For weeks Chinese officials and analysts have endorsed Russia’s claims that Nato’s expansion in Europe triggered its invasion of Ukraine. Now they are pointing to a new spectre to justify their support of Russia’s war: an “Indo-Pacific Nato” that could ultimately force China to decouple from the west and achieve self-sufficiency in everything from food to semiconductors.
Ever since Xi Jinping and Joe Biden refused to budge from their opposing assessments of the conflict during a two-hour phone call on March 18, Chinese diplomats have gone on a rhetorical offensive, arguing that US-led alliances are as much a threat to Beijing as they are to Moscow.
Most of their ire is directed at the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy Biden inherited from Donald Trump, which seeks to bind the US, Japan, Australia and India in a united front against China.
“Nato has kept strengthening and expanding, and intervened militarily in countries like Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan,” Le Yucheng, vice-foreign minister, said a day after the presidents’ call.
“The Indo-Pacific strategy is as dangerous as the Nato strategy of eastward expansion in Europe,” he added. “If allowed to go unchecked, it would bring unimaginable consequences and ultimately push the Asia-Pacific [region] over the edge of an abyss.”
In an attempt to counter Biden’s “real goal” of establishing “an Indo-Pacific version of Nato”, Le’s boss, foreign minister Wang Yi, met his Indian counterpart in New Delhi on Friday.
On Tuesday Wang addressed the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Islamabad, where he touted $400bn in Chinese-led projects across 54 Islamic countries. China, India and Pakistan, which have a combined population of 3bn, all abstained on the UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Alicia García Herrero, Asia-Pacific chief economist at French investment bank Natixis, said that as the Ukraine crisis drove the US and EU closer together, China was seeking to complement its Russian partnership with stronger economic and diplomatic ties to large countries across the developing world and resource-rich nations in the Middle East.
While the US and EU are trying to push China into a corner, she said “China has taken and enlarged that corner . . . China is building this sphere of influence which makes its self-reliance [strategy] much more credible”.
Ni Lexiong, an independent military analyst in Shanghai, said China needed to adopt a long-term perspective when making assessments about the situation in Ukraine and its relationship with Russia. “If we don’t [handle the Ukraine crisis] right, 30 years from now the west will treat China the same way it is treating Russia,” Ni said.
Chinese officials increasingly worry that such treatment could include wide-ranging sanctions similar to those imposed by the US and EU on Russia. In that event, they argued, China would need Russia’s support as much as Russia now needed China’s support.
Hu Xijin, former editor of the Chinese nationalist Global Times newspaper, said that Xi’s “no-limits” partnership with Putin would serve China well in any “strategic showdown” with the US over Taiwan or a similar flashpoint.
“With Russia as a partner, if the US carries out maximum strategic coercion against China, China won’t be afraid of [a] US energy blockade, and our food supply will be secure,” he wrote in a recent column. “So will [our supply of] other raw materials
“We must constantly boost our own strength to make the US feel that having a conflict with China is more and more unbearable. Russia is China’s most crucial partner to achieve this goal.”
Russia, however, will be of little help to China in securing supplies of high-tech components vital to its vast manufacturing base, such as semiconductors as well as the largely western machinery and software needed to make them.
Dan Wang at Gavekal Dragonomics, a Beijing-based consultancy, noted that if China ever faced sanctions similar to those imposed on Russia, “they would be devastating for China’s ability to remain a manufacturing superpower”.
As result, argues Andrew Gilholm at Control Risks, a consultancy, Xi must pursue “decoupling on China’s terms”. That will entail securing, with Russia’s help, food and energy supplies while avoiding US sanctions on technology, finance and other areas where it is still dependent on the west.
“The idea was always to build up China’s diversification and self-reliance as fast as possible,” Gilholm said. But after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “the motivation has gone to another level: this now must be seen almost as a national security issue, and an existential one at that”.
China rescinded phytosanitary restrictions on Russian wheat exports on February 24, the same day that Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine, and can now congratulate itself for having resisted US demands for reforms of its state-led agriculture sector during the two countries’ trade war in 2018 — 19.
“Beijing probably feels very validated in their approach,” said Darin Friedrichs at Sitonia Consulting, an agriculture consultancy in Shanghai. “They have kept a high level of state control and stockpiles.
“And now, while a lot of other countries are scrambling for supplies, they are relatively insulated,” he added. “Those policies were pretty successful and meant for a time like this.”
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing