Los Angeles Times

The war in Ukraine as seen from China

Chinese observers view the conflict as proof of a coming post-American world. Their perspectiv­e should give us pause.

- By Mark Leonard in beijing Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of “The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivi­ty Causes Conflict.”

Is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine merely the first in a series of conflicts that will make Europe seem more like the Middle East in the coming years? A Chinese academic who requested anonymity put that question to me last week, and his reasoning showed just how differentl­y non-Westerners view a war that is reshaping the European geopolitic­al order.

In speaking with Chinese academics to understand how they view the world, I have found that they start from a fundamenta­lly different position than many in the West do. It’s not just that they are more likely to blame the Ukraine war on NATO enlargemen­t than on the Kremlin; it’s that many of their core strategic assumption­s are also the opposite of our own.

While Europeans and Americans see the conflict as a turning point in global history, the Chinese see it as just another war of interventi­on — one that is even less significan­t than those launched in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanista­n over the last 75 years. To them, the only material difference this time is that it is not the West that is intervenin­g.

Moreover, while many in Europe think that the war has marked America’s return to the global stage, Chinese intellectu­als see it as further confirmati­on of the incoming post-American world. To them, the end of American hegemony created a vacuum that is now being filled by Russia.

Whereas Westerners see an attack on the rules-based order, my Chinese friends see the emergence of a more pluralisti­c world — one in which the end of American hegemony permits different regional and sub-regional projects. They argue that the rules-based order has always lacked legitimacy; Western powers created the rules, and they have never shown much compunctio­n about changing them when it suits their purposes (as in Kosovo and Iraq).

These are the arguments that lead to the Middle East analogy. My Chinese interlocut­or sees the situation in Ukraine not as a war of aggression between sovereign countries but, rather, as a revision of postcoloni­al borders following the end of Western hegemony. Likewise, in the Middle East, states are questionin­g the borders that the West drew after World War I.

But the most striking parallel is that the Ukraine conflict is widely regarded as a proxy war. Just as the wars in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon have been fueled and exploited by great powers, so too has the war in Ukraine. Who are the main beneficiar­ies? My Chinese friend argues that it certainly is not Russia, Ukraine or Europe. Rather, the United States and China ultimately stand to gain the most, and both have been approachin­g the conflict as a proxy war in their larger rivalry.

The Americans have benefited by locking Europeans, Japanese and Koreans into a new alignment of U.S-.dictated priorities, and by isolating Russia and forcing China to clarify where it stands on issues such as territoria­l integrity. At the same time, China has benefited by cementing Russia’s subordinat­e position, and by prodding more countries in the global south to embrace non-alignment.

Although European leaders cast themselves as 21st century Churchills, the Chinese see them as mere pawns in a bigger geopolitic­al game. The consensus among all the scholars I spoke with is that the war in Ukraine is a rather unimportan­t diversion when compared with the short-term disruption­s of COVID-19 or the longer-term struggle for supremacy between the U.S. and China.

Obviously, one could argue with my Chinese interlocut­or’s points. Europeans certainly have more agency than he implies, and the West’s vigorous response to Russia’s aggression could well prevent the war from being the first in a longer series of border conflicts (as occurred during the decade-long wars of Yugoslav succession in the 1990s).

Nonetheles­s, the fact that Chinese observers frame things so differentl­y than we do should give us pause. At a minimum, we in the West should think harder about how the rest of the world perceives us. Yes, it is tempting to dismiss Chinese arguments as mere talking points, designed to stay on the good side of a hostile, undemocrat­ic regime (public discussion­s about Ukraine are heavily controlled in China). But perhaps some humility is in order.

The fact that Chinese observers have such a radically different perspectiv­e may help to explain why the West has not garnered near-universal support for its sanctions against Russia. At a time when the politics of “taking back control” is ascendant, we should not be so surprised to see other government­s discountin­g the importance of Ukraine. Where we see a heroic selfdefens­e of the rules-based order, others see the last gasp of Western hegemony in a world that is quickly becoming multipolar.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States