As I and the rest of my class was once told by a professor during one of the initial lectures of a “Major Powers” class in graduate school, one of the main keys to successful diplomacy is to put yourself into the shoes of the other side and to try and see the world through their eyes. By putting yourself in the other side’s shoes and by seeing the world through their eyes, one can then at the bare minimum attempt to determine what it is they are seeking and what their interests are, and in turn, the alignment of interests is at the heart of successful diplomacy.
Thus, when one speaks of the triangular relations or the triangular relationship between the United States, Russia, and China, my interest personally as of late was to attempt to see how China views the dynamics and the overall flux of this triangular relationship between the world’s three major powers. As mentioned before, China is essentially the balancer and the “kingmaker” between the other side of the triangular dynamic, namely, the conflict between the West and Russia. When either the West or Russia are able to draw China to themselves, the side which draws China to itself ends up with the advantage and the edge, whereas the side which is unable to draw China to its side ends up losing out. An example of the “China Card” being put into practice and determining the outcome of this triangular dynamic in recent memory is the Soviet-Afghan conflict of the 1980’s when at a critical juncture of the war, China decided that it would cast its lot with the United States and in turn this decision by China to cast its lot with the United States ended up deciding the outcome of the conflict.
The question is whether China can continue to sit pretty this time around without making a decisive decision in the conflict between the West and Russia over Ukraine. As things stand at the moment, Russia does in fact have the edge over the West because of China’s decision to stay out of the conflict in Ukraine. Moreover, China and Russia are now largely interdependent with one another, in the sense that China is the biggest market for Russian energy, while China gets to power its economy through Russian energy. In turn, America is much more dependent on getting China to its side in order to turn the tide per se in the conflict with Russia than China is dependent on America for the preservation of its basic interests.
Given that there is ongoing commerce and trade between China and Russia as well as China and Iran at the moment, if China were to snatch either Saudi Arabia or Qatar away from the United States, then China would have access to more than half of the world’s energy supply, which means that China would be able to continue to abstain from the conflict between the West and Russia and “sit pretty” per se. And if China were to continue sitting pretty, then Russia would continue having the advantage and the edge in its conflict with the West over Ukraine.
Russian flyovers through Portuguese and Belgian airspace were occurring as early as 2015, long before the conflict in Ukraine took on its current shape and form, largely because basic Chinese and basic Russian interests had aligned as a result of the Western-backed overthrow of the government in Kiev in 2014. And as mentioned before, what complicates matters for the West is that there is no “focal point” by which the conflict with Russia can be brought and can then serve as a stepping-stone for a diplomatic or political solution. Russia’s conflict with the West does not stop at Ukraine or Poland. It can go as far as Germany and England. America’s presence in Europe theoretically serves as a deterrent for Russian aggression. But arguably, the American presence in Europe and its involvement in Ukraine over the last few years has amplified and exacerbated Russian aggression towards Europe.
Hence, the notion of “inevitable” and “perpetual” conflict between Russia and the West which Russia was always ready for. Moreover, Europe continues to walk a tightrope that cannot be sustained no matter how it all pans out given the complex, inevitable, and perpetual nature of this conflict. Arguably, from China’s perspective, better relations with the United States and a relationship with the United States that is based on cordiality, friendship, and mutual respect is desirable, preferable, and wonderful, but it is also nothing more than a dream and a fantasy at this point, given the racial and xenophobic factor in America’s outlook towards China. Arguably, China can live with the status quo in the relations between itself and the United States. As a result, preserving its basic interests while abstaining and taking shelter as Russia and the West duke it out over Ukraine are two watermelons which China can essentially balance and hold at the same time, and this balancing act is secured even further by China’s pragmatic and non-ideological approach towards foreign policy and foreign relations.