In the opening weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, European Union foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell placed his hopes in China to resolve the conflict.
“There is no alternative,” Borrell said. “We cannot be the mediators, that is clear. And it cannot be the US either. Who else? It has to be China, I trust in that.”
A year later, Borrell’s faith has proven misplaced, as China has only disappointed Western policymakers. Once the repository of American and European hopes, Beijing has shown no interest in restraining Russia and restoring the pre-war European order.
Instead, it has leveraged the Ukraine war to begin building an alternative, Sino-centric system.
Its efforts are bearing fruit: As Chinese President Xi Jinping told Russian President Vladimir Putin at the end of their three-day summit in Moscow last week, “Right now we’re seeing a change we haven’t seen for 100 years, and we’re driving this change together.”
The change Xi references is most evident in the Middle East, where Russia’s war on Ukraine is driving America’s Gulf ally Saudi Arabia into the embrace of China.
China this month brokered the normalization of ties between Riyadh and Tehran in a diplomatic coup that shocked Washington.
Riyadh’s alarm over Iran’s military breakout, given insufficient attention by Washington, spurred the deal.
Iran has seized on the Ukraine war to qualitatively upgrade its military. In return for supplying Russia with drones, munitions and — possibly — ballistic missiles, Iran will receive fourth-generation fighter jets and other advanced systems from Russia, potentially including sophisticated air defenses that could safeguard its nuclear sites.
Russia and Iran have also struck an agreement to undertake military co-production, establishing Iranian safe havens on Russian soil that are beyond the reach of Israeli and American action.
Traditionally, Riyadh would have looked to Washington for support as Tehran wields its Russian bayonet, but the Biden administration has shown little interest in deterring Iran. With war in Europe, it has little appetite for another hard-power competition in a second theater.
Unable to rely on the United States, Saudi Arabia is open to China as an alternative.
As China flexes its diplomatic muscle, it will work to establish an energy, trading and financial system in the Gulf that sits apart from the United States: an international protection racket under the aegis of Beijing.
China’s similar strategy for Europe explains why Beijing has shown no interest in constraining Russia.
Just as Iran’s attacks on the US-dominated Middle Eastern order have prompted the Gulf states to hedge their bets, China believes Russia’s attack on the US alliance system in Europe will make countries there think twice about their transatlantic ties.
If the war leaves Moscow entrenched in Ukraine, China will sell itself as an alternative partner for securing the European order.
The US strategy of confronting Russia will have failed — so Beijing will whisper into European ears — while the Chinese path of peaceful accommodation has yet to be attempted.
As in the Middle East, the price for security in Europe would be an end to American hegemony.
Such an outcome may seem fanciful so long as Russia fails in Ukraine and Europe remains united. But Beijing is in no rush.
Despite the war, it has deepened its economic ties with the West and increased its leverage over Moscow.
If the war drags on and Russia’s dependence on China increases, some Westerners may look to China as the conflict’s indispensable interlocutor.
So instead of cracking down on Russia, China is intervening on its behalf.
Beijing has assisted Moscow with sanctions evasion and supplied parts for weapons. Most recently, it also shipped assault rifles and body armor to Moscow despite Western warnings against such transfers.
To test Western redlines even further, China could ramp up its provision of parts with military applications or send large numbers of weapons to third countries with friendly ties to Russia.
This would confront Washington and Brussels with a dilemma they would rather not face.
Yet China will not disabuse the West of its illusions. Nor will it pressure Moscow into peremptorily ceasing combat operations: Russia is China’s most important partner on the world stage, and as Beijing challenges the United States, it will want to demonstrate it stands by its friends.
If it wishes to maintain its hegemon status, Washington must confront China’s efforts to encroach on its traditional spheres of influence before the alternative system Beijing seeks to construct becomes entrenched.