As geopolitical tensions escalate in Eastern Europe, many point to Russia — the main aggressor in Ukraine — and the United States, the historic protector and patron of Europe in the post-WWII era, as the actors most likely to benefit from the conflict. Since the 2014 invasion of Crimea, the West has engaged in numerous discussions surrounding Russia’s imperial ambitions in former Soviet satellite states, where many view the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a challenge to U.S. hegemony in the region.
However, the most important player is often missing from these discussions. Due to the convergence of China’s political and economic ties to both Russia and Ukraine, and Western sanctions pushing Moscow closer to Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping is poised to emerge as the primary beneficiary of the current Ukrainian crisis.
With Russia’s full-scale attack entering its third week against Ukraine, sanctions levied against Moscow have increased steadily. NATO and the United States recognize economic sanctions, along with military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, as the most effective means of condemning Moscow without direct military intervention.
The Chinese government has yet to enact any economic repercussions against Russia, walking a tenuous line between their historic relations with the Kremlin and the U.S. threatening sanctions against Beijing if they choose to back Russia.
The impact of these sanctions cannot be understated, as even Russian President Vladimir Putin has acknowledged the difficulties his country is facing as a result. “Our economy will need deep structural changes in these new realities, and I won’t hide this — they won’t be easy; they will lead to a temporary rise in inflation and unemployment,” Putin stated.
Additionally, Carmen M. Reinhart, the World Bank’s chief economist, stated that Russia is at risk of defaulting on its debt. Due to the US and its international allies blocking Russia’s access to gold and foreign reserves, the country is cut off from global financial institutions.
With increasing international pressure restricting Russia’s economy, Beijing emerges as the only option for relief. On Feb. 4, Xi and Putin codified their alliance as a friendship with “no limits.” Furthermore, China relies on Russia for a large portion of coal, oil and gas imports. This economic interdependence would be challenged if Beijing joined the growing dissent against Putin. With Moscow having nowhere else to turn, China is poised to enjoy the largest share of economic activity from Russia.
At the same time, European countries will be forced to seek out energy alternatives to Russian oil as the conflict continues to inflate prices. A turn to renewable energy in the West ensures that Russia will not be the only country to increase its economic dependence on Beijing, as China is “the leading supplier of solar panels, lithium batteries and various rare earth metals,” needed for green energy.
China also has much to gain from a geopolitical lens. Beijing has close ties not only to Russia, but also to Ukraine due to its foreign direct investment in the country through its massive Belt and Road Initiative. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy enthusiastically stated in June 2021 that Kyiv could serve as China’s “bridge to Europe,” thanks to their infrastructure cooperation. Additionally, Ukraine is the second-largest arms supplier to China, second only to Russia. The country’s strategic location, large natural resource deposits, agricultural industry and defense industry all make Ukraine an advantageous partner.
Beijing’s ties to both countries have not gone unnoticed. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief stated that “it must be China” who brokers peace in the Ukraine-Russia conflict.
China has shown its willingness to facilitate peace, with foreign minister Wang Yi telling reporters, “China is willing to continue playing a constructive role in urging peace talks and is willing when necessary to work together with the international community to launch required mediation.”
If China can emerge as the only country able to administer peace in the region while simultaneously having the economic influence to restrain Putin, Beijing will pose a serious challenge to U.S. hegemony in Europe and the world stage as a whole. Xi has a legitimate opportunity to succeed where U.S. President Joe Biden has struggled with America’s erratic foreign policy, marked by vague overtures of the fight against autocracy to NATO regarding the conflict and a disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Beyond scoring a “win” against the United States in the realm of peace-making, China also serves to benefit from international attention being drawn away from Southeast Asia to Eastern Europe. With Western attention and resources focused on Ukraine, Beijing may find a unique opening in their continued tensions with Taiwan and their positioning in the South China Sea.
As Xi prepares for his third term as President of China, he is in a precarious but conceivably beneficial position with the war in Eastern Europe. Despite facing pressures from the West to sanction Russia, China still stands as Moscow’s only corridor to economic relief. Moreover, by playing both sides, China serves to benefit from a potential explosion of development in renewable energy. Beyond jockeying for economic dominance, China has a serious opportunity for proving legitimacy in diplomacy and power projection in the geopolitical realm.
As Professor Alfred McCoy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison puts it in his analysis of the emerging world order, “the U.S. position in [the world stage] is being remade before our eyes.”
If Washington is concerned with maintaining U.S. preeminence in Europe and on the world stage, the primary concern should be China, not Russia. Ukraine will not be the last conflict to erupt across the Eurasian landmass, nor will it serve as the only challenge to U.S. hegemony.
Bea Millan-Windorski is a sophomore studying History, International Studies and Filipino (Tagalog) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Do you agree that China is in a position to emerge as the main winner of the Ukraine-Russia crisis? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.