Watch the fires burning across the river
Autocrats make blunders. Xi has made some, and Putin … well, ok. But Xi is not the isolated single decider that Putin appears to be. And China seems well-positioned to benefit from the Ukraine fiasco, regardless of outcome, if China simply keeps its head down, as best it can.
So why the unswerving support for Putin? What can the strategy be? Is it just autocrat bromance? You and me against the world?
As is often the case, Chinese policy is to speak out of both sides of the mouth – at home, government support for Russia is solid and the US-NATO is the cause of all the pain. In the world, the Chinese government takes a more nuanced tone, only wishing to seek peace, even as it seeks to supply Russia as best it can and avoid sanctions and also avoiding taking an active role in mediation.
And if the EU buys less oil and gas from Russia, then Russia will sell it to an eager China. Whatever the Ukraine result, China learns more about how to approach taking Taiwan. China could gain international prestige by fostering a peace deal, however reluctantly and late they do it. So why antagonize the west and most of the rest of the world when the gains will come in any case without effort?
Now comes the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a well-respected think tank that provides a forum for international thought leaders to discuss how to achieve peace in the world. Carnegie has a piece seeking to make some sense of it all - China's Ukraine Calculus is Coming into Focus.
The article by Paul Haenle and Sam Bresnick describes five conflicting goals for Xi - manage public opinion at home, provide Russia with rhetorical support, signal to Asian countries the danger of NATO-like structures in the Indo-Pacific, appear to be a responsible stakeholder in the broader international community by calling for negotiations, and limit the damage to its economic ties with the United States and Europe.
Well and good. I want to propose another element of long term thinking that might figure into Xi’s calculus, and that is to look east, young man – to Siberia and the Arctic. The United States Geological Survey estimates that 22 percent of the world's oil and natural gas could be located beneath the Arctic. The Arctic holds large quantities of minerals, including phosphate, bauxite, iron ore, copper, nickel, gold, and diamond.
There are five countries that have legal access to Arctic resources, based on their territorial economic zones – Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, the US, and – Russia. China desperately wants in to that group. It has argued for inclusion because it is a “near-Arctic” nation.
China tried to buy an abandoned naval base in Greenland in 2017, but that was turned down. A few years earlier, a Chinese attempt to do a large commercial real estate project – in Greenland - was also turned down. This could only have been cover for Chinese “near Arctic” ownership claims.
Even closer to Beijing, Siberia is similarly blessed, with mineral resources and coal and iron and rivers for hydropower and lots and lots of wood.
In any case, I am completely speculating. I have no inside information on this. But I can see the natural advantage for China in Siberia and the Arctic. Russia will not have the talent or technology to exploit the huge available resources. Siberia is far, far away from Moscow and China is very close. The deals might not come this year or next, but soon enough. Its just good long term planning, which China knows how to do. So why not keep the Russia bromance alive?
There are pertinent phrases from the ancient Chinese classic Thirty-Six Stratagems that Chinese business and government people all recognize -
Wait at leisure while the enemy labors (以逸待勞, Yǐ yì dài láo)
Loot a burning house (趁火打劫, Chèn huǒ dǎ jié)
Watch the fires burning across the river (隔岸觀火, Gé àn guān huǒ)
Russia doesn’t have to be the enemy. Just the next resource-rich flailing state in need of assistance. We can switch to Latin – carpe diem.