In an interview with Reuters, China’s ambassador to Germany offered a stark warning to the West as it seeks to sanction top Russian officials over the Ukraine invasion. “We don’t see any point in sanctions,” said Ambassador Shi Mingde. “Sanctions could lead to retaliatory action, and that would trigger a spiral with unforeseeable consequences. We don’t want this.”
No doubt few countries are watching the Ukraine crisis as closely as China. Both Russia and China share an interest in limiting the West’s ability to interfere in certain sensitive areas. As Beijing continues building a formidable navy and coast guard, and flexing its muscles in the South and East China Seas, policy-makers are paying close attention to how much provocation the West is willing to endure. As Gideon Rachman, the FT‘s foreign affairs guru, wrote this week, “If President Vladimir Putin gets away with it then other governments, such as China and Iran, may decide defying America is getting less risky.”
The question of how the US, which has defense pacts with Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, will react to increased and ongoing Chinese belligerence in Asia is one of the most important geopolitical questions of the moment, and one of the top reasons to pay attention to what’s happening in Ukraine. In this age of deep economic links between countries that rival each other for political and strategic power—like China and the US—sanctions can inflict pain on the sanctioner almost as much as on the target country. Rachman writes: “In theory, the US could restrict the imports of Chinese goods – or even, in extremis, use the US navy to block China’s energy imports. But, like the Russians, the Chinese would have plenty of economic weapons with which to retaliate, from the disruption of the supply chains of American corporations to a refusal to buy US Treasury bills.”
Ultimately, Rachman concludes, “Even if the Ukraine crisis makes the west look temporarily weak, the long-run trends are still much more favourable to the US and the EU than to Russia.” With China however, which is playing this game with a much stronger hand than Russia’s, that conclusion is far from certain.