Beyond the tragic war devastating Ukraine, the global chessboard is being rearranged. It’s as if Putin gave the board a violent shake, and the pieces can never be put back where they were. Although the new configuration is hard to predict, one thing is certain: China’s position will be mightily strengthened.
That’s our focus on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, as we talk with Dr. Timothy Heath, the senior international defense researcher, focusing on China, at RAND Corporation.
Heath explains the big-power lens through which China views the world today. He talks about how the US and NATO moving closer together affects China, and how China will deal with an ever weakening Russia.
He discusses what role, if any, China might play in bringing an end to the current war; how China — which has been Ukraine’s largest trading partner — may work with that country going forward; and how the Ukraine situation plays into China’s territorial claims on Taiwan.
Heath explores China’s designs on Russia’s energy resources, and how India, with its longtime ties to Russia, is also seeking a new place in the world’s shifting strategic balance.
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Jeff: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host Jeff Schechtman. The military war between Russia and Ukraine has the world’s attention for now. Yet, looking beyond the war, whatever the outcome, this conflict is also playing out and reshaping the geopolitical world order. Contrary to the view of some after the Cold War, the age of great-power politics is not over.
New players may be at the chessboard, but the game is the same, as Russia, China, Europe, and other aggressive and developing nations jockey for position. Putin has essentially knocked over the global chessboard and most assuredly, the pieces will not be put back in exactly the same way. And most notably, China’s position on the board may be the most significant.
Here to talk about this, I am honored to be joined by Timothy Heath. He’s a senior international defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, focusing on matters of China. Prior to joining RAND, he served as the senior China analyst for the US Pacific Command’s China Strategic Focus Group. He served as an analyst for the Office of Naval Intelligence and served in the US Army, doing a tour of duty in Bosnia.
He has over 20 years of experience researching and analyzing military and political topics related to China. He has published extensively, is fluent in Mandarin, and has degrees from George Mason University and George Washington University. It is my pleasure to welcome Dr. Timothy Heath here to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. Tim, thanks so much for joining us.
Timothy: My pleasure. Glad to be here.
Jeff: It’s great to have you here. Are we underreporting, underestimating, under-focusing on China’s role in this global strategic battle that is playing out right now?
Timothy: I think prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, China certainly was in the headlines and the top focus of the US government. The invasion has just been such a shock that China has receded for the moment from the headlines. But rest assured, as your introduction well put it, China is very much a key player in how this crisis plays out.
Jeff: What is your sense of how China, and Xi specifically, are viewing the events taking place right now?
Timothy: I think there is some measure of, frankly, surprise or shock. I think a lot of the Chinese leaders really were skeptical that Putin would actually carry out the invasion. There are numerous signs that the Chinese were caught off guard a bit and they’re still responding to that. I think there’s several potential outcomes that could be beneficial for China’s interest, namely, a weakening of Russia. This war will almost certainly weaken and accelerate Russia’s decline and Russia’s animosity towards the US and West will deepen.
Both those trends will actually help China in the sense that Russia will become even more dependent on China and unlikely to ever abandon China to join the West in some sort of containment strategy. So that’s one upside. Now there are major downsides to this war for China — namely, the disorder that’s being wrought; the impact on global trade and investment severely hampers China. And Beijing is finding itself put in a very uncomfortable position between Russia, its most trusted partner, and the West, which China needs far more for its own economic growth.
Jeff: Is Russia really China’s most trusted partner? You get the sense certainly when you saw Putin and Xi and together as the Olympics opened back on February 4th, that this was at best a marriage of convenience. Talk about that.
Timothy: I think that is a common notion in the West. I think it really undersells the closeness of the partnership. Part of the reason why China and Russia are close is they have no other option. There are no other great powers who are attractive as partners. So merely at the very least out of the lack of options, these two countries realized they need each other, especially in their most important foreign policy objectives, which have to do with their immediate surroundings and dealing with the American power. So the relationship, I think there is more to it than a marriage of convenience.
With that said, I do agree there are some major differences between the two and limits to how far each side will go to bat for the other, and we’re seeing that play out right now. China has been reluctant to criticize President Putin but at the same time, they’re not giving a full-throated endorsement either of his invasion.
Jeff: What do you make of these comments that have come from China in the past day or so about maximum restraint and encouraging some kind of talks to take place?
Timothy: Yes, I think this is reflective of the difficult position China finds itself in. On the one hand, it does want to show solidarity and support to Russia who, as I said, China regards as probably one of its most useful partners. On the other hand, China does not benefit from a continuation of this war. Ukraine becomes more and more bitter, angry, and resentful towards China and China used to have a good history of relations with Ukraine that’s increasingly being put in jeopardy. But more importantly, China’s relationship with the West is getting hammered as this war continues, because Washington and the European Union are seeing that China ultimately is siding with Russia in a terrible war.
And this is going to hurt China’s relationship with the West going forward, and China cannot afford a serious disruption in its relationship with the West because it needs Western markets, technology, and cooperation actually far more in many ways than it needs Russia.
Jeff: One of the things that this war has done is it has solidified the West. It has certainly brought Europe and NATO and the US much closer together. To what extent is that a threat or something that China’s not happy to see?
Timothy: Absolutely, this is definitely a development that China does not want to see. China benefits most if the US and European countries are at odds with each other, divided, feuding, and unable to come to a common cause to deal with countries like China and Russia. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has definitely done the opposite. It has solidified Western ties, it has renewed a sense of common purpose, and increased military cooperation with all parties.
And China can only view this as disturbing and worrisome. So I think, going forward, it’s another reason for China to hope and perhaps encourage Russia to reconsider continuing this war for the long term.
Jeff: Talk a little about the lens through which China views the world. So much has been written lately about Putin and how he sees the world and the restoration of the Russian Empire. With China, it seems that economics is the driving force. Is that true and, if not, what is?
Timothy: I think the lens through which the Chinese view the world is the one of Chinese civilization and this grand ambition of placing China in the center of world affairs. There is a much more strategic and long-term vision coming from the Chinese leadership compared to Russia, which appears more tactical and obsessed with recent resentments in neighboring countries. And the Chinese vision is that of a revitalized China, a powerful China, a China that is economically powerful but also geopolitically powerful, and the two go together.
The Belt and Road Initiative is a vision of an interconnected Russia, Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, of course, Latin America connected through trade, investment, and infrastructure, all led by China and Chinese companies. And that’s the kind of vision that the Chinese are pursuing and the way they view the world. The war between Russia and Ukraine is very disruptive to that vision. It threatens it in some way due to the economic cost and the conflict that’s being generated and the antagonisms.
And that shows that there is quite a difference between the vision in Beijing about how the world should evolve and the vision in Moscow, which is much more tactically focused and obsessed with recent slights and humiliations from the past.
Jeff: Given the weakened economic condition that Russia’s going to come out of this with, no matter how it plays out, there is a sense that Russia will become but another notch in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Timothy: I think the Chinese would definitely hope that Russia will find itself more and more dependent and forced to defer to Beijing on some of its foreign policy decisions so that the Chinese are not surprised so drastically in the future. However, I think there are limits to how much influence China can exercise over Russia, even in a state of Russian economic decline. Think of the case of North Korea, which is almost totally dependent on China, and yet Beijing has found it has very little influence in telling Pyongyang what to do.
Similarly, Russia, given its historic pride and lingering suspicion about China, I think Beijing will find, despite its hopes that it can exert more and more influence over Russian foreign policy, there will be hard limits to how much Moscow will be willing to defer.
Jeff: Do you sense that there is a route to ending this current conflict that runs through Beijing?
Timothy: It’s hard to say. Putin clearly has his own agenda. He seems to have a very high pain threshold. I think China may have some role, but it’s limited because China will hesitate to put too much pressure on Moscow. China doesn’t want to be seen by Putin as a tool of the West. It wants to be seen as an independent actor and as at least friendly to Russia. But the way this war ends is if Putin ultimately feels sufficient pain from Western countries who have the most cards to play in terms of inflicting economic damage and even military damage.
Jeff: Lots has been said about Putin’s 2014 speech at the Munich Security Conference talking about the end of a unipolar world. He was talking about Russia being part of that world, but in fact, it’s really China that plays that role today.
Timothy: I agree. Russia is a declining power. Its economy is now smaller than Italy’s and shrinking. This war will only accelerate that decline. China is the most plausible competitor to the United States, which is why the US government has identified China as the most significant long-term challenge. And I think that’s going to be true going forward no matter President Putin’s delusions. The reality is China is just a much more formidable power than Russia can hope to be.
Jeff: Thinking strategically about this, if you were sitting in the White House, how does the US, or how might the US or West, benefit in terms of its relationship with China as a result of this current geopolitical imbalance?
Timothy: I think keeping the pressure on China helps the US because China is in a lose-lose situation. On the one hand, if it decides to start gravitating towards Russia’s position, it’s going to alienate a lot of countries around the world who are going to be shocked and horrified to see Beijing as a supporter and endorser of territorial aggression. It’ll raise worries throughout Asia about potential Chinese aggression against Taiwan, and it’s going to lose China a huge amount of influence.
But, on the other hand, if China decides to abandon Russia and gravitates towards the West, then it loses Russia. China becomes even more isolated because it will never have a very close relationship with the West due to its own suspicions and ambitions. And then that leaves China geopolitically weaker than before this crisis started. So I think, in many ways, this war has helped the US keep the pressure on China and put China in a difficult and awkward position that leaves Xi Jinping squirming.
Jeff: What has this done in terms of perhaps reframing any potential Chinese aggression towards Taiwan?
Timothy: Certainly, that’s been in the headlines a lot. I think in some ways we tend in the West to underestimate how difficult a Taiwan invasion is militarily. It’s very different from crossing a land border where you can just send units across the land border and start immediately taking on cities. Crossing a body of water against a well-armed opponent is still hugely risky for any country, let alone an untested military like the PLA.
Remember, China hasn’t fought a war in 40 years, unlike Russia, which has had numerous engagements. So it’s very high-risk for China. Moreover, keep in mind the Chinese vision, which is they want to be a respected power, a new leader of the global economy, and therefore rushing to an invasion of Taiwan doesn’t really help them strategically achieve their long-term goals.
So I think, in general, there’s still a lot of incentive for China to hold off on an invasion of Taiwan, [as there] was before the Russian attack. The events in Russia and Ukraine have shown that there is a huge risk of miscalculation and military disaster if you’re not well-prepared, as the Russians clearly were not. And I think that should add even more caution in Beijing about rushing to any reckless attack against Taiwan.
Jeff: Has the fact that so much of the corporate world, that huge companies have pulled out of Russia and have responded to this crisis in a way that might not have been anticipated — has that made a mark in terms of China’s thinking?
Timothy: Certainly, I think it reiterates to China that the global economy is an integrated one and that no country can act independently of another. That’s something the Chinese government has said itself. Now, China is a little more insulated from the West due to the fact it has a stronger economy, a huge economy with a lot of its own major corporations that can replicate some of the services and functions that Western companies do.
But the Chinese are deeply integrated in the Western economies. They are major trade partners and investors in Western economies, and they cannot afford massive disruption any more than the Russians can. So I think China’s observing of the economic cost being imposed on Russia as a result of this aggression should hopefully continue to add another source of restraint on Chinese thinking about Taiwan.
Jeff: China and Ukraine had been significant trading partners. Ukraine relied heavily on China as a trading partner. Talk a little bit about that and where that goes after all of this.
Timothy: So China and Ukraine through the 2000s actually had a very good relationship. In fact, at one point, Ukraine was furnishing some very important military articles to China, including China’s first aircraft carrier, the Varyag.They also provided jet engines and other important military technologies.
Now, that started to change around 2014, when Russia started to “essentially seize Crimea.” And China was forced to make a decision about which partner it valued more. China chose Russia as the more useful partner. That severely strained China-Ukraine relations, but nevertheless, they remain trade partners. Very important trade partners. And in recent years, China has become Ukraine’s number one trade partner.
Obviously, for China, Ukraine plays a much smaller role in total volume of trade, but China-Ukraine had friendly relations. Ukraine signed into The Belt and Road Initiative and was looking to cultivate those relationships. That relationship has now taken a severe hit due to China siding with Russia in the crisis. I think the Chinese are hoping to salvage the relationship, which is one reason why you have the Chinese leadership calling for an end to the war and peace talks as soon as possible.
The longer this goes on, the more damage to China’s relationship with Ukraine — which Beijing, ultimately, is not very enthusiastic about.
Jeff: Is that relationship repairable do you think?
Timothy: I think it is, merely out of pure pragmatism. Ukraine, they need the trade with China. They may not militarily ever repair the relationship. I think that relationship is gone, but China doesn’t really need Ukraine technology anymore. It relies more on Russia. And then politically, Ukraine has clearly thrown its lobbying with the West. So I don’t think China and Ukraine can ever be close political or diplomatic parties, but they can repair their trade relationship.
Remember China’s trade relationship with the US and Europe is very strong and they’re not especially on friendly terms today.
Jeff: Does any of this shift anything in China’s relationship with Europe? We’ve been talking about it vis-à-vis the US. Does it change any of its relationships in Europe?
Timothy: I think it does. I think we’ll see coming out of this crisis, European countries will very likely gravitate even more towards the US in terms of positions on Chinese technology like Huawei and 5G and espionage and human rights, and all the other issues that the US has pointed out as problematic and that Europe has taken a much more ambivalent and unsure stance on.
Now that the Chinese have shown that they are supporters of Russia and partners of Russia, I think the lingering antagonism between Europe and Russia will definitely color European views of China and very likely result in a, you could say, added friction in the Europe-China relationship.
Jeff: If Russia loses this war or it turns out bad for Russia, how does China walk back that relationship with Europe or improve it in any way? Or does it care?
Timothy: It does care. If Russia loses it in the sense that it takes such heavy losses, it calls for peace and quits, essentially gives up and falls back to Russia, it will leave Russia severely weakened and dependent on China I think. I think either way, if Russia wins or loses, China’s relationship with Europe is going to be permanently changed. Europeans will see Russia as a very dangerous threat. They will see China’s support for Russia as hinting at potential Chinese aggression down the road and, therefore, also a threat. And I think it’s going to add to the diplomatic strength.
It may even cause some European countries to rethink their involvement in BRI — Chinese-led BRI, the Belt and Road Initiative project — and perhaps limit their involvement to a degree that previously they would not have considered.
Jeff: Does this give China an opportunity to exploit Russia in some way? Certainly, Russia has lots of natural resources in addition to oil and gas. Does this give China a competitive advantage in accessing any of those resources?
Timothy: Oh, absolutely. The Chinese have shown in the past that they are not above exploiting Russian difficulties to extract the most favorable terms of trade. This is happening now as well, and will probably continue to happen. As Russia loses some of its access to Western markets for its energy, the Chinese will be ready to pick that up. They, of course, are insatiable in their import demands for energy. Russia is a very convenient, nearby source, and the Chinese will be eager to exploit Russia’s lack of options to drive a hard bargain and get the best terms possible for accessing that energy.
Jeff: How should Taiwan be viewing this right now?
Timothy: I think Taiwan, in some ways, should be nervous about the Chinese apparent lack of criticism of Russian aggression and potential sympathy for Russian aggression as a sign that China isn’t totally averse to the idea of attacking a neighbor. But on the other hand, Taiwan should be encouraged by the fact that Western countries have come together to oppose aggression against another neighbor by Russia. And that might suggest down the road, if China attempted aggression against Taiwan, there may be more international support for Taiwan than may have been the case before this war broke out.
Jeff: As this has all played out in the past couple of weeks, as somebody that really understands and has been looking for a long time at all these geopolitical aspects, what has surprised you the most?
Timothy: I think two things surprised me. First off, the fact that Russia went ahead with the invasion surprised me. It seemed that most analysts, many analysts assumed that the era of war in Europe involving a major power like Russia was gone for the foreseeable future, but that has proven incorrect. That shows that a lot of our assumptions about war I think need to be reconsidered. And we need to be more aware of the possibility that the world’s politics is moving in uncharted territory, at least compared to the previous two, three decades.
The other thing that has surprised me is just how much the West has shown ability and willingness to come together and has shown just an amazing strength and grip on the global economy and world politics. It shows that, for all its growth and all its impressive increase and comprehensive national power, China is still a junior player in world politics. The US and Europe still have a very powerful role to play in shaping the global order and shaping global politics.
Jeff: How much has leadership been a part of that? Whether it’s the leadership in Ukraine, which has pulled all these forces together by virtue of its charismatic nature, or that of anybody in the Western alliance?
Timothy: I think we cannot discount the fact that the leaders in each of these countries are playing an important role in shaping the policies. The Ukraine president, obviously, has gained quite a bit of fame for his strength of leadership and rallying his country. Putin’s leadership role has to be considered here as a man prone to delusions and self-deception. He clearly made numerous miscalculations about this situation. And then, we don’t have to go through the whole list of leaders, but certainly Western countries have shown prudence and calibration in how they respond to this.
They’re careful not to overextend themselves and start a war with Russia, but they’re certainly helping fuel Ukrainian resistance. And then the Chinese, I think in general, have shown a pragmatic nature regardless of the leader, at least for the past two or three decades. Xi Jinping is very much in character, in showing this kind of nuanced and ambiguous position that gives China maximum flexibility and tries to expand their room to maneuver without sacrificing some of their top partnerships.
Jeff: It certainly does seem that China walks this very delicate tightrope through all of this.
Timothy: I agree. As I said, I think they’re in a very difficult and awkward position. I don’t think they’re comfortable there. They are trying to minimize the damage to all their interests. They have a lot of conflicting interests going on right now. They want good relations with the US. They need that for economics. And they want good relations with Ukraine as an important European partner.
But that conflicts with what they want from Russia, which is a stable, close partnership. And so, this war is adding tension to all that, and the Chinese are scrambling, trying to balance all that and maintain a nuanced, flexible position that minimizes damage to all their interests.
Jeff: Does India play any role in this? Should we think about India’s position in this? They’ve also been trying to walk a fine line, it seems.
Timothy: Yes, they have. They are historically a close friend of Russia. They have a long history of close ties with Russia. And so, for their own reasons, they don’t want to sacrifice their relationship with Russia. They have their own issues with China so they have a very different logic from the Chinese. Indians fear the Chinese and are looking for partners to deal with China. Russia is right there in the backyard. And their long historic relationship with Russia makes Russia an attractive partner to India, even as India is warming its relationship with the US and Western countries.
So I think, with China in mind, India is trying to walk a tightrope, keep its relationship with Russia healthy enough that, coming out of this crisis, Russia might be a useful partner to deal in part with China and a lot of the countries along India’s border, like Pakistan and in Central Asia. So, yes, India is an important country to think about when this crisis is ongoing.
Jeff: And finally, certainly, we are in a whole new era of great-power politics. The thought that we had reached the end of history is certainly not true.
Timothy: You’re absolutely right. And this war shows that the great game between these competing powers is very unpredictable. And we need to think harder and be more humble about how we think it’s going to evolve. So what’s the next step? It’s hard to say right now, but certainly, we need to keep our eyes and ears open.
Jeff: Dr. Timothy Heath, I thank you so very much for spending time with us today here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.
Timothy: My pleasure. I really enjoyed this.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.