Jo Inge Bekkevold
Senior researcher, Department of Defense Studies, Norwegian Defense College
Henrik Stålhane Hiim
Associate Professor, Department of Defense Studies, Norwegian Defense College
Professor and Head of Security Policy in the Asia Program, Department of Defense Studies at the Norwegian Defense College
As the risk of war in Europe increases, the United States is split between its two flanks.
This is a debate post. Opinions in the text are at the writer’s expense.
Professor Øyvind Østerud claims in an article in Aftenposten that everyone loses in a conflict in Ukraine. On the other hand, we would like to remind you that the crisis is favorable for one country: China.
There are two main reasons for this.
The United States is distracted
First, the United States is becoming more concerned with its European flank.
The United States has clearly signaled that a growing China – not a Russia in relative decline – is the country’s most important challenger. If the United States’ military resources and attention are drawn to Europe, it will serve China.
China can take advantage of the room for maneuver that arises when the United States is distracted by a conflict, for example to put stronger pressure on Taiwan. Invasion is hardly relevant, but China can test Taiwan’s defense capability by stepping up flights into Taiwan’s air defense zone, or through major military exercises.
For the United States, it will be demanding to deal with such a situation at the same time as a war in Ukraine is unfolding.
Moscow’s relations with Beijing are strengthened
Secondly, the conflict in Ukraine will strengthen Moscow’s relations with Beijing and make Russia more dependent on China.
Russian dependence is favorable for China. In the US, there are several who have spoken out in favor of playing the “Russia card” against China – in other words, approaching Russia to balance growing Chinese power.
Although such a maneuver would in any case be very demanding, an invasion of Ukraine would make it completely impossible.
China can also use Russia’s isolation to increase its trade and investment and to sign new petroleum agreements. In the absence of Western competitors, China can push favorable conditions from Russia, as they did after the Ukraine conflict in 2014.
Story about the power of the West in free fall
The strategic partnership between China and Russia gives both countries greater freedom of action.
Although China does not actively support Russia’s policy in Ukraine, Russia benefits from having its back to China free. In the same way, a stable relationship with Russia makes it easier for China to channel its resources to build naval power to push the United States out of Asia.
Chinese leaders will also be able to exploit the crisis in Ukraine in other ways. Chinese media emphasize that Europe and the United States are divided in their views on how to handle the crisis. In Chinese propaganda, the Ukraine crisis will be used in a larger narrative about how Western power is in free fall.
In addition, Russia’s demands for spheres of influence can legitimize China’s behavior toward its neighbors. A world where “the strong do as they please, and the weak do as they must,” suits China well.
The gains outweigh the costs to China
The Ukraine conflict and the close ties with Russia certainly have some costs for China.
China presents itself as a strong supporter of state sovereignty, and a Russian invasion will violate this principle. A clearly stated support for Russia can further contribute to a weakened relationship with Europe, and especially with countries in Eastern Europe.
In addition, a major conflict will lead to economic unrest. China is already facing challenges in dealing with the economic costs of the pandemic.
In the end, it will be bad for Chinese leaders if the Winter Olympics are ruined by a war.
In sum, however, the geopolitical benefits of the Ukraine crisis outweigh the costs to China. Therefore, China will hardly comply with the United States’ desire to help curb the conflict.
If the crisis continues to simmer, but without escalating into a major war, China could continue to reap gains for a long time to come. While Russia, the United States and Europe all risk losing, the crisis has one winner – China.