The escalation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the sweeping sanctions imposed on Russia by the West have brought the world into a new geopolitical environment full of risks.
While the conflict has no end in sight, the basic outline of the changing world pattern has gradually emerged. First, Russia was expelled from the world’s mainstream economic and financial system with the all-rounded sanctions imposed by the West. The “denationization” has effectively downgraded Russia from an influential power to an ordinary country with poor and weak economy. Second, the United States is the biggest “winner” of this geopolitical crisis. It not only garnered a rare opportunity to strike Russia geopolitically and geo-economically in peacetime, but also successfully strengthened the transatlantic alliance with Europe, which objectively strengthens its leadership in the Western world. Third, continental Europe suffered heavy losses, not only taking a hit on its economy and energy security, but also has to temporarily abandon its ambitions of “strategic autonomy”.
Such tremendous changes has caused China to enter a very different geopolitical environment from the past. How will China deal with this drastically changed world? Will China’s strategies and policies need to be adjusted in response to it?
In the past five years, China has experienced major geopolitical shifts. Since 2017, the U.S. has historically adjusted its strategic positioning towards China, seeing it as a long-term strategic competitor, far exceeding Russia’s competitive position. Beginning in 2018, the Trump administration launched a trade war against China, which has expanded to finance, technology, education, investment and other fields, promoting a comprehensive decoupling from China. Although the Biden administration has overturned many of Trump’s policies, it has fully inherited his strategy and policies against China. If anything, the Biden administration has strengthened its strategic “containment” towards China more systematically and more in-depth than ever. Facing the suppression of the U.S., China chose to strengthen its cooperation with Russia. In 2019, the two countries established the “China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era”. This non-alliance strategic cooperative relationship was formed with the obvious objective of resisting the containment of the West as led by the U.S.
Noteworthily, rifts have appeared in the relationship between the U.S. and its continental European allies under the Trump administration. Trump’s contempt for the NATO mechanism and his calculative moves against the allies in the European continent have inspired the strategic autonomy of the continental countries, especially Germany and France. Europeans now see they must take the destiny of Europe in their own hands. Such thought has become the geopolitical consensus of some European politicians. In view of the differences between the U.S. and Europe on geopolitics and globalization issues, ANBOUND has previously proposed a “1+3” geo-economic framework, yet unfortunately the strategic proposal was not adopted to meet the rare geopolitical window period back then, thereby missing a crucial opportunity.
Indeed, the changes in the geopolitical environment caused by the Russia-Ukraine conflict are generally unfavorable to China. The U.S. and Europe have become unprecedentedly united in the face of the crisis. The increasingly close bilateral strategic relationship between China and Russia in recent years has now been a fundamental outline of the basic pattern in China’s future international relations. After the “denationization” of Russia, the U.S. will push Western countries to exert more pressures on China in realizing their strategic goals. Under the new geopolitical environment and comprehensive economic sanctions, China’s relationship with Russia will also face challenges.
How will China face the new geopolitical environment? How should it decide its future international relations’ strategic focus and direction?
Analysts at ANBOUND believe that China should develop its relationship with Europe, making it a strategic priority for coexistence with the world in the future. We believe that under the new international order, China’s strategic options are limited. From the perspective of geopolitics, China must first maintain relatively stable regional cooperative relations with ASEAN countries, which is an important cornerstone for its foreign economic and trade cooperation, as well as geopolitical environment, in response to the U.S.’ Indo-Pacific Strategy. In addition, China needs to seek geospatial room in the larger world. Hence, its strategic focus and directional breakthrough will be closely linked to continental Europe.
A question is, how can China strengthen its relations with Europe now, since it has not done so during the Trump era, considering that Europe is now a close ally of the U.S.? Yet for ANBOUND’s researchers, China still possesses the potential to do so. It must be admitted that the Russia-Ukraine conflict has had a very strong impact on the security of European countries, subverting the post-Cold War pattern. In addition, for Sweden and Finland to propose joining NATO, this is a shift of the order formed since World War II. China, being seen as a supporter of Russia, has been tied together with Russia by the U.S. and Europe. U.S. officials have threatened several times that if Chinese companies violate U.S. and European sanctions on Russia, they will face severe measures and pay a heavy price.
In our opinion, there is still some room for cooperation between China and Europe. Observing the changes in the European situation under the Russia-Ukraine conflict, we tend to believe that while there is a sort of unity between the U.S. and Europe, it is not because U.S. has become the latter’s leader. Rather, it is due to the strong concerns about European security and basic values that contributed to such a unity. It should be noted that, the interests of the continental Europe and the U.S. are not exactly the same. Only the United Kingdom, a non-continent European country, follows the U.S.’ sanctions on Russia’s energy exports. According to Bloomberg, Germany still resists the efforts to add Sberbank PJSC to the list of Russian financial institutions cut off from SWIFT. For major continental European powers like Germany and France, policy decisions are still based on their own interests.
Chinese leaders have recently made increasingly clear statements about China-Europe relations and interests. During a recently held video summit with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Xi said that, “China and the EU share much common understanding on promoting peace, seeking development and advancing cooperation. We need to shoulder our responsibility to bring more stability and certainty to a turbulent and fluid world. It is important for the two sides to enhance dialogue, stay committed to cooperation, and promote steady and sustained progress of China-EU relations”. Xi expressed his strong concern over the large-scale humanitarian crisis caused by the conflict, and that he was deeply grieved by the re-emergence of war on the European continent. Regarding the situation in Ukraine, Xi pointed out that “all efforts that are conducive to the peaceful settlement of the crisis must be supported”. China commends the mediation efforts by France and Germany on Ukraine, and that it will stay in communication and coordination with France, Germany and the EU, working actively together with the international community. In addition, Xi expressed the need to actively advocate a vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security.
The changes taking place in Germany’s political ecology has become noteworthy too. In her speech to the German parliament on March 8, Alice Weidel, leader of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, said that the hard-liners’ adherence to the completely outdated Cold War logic and the dream of Ukraine joining the European Union is a historic failure in the Western world. Weidel criticized Merkel’s government for Germany’s failed energy shift, which has led to a deadly unilateral reliance on Russia for gas supplies. In terms of security policy, Germany has also become irrelevant, where the Bundeswehr has become a dilapidated army, and the German military industry has been marginalized. Weidel stressed that Germany needs a Bundeswehr with a restored defense capability and, above all, a strategic shift. According to her, Germany needs to maintain a geopolitical sobriety, not a feminist foreign policy. After this war has ended, she said, Germany will still be in the same continent with Russia, to build a European security framework. She emphasized that Germany can and should play an important role in this as an intermediary, provided it makes the right decisions to rebuild lost trust, sovereignty and freedom of movement, and not mindlessly slipping into war.
It should be pointed out that although the view of AfD, as presented by Weidel has criticized Merkel’s political legacy, it also hit at the Cold War mentality and showed “geopolitical sobriety”. The core of such view is that major European powers should have strategic self-awareness. ANBOUND also noted that an important result of the Russia-Ukraine crisis is that Germany has made a decision to rearm. The purpose is to rebuild the world’s trust in Germany, maintain its sovereignty, and allow it to have more freedom of action. A similar view is also shared by France, another major European power. Although the future geopolitical structure of Europe will still be within NATO’s framework, we believe that after the war finally ends, Germany and France will still adhere to such view for strategic autonomy. These changes in major countries in continental Europe are sufficient in providing room for the future development of China-Europe relations.
Final analysis conclusion:
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has brought drastic changes to the world. The new geopolitical pattern formed under such circumstance also brings more challenges for China. However, there is still room for it to develop relations with major European powers. To this end, China needs to consider the development of its relations with Europe a strategic focus and direction, at the same time continue to maintain stable relations with ASEAN. In the medium and long term, China’s development space in international geopolitics will still be in Europe.
Writer by Chan Kung
Founder of ANBOUND Think Tank (established in 1993), Mr. Chan Kung is one of China’s renowned experts in information analysis. Most of Chan Kung‘s outstanding academic research activities are in economic information analysis, particularly in the area of public policy.
Writer by He Jun
Partner, Director of China Macro-Economic Research Team and Senior Researcher. His research field covers China’s macro-economy, energy industry and public policy.
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