After twelve grinding months, China appears no more capable of influencing the outcome of Russia’s war in Ukraine than it was at the conflict’s inception. Largely reduced to spectator status, Beijing’s primary role has been to provide Moscow with a financial lifeline by ramping up purchases of heavily discounted Russian crude oil and coal, while reaping an unexpected windfall from surging exports to Russia. But these and other Chinese half-measures appear aimed, for now, at ensuring Russia has what it needs to sustain its wartime economy—not actually win the war.
In a similar twist, China’s 12-point peace plan for Ukraine is not geared toward restoring peace in Europe. Indeed, China’s dead-on-arrival missive has little to do with ending the war in Ukraine and everything to do with setting the conditions to win a future war over Taiwan. Put differently, China recognizes the causes of Russia’s failure in Ukraine are the same that threaten its eventual reunification plans.
Read correctly, China’s phony peace proposal could also serve as the basis for a Western-led roadmap to prevent an Indo-Pacific war from breaking out in the first place.
Clearly, Beijing’s position paper, titled “The Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis,” reflects China’s concerns about current battlefield conditions in Europe. To date, transatlantic resolve to support Ukraine remains more or less resolute, even as Western democracies grapple with absorbing the costs associated with being cut off from Russian energy and other raw materials. Even though more Russian soldiers have perished in Ukraine than during all Russian wars combined since World War II, Russian President Vladimir Putin remains entirely too confident he can still defeat Ukraine and altogether too stubborn to change course. Meanwhile, China continues to vacillate in providing lethal assistance to Russia, a decision made more complicated now that Washington has leaked details on Beijing’s internal deliberations.
No doubt, Chinese leader Xi Jinping appears powerless to pull Putin back from the brink—not that Xi has demonstrated any inclination to do so. At the same time, China’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion has ravaged its credibility across Europe, including in countries such as Austria, Poland, and Croatia, where Beijing has historically enjoyed positive relations. And China’s sunk costs are not purely reputational but increasingly economic. With the war weighing on global growth, debt defaults in the developing world loom, with Beijing holding many of those loans. Economic uncertainty also threatens to depress worldwide demand for Chinese exports just as Beijing’s attempts to stimulate domestic consumer spending—the key to re-igniting China’s recovery and revamping the country’s broken growth model—have fallen flat.
Cue Beijing’s peace plan, both a masterstroke at misdirection as well as a not-so-subtle admission that Western unity, sanctions, supply chain instability, and potential grain disruption could derail China’s Indo-Pacific revisionism.
Sure, China’s diplomatic gambit was immediately disavowed as a viable path to peace in Ukraine in Washington, Brussels, Kyiv, and elsewhere. But read more carefully, Beijing’s proposal lays bare the rhetorical and legal scaffolding it intends to erect if and when Xi decides to forcefully retake Taiwan. If last August’s marathon of military maneuvers around the island revealed the attack vectors China likely intends to prosecute during an all-out amphibious assault on Taiwan, the laundry list of conditions embodied in the peace plan reveals how China intends to complicate Western attempts to replicate the Ukraine playbook during a future contingency.
Central to China’s peace plan are demands that Western countries abandon their “Cold War mentality” and avoid “bloc confrontation”—phrases that are code for NATO’s alliance system and Beijing’s belief that Kyiv should not receive any additional Western military assistance. China’s crack at military de-escalation masks its real motive: It would like Russia to prevail over Ukraine in the absence of continued U.S. and European support. That same preferred balance of power applies in a Taiwan contingency, too. In a head-to-head match-up between China and Taiwan, China wins handily. If Taiwan, like Ukraine, can draw on extended external military equipment, training, and real-time intelligence support, all bets are off. And so, Beijing remains focused on degrading the ability of international actors to inject strategic risk into Chinese decision-making, as well as on exploiting cleavages among U.S. allies.
Just as glaring is the plan’s outright rejection of unilateral sanctions, which China views as violating international law. Instead, China prefers measures be debated multilaterally by the U.N. Security Council, where Beijing and Moscow wield vetoes. Undoubtedly, the U.S. and European Union-led sanctions regime on Russia has exacerbated Beijing’s dread that it, too, could someday be economically hobbled. But whereas Russia turned to economically more powerful China for support, Beijing would largely be on its own if the situation were reversed. That stark realization undergirds China’s intensifying self-sufficiency push, which is aimed at sanctions-proofing its economy. Those measures include establishing a yuan-based commodities trading scheme and developing the Cross-Border Interbank Payments System, augmented by the digital yuan, to enable sanctioned entities to dodge SWIFT, the Western-controlled global payments network.
That same fear of sanctions factors into the plan’s push to “keep industrial and supply chains stable.” The timidity of Chinese firms—large and small, state-backed and ostensibly private—to cross the sanctions threshold suggests China’s campaign to inoculate itself from Western export controls remains a work very much in progress. Case in point: China’s meek response to U.S. semiconductor restrictions. Inflicting proportionate pain on the United States, Beijing worries, could be self-defeating given China’s dependence on Western markets and technology. Russia clearly fell victim to a similar vulnerability gap. In binding itself to global value chains in ways that Russia never could, Beijing hopes to exercise leverage over Western deliberations regarding Taiwan, rather than the other way around.
The plan has two final priorities: “ceasing hostilities” and “respecting the sovereignty of all countries.” The former reflects Beijing’s understanding that Russian casualty counts are unsustainable and that Moscow must regroup its forces. As for the latter, China has struggled to rationalize how Russia’s breach of Ukraine’s borders does not infringe upon Kyiv’s sovereignty. But that is largely irrelevant to Beijing’s situation, since China believes Taiwan enjoys neither borders nor sovereignty. And, at least as far as international law is concerned, China’s supposition stands strong. Taiwan’s arbitrary exclusion from the U.N. system, Western adherence to the “one-China” myth, and Taipei’s dwindling recognition network ensure that, unlike Ukraine, Taiwan’s international legal recourse could be limited following an invasion.
All told, Beijing rightly understands that any plan to retake Taiwan—or at least any plan that carries the least risk—is predicated upon manifesting and subsequently sustaining the 12 conditions found in its Ukraine peace plan. In recent years, Washington has made tremendous strides strengthening its alliance network in the Indo-Pacific, as well as better aligning and boosting regional partner capability. Efforts are also underway to undercut China’s supply chain dominance in certain sectors, as well as to dent Beijing’s ability to leverage its grip on critical minerals to advance its foreign policy objectives.
But to undermine China’s other strategic pillars, much work remains. The top priority is for Western countries, led by the United States, to accelerate the difficult task of defining and telegraphing plans to institute a robust sanctions regime with automatic triggers should China mobilize its forces for an invasion or proceed with one. Democracies must also selectively deepen their trade and industrial ties to Taiwan, in effect reducing Taiwan’s economic reliance on China, while also wielding their influence to bolster Taiwan’s legal participation in international organizations. Last, and most controversially, Western nations must consider weaponizing China’s core vulnerability—and one of its other peace plan principles—by threatening to target its heavy reliance on foreign countries for food, arguably the commodity most tied to China’s political stability and most likely to seed doubt into Xi’s invasion calculus.
As Putin learned the hard way, waging a war on faulty assumptions can mean the difference between victory and stalemate. Undermining Xi’s assumptions regarding a potential showdown over Taiwan may just be the best way to avoid one altogether.
Source : foreignpolicy.com