Conflicts and wars make history, which can change the entire course of mankind. Political eras are defined by a transformation in the world order, which are rarely free of conflict. The post-9/11 era saw an international ‘war on terror’ with America dominating international relations. But in the aftermath of the 2020 pandemic and with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, we are witnessing the rise of a competitive great power, China, and change is in the political air.
Experts believe that the Russian attack on Ukraine is a definite reassurance of transformation in the post-World War-II world order. Classical realism came back into play when Russia cited domestic security concerns as a viable reason for an offensive attack on Ukraine. With the newly blossomed China-Russia alliance against the US-led Western one, there are questions on the position of China; consequently South Asian countries are being placed in the ‘increasingly uncomfortable’ position of having to choose a side or be sandwiched in the middle like in the Cold War days.
It is important to understand some of the reasons of the current war and Chinese interests, in order to make sense of what China wants and what it is doing. The crisis escalated when, in response to the Russian demand of Ukraine not becoming a NATO member, Ukraine refused to accept any such imposition on their sovereignty. After the recognition of Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbas region, Russia stated it intended to undertake the denazification of Ukraine, meaning to topple the current government in Kyiv and reshuffle the political landscape.
China on the Russia-Ukraine war:
China, despite its newly adopted wolf warrior diplomatic posture took a step back and asked President Putin to resolve the conflict through talks. This is because China is navigating a complex position, attempting to maintain a balance between ties with Russia and with its “practiced foreign policy of staunchly defending state sovereignty”.
Although both China and Russia have complementary authoritarian regimes, both are distinct nation states with separate identities. The question is, does China believes that the Russian security concerns are a legitimate reason for an all out attack or does China only want to set a precedence for its own domestic issues over Taiwan? Did abstaining from the United Nations General Assembly emergency session on the crisis mean only an opposition to the Western dominance and economic interests in Moscow?
Putin’s decision to recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics as independent means that Putin is asserting a state’s right to declare that portions of another state are independent. This can set a dangerous precedent for China on the issue of Taiwan which is viewed as a renegade province by the mainland but stands akin to the United States recognizing Taiwan as an independent country.
The situation on hand is now two fold. Of concern for China is the aspect of a foreign country’s blatant support for separatist movements in a sovereign country – particularly through military intervention. Because of China’s own separatist challenges at home, in Xinjiang and Tibet (and to a lesser extent Hong Kong), as well as its staunch opposition to any move toward Taiwan’s independence, Russia’s move in support of the separatist movements in Ukraine could set a negative precedent. The second aspect could be in favor of China, if the West shifts its attention from China to Europe. It is viewed that maybe the best-case scenario for China is the West and Russia at daggers drawn, which allows Beijing the space and time necessary to cultivate its power and influence.
Because if the latter happens, China’s domestic challenges are ignored for the moment and China has gotten the chance to once again do what it does the best; help out the financially sanctioned states. The decay of Russia’s relations with the West and imposition of Western sanctions will further push Moscow into Beijing’s orbit and allow the latter greater leverage and influence in the relationship. It has been the pattern of the US and Western allies up till now that their aggressive postures have left many unexplored opportunities which can be capitalized through economic diplomacy by great powers like China, such as in the case of Afghanistan and Iran.
On the other side of the coin is Taiwan where the great power competition is in a very fluid state; although Taiwan maintains a stark difference in choosing sides as compared to China, by implementing strict export controls on Russia.
If China finds out that Putin’s gambit has increased Taiwan’s prominence in Washington it could make the Chinese intervention almost a certainty. Therefore, any preventive attack by China on Taiwan could trigger and challenge American power. In this hypothetical scenario, the US could either stand aside in the face of this aggression and possibly lose its credibility among the Western allies, or respond offensively on both fronts, i.e. Ukraine as well as Taiwan. The latter option would allow the US to reassure Taiwan of its support and, at the same time, deter China.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, by raising Taiwan’s profile, highlighting its contributions as a reliable U.S. partner, and increasing the probability of a US intervention on Taiwan’s behalf, sets back China’s ambitions for Taiwan. Historically, China would be again risking its aim to bring Taiwan under its control by allying with Russian in this bloody war. This either or situation could lead to an inevitable probability of war on a larger scale.
Where does Pakistan stand in the war in Europe?
In the recent visit of Pakistan’s Prime Minister to Moscow, there was talk of building of an 1,100 km gas pipeline. Although analysts are of the view that the trip was a merely ‘coincided’ with the Russian attack on Ukraine, Pakistan has to keep an eye at her own interests.
In a recent Twitter space hosted by the Islamabad based think tank IPRI, renowned Pakistani analyst Dr. Huma Burqi said that although Pakistan will be affected by the sanctions imposed on Russia, we would have to navigate our way around it. This compromise and readiness to bear the consequences of taking the Russian side does not preclude us from being a part of great power politics. Ukraine has asked India for political support and India, having strong economic ties with Russia, has ultimately maintained a neutral stance on the matter. Therefore, it should be noted that we are fooling ourselves if we keep on saying that we are not in the Chinese-Russian camp while our actions on ground are to the contrary. Furthermore, this would have an effect on our relations with the US as well as our matters in the international financial institutions. We are waiting and watching India to make a move and then we follow the lead to build up narratives.
Wars are not confined to two states; they carry ripples with them, destroying every middle or great power becoming a part of it, whether intentionally or by force. It was rightfully said by Dr. Burqi that though this is an era of multilateralism, the middle powers are much more significant players now than ever. The attack of February 25 has definitely ushered in a change in the current world order, with “national security being prioritized over sovereign rights and non-interference”. The ripple effects of the invasion will be felt far beyond the borders of Europe, with significant economic and geopolitical implications for Asia that will only become increasingly complex in nature.