How the Ukraine War Has Changed Beijing’s Strategy
In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Beijing was on the back foot. For weeks after Russian troops crossed Ukraine’s border, China’s messaging was stilted and confused as Chinese diplomats, propagandists, and foreign ministry spokespeople themselves tried to figure out Chinese President Xi Jinping’s line on the conflict. Xi’s “no limits” partnership with Russian President Vladimir Putin was incurring growing reputational costs.
Almost six months after the war’s outbreak and with no end in sight, Beijing has largely regained its footing. Its early concerns that the war would significantly increase overall European defense spending have yet to materialize. Although China would prefer the war to end with a clear Russian victory, a second-best option would be to see the United States and Europe exhaust their supplies of military equipment in support of Ukraine. Meanwhile, rising energy costs and inflation are threatening the resolve of European governments to hold the line on sanctions, signaling to Beijing a potential erosion in transatlantic unity. And even though in advanced democracies public opinion about China has clearly deteriorated, throughout the “global South,” Beijing continues to enjoy broad receptivity for its development assistance and diplomatic messaging.
At the same time, Beijing has concluded that regardless of the war’s outcome, its own external environment has become more dangerous. Chinese analysts see a growing schism between Western democracies and various nondemocratic countries, including China and Russia. China is concerned that the United States may leverage this growing fault line to build economic, technological, or security coalitions to contain it. It believes that Washington and Taipei are intentionally stirring up tension in the region by directly linking the assault on Ukraine to Taiwan’s safety and security. And it is concerned that growing international support for Taiwan will disrupt its plans for “reunification.”
These perceptions of Western interference have put Beijing once again on the offensive. Moving forward, China’s foreign policy will increasingly be defined by a more bellicose assertion of its interests and the exploration of new pathways to global power that circumvent chokepoints controlled by the West.
WHO TELLS YOUR STORY
Beijing’s reorientation since the invasion is evident in several areas. At the highest level was China’s unveiling earlier this year of a new strategic framework, which it dubbed the “global security initiative.” Although it is still in its early stages, the GSI consolidates several strands of Beijing’s evolving conceptualization about global order. More important, it signals Xi’s attempt to undermine international confidence in the United States as a provider of regional and global stability and to create a platform around which China can justify augmenting its own partnerships. The GSI also counters what Beijing perceives to be false portrayals of China’s aggressiveness and revisionism.
Xi first outlined the GSI during a virtual speech in April. Strictly speaking, there was little new content in Xi’s speech. But in announcing the GSI, Xi was seeking to wrest narrative control on global security away from the United States and its allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific and discourage countries from joining U.S.-led military blocs or groupings. With this initiative, Xi has put something else on the table to compete with a U.S.-led discussion about what an international order should look like after the war in Ukraine. Core to Beijing’s broader story is that China is a force of stability and predictability in the face of an increasingly volatile and unpredictable United States.
Just as important, Beijing continues to position itself as an innovator and leader in twenty-first-century global governance. Since the GSI’s initial rollout, it has become a standard item to include in meeting readouts from China’s bilateral and multilateral engagements across Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America, evidence that Beijing is pushing for the diplomatic normalization of its new initiative, and thus, inclusion in the vernacular of global governance. Although the GSI may not gain much traction in Tokyo, Canberra, or Brussels, it will find resonance in Jakarta, Islamabad, and Montevideo, where frustration with elements of the U.S.-led order is manifest.
Xi’s April speech also confirmed that the strategic alignment between China and Russia continues, despite Putin’s disastrous war in Ukraine. In particular, Xi included a reference to “indivisible security,” a phrase that dates to the early 1970s and negotiations between the Soviet Union and the West known as the Helsinki Process, but under Putin, has become a short-hand for Moscow’s argument that NATO expansion directly imperils Russia’s own sense of security. As Chinese officials have made crystal clear, Beijing sees a direct connection between NATO’s expanding presence in Europe and the United States’ growing coalition of security partners in the Indo-Pacific. As Le Yucheng, then a top foreign ministry official, said in a May speech, “For quite some time, the United States has kept flexing its muscle on China’s doorstep, creating exclusive groups against China and inflaming the Taiwan question to test China’s red line.” He went on: “If this is not an Asia-Pacific version of NATO’s eastward expansion, then what is?” This linkage of the Russian security environment to China’s was also a central component of the joint statement put out by Xi and Putin on February 4.
MORE AND CLOSER FRIENDS
As part of its post-invasion reorientation, China is also rapidly strengthening partnerships with countries that fall outside of the Western camp—that is, most of the “global South.” China has long sought to deepen its friendships abroad, but it is now recognizing that some countries, such as European democracies, will never stand with it when forced to choose. Referencing Ukraine, Le lamented in March that “some major countries make empty promises to small countries, turn small countries into their pawn and even use them to fight proxy wars.” Beijing does not want to face the same fate if it were to find itself in a conflict against Taiwan or any of its neighbors. As the Chinese scholar Yuan Zheng has explained, Beijing believes “that a potential proxy war is what some hawkish individuals and groups back in the U.S. are expecting to take place in China’s neighborhood.” Even if Chinese leaders are still confident about their country’s political system and its growing economic and military power, they recognize that it is still dependent on external goods and resources to fuel its development and growing military capabilities. Accordingly, Beijing is moving fast to both deepen and broaden partnerships to increase its immunity to crippling sanctions and to ensure that it is not alone in hard times. This includes strengthening bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. In August, Venezuela is expected to host a sniper competition as part of Russia-led military exercise in the Western Hemisphere that will likely involve China, Russia, Iran, and ten other countries in a show of force against the United States.
China is also keen to cement exclusive blocs of countries that will support it—or at least not support the United States. Chief among these efforts is China’s attempt to strengthen and expand the BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—as an alternative developing world bloc to compete with the Quad, the G-7, and the G-20. In May, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held a meeting of BRICS foreign ministers that included an additional nine guests, including from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The next month, as the host of a BRICS summit, Xi advocated expanding the group and proposed new cooperative efforts on the digital economy, trade, and investment, and the supply chain. Xi also invited an unprecedented 13 world leaders to participate in a high-level dialogue on global development with BRICS countries, including Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Not long after, Argentina and Iran officially applied to join the BRICS group, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey expressed interest in doing so, as well. In July, Moscow went so far as to suggest that the group’s members “create a new world reserve currency to better serve their economic interests.”
Perceptions of Western interference have again put Beijing on the offensive.
In addition to BRICS expansion, Beijing is seeking to transform the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes Russia, into a powerful bloc that can leverage deep political, economic, and military ties. China has long pushed for more SCO economic cooperation and proposed the establishment of a free trade agreement and creation of a SCO bank. Although these ideas fell flat last year, this year, in May, the SCO discussed the need for increased interactions among member states, particularly on international security and economic cooperation. As SCO formal membership expands to include Iran later this year, and potentially Belarus in the future, the organization is primed to become more assertive on the world stage. Indeed, this June, Tehran proposed that the SCO adopt a single currency and expressed hopes that the group can become a “concert of non-Western great powers.”
Within both blocs and beyond, it will be increasingly important to observe how much China, Russia, and Iran are able to deepen relations with one another and drive broader alignment among countries that are dissatisfied with U.S. leadership. Similarly, the extent to which China can leverage its close relationship with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to build support among Muslim countries, including with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Gulf Cooperation Council, is another variable affecting support for China among developing countries.
BACKING UP WORDS WITH FORCE
A final component of China’s foreign policy rethink concerns military force. Beijing believes that the West is incapable of understanding or sympathizing with what it views as legitimate Russian security concerns. There is no reason for China to assume that the United States and its allies will treat China’s concerns any differently. Because diplomacy is not effective, China may need to use force to demonstrate its resolve.
This is particularly true when it comes to Taiwan, and Beijing is now more anxious than ever about U.S. intentions toward the island and what it perceives to be increasing provocations. This has led to discussion among some Chinese foreign policy analysts about whether another Taiwan Strait crisis is imminent and, if so, how China should prepare. Yang Jiechi, a diplomat who serves on China’s Politburo, has stated that China will take “firm actions”—including using the military—to safeguard its interests. At the same time, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has engaged in more exercises near Taiwan in an effort to deter potential third-party intervention. These dynamics likely explain why Beijing is issuing unusually sharp warnings over the visit to Taiwan that Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, is planning, saying that such a trip would “have a severe negative impact on the political foundations of China-U.S. relations.”
It would be a mistake to brush aside China’s warnings—and its threats of military action—simply because prior warnings have failed to materialize. Although the prospect of an invasion of Taiwan remains remote, Beijing has numerous paths to escalate short of outright conflict, including sending jets to fly over Taiwanese territory. And if Beijing did take more drastic action out of frustration with recent U.S. behavior, this could easily provoke a full-blown crisis.
IT’S UP TO XI
Will China’s recent efforts to shift the balance of momentum and power in its direction work? It remains to be seen if the GSI will fundamentally alter the international order, or even become a key pillar of China’s approach to global governance. China has tried and failed before to drive the discussion on global security, as was the case with its New Security Concept, a security framework that sought greater economic and diplomatic interactions, which was first articulated in 1996. Back then, of course, China had far less economic and diplomatic leverage. And regardless of its ultimate success, the GSI is an important window into how Beijing will seek to steer the conversation on regional and global security after the upcoming 20th Party Congress, which is expected to be held in the fall.
Beijing’s efforts to revitalize and expand existing organizations such as the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization also face obstacles. India, for instance, is a member of both blocs and may constrain any openly anti-American efforts. But even marginal improvements in the capabilities and cohesion of these groupings would help Beijing blunt any coercive or punitive moves that the United States and its allies may make against China in the years ahead.
But perhaps the biggest factor shaping China’s strategic environment moving forward is Beijing itself. On paper, one can begin to glimpse the initial outlines of China’s readjusted game plan. Deeper ties with the “global South.” A repurposing of existing Beijing-led institutions like the SCO. New concepts of security that align with its own vision for international order. Implemented well, this strategy would no doubt complicate U.S. foreign policy. But these efforts take considerable time, and they could unravel if Beijing’s increasingly aggressive and coercive behavior against its neighbors generates international pushback or reticence to work with China. Xi’s penchant for “own goals” and his dramatic overreach have proved to be the single biggest inhibitor for China’s grand strategy. His hunger for power could well doom Chinese foreign policy.