(Analysis) A Grand Chess Game: The Russo-Ukraine Conflict’s Impact on China’s strategy toward the EU

Severus Xisheng Wang 王希聖

In his 1904 article, The Geographical Pivot of History, British geopolitical Halford Mackinder raised the Heartland Theory that described the Eurasian continent as a World Island. Later in his 1919 book, Democratic Ideals and Reality, he developed this theory and gave his famous syllogism: who rules East Europe commands the Heartland, who rules the Heartland commands the World Island, and who rules the World Island commands the world. Coincidently, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former United States National Security Advisor for the Carter administration, in his 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, likens the Eurasian continent to a chessboard. In his book, Zbigniew reminds American foreign policymakers of the importance of the principal geopolitical pivots on the Eurasian chessboard to maintain U.S. global hegemony. Mackinder’s and Brzezinski’s works are the classics of land power theory compared to Alfred Mahan’s sea power theory.

The motivations of both scholars to raise the idea of land power is to remind their governments, the U.K. and the U.S., two sea powers, to be alert about the rise of land powers. Ukraine, as a buffer state and a bridgehead between Europe and Russia, in Mackinder’s and Brzezinski’s eyes, is one of the principal geopolitical pivots and plays a significant role in land and sea power competition. Because of the importance of Ukraine in geopolitics, as it connects Europe and Asia and controls (Odesa) the north of the Black Sea, the Russo-Ukraine conflict today has caused a structural change to the balance between great powers. As such, the aim of this article is to study China’s strategy toward the EU from a perspective of land and sea power competition, showcasing the structural changes in China’s strategy toward the EU.

Map of the “Heartland Theory,” as published by Mackinder in 1904. Ukraine is location in the pivotal area. Source: Wikipedia

Opening: Russia’s “Queen’s Gambit”

To understand China’s strategy toward the EU, we need to put it into the context of the Sino-U.S. competition, a classical land & sea power competition. One part of the U.S.’s strategy to contain the rise of China is to drive a wedge between the EU, many of which are traditional land powers, and China. China understands this very clearly and tries hard to avoid this situation. Trump’s “American first” foreign policy was a strategic opportunity for China. China’s endeavor to win over the EU was quite successful as “America First” was the primary strategic principle during the Trump administration.

When then-President Trump launched trade wars with both the EU and China at the same time, the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement of Investment (CAI) was concluded in principle on December 30, 2020, which the Biden administration lobbied to block. To achieve this agreement, China made concessions to commit to a greater level of market access for EU investors than ever before, including offering to eliminate joint venture requirements and forced transfer of technologies. The reason why China was willing to make major concessions was that China aimed to use CAI to build a closer economic tie with the EU to avoid the U.S.’s long-term isolation strategy. However, China’s strategy toward the EU was forced to adopt a new situation when Russia invaded Ukraine. The Russo-Ukraine conflict re-rouses the geopolitical “specter” in the Eurasian continent.

The Queen’s Gambit is one of the oldest openings in international chess. As Sean Marsh puts it in The Batsford Book of Chess, “the Queen’s Gambit is a strategy by White to try and occupy the center of the board… White is offering a temporary pawn sacrifice to try to tempt Black into giving up the center.” If Ukraine is the geopolitical center of the chessboard, as described by Brzezinski, then Russia’s “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine on February 24th can be viewed as a strategy of the Queen’s Gambit that saw Putin try to take the initiative in the great game of power politics. China, a state at the Eastern end of the “chessboard,” is a target that Russia aims to rope in. In a binary worldview of the West, especially democracy vs. autocracy, China has usually been viewed as an ally of Russia. However, China’s foreign policy is deeply rooted in a non-alignment policy in practice which allows China to have more diplomatic room without restriction from its allies’ interests and ideologies. Thus, China and Russia may share many strategic interests, but they are not allies. In addition, in an environment of confrontation between China and the U.S., it is not in China’s interest to make alliances or get other countries to choose sides.

Nevertheless, Russia’s “Queen’s Gambit” strategy puts China in an awkward position. As we know, President Putin visited Beijing on February 4th, 2022, to take part in the opening ceremony of the XXIV Olympic Winter Games which was boycotted by many western countries in the name of the human right situation in Xinjiang. During this visit, President Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a Joint Statement declaring that “the friendship between the two states has no limits and that there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.” 20 days after signing the statement, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, February 4, 2022. Source: Reuters

President Putin betted that China needed Russia’s cooperation as the U.S., with its allies, is putting more pressure on China comprehensively. President Putin’s calculation was not entirely wrong. The coalition of China and Russia, as Brzezinski foresaw, is an anti-hegemonic coalition united by complementary grievances to the U.S. However, Russia’s attitude is not the only thing that China needs to take into consideration. On the one hand, China does believe that the enlargement of NATO, as the provision of joining NATO that was enshrined in the Ukrainian Constitution in 2019, is a security threat to Russia. This idea becomes especially true for the Chinese leadership as the US attempts to upgrade the Quad and AUKUS into an Indo-Pacific version of NATO. China was also mentioned in the NATO Strategic Concept paper as a systematic challenge for the first time at the 2022 NATO Summit.

On the other hand, China’s diplomacy is based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. Respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity are cornerstones of the PRC’s foreign policy since its foundation. As China itself has the sovereignty claim over Taiwan; Russia recognizes Donetsk and Luhansk regions as two independent states doubtlessly violating China’s territorial integrity principle. Therefore, China will not recognize the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk without Ukraine’s consent just as it did not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimean in 2014. Last, but most importantly, China does not want to further jeopardize its relationship with the EU because of Russia’s “Queen’s Gambit” and wants to avoid a situation where the EU fully stands with the U.S. in the Sino-U.S. competition. Thus, through many diplomatic channels, China tries to keep communicating with the EU and defend its neutral position in the Russo-Ukraine war.

China’s Middlegame: The impacts of the Russo-Ukraine Conflict a Sino-centric strategy toward the EU

The most remarkable geopolitical impacts caused by the war in Ukraine are a tightened relationship between the U.S. and the EU and a tightened relationship between China and Russia. The Biden administration intends to use the Russo-Ukraine conflict to restore American military influence in Europe and the “revival” of NATO is one example. The “revival” of NATO is an inverse status of “becoming brain-dead” which was described by French President Emmanuel Macron when he proclaimed it in an interview in 2019. The idea of “becoming brain-dead” was raised in the context of the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of a 1987 nuclear treaty with Russia which the EU considered itself the biggest victim. In an interview with Europe 1, President Macron showed the EU’s ambition for strategic autonomy in self-defense and claimed to build a real security dialogue with Russia. “We [the EU] must have a Europe that can defend itself on its own without relying only on the U.S.’’

However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February broke the EU’s illusion of self-defense. The war consolidated the predominant status of the U.S. in NATO and its military influence among the EU member states. Second, the Russo-Ukraine conflict exposes the weakness of the Euro currency and the lack for strategic and defensive autonomy. Many countries believe that today’s US government is abusing its dollar hegemony and weaponizing it to practice long-arm jurisdiction and interfere with their domestic issues to promote American national interests. For this reason, many Global South countries, including China, consider the Euro as a substitution for the U.S. dollar in the global financial market.

On March 1st, the EU, U.K., Canada, and the U.S. made an agreement to remove seven Russian banks from the SWIFT messaging system. The EU’s financial sanctions on Russia exposed the Global South countries’ worry that they may be sanctioned one day if their behaviors violate the West’s values. Therefore, many countries have begun to internationalize their own currency to avoid the financial hegemony of the West. For instance, China introduced its own Cross-Border Inter-Bank Payments System (CIPS). Nevertheless, every single currency other than Western currencies is still very weak in the global market. Thus, some Global South countries, such as BRICS member states, decided to develop a new reserve currency to promote Global South countries’ influence in finance.

Currencies of BRICS member states. Source: Sputnik

For Russia, because of the heavy economic and financial sanctions imposed by the West, it was forced to build a closer relationship with non-western countries such as China and India. From China’s perspective, a tightened relationship with Russia is a strategic opportunity as well as a challenge as there are political hurdles between China and Russia that need to be removed, at least in the short to medium term. One example is Russia’s tacit approval of the construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway. The CKU railway, as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), aims to build a close-knit Eurasian relationship. The negotiation for the project can be traced back to 1997.

However, the negotiation was thwarted by Russia in the past 25 years because Russia considers the five Central Asian countries within its own sphere of influence. The construction of the CKU railway will bring the economic influence of China into Central Asia, thereby reducing the dependence of the Caucasus five countries’ dependence on Russia. In addition, the completion of the CKU railway can help China diversify its trade route to connect the Middle East and Europe without passing through Russian territory which will reduce Russia’s strategic importance in geopolitics in a long term. Nevertheless, the disadvantages on the battlefield of Ukraine, and the Kazakh unrest interrupted earlier this year, promoted President Putin’s nod on the construction of the CKU railway.

The orange line shows the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway and its future plan. Source: UIRR

However, an ambiguous relationship with Russia is also a challenge to China that will inevitably deteriorate its already-struggled relationship with the EU. On March 22, 2021, both the EU and China put sanctions on each other over the issue of human rights in Xinjiang. The reciprocal sanctions resulted in a permanent suspension of CAI’s approval. On November 18, 2021, Taiwan opened a representative office in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, under the name of “Taiwanese Representative.” In the past, the Republic of China, the official name of Taiwan, usually sent a “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office” in countries without an official diplomatic relationship. The Taiwanese Representative Office in Vilnius is the first office globally that Taiwan has in the name of Taiwan. Beijing views the opening of the representative office as an action to hollow out the One China Principle and a salami-sliced recognition of Taiwan as an independent country. Because of this, Beijing demanded Lithuania to withdraw its ambassador and recalled its own ambassador to Lithuania. On the EU side, however, Brussel believes that Beijing’s actions were coercive diplomacy.

Obviously, the Russo-Ukraine conflict exaggerates the disagreements between the EU and China. On February 26th, 2022, China chose to stay neutral and abstained from voting in the UN Security Council to condemn and put sanctions on Russia. However, China maintains its economic connection with Russia which is viewed by the EU as a way to help Russia avoid Western sanctions.

On April 1, 2022, at the EU-China summit, the EU tried to make an agreement with China on the issue of the Russo-Ukraine conflict, although China did not respond to the EU’s request. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbing, explained that “China has always independently assessed the situation on the basis of the historical context and the merits of the Ukraine issue. We have always stood on the side of peace and justice.” Later the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy concluded the EU-China summit as a dialogue of the deaf. Estonia and Latvia, and previously Lithuania, stepped out of the cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries (China-CEEC).

China’s Endgame?

Even though the Russo-Ukraine conflict enlarges the disagreements between Sino-EU relations, China does still believe that the common interests between the latter is still greater than the disagreements. The first common interest is that both China and the EU are aiming at a cease-fire in Ukraine. The reason why China refused to put sanctions on Russia, other than its strategic consideration, is that the Chinese leadership believe that sanctions will not be able to end a war, instead only enlarging the disagreement and hatred. China does not seek to utilize the Russo-Ukraine conflict to defeat or impair either side. Ukraine may win on the battlefields and even a regime change may happen in Russia, but all of these cannot change the geographical fact that the EU and Russia are neighbors.

In the end, no matter how this war turns out, unlike the U.S., all countries in the Eurasian continent, including the EU, need to find a way to get along with Russia. The Chinese leadership expects the EU, rather than NATO, to have more autonomy on the issue of the Russo-Ukraine conflict. From a long-term economic perspective, the EU is the second largest trading partner with China, right behind ASEAN, and the EU is located at the western end of the Eurasian chessboard which should be integrated into the Eurasian economic entirety from a long-term perspective of a raising land power.

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(Analysis) A Grand Chess …

by Severus Xisheng Wang 王希聖 time to read: 10 min