated sanctions against major violators of international norms… China will [now] be thinking that if it ever decided to launch a military attack, then the West may not simply be easily divided and conquered—and that indeed it’s possible that the West has practice now on how to orchestrate a coordinated sanction campaign.”

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“The main takeaway is that the liberal international order has proven itself to be more resilient than many have given it credit for.”

It is, of course, still the early days. There’s no way of knowing how long the Ukrainians can stave off the Russian onslaught, and there’s every chance that Putin will succeed in winning the war. Many commentators believe that the military offensives deployed thus far are a mere fraction of Russia’s full military might, while others have flagged the likelihood that Putin will readily deploy any means necessary—potentially even nuclear weapons—if it means getting what he wants.

When it comes to China, though, the crucial point has, to some extent, already been proven: that flying in the face of international entreaties and subjugating an autonomous nation is not as easy as it might have seemed. 

As Sung put it, “Even if Ukraine were to fall in weeks to come, at least Ukraine would have shown that blitzkrieg is not a realistic scenario… Even if Ukraine proves that eventually it will fall and the invasion eventually could be successful, it doesn’t automatically lead us to think that Taiwan will fall anywhere near as easily.”

Far from fuelling the flames of war in East Asia, then, Putin’s embattled invasion of Ukraine may have thrown water on China’s ambitions—or at least given Beijing a good reason to exert patience. Whether or not it prompts them to wind back some of their increasingly assertive territorial claims in the region, however, remains to be seen. Not least of all for Xi Jinping himself.

“It’s too early to say, because this battle is only days old and may yet go more in Russia's favour,” said Blaxland. “But China will be very circumspect for now to see whether this newfound Western resolve holds, [or] whether it is broken in the face of Russians upping the ante with the nuclear threat.”   

“China will no doubt be keeping its powder dry with a view to learn the lessons from this as the dust settles. The dust is still being made—it’s not at all settled yet—but they will nonetheless be acutely paying attention to the ramifications in the capitals around the world.”

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