China | The Warmongering Peacemaker
China’s aggressive attempt in becoming a global mediator of conflicts and peacemaker has nothing to do with a pacificist desire, rather real politik in achieving multiple tactical and strategic political and economic objectives concurrently.
China’s basic objectives are to protect its interests and enhance their prestige as a key member of the global community:
Autocratic Leadership: Regulate the conflict in Ukraine through the “carrot & stick” approach to insure that Russia has a politically face-saving, soft-landing.
Peacemaker: Establish itself as a present-day and necessary future major interlocutor and peacemaker on the world stage.
Senior Partner: Protect its global commercial markets and establish itself as an equal and indispensable collaborator in diplomatic relations with the US and EU while making Russia a “junior partner” in its dealings with the west.
Autocratic Leadership For decades, contrary to the hyped public relations dog & pony shows, Russia and China, have been and continue to be, military and political rivals with respect to their anti-western posture.
China’s economic ascendency as the world’s # 2 economic powerhouse particularly in manufacturing and exports differs starkly to Russia’s stagnant, heavily reliant energy extraction and export growth for hard currency. In fact, Russia’s GDP remains about that of Spain made worse by their disastrous resource draining quagmire in Ukraine. For this reason, these trends have placed China firmly in the global economic and political autocratic leadership driver’s seat.
Present-day China is cleverly pretending to play the role of equal partner to Russia as a politically face-saving gesture to Putin’s Russia when in fact China holds most of the economic and political cards.
Grabbing the Russian Bear by the Scruff
Firstly, for its own security, China needs to prevent a sudden collapse of the Putin regime and his inner circle that would create a highly unstable and unpredictable political void in the Kremlin. Unlike the late 1980s and early 1990s when China was helpless to prevent the Soviet Union’s implosion, China has the opportunity to grab the proverbial Russian bear by the scruff and contain it on its own terms.
Secondly, China can neither count on the cooperation of hardcore Russian nationalists or a more amenable pro-China leadership. Although Putin may be physically removed, I concur with many international experts that “Putinism” – the Russian leadership policymaking mindset - will continue in Russia for years before it fades just as with Stalin and Khrushchev.
Thirdly, under the clever guise of being Putin’s ally, China can engineer a “soft landing” – a face-saving end to hostilities in Ukraine while Putin remains in power. China must play both sides: one quite publicly with Putin as a politically anti-western autocracy and economically with the west to protect their commercial markets. For this reason, achieving political stability in Russia is paramount.
The Precarious Balancing Act
How can China achieve the aforementioned soft landing? One of the ways to achieve this is that China can provide Russia with enough essential military or dual-use equipment such as small arms and drones. China excels at manufacturing small arms at scale that can be supplied indirectly through the usual private and governmental third parties and provide China legal plausible deniability.
Economically China desires robust business with the US & Europe at the same time political brotherhood with economically inferior Russia – using it as a foil – cleverly playing both sides and leveraging its economic heft accordingly.
Secret Collaboration with the West
Russia’s expenditures for military equipment and ammunition can continue almost indefinitely through their oil sales. In fact, according to many official sources, it is estimated that Russia is spending only 2% of their GDP on the war effort.
However, Russia’s problem is a shortage of war equipment despite many factories operating 24/7 which explains why their arms exports have dropped dramatically as they use equipment normally destined for export sales to the war in Ukraine.
I believe that through unofficial backdoor channels with the west, both sides can agree to actively manage the quantity and quality of arms and ammunition in order to regulate and eventually de-escalate the conflict. The objective would be to force Ukraine and Russia to a truce and the negotiating table. The adage: control the arms, control the conflict.
The present-day good news is that Putin’s Russian military forces are unlikely to achieve any large significant territorial success in Ukraine with their vastly diminishing and vintage/outdated military materiel, poor military tactics resulting in high casualties and low soldier morale. The risk is that the military leadership in collaboration with sympathetic high-level Russian government officials “engineer” a military collapse in Ukraine to trigger a coup in the Kremlin.
Low Risk Global Peacemaker
The war in Ukraine is providing China a superb opportunity to become a global powerbroker to match its economic size by engaging and participating in a major conflict far from its borders.
With respect to the Ukraine conflict, unlike their western counterparts, China has the major advantage of literally not having any skin in the game such as civilian or military personnel participating in the war zone as well as not having any security guarantee obligations.
China is practicing a hard form of “checkbook diplomacy” in providing dual-use equipment such as drones compared to Japan’s checkbook diplomacy methods that provided exclusively humanitarian aid.
“Made in China” Peacemaking
China’s earlier so-called success in brokering the Saudi-Iran peace agreement was merely an amuse bouche in establishing a thin track record as mediator/peacemaker between two historically implacable Middle Eastern foes.
There had been considerable groundwork several years beforehand between Iran and Saudi Arabia in China’s absence. China provided the neutral venue (Beijing) for the final signing and superpower Good Housekeeping Seal without the heavy-lifting while producing wonderful propaganda public relations optics.
Such a brokerage is far easier when the two conflicting parties and the mediator consist of three autocratic guys from mafia states get together in a room and hash stuff out without any consultation from or accountability to their respective citizenry. This was merely an agreement of convenience for all signatory parties. Nonetheless, history is littered with the confetti of broken agreements not long after its signing despite being hailed as a game changer.
China’s indelible flaw as a global peacemaker is its autocratic political system. How much credibility does such a government bring to a peace agreement? It’s like approving a security system for the henhouse with foxes as the engineers. The Saudi-Iran agreement was a one-off, one trick pony.
China is the Middle Kingdom and now desires to become a global middle man. As the # 2 world’s economic superpower it indeed has the right to participate in peace initiatives, however its autocratic government tarnishes its otherwise impressive C.V. credentials.
Senior Partner | Dragon in a Bear Suit
China has already surpassed Russia as the anti-western leader. Xi’s earlier (and 41st) visit to Putin was probably to inform him of their role-reversal with respect to Russia’s high reliance on China to prop up the war machine while publicly providing the illusion of a partnership.
It must be duly noted particularly during Xi’s visit to Russia that their cooperation is a “partnership” not an “alliance” whose meanings and intentions are quite distinct. “Partnership” is working together towards mutual goals akin to a memo of understanding while an “alliance” is a formal, binding agreement to achieve the same.
China represents a diplomatic stabilizer that abhors chaos particularly along or near their border. Their “toolbox” is mostly commercial and fiscal leverage and dual-use equipment for military purposes, just enough so that the Russian army doesn’t collapse. If the Russian army collapses so does Putin’s government that could unleash unpredictable and long-lasting chaos.
Deflating Russia’s War Machine
China’s usefulness in supplying Russia just enough weaponry serves to control the pace of the war. Both sides are depleted with respect to ammunition and equipment. The lower supply the less either side can undertake large and sustained operations, let alone hold newly gained territory. This is akin to slowly letting air out of a balloon instead of popping it to reach a point in which forces Ukraine and Russia to agree to a ceasefire.
As the 2nd largest arms exporter behind the US, China’s small arms are easily transported to Russia through third parties or intermediaries. Small, easy & cheap to manufacture, export, replace and maintain in the field vs. glitzy “trophy” weapons like cutting edge aircraft and tanks make great headlines and media fodder yet never win wars which require extensive learning & practice, expensive and highly skilled maintenance.
The following chart entitled Share of Total Arms Sales of Companies in the SIPRI Top 100 from 2021, By Country is provided by the Stockholm Institute of Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) fact sheet.
China is quite active participant in the global arms market and it would be naïve to think that China hasn’t been providing Russia more than small arms since even before the start of the Ukrainian hostilities in February 2021.
Chinas’ face-saving objective for Russia is a peace accord emphasizing, “Peace with honor” in that Russia achieved their (revised) goals. Regardless how this plays out, for Ukraine and Russia, as Bobby Axelrod’s character aptly stated in the TV series Billions, “No one leaves a negotiation happy.”
The relationships between autocracies, the strongmen, are first based on personal relationships and personalities in which national identities are defined. Seeking close political and economic alignment. The challenge for China in persuading Putin to entertain negotiations is that the weak links are created by over-reach in the form of greed & ego, not the consolidation of domestic power. Putin has over-reached with bellicose adventures in Ukraine and finds himself in a quagmire militarily, economically and politically stuck.
Furthermore, Russia’s dramatic dependency on Chinese imports is articulated in the following chart entitled China’s Rise to Russia’s Most Important Trade Partner according to German Trade & Invest.
In the movie The International (2009), the fictional Italian industrialist articulates how if “one controls the debt, one controls everything” brilliantly and succinctly:
Political | The Dragon in the Bear Suit
For this reason, Russia has become increasingly dependent on China for military and technical assistance which is making Russia a “junior partner” in their relationship while China is the “silent partner”.
The unspoken truth is that China is incrementally controlling Russia’s ability to wage war and Xi’s recent visit to Moscow, despite the public relations hoopla of autocratic anti-western brotherhood, was probably Xi reminding Putin whose pocket he’s in. China’s strings are now made of steel cables from which Russia cannot extract itself. This checkmate fuels a simmering resentment in the Kremlin dependent and beholden to China.
China’s objectives include a soft-landing for Russia in the cessation of military operations in Ukraine through some kind of truce or ceasefire and keeping Putin in power for the purposes of controlling civil unrest or even civil war while preventing a domino effect in the region.
A Russian collapse on the battlefield will lead to a leadership collapse in the Kremlin. “Putinism” will continue long after Putin is dethroned with respect to Russia’s domestic and foreign policy. Any shift in those policies will take awhile.
Russia is increasingly dependent on China in order to continue the war in Ukraine. China can control the military supply spigot which limits Russia’s fighting strategies whether it be a modest limited offensive or strictly defensive.
For this reason, China will now be pre-positioned to be an important player and peace broker between Russia and Ukraine and dictate the terms & conditions specific to China’s political and economic needs.
Recent development in Russia with respect to the Wagner group’s march on Moscow has provided greater leverage for China over a significantly politically diminished Putin.
Iran | Russia’s Hardcore Drone Supplier
The media overkill of Chinese supplied dual-use equipment is serving as a savvy misdirection with respect to Russia’s sources of lethal military weaponry. The necessity and efficacy of military drone use, particularly during the present-day offensive/counter-offensive battles in eastern Ukraine have grown exponentially.
While China provides drones and quadcopters (small unmanned copters) and other aerial surveillance equipment, for the purposes providing intel to Russian forces, the lethal versions of this aerial equipment has been provided by Iran. This is articulated in the article dated 9 June 2023 in Al-Monitor, an online publication specializing in Mideast affairs, entitled US: Iran Drone Factory In Russia Is Projected To Be Operational Next Year. The factory will be located east of Moscow and will produce one-way (offensive & lethal) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV).
For many months Iran has systemically exports these UAVs to Russia overland and via the Caspian Sea. Russia reciprocates with missiles and high-end military weaponry representing a “full scale defense partnership.” For this reason, China craftily claims plausible deniability on enabling Russia to continue to wage war unabated.
Conclusion & Takeaways
As the # 2 global economic superpower, China is playing the role of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca by being able to communicate directly with politically diametrically opposed parties. China has literally bought themselves a seat at the peacemaker table in large part to their profound economic, mostly manufacturing, ties to all of them.
Bizarrely, historically neutral and democratic Switzerland has been supplanted by an anti-western and autocratic China as the primary peace broker intermediary.
Because Russia and Ukraine are having the offensive/counter-offensive battles expending and probably suffering thousands of troop casualties and great loss of war materiel, a truce can be more easily achieved with China as the hidden hand.
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Indo-Brazilian Associates LLC is a NYC-based think-tank that provides prescient, beyond-the-horizon, contrarian perspectives and risk assessments on geopolitical dynamics and global urban security.