Russia’s war viewed from China

Is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine merely the first in a series of conflicts that will make Europe seem more like the Middle East in the coming years? A Chinese academic who requested anonymity put that question to me last month, and his reasoning showed just how differently non-Westerners view a war that is reshaping the European geopolitical order.

In speaking with Chinese academics to understand how they view the world, I have found that they start from a fundamentally different position than many in the West do. It’s not just that they are more likely to blame the Ukraine war on NATO enlargement than on the Kremlin; it is that many of their core strategic assumptions are also the opposite of our own.

While Europeans and Americans see the conflict as a turning point in global history, the Chinese see it as just another war of intervention—one that is even less significant than those launched in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 75 years. To them, the only material difference this time is that it is not the West that is intervening.

And while many in Europe think that the war has marked America’s return to the global stage, Chinese intellectuals see it as further confirmation of the incoming post-American world. To them, the end of American hegemony created a vacuum that is now being filled by Russia.

Whereas Westerners see an attack on the rules-based order, my Chinese friends see the emergence of a more pluralistic world—one in which the end of American hegemony permits different regional and sub-regional projects. They argue that the rules-based order has always lacked legitimacy; Western powers created the rules, and they have never shown much compunction about changing them when it suits their purposes (as in Kosovo and Iraq).

These are the arguments that lead to the Middle East analogy. My Chinese interlocutor sees the situation in Ukraine not as a war of aggression between sovereign countries, but rather as a revision of post-colonial borders following the end of Western hegemony. Likewise, in the Middle East, states are questioning the borders that the West drew after World War I.

But the most striking parallel is that the Ukraine conflict is widely regarded as a proxy war. Just as the wars in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon have been fuelled and exploited by great powers, so, too, has the war in Ukraine. Who are the main beneficiaries? My Chinese friend argues that it certainly is not Russia, Ukraine or Europe. Rather, the United States and China ultimately stand to gain the most, and both have been approaching the conflict as a proxy war in their larger rivalry.

The argument goes that the Americans have benefited by locking Europeans, Japanese and Koreans into a new alignment of US-dictated priorities, and by isolating Russia and forcing China to clarify where it stands on issues such as territorial integrity. At the same time, they say China has benefited by cementing Russia’s subordinate position in the two countries’ partnership, and by prodding more countries in the global south to embrace non-alignment.

While European leaders cast themselves as 21st-century Churchills, the Chinese see them as mere pawns in a bigger geopolitical game. The consensus among all the scholars I spoke with is that the war in Ukraine is a rather unimportant diversion when compared to the short-term disruptions of Covid-19 or the longer-term struggle for supremacy between the US and China.

Obviously, one could argue with my Chinese interlocutor’s points. Europeans certainly have more agency than he implies, and the West’s vigorous response to Russia’s aggression could well prevent the war from being the first in a longer series of border conflicts (as occurred during the decade-long wars of Yugoslav succession in the 1990s).

Nonetheless, the fact that Chinese observers frame things so differently than we do should give us pause. At a minimum, we in the West should think harder about how the rest of the world perceives us. Yes, it is tempting to dismiss Chinese arguments as mere talking points, designed to stay on the good side of a hostile, undemocratic regime (public discussions about Ukraine are heavily controlled in China). But perhaps some humility is in order.

The fact that Chinese observers have such a radically different perspective may help to explain why the West has not garnered near-universal support for its sanctions against Russia. At a time when the politics of ‘taking back control’ is ascendant, we should not be so surprised to see other governments discounting the importance of Ukraine. Where we see a heroic self-defence of the rules-based order, others see the last gasp of Western hegemony in a world that is quickly becoming multipolar.