How the war in Ukraine is putting Australia on Xi Jinping’s radar
As he approaches a third term in power, the Chinese leader shows no signs of retreating from his global ambitions but the unfolding disaster in Ukraine could force him to change course. Originally published in The Australian Financial Review.
In early October, a lucid, 99-year-old Henry Kissinger, hosted by Kevin Rudd in New York at the Asia Society, held forth at length on China, a country whose leaders he has had unparalleled access to for four decades.
Kissinger has long been inclined to explain China’s rise rather than examine it critically, which is perhaps why he is still welcomed with open arms in Beijing and feted as a far-sighted statesman.
But when it came to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, even Kissinger recoiled. “Xi Jinping gave a rather blank cheque to Putin – he must have thought the invasion would succeed,” Kissinger told Rudd, at the opening of the Asia Society’s new China think tank. “He might need to recalibrate.”
Recalibrate? That is not a word that anyone has used to describe Xi on any front since he took office in late 2012, let alone foreign policy. If Kissinger, a friend at court in Beijing, thinks Xi has made a mistake in backing Putin, it might be time to take notice.
Chinese foreign policy is global in its ambitions and about much more than Xi’s relationship with Putin. But the unfolding disaster of the Ukraine invasion reverberates far beyond bilateral Sino-Russian ties.
Xi will preside over the ruling Communist Party’s once-in-five-years congress, opening on Sunday, a meeting expected to hand him a third, consecutive, and convention-busting, term.
Along with a large turnover in the Politburo, the congress will also kick-start the process of unveiling a new foreign policy team. China’s top diplomatic duo, Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi, are likely to be replaced over coming months after more than a decade of serving in senior positions.
But will there be any change in policy at the same time? Will the aggressive style of Chinese foreign policy, known as “wolf warrior” diplomacy, be refashioned or modified in Xi’s third term?
Xi has shown no outward signs that he thinks the blowback against an assertive China in mainly Western countries should throw him off course. But as Kissinger pointed out, events like the Ukraine war may give him no choice.
To take one example close to home, look at Beijing’s relationship with Australia, which has been in freefall for several years over a multitude of disagreements.
The election of the Labor government in May provided a circuit breaker for both sides to restore political dialogue. China also has an interest in talking directly to Australia as it wants to join the premier regional trade pact, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Strategic value of Australia’s commodities
Largely unremarked, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reverberated in the bilateral economic relationship. The conflict has destabilised global energy and agricultural markets. As a result, the strategic value of commodities has returned to the forefront of global geopolitics.
Much as US President Joe Biden travelled to Saudi Arabia recently to rebuild ties with a major oil exporter, China has a renewed interest in talking to Australia.
The analogy can be overdone, of course. Australia is not a theocracy, and China doesn’t export arms that Canberra can deploy in wars with its neighbours. Nor did Biden’s Riyadh trip persuade the Saudis to keep oil prices down.
But in such an environment, it makes sense for Beijing to reopen channels of communication with Australia, a reliable near-neighbour, one that is a major exporter of minerals, gas and farm goods.
While its trade sanctions against Australia largely remain in place, China is currently importing record amounts of local wheat, catapulting the country into our biggest customer for the commodity. Ukraine is one of the world’s biggest grain exporters, but its trade has been hit by Russia’s blocking of access to ports.
Xi and Putin met in Beijing for the opening of the Winter Olympics in February and unveiled a “no-limits partnership” between China and Russia, the culmination of years of steadily warming political and economic bilateral ties.
The two countries have much in common, most notably, shared antipathy to the US and what they regard as a world order biased in favour of Washington, and China’s rising demand for energy and minerals, much of which Russia can supply.
Remarkably, Xi seemed unprepared soon after the summit when Putin unleashed war on Ukraine on February 24. Beijing’s initial response was flat-footed and defensive. Russia’s failure to win the war has made things worse.
None of this is likely to impact on Xi’s fortunes at the upcoming party congress.
Equally, China’s hydra-headed contest with the United States, over trade, geopolitical and regional influence, technology and indeed governing systems, will remain central to Beijing’s foreign policy. Any recalibration of the kind that Kissinger floated with be tactical.
The US-China competition also puts a ceiling on any improvement in relations between Canberra and Beijing. Anthony Albanese’s government has inherited Scott Morrison’s AUKUS agreement, which includes the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines, and the new government has stuck by it as well.
Despite the resumption of ministerial-level talks, Beijing for its part has kept up pressure on trade and further campaigns, internationally and in the region, against AUKUS.
Following the party congress, Xi will have a series of diplomatic priorities aimed at buttressing China’s international position, a number of which have been complicated by the war in Ukraine.
In the words of one US government official, Beijing will first tend to relations with what he called “aggrieved” nations, such as Russia, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran, which are all close to China and marginalised by the US.
As it has for more than a decade, Beijing will further forge closer ties with the so-called “global south”, or developing and low-income countries, in Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
Beijing has long cultivated such nations, for multiple reasons – winning votes at the UN, embedding its own technological standards in their economies, building alternative trade and political blocs to ones dominated by the West and encouraging development with Chinese assistance.
With both the “aggrieved” nations and the “global south”, Beijing is pushing at an open door after years of effort in parts of the world where developed countries have underperformed or been absent altogether.
The global swing states, in Europe and Latin America, and perhaps also India, present a different sort of challenge. Beijing has alienated European nations with its support for Russia in Ukraine. India has not forgiven Beijing over recent military clashes on their shared border.
But while Beijing might not be able to fully restore ties with these nations, it has a secondary aim, to prevent the same countries from getting closer to Washington.
With the US, Taiwan remains the most divisive and dangerous issue.
Washington is trying to bolster Taipei’s defences against a possible future Chinese invasion, however far-off and improbable that may be, with the aim of giving the self-governed island the ability to hold off the People’s Liberation Army until reinforcements arrive.
Washington also wants to build Taiwan’s resilience against a more likely course of action, a Chinese blockade of the island aimed at forcing Taipei’s leaders to the negotiating table to begin talks over unification.
Beijing regards all such initiatives as breaching Sino-US agreements struck in the 1970s. Washington maintains it is consistent with its longstanding policy of preventing unification by force.
Xi himself has never set a hard and fast timetable for unification, other than to make clear he wants it to happen on his watch. The Ukraine invasion might prompt Xi and the PLA to rethink their strategy to take the island, but it will not change their objective.
The first major meeting of Xi’s third term is expected to be with Biden at the G20 summit in Bali on November 15-16. Although the climate will be tropical, the vibes will be very much of the Cold War.
For years in the Cold War, US and Soviet leaders nearly always met in third countries because neither had the political capital, nor the desire, to host each other at home.
The same applies for the moment to the US and China. Don’t expect to see Biden and Xi hosting each other in Washington or Beijing soon.