China’s Chess Game in Ukraine: Is the West Ready?
China’s possible emergence as the peacemaker to end Russia’s war in Ukraine has been highlighted following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia. The Chinese economic presence in Ukraine is already substantial and Beijing has kept political communication channels open with Kyiv, giving the country a reason to mediate a settlement in Ukraine and to participate in its post-war economic reconstruction. This could potentially strengthen China’s future influence in Ukraine. However, Ukraine’s leaders have been demonstrated as being strategic and with a keen grasp of their country’s interests, despite many experts and pundits being confounded by the war in Ukraine.
Since the war began, China’s energy imports from Russia have skyrocketed and total trade has soared. Russia has looked to China for critical imports it can no longer get from the west. Beijing backs Russia now not for sentimental reasons or because of Xi’s fondness for Putin, but because China’s leaders don’t want the US to be able to focus even more resources and attention on East Asia in general and China in particular. If Xi can serve as the prime mover for a political settlement that ends the war and increases China’s influence in Ukraine, it would be a diplomatic coup for Beijing. However, it remains a remote prospect, given China’s current close alignment with Moscow.
The war in Ukraine has confounded people who thought they knew a thing or two about these two countries and war, leading to the conclusion that prevailing beliefs and expectations were dead wrong. The post-war economic reconstruction of Ukraine also poses a challenge. Should China wish to participate in Ukraine’s post-war economic reconstruction, it is likely to want to maintain close ties with Russia, leading to a potential conflict of interest with Ukraine. If the West wishes to counter China’s current and future influence in Ukraine, it ought to remain active in assisting Ukraine’s economic revival and strengthening Ukrainians’ security. Western policymakers should take note of Ukraine’s leaders’ strategic savviness and keen grasp of their country’s interests.
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