The Ukrainian Conflict Might Have Already Derailed China’s Superpower Trajectory

The Ukrainian Conflict Might Have Already Derailed China’s Superpower Trajectory

By Andrew Korybko

With the structural basis of China’s grand strategy immensely destabilized by the consequences of that conflict with respect to the Golden Billion’s artificially manufactured food and fuel crises across the Global South risking profound socio-political unrest there across the coming future that threatens BRI’s prospects, paired with India and Russia’s newly strengthened strategic autonomy as well as Moscow’s increasingly indispensable security-stabilization role in developing countries that complements its newfound soft power (revolutionary) one, Beijing’s superpower trajectory arguably appears untenable.


China’s Peaceful Rise

China’s economically driven peaceful rise across the last four decades, which was ironically made possible to a large extent by its strict compliance with the international norms connected to US-led globalization processes, placed it on the trajectory of superpower status. It was growing awareness of this fact and credible concerns about its consequences for America’s unipolar hegemony that pushed former US President Trump to launch his trade war against the People’s Republic, which was intended to function as an economic complement to the military-driven “Pivot to Asia” initiated by his predecessor Obama. These two merged with information warfare to collectively constitute what can objectively be described as the US’ Hybrid War on China that’s aimed at ensuring American pre-eminence this century.

Bi-Multipolarity

In response to these unprovoked acts of aggression, the People’s Republic began modernizing its military forces, eventually promulgated its new economic paradigm of dual circulation, and started investing heavily in improving its soft power appeal through more effective media outreaches to the international community. Absent a major security crisis, this should have been sufficient for ensuring that China remained on its superpower trajectory even in spite of the global economic (and especially supply chain) disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Accordingly, Indian thinker Sanjaya Baru accurately assessed in mid-2020 that International Relations could be described as being in a state of bi-multipolarity.

This concept refers to the American and Chinese (whether soon-to-be or already existing) superpowers exerting the most influence over the global system, below which are Great Powers like India and Russia, and then comparatively medium- and smaller-sized states that have the least influence in shaping events. Baru predicted that International Relations will thus come to be increasingly defined by the complex interplay among players within and between these three levels. Extrapolating from his insight, it can be argued that India and Russia’s interests lay in jointly assembling a third pole of influence for facilitating the emergence of tripolarity within this system so as to accelerate its final evolution towards more complex multipolarity (“multiplexity”).

The Real Roots Of The Ukrainian Conflict

It was with this shared grand strategy in mind that those two began informally working together to create a new Non-Aligned Movement (“Neo-NAM”) to this end, which was envisaged as maximizing the strategic autonomy of this network’s members within the present bi-multipolar intermediary phase of the global systemic transition to multipolarity. Concurrent with this, Russia sought to reach a major security agreement with the US in Europe at the end of 2021 in order to de-escalate their tensions there. Such an outcome would have been mutually beneficial from Moscow’s perspective. It could have resulted in that Eurasian Great Power balancing between the Eastern (China) and Western (EU) halves of the supercontinent while the US focused more on “deterring”/”containing” its Chinese peer competitor.

What nobody expected was that the ideologically driven American elite would instead prioritize “deterring”/”containing” Russia first, which they considered to be a step in the direction of more effectively “deterring”/”containing” China in the long run. From their perspective, provoking Russia into taking military action in Ukraine in defence of its objective national security red lines that NATO crossed in that former Soviet Republic was intended to create the opportunity for reasserting the US’ declining unipolar hegemony over Europe. From there and with time, America expected to have a newly militarized EU “deter”/”contain” Russia on its behalf as part of Trump’s “burden-sharing” strategy while the US replicated this same policy in the Asia-Pacific against China via AUKUS and other NATO-like blocs.

Upon the successful reassertion of its declining unipolar hegemony over Europe, the US would also have many more economic, financial, and military resources for “deterring”/”containing” China than if it simply agreed to Russia’s security guarantee requests and allowed the EU to retain a semblance of strategic autonomy. From an American grand strategic perspective, this outcome is seen as giving their country an edge in its superpower competition with the People’s Republic, without which they feared that China would remain on its earlier described trajectory and thus possibly even surpass it in influence and power in the coming future. It was therefore decided to provoke the hitherto unprecedented destabilization of the post-Old Cold War world order through the Ukrainian Conflict to this end.

The Initial Consequences Of The Russian-US Proxy War

Despite these intentions, it initially seemed like even this unexpected development wouldn’t be enough to offset China’s superpower trajectory in any significant way. Many predicted that the US’ sudden focus on “deterring”/”containing” Russia in Europe would adversely affect its Hybrid War on China by bogging down its diplomats, depleting its economic and military resources, and thus making Asia-Pacific allies worry that America couldn’t adequately ensure their elite’s zero-sum interests vis a vis the People’s Republic, which could in turn lead to them “bandwagoning” with Beijing instead of “balancing” against it with Washington. In other words, the processes unleashed by the Ukrainian Conflict were thought to counterproductively create unforeseen opportunities for accelerating China’s rise as a superpower.

In the over seven months since the latest phase of that conflict began, it’s indisputably transformed into a US-led NATO proxy war on Russia through Ukraine that President Putin claimed is driven by the American elite’s desire to “Balkanize” his Great Power. He articulated the dimensions of this New Cold War in detail during the historic speech that he gave on 30 September ahead of signing the documents connected to Novorossiya’s reunification with Russia, which also included crucial insight into the US’ global plans in the Asia-Pacific vis a vis China and beyond across the entire Global South. His address amounted to a revolutionary manifesto for inspiring non-Western countries and their societies to unite in opposition to the US-led Western elite’s neo-colonial plot to subjugate the entire world.

While one might be tempted to think that this development adds credence to the prediction that China’s superpower trajectory will supposedly continue accelerating as a result of the largest European conflict since World War II, and thus shorten the time that it takes for the People’s Republic to truly become the US’ peer competitor on the world stage, it actually complicated it for reasons that will now be explained throughout the rest of this analysis. To begin with, the macroeconomic consequences of this increasingly intensifying proxy war destabilized the global foundation upon which China’s economically driven grand strategy is dependent. In particular, it prompted an unprecedented systemic crisis across the entire Global South due to the US’ food and fuel sanctions against Russia.

Cascading Consequences Across The Global South

China’s peaceful rise as a superpower is predicated on the continued convergence of its economy with the rest of the Global South’s in order to create a relationship of complex – and ideally, unbreakable – interdependence that the People’s Republic describes as a community of common destiny for mankind. The means through which this was supposed to be advanced are the projects associated with its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), which comprehensively strengthen trade and investment ties between China and its dozens of partners. Beijing expected that this would gradually result in reforming the economic-financial basis of International Relations, which would then come to have institutional-political implications that would precede the military-strategic ones required to enshrine its superpower status.

Without reliable access to the Global South’s (and especially Africa’s) labour, markets, and resources – which recipient states provide in exchange for Chinese infrastructure, other investments, and technology that’s shared without any political strings attached other than implied support for its position on domestic issues (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, etc.) – China’s rise as a superpower would be stunted. It wouldn’t be able to achieve the mutually beneficial growth needed to reach the level of gradually reforming the economic-financial basis of International Relations, which would in turn offset its plans for institutional-political and ultimately military-strategic reforms too. Therein lies the grand strategic challenge posed by the US-provoked global food and fuel crises.

Global South countries are at serious risk of massive socio-political unrest driven by these artificially manufactured systemic crises catalysed by America’s anti-Russian sanctions. Their short-term, let alone long-term, growth prospects therefore remain uncertain. This in turn threw a wrench in China’s grand strategic plans since its new economic paradigm of dual circulation has yet to result in the robust domestic circulation that’s needed to hedge against unforeseen challenges to its international trade. That’s not to say that China is poised to experience negative growth, but just that it’s now compelled by circumstances beyond its control to push back the plans connected with its rise as a superpower due to the systemic shocks caused by the trade war, COVID-19, and most recently the Ukrainian Conflict.

Discrediting The Scenario Of Russia Ever Becoming China’s “Junior Partner”

These cascading systemic consequences pose very formidable challenges to Chinese grand strategy, all of which are exacerbated by Russia not rushing to clinch the lopsided deals with the People’s Republic that many Western observers expected it would do in the run-up to the Ukrainian Conflict in the event that Moscow militarily intervened there like it ultimately did. To be clear, there’s no evidence that China expected either scenario – Russia’s special military operation (including all that came afterwards) and President Putin practically begging for support from it afterwards in desperation as the only supposedly possible form of sanctions relief regardless of the terms – yet it’s also difficult to argue with the claim that the second scenario would have helped China manage these unexpected consequences.

For instance, had Russia offered China far-reaching preferential trade and investment terms apart from simply selling it discounted natural resources (which it’s offering to anyone with the political will to purchase them in defiance of US pressure and not just that rising superpower), then the People’s Republic could at least theoretically have obtained access to everything that it would need for its grand strategy to more quickly recover from the latest systemic shock connected to the Ukrainian Conflict. The trade-off, however, might have been that the terms could have been objectively unfavourable to Russia’s grand strategic interests by placing this Great Power on the trajectory of becoming China’s “junior partner” over the long term. That would have strengthened bi-multipolarity instead of helped evolve it.

Being as sensitive as he is to the issue of sovereignty and the strategic autonomy in the international system that it bestows upon all those who have it, President Putin would never have countenanced this even if China offered it (and there’s no evidence that it ever considered doing so), which is why it remains the realm of political fantasy among those who predicted this scenario. In any case, that sequence of events was preemptively averted by India unexpectedly functioning as Russia’s irreplaceable valve from Western pressure and thus ensuring that its special and privileged strategic partner wouldn’t ever be placed in a position where it could be forced to flirt with that happening.

India’s Black Swan Intervention

Delhi has defied Washington’s sanctions pressure to accelerate the comprehensive expansion of ties with Moscow since February, which served their earlier described grand strategic interests related to forging a third pole of influence in the bi-multipolar intermediary phase of the global systemic transition to multipolarity, thus maximizing their respective strategic autonomy as much as possible under the newfound circumstances. This black swan development also dispelled all prior concerns about India becoming the US’ “junior partner”, which it arguably appeared to be on the trajectory of (whether it was conscious of this or not) over the past few years prior to the latest phase of the Ukrainian Conflict that broke out in late February.

That was a major outcome in more ways than one. First, India placed itself in a position whereby it’s carefully balancing between the US-led West’s Golden Billion and the BRICS-led (but de facto thus far Chinese-led) Global South of which it’s a part, thus making it a kingmaker of sorts in shaping the global systemic transition. Second, it proudly proved its strategic autonomy in the bi-multipolar intermediary phase of this transition through its policy of principled neutrality towards the Ukrainian Conflict, which set a precedent for comparatively medium- and smaller-sized states to follow. Third, this would ideally take the form of Global South countries cooperating with its envisaged Neo-NAM, which India ultimately expects to help everyone better balance between the American and Chinese superpowers.

From the stance of Chinese grand strategy as described up until this point in the present analysis, India’s rise as a very appealing and truly neutral Great Power in the eyes of a growing number of Global South states presents yet another unexpected challenge since Beijing had taken it for granted that nobody else could credibly compete with it for influence among developing countries. While Delhi obviously lacks the economic wherewithal to offer alternatives to BRI, it more than makes up for it in the diplomatic dimension by offering a new model with the promise of collectively counteracting the entrenchment of bi-multipolar trends that risk institutionalizing the informal three-tier international hierarchy associated with Baru’s concept.

The Emerging Sino-Indo Soft Power Struggle

Instead of accepting their seemingly inevitable fate of forever remaining at the bottom level and thus never being able to exert any significance influence over events (though in exchange for the infrastructure, other investment, and technological benefits connected with unofficially agreeing to become China’s “junior partners”), the comparatively medium- and smaller-sized states that constitute the majority of the international community now have the chance to make a meaningful difference. To explain, by coming together through the jointly Indian- and Russian-led (the second dimension of which will soon be elaborated upon in this analysis) Neo-NAM, they can accelerate the emergence of tripolarity ahead of the global systemic transition’s ultimate evolution towards multiplexity.

The devil remains in the details as the cliched saying goes since the interplay between the second and third levels of this informal international hierarchy associated with the present bi-multipolar intermediary phase of that transition is impossible to predict with any accuracy at this point. Even so, the contours nevertheless very strongly suggest that this vision of International Relations would be much more attractive to the Global South than simply accepting their seemingly inevitable fate as either the American or Chinese superpowers’ “junior partners”. This collection of states would feel emboldened by the third choice presented by a strategic partnership with India in order to hedge against the superpowers and avoid inadvertently offending either by partnering with their rival.

By networking more closely and intensely with those countries in similar positions as they are within the bi-multipolar intermediary phase of the global systemic transition, as well as with tripolar-/multiplexity-minded Great Powers like India (and also Russia which will soon be explained), they stand the greatest chance of maximizing their strategic autonomy with a view towards obtaining the best partnership deals possible with the two superpowers. Instead of feeling pressured by bi-multipolarity into becoming either America or China’s “junior partner”, they can leverage the strategic benefits associated with the Neo-NAM and India/Russia’s role as third-party balancing partners to cooperate with both superpowers without it being at the perceived expense of either or their own sovereign interests.

Russia’s Rising Influence In The Global South

This possibility was beyond the realm of anything that China seemingly expected prior to the Trump Presidency (which represented the first of the three earlier described systemic shocks with respect to his trade war) when it was still supremely confident in BRI’s role in creating the community of common destiny that would lay the economic-financial basis for the other systemic reforms that it envisaged along its superpower trajectory. Not only did two other systemic shocks follow, those associated with the Ukrainian Conflict’s consequences for the Global South’s food and fuel security (and thus socio-political security) being the latest, but Russia provided no recourse due to how unrealistic the scenario of it becoming China’s “junior partner” was and now India is challenging the basis of bi-multipolarity.

It’s not just India either, though, since Russia is now actively doing this too. President Putin’s historic speech from 30 September that was earlier described as amounting to a revolutionary manifesto resulted in his Great Power instantly becoming the icon of the Global South’s struggle against the US-led Golden Billion’s neo-imperialism. Like India, Russia lacks the economic wherewithal to offer alternatives to BRI, but it more than makes up for it diplomatically in a similar sense as that South Asian Great Power does per the Neo-NAM concept, in terms of soft power per the global inspiration connected with its leader’s aforementioned speech, but also importantly in the security dimension too. This last aspect is extremely significant and will now be discussed.

Russia’s conventional military cooperation with its partners through arms sales serves the purpose of maintaining the balance of power between rival pairs of states as well as deterring American aggression by improving the prospects of political solutions to their disputes owing to concerns about unacceptable collateral damage in the event of a kinetic conflict. Its unconventional dimension, meanwhile, can be described as ensuring “Democratic Security”. This concept refers to the wide range of counter-Hybrid Warfare tactics and strategies for preemptively defending against (and when needed, effectively responding to) the Golden Billion’s Colour Revolution (especially those eventually catalysed by economic warfare/sanctions) and Unconventional Warfare (insurgency/rebellion/terrorism) destabilization plots.

The Strategic Significance Of Russia’s “Democratic Security” Solutions

In simple terms and recalling the insight into the US-led West’s grand strategy that President Putin shared during his historic speech on 30 September, it’s oftentimes much more cost-effective in all respects for America to punish independent and sovereign countries through these hybrid means (including of course through information warfare and sanctions) than to launch Iraq- or Libya-style invasions/strikes, especially if the targeted state has robust enough conventional capabilities to defend itself and thus ensure unacceptable collateral damage to the aggressor in that scenario. Domestic security is therefore required to offset those threats, ergo “Democratic Security” which in essence aims to ensure the security of the targeted state’s national model of democracy through myriad means.

Apart from providing advisory services upon request when it comes to helping its partners decide how best to respond to related Hybrid War scenarios like Colour Revolutions, Russia also reportedly employs the unconventional security services of private military contractors like Wagner to directly assist those states in plausibly deniable ways that importantly fall short of the soft power and strategic risks associated with conventional interventions in their support. Coupled with information operations that discredit these destabilization campaigns, as well as strategic investments in certain industries to ensure reliable revenue for investing in socio-economic development so as to preemptively avert these self-same campaigns, Russia’s bespoke “Democratic Security” assistance can make a major difference.

No country offers such comprehensive security-stabilization services to their partners, which thus gives Russia a unique role to play in Global South states, and especially those across Africa upon which China’s continued economic growth is dependent in alignment with the grand strategy described in this analysis. Viewed from this strategic perspective, it can therefore be said that developing countries’ “Democratic Security” cooperation with Russia helps defend their BRI investments from the Golden Billion’s hybrid threats (Colour Revolutions and Unconventional Warfare) against them, which in turn helps ensure their macroeconomic stability considering the positive impact that those Chinese projects have. The emerging dynamic connected to this observation is that China’s grand strategy is partially dependent on Russia.

China’s Unexpected Grand Strategic Dependence On Russia

The People’s Republic hasn’t participated in any foreign military conflict since the very brief Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. Its armed forces are capable of ensuring their country’s core national security interests at home (which can also be extrapolated as referring to its maritime claims in the South China Sea), but it has no experience ensuring its secondary and tertiary ones abroad across the Global South that are required for sustaining its superpower trajectory. Its BRI investments are therefore seriously threatened by Hybrid War scenarios, which China is practically powerless to counteract, let alone preemptively avert.

Russia, meanwhile, has proven the effectiveness of its bespoke “Democratic Security” solutions in the Central African Republic and most recently Mali, the latter of which is poised to have game-changing strategic consequences with respect to catalysing a regional sequence of events connected to the increasingly rapid decline of French influence across its self-proclaimed “sphere of influence” in the Sahel that it refers to as “Françafrique”. Had it not been for the Kremlin pioneering this new security policy across the Global South and especially in Africa, then China’s BRI investments might very well have been doomed since the Golden Billion’s Hybrid War plots would otherwise easily succeed in “poaching” many host states’ governments, after which they’d gradually be “decoupled” from China.

This scenario is independent of the latest US-provoked phase of the Ukrainian Conflict and was already emerging to an extent prior to that happening as evidenced by some of China’s African partners electing pro-Western leaders critical of the People’s Republic and its BRI projects after information warfare campaigns preceding those votes. With time and irrespective of the Ukrainian Conflict, it was to be expected that this trend would intensify to the point of Hybrid Warfare (Colour Revolutions and Unconventional Wars) if the need arose modelled off of the Ethiopian precedent that ended up failing for reasons beyond the scope of this analysis but which nevertheless still remains a threat in any case, both to that country and all other Global South (and especially African) ones.

Instead, Russia has unexpectedly emerged as a credible force capable of counteracting those hybrid threats through its bespoke “Democratic Security” solutions, which was already a trend in progress but is now coupled with that Great Power’s impressive soft power appeal following President Putin’s revolutionary manifesto that he shared on 30 September for inspiring the Global South. That second soft power factor combines with its Indian strategic partner’s one connected to its neutrality and their shared Neo-NAM vision to create a formidable challenge to China’s soft power across the developing world that Beijing had hitherto taken for granted. It also results in a degree of Chinese dependence on Russia’s “Democratic Security” there too that Moscow could creatively leverage.

Russia’s Balancing Act Between China & India Across The Global South

About that, one of Russia’s grand strategic interests is to balance between its Chinese and Indian partners – which together form the RIC core of BRICS, the second structure of which is conceived as leading the Global South – with a view towards preemptively averting any potentially disproportionate dependence on either in parallel with preventing the US from dividing-and-ruling those two through its Hybrid War plot to provoke war between them. This imperative could manifest itself in the Global South by Russia offering to help secure China’s vulnerable BRI projects there as part of an informal quid pro quo for access to sanctioned technology that its economy requires in order to remain competitive under such Western pressure.

As for the Indian dimension of this creative leverage, it could concern Russia gently exerting its newfound influence within those generally Chinese-aligned Global South partner states to encourage them to more enthusiastically embrace Delhi’s diplomatic model of the Neo-NAM in order to advance it and Moscow’s shared grand strategic goal of accelerating the emergence of multilateral tripolarity through that structure for facilitating the ultimate evolution of the systemic transition to multiplexity. If the Global South is massively destabilized through the socio-political consequences catalysed by the Golden Billion’s artificially manufactured food and fuel crises, then both China and India would lose their respective opportunities to shape the world order, which would give the US a grand strategic edge.

From China’s perspective, this represents yet another major challenge to its own grand strategy. The creeping awareness of its dependence on Russia’s “Democratic Security” services to key BRI partners across the Global South, without which Beijing’s projects would forever remain vulnerable to increasingly credible Hybrid War threats and quite possibly end up failing as a result in the long term (thus sabotaging its superpower trajectory), means that Beijing might be compelled to reconsider the very viability of its plans due to this emerging reality. Instead of unofficially aspiring to become a superpower and entrenching bi-multipolarity, it might instead have to settle for just becoming the most economically powerful Great Power within a system of complex multipolarity (multiplexity).

Several Reasons For China To Reconsider Its Superpower Grand Strategy

The reason for this is easy enough to understand after having already proceeded to this point in the present analysis. Simply put, while China still remains a very strategically autonomous player in the global systemic transition and among the ones with the most powerful influence in shaping events, the basis upon which its superpower trajectory depends is inherently unstable due to four primary reasons. In the order that they were presented in this piece, they are: 1) the systemic shocks caused by the trade war, COVID-19, and the Ukrainian Conflict; 2) Russia not becoming disproportionately dependent on China in response to the third shock; 3) the impressive progress made by India since the Ukrainian Conflict in pioneering tripolarity; and 4) Russia’s new security and soft power (revolutionary) roles across the Global South.

These four unexpected factors combined in such a way as to unprecedentedly complicate China’s grand strategy as it was originally envisaged in 2013 when it announced BRI. This global series of megaprojects was supposed to function as the vehicle for creating the relationship of complex interdependence between it and the Global South upon which the economic-financial, institutional-political, and ultimately military-strategic reforms of the international system required for its sustainable rise as a superpower depend. Instead of a smooth transition, three systemic shocks beyond China’s control rocked the global economy since then, with the latest one setting into motion a fast-moving sequence of events that might make the bi-multipolar moment just as short-lived as the prior unipolar one.

The consequences for China’s grand strategy that the four primary factors elaborated on in this analysis have thus far had were also exacerbated by the US unexpectedly provoking problems with it over Taiwan after Speaker Pelosi’s visit there in early August, which suggested that this declining unipolar hegemon is capable of simultaneously “deterring”/”containing” both Russia and China to varying extents instead of focusing almost exclusively on one at the expense of letting the other rise unchallenged. The conventional military pressure that this puts upon China precisely at the moment when its grand strategy is experiencing such structural, diplomatic, and unconventional military challenges (related to the first-second, third-fourth, and fourth factors respectively) further compels it to reconsider its plans.

The bi-multipolar intermediary phase of the global systemic transition to more complex multipolarity that Baru accurately described over two years ago might therefore very well be on the cusp of imperfect tripolarity due to the game-changing consequences connected with the emerging Russian-Indian axis, both in and of itself as well as its manifestation through the informal Neo-NAM that they’re jointly working to assemble. These Great Powers have unexpectedly been able to shape the world order a lot more powerfully than anyone predicted they’d be capable of at this point in time due to the ways in which the latest US-provoked phase of the Ukrainian Conflict massively accelerated the convergence of their shared tripolar/multiplexity grand strategies.

Concluding Thoughts

With the structural basis of China’s grand strategy immensely destabilized by the consequences of that conflict with respect to the Golden Billion’s artificially manufactured food and fuel crises across the Global South risking profound socio-political changes there across the coming future that threaten BRI’s prospects, paired with India and Russia’s newly strengthened strategic autonomy as well as Moscow’s increasingly indispensable security-stabilization role in developing countries that complements its newfound soft power (revolutionary) one, Beijing’s superpower trajectory arguably appears untenable. The People’s Republic can’t indefinitely perpetuate bi-multipolarity in these conditions, which is why it might have to accept becoming a Great Power among equals instead of continuing to aspire for superpower status.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Voice of East.


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Categories: Analysis, Geopolitics, International Affairs

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