Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a liminal moment in post WWII history – and a coda for an overreaching West that failed to read the signs of the times. Russia and China have concluded that their combined strength can protect and promote their individual and mutual interests "from sea to shining sea" – Atlantic and Pacific – from the security threats each have experienced in recent decades.
The big surprise is how willing China has shown itself, in effect, to give Putin a pass on invasion, and suspend China’s long-standing principled stand on noninterference.
By his tacit, but unmistakable, support for Putin’s aggression, Chinese President Xi Jinping does not seem to mind being "stained". This word came from President Joe Biden at yesterday’s press conference, where he said that any country backing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be "stained by association". Asked if he were urging China to isolate Russia, Biden said: “I’m not prepared to comment on that at the moment.”
Chinese Spokeswoman Explains
Before Biden’s press conference, China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying called on “all sides to exercise restraint to prevent the situation from getting out of control,” and bridled at journalists’ characterization of Russia’s actions as "invasion."
“Regarding the definition of an invasion, I think we should go back to how to view the current situation in Ukraine. The Ukrainian issue has other very complicated historical background that has continued to today. It may not be what everyone wants to see.”
Asked if Putin had told China he was planning to invade Ukraine, Hua said "Russia … does not need to seek the consent of China. It [Russia] independently decides and implements its own diplomacy and strategy according to its own strategic judgment and interests." She added, though, that "every time the heads of state meet, they will of course exchange views on issues of common concern.” (Putin and Xi met in Beijing on Feb. 4 – see below (Timing and Invasion.)
Hua called on Europe to reflect on how it can better protect its peace and accused some countries of “following the U.S. in fanning the flame.” “We object to any action that hypes up war,” she said.
China’s foreign ministry said later that Foreign Minister Wang Yi had spoken with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. Wang reminded that the Ukraine issue had a “complex” history and reiterated that China understands what it called Russia’s “legitimate concerns” on security, the ministry added. According to the Wall Street Journal, Wang repeated China’s oft-stated position that it respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations, but added that Beijing could see "complicated and specific historical questions at play in Ukraine."
Timing an Invasion
Putin waited to start the ball rolling into Ukraine, so to speak, until the Beijing Olympics were over. On opening day (Feb. 4) he and Xi had issued a cornerstone "Joint Statement" saying the two sides "reaffirm that the new inter-state relations between Russia and China are superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era. Friendship between the two states has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation."
The rhetoric that day was aimed at showing the "unprecedented" (Putin) closeness of the current Sino-Russian strategic partnership, and brought to mind the publicity given to the highly scripted first minute of the Putin-Xi virtual summit on Dec. 15. (See China Gives Oomph to Russia’s Nyet-on-NATO.)
In December President XI told Putin that "in its closeness and effectiveness, this relationship even exceeds an alliance." (See: Putin and XI Show United Front Amid Rising Tensions With US)
Last year, the US unwittingly provided strong adrenaline for Sino-Russian rapprochement and joint confrontation of the West. March 2021 saw the diplomatic/debacle debut of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Anchorage with Chinese counterparts, where the Chinese strongly objected to their overbearing attitude, and refused to be talked down to.
Three months later, Biden added insult to injury when, at the June 16 summit with Putin in Geneva, Biden showed how poorly briefed he was on what the Soviets called the “world correlation of forces". Before he could be whisked onto his departing plane from Geneva, Biden let it be known that the "Russians are in a difficult spot being squeezed by China.” He added:
“Without quoting him [Putin] – which I don’t think is appropriate – let me ask a rhetorical question: You got a multi-thousand-mile border with China. China is seeking to be the most powerful economy in the world and the largest and the most powerful military in the world.”
Putin and XI decided to dispel the benighted idea that each could be pushed around, one by one, by the West.
The Ukraine crisis has put into bas relief the new correlation of forces that the West can no longer afford to deny and avoid dealing with – and dealing not from their all-too-familiar-but-now-erstwhile "position of strength."
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).