The World Around Us
March 25, 2022
China the real winner as Ukraine conflict distracts the West?

It is not a secret that China harbors superpower ambitions. After all, it is the world’s most populous country, it has the world’s second largest economy, it has a large military, and it has a tremendous amount of capital which it uses to good effect in pursuit of dollar diplomacy. However, with a still dominant United States (US), China has had to bide its time for global supremacy.

It is also no secret that the US is intent on stymying China’s rise. The US is in an era of strategic competition with China – economically, militarily and diplomatically. Economically, the US has engaged China in a trade war, including by placing higher taxes on Chinese products. Militarily, the American pivot to Asia which started under President Obama, has been an attempt to contest China in its own backyard. Diplomatically, the US has also been trying to push back against rising Chinese influence, including in parts of the world such as Latin America and the Caribbean where America has traditionally been dominant.

China is certainly reshaping the global geopolitical environment as its increasing capabilities challenge the position of the US across multiple domains. What the Russian invasion of Ukraine has done is distract the US and it allies from their geo-strategic competition with China, even if momentarily. Essentially, the unintended “winner” of the Ukrainian conflict might be China.

The ancient proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” can perhaps be loosely applied to Russia’s and China’s overlapping geo-political interests. In the case of the former, it does not want the US and its allies to dominate what it perceives to be its historical and rightful sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the latter does not want the South China Sea to be dominated by the US. These two overlapping scenarios suggest that both Russia and China do not want a world which is dominated by American influence.

However, whereas before the US had considered China to be its number one geo-political foe of the 21st century, Russia’s shenanigans in Ukraine now have the full attention of the US. This might prove to be a useful distraction which may provide some respite for China from Washington’s gaze.

If China turns out to be the “winner” in this Russia-Ukraine conflict, then Taiwan could very well end up being the real “loser”. Indeed, there are legitimate fears that Russia’s actions in Ukraine could be providing the blueprint for China to eventually retake Taiwan.

Any notion that Russia’s actions in Ukraine could be a template for other countries suggests that the response to such aggression by the global community must out of necessity, impose severe costs. Such costs should send the message that the means do not always justify the ends and that flagrant disregard for international law has consequences.

The saying “when your neighbor’s house is on fire wet yours” is very applicable to the Ukraine situation. We should not be lulled into a false sense of security that this will not happen elsewhere, whether closer to our shores, on our shores, or to a friend and ally.

Of course, from a geo-political perspective, China may very well turn out to be the real winner in the Ukraine conflict as its two biggest geo-strategic foes battle it out in Eastern Europe, even if by proxy. However, the real winners should ideally be those who stand on the right side of history. Those who love peace, those who stand in defense of international law, the innocent and the vulnerable – must be the real winners. This would only happen if aggressors pay a heavy price for their senseless actions.

Joel K Richards is a Vincentian national living and working in Europe in the field of international trade and development.Email: [email protected]