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Alexandros Zachariades

March 16th, 2022

The prospects of a Russo-Chinese alliance and Taiwan

1 comment | 11 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Alexandros Zachariades

March 16th, 2022

The prospects of a Russo-Chinese alliance and Taiwan

1 comment | 11 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has increased the likelihood of a Russo-Chinese alliance based on a balance-of-power logic.
  • Security and financial considerations will drive Moscow into Beijing’s arms in an alliance where China will possess the upper hand.
  • China has not yet taken an active role in mediating the conflict. Chinese policymakers are likely waiting to see whether a military victory is possible. In that case, a military solution to the issue of Taiwan may become more tempting.

 

Ongoing events in Ukraine are already being viewed by many as a turning point in international relations. As the world has been taken aback by the return of interstate war on the European continent, Beijing will likely emerge with important geopolitical benefits irrespective of the conflict’s final outcome. The most direct way in which Beijing stands to benefit relates to the emergence of a Russo-Chinese alliance that is increasingly likely to be established due to financial and security considerations. A second benefit would be a change of norms in the international system that could indirectly enable a military take-over of Taiwan by China. The materialisation of this scenario would require a Russian military victory in Ukraine. Although at the time of writing this piece, Russia faces severe problems on the field, a Russian military victory seems within reach and can alter foundational norms regarding the use of force in the international system.

The conflict in Ukraine is bound to alter strategic calculations in Washington and European capitals. The war has already created a rally-around-the-flag effect for NATO and its members. In the aftermath of the Cold War, and despite the alliance’s expansion, NATO has often been considered an alliance without purpose. After all, its raison d’etre, the Soviet Union, ceased to exist. President Trump at one point even discussed pulling the USA out of NATO. Despite the uniqueness of Trump’s abrasive character, his grudges against the alliance represented a continuity rather than a break for the diminishing importance of NATO in the eyes of US policymakers. A 2019 report by the Belfer Center called NATO “an alliance in crisis” highlighting internal issues of defence spending and the threat to democratic values as critical to the alliance’s crisis among a host of other factors. At the same time, US grand strategy since the Obama administration sought to “pivot” to Asia to deal with a rising China.

Nonetheless, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has instilled new life in NATO, with the threat of Russian aggression towards a NATO member state in the aftermath of the ongoing invasion increasing. The problem of defence spending will be eradicated as member states will ramp up their defensive capabilities. For instance, in an unprecedented move since the end of the Cold War, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a revamping of its armed forces worth €100 billion.

China has recently publicly opposed NATO and its expansion in Europe, and has also accused the US of attempting to build a NATO equivalent in the Pacific region. In this respect, the military buildup in European capitals and the reinvigoration of NATO will prove challenging for Chinese foreign policymakers.

However, China has a potential advantage from these developments; a robust Sino-Russian alliance is possible. The two sides which have been drawing closer over the past decade will solidify their relationship due to a common adversary in the face of the West. China’s stance on the matter highlights this tendency. Chinese officials support segments of Russia’s narrative regarding the role of the US in Russia’s decision to invade. Moreover, China decided to abstain from a vote in the UN General Assembly condemning Russia’s invasion. Although Sino-Russian relations have always been tricky in the past, the main hurdle for the prospect of a Sino-Russian alliance would be the US’ and Europe’s capability to break Moscow away from that schema. Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has put an end to that prospect for the foreseeable future.

A Sino-Russian alliance will not be a relationship of equals due to the economic disparity between the two sides and the increasing need for financial support from Moscow. The swift and severe sanctions imposed on Russia have hit the Russian economy and its prospects, affecting Russian businesses and trade capacity to operate in Europe, the USA, and elsewhere. Simultaneously, Western sanctions have also targeted the Russian Central Bank affecting its ability to access its reserves in US dollars, thus de facto losing about 60% of those reserves. In short, Russia’s economy is in dire straits.

This provides an opportunity for China to increase its asymmetric interdependency with Moscow in its favour, and to double down on its plans to create an alternative multilateral framework of finance, trade and global payments. The prospect of an alternative multilateralism was discussed extensively in a meeting between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin last December, who wanted to break free from the Western-dominated global payments system. The current sanctions which have blocked seven Russian banks from SWIFT and targeted Russia’s central bank will boost the conviction in Moscow that such an alternative multilateralism is needed. The only party that can aid in its construction is China. Chinese financial institutions will be able to provide ways to circumvent Western sanctions if Russian banks and institutions revert to renminbi for transactions between Russian and Chinese entities. Finally, given the Russian central bank’s inability to access the Western market to finance its public debt, China can utilise this to its advantage by investing in Russian debt to enhance Moscow’s dependency on Chinese funds. In this respect, an alliance between Moscow and Beijing will be dictated by a balance of power logic and economic necessities from Moscow’s perspective that China can exploit to its advantage.

Although many analysts have viewed the creation of a Sino-Russian alliance as inevitable for various reasons, this alignment was in fact far from inevitable. We should not forget that Russia and China have long-standing border disputes, briefly fighting over them on two different occasions in 1929 and 1969. However, the capacity of the West to exploit these cleavages and halt the rise of a Sino-Russian alliance will be severely hampered in light of recent events. Furthermore, this process will be drastically accelerated if the EU follows the US and the UK in an embargo of Russian oil and gas exports. Although eradication of the EU’s dependency on Russian gas in the short-term is impossible, the EU has declared that it will move towards this direction immediately, cutting two-thirds of its imports from Russian gas by the end of the year. The less dependent the EU and the West are on Russian fossil fuels, the more dependent Russia will become on China to buy its petrochemicals which form the foundation of its economy. Therefore, it is highly probable that we will see a repeat of the Russo-Chinese gas deal signed after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, albeit in larger proportions. If this scenario materialises, we would be talking about a robust Russo-Chinese alliance in which China is calling most of the shots.

Changing forms of conflict management and Taiwan

Since the onset of hostilities, there have been efforts by the Ukrainian, German and French leaderships to pressure China into mediating and using its leverage vis-à-vis Russia. Xi Jinping expressed his readiness to aid in this effort, but it remains to be seen whether there will be a change in China’s stance. Currently, Chinese officials are likely waiting out for the outcome of the conflict and its repercussions, which have the potential to effect a change in the norms of the international system. This change of norms could, in turn, enable a military solution to the issue of Taiwan.

On the one hand, Taiwan and Ukraine are not the same, with the issue of Taiwan being a “purely domestic affair” according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. But on the other hand, if Russia can claim a military victory in Ukraine and achieve its objectives, this creates a dangerous normative precedence in the international system, which would signify a return of military victory as a conflict resolution mechanism.

Although liberal approaches initially dominated the post-Cold War era to peacebuilding that focused on democratisation and negotiated solutions, we have recently witnessed a turn to authoritarian modes of conflict management by non-Western powers in internal conflicts, including Chechnya, Syria, Rwanda and Sri Lanka, among others. Authoritarian conflict management is predicated upon a military victory, and Vladimir Putin has applied this approach to an interstate conflict. China will be watching closely, and an outcome in which Russia solidifies its gains via a military solution could pave the way for a similar solution regarding Taiwan. After all, even if China views the dispute across the Taiwan straits as an internal matter in military and operational terms, the confrontation would resemble an inter-state war rather than an internal conflict.

It is likely that China will remain flexible on the issue of Taiwan, given the prospect of a protracted conflict in the heart of Europe which would signify that Vladimir Putin’s approach backfired. Additionally, China will keep an eye out on the impact of sanctions and the extent of Western unity in the coming months over them.

In short, China has found itself in a position where Russia will become extremely dependent on its help in financial and diplomatic terms. This on the one hand allows the construction of a Russo-Chinese alliance in the short-term where China will have the upper hand. It also provides China with the necessary leverage to choose, depending on the developments in the field, whether it will act as a spoiler to further Russia’s dependency and set a precedent concerning future military action in Taiwan or whether it will become a key player in the de-escalation of hostilities. Time will tell what course Beijing will choose, but China stands to emerge out of this conflict in a beneficial position.


This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.

The blog image, “Vladimir Putin awarded the Chinese Order of Friendship 01“, is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

About the author

Alexandros Zachariades

Alexandros Zachariades is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the editor of vol. 51 of the Millennium: Journal of International Studies. He is also currently the Head of Research for the 89 Initiative.

Posted In: Security

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