In the Ukraine War, China Is the Only Winner
With the West stuck in another protracted and unwinnable war, and Russia growing more dependent on Beijing, China is positioned to come out of the conflict more powerful than before.
The war in Ukraine has settled into a bloody stalemate with no end in sight. As the world braces for more bloodshed and destruction in the second year of the war, all the major players find themselves having gained no clear victory—except China.
On one side of the conflict are the United States and its allies. Since President Joe Biden has come to office, the United States has been Ukraine’s most steadfast supporter, pumping more than $75 billion into the country in humanitarian, financial, and military support. Washington has been, or will soon be, providing Kiev with advanced weapons systems, including Javelins, the Patriot air defense system, and M1A1 and A2 Abrams tanks. America’s European partners have also been providing ongoing assistance to Ukraine in different areas, including financial, humanitarian, energy, and budget support, as well as diplomatic outreach. The European Union in December last year agreed on a legislative package that will provide Ukraine with €18 billion in financial support over 2023. Yet, despite the seemingly bottomless support provided by the West to Ukraine, the United States and its European allies are no closer to expelling Russia from Ukraine than when the war first began, while draining their own resources.
On the other side of the war is Russia, which continues to be the architect of its own demise. While the Russian economy has resisted the brunt of Western economic sanctions, Moscow has lost the EU market, experienced a tremendous brain drain, grown dependent on Iran and North Korea for arms and supplies, and become the de facto junior partner to China. By all metrics, Russia has failed in its bid for renewed hegemony over its own front yard. NATO is now more united than ever, has added Finland to the alliance, and is on track to add Sweden. Furthermore, the Russian-Ukrainian war has accelerated the global transition towards alternative energy, thereby posing a grave threat to Moscow’s fossil-fuel-based economy. In terms of the human cost of war, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies reports that Russian armed forces and private military contractors fighting alongside them have suffered 60,000 to 70,000 combat fatalities over the past year.
Clearly, the biggest loser in the war is Ukraine itself. Having heroically fought off the initial Russian decapitation strike aimed against Kiev, which targeted President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself, Ukraine now finds itself facing a World War I-esque situation of trench warfare against the Russians. The frontlines have become largely static along the oblasts of Kherson, Zaprizhchia, Donetsk, and Luhansk. At least 8,000 non-combatants and tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since the war began. Nearly 18 million people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, with 14 million displaced from their homes. Vladimir Putin has ratcheted up the nuclear brinkmanship, announcing plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus by July of this year—a move that would pose an existential threat to Ukraine’s survival. While Kiev has managed to avert defeat, victory—or more practically an end to the war—appears nowhere in sight.
Yet there is one country that is winning from the carnage: China. Just as Beijing sat back and smiled as the United States bled itself in various interventions in the Middle East over the past two decades, it is again doing the same now as Washington has found itself bogged down in yet another protracted and unwinnable war. In the meantime, China has funneled considerable expenditure into its military, modernizing its air and ground forces, expanding its naval forces in East Asia to counter the existing U.S. naval presence, and upgrading its strategic and tactical nuclear stockpile and launch systems. Chinese policymakers understand that continued and costly American forays abroad will only tip the balance of power further in Beijing’s favor. China has also taken advantage of the Ukraine war in its foreign policy, steadily increasing its economic relations with Russia and, according to some China experts, possibly supplying Russia with weapons and ammunition in the near future.
The devastating irony of the situation is that the West became embroiled in a war against Russia at the very moment when it should have been cultivating Russia as a counterbalance against the rise of China. Instead, the West has pushed Russia into the waiting arms of Beijing, which has been more than willing to pursue a “friendship with no limits” with a Russia that has every reason to fear a rising China. Nevertheless, instead of a situation where the United States and Russia are working together to contain China, we instead have one where they are effectively fighting a war against each other in Ukraine. The United States has thus set itself up for a confrontation against two great powers, a situation that only naïve optimists believe the United States can win.
Nilay Saiya is an associate professor of public policy and global affairs at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Rahmat Wadidi is a graduate student in international relations at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.