And with all the focus on Russia, what may not be appreciated is how this struggle to confront Putin effectively could well be a preview of the challenges involved should the US, the EU and other so-called like-minded are confronted by Chinese action they too want to counter. China, after all, has been identified by the US and, more obliquely, by its allies and partners as the primary threat to global security. In the emerging narrative of intensifying multipolarity and a new Cold War, it is not unimaginable that China and the US could come into sharp conflict. An attempt by the mainland to take control of Taiwan is one scenario.
In recent years, the EU has implemented sanctions on China in connection to its actions against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, to which Beijing has responded with counter-sanctions and an anti-sanctions law. The current EU sanctions against Russia, most of which were implemented after the outbreak of war, communicate not only to the Russians but also to the Chinese government that the use of violence and military force would result in noticeable economic costs, thereby raising the stakes. This could prompt China to pursue an economic decoupling strategy as a way to cushion the blow should it face penalties. Russia pursued such a strategy after it was hit with sanctions by Western sanctions after it annexed Crimea in 2014. But in the process, Russia lost its edge in shaping economic policy as it lost bargaining power and was therefore much more desperate to attract business and investment. The Russian economy, as a result, has not been able to diversify and has remained miniscule compared to that of China, with income largely derived from non-sustainable rents from the export of raw materials.
China is of a wholly different economic class and weight than Russia. In a scenario such as a conflict in the Taiwan Strait initiated by Beijing, it may be that such a transgression would stir much more negative reactions among key Asia-Pacific states, particularly China’s neighbors Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and India, that a significant international bandwagon, drawn together by the US, would materialize quickly and with greater intensity than even what has been the case with the Ukraine war.
This time, German and EU dependence on oil and gas imports from the very target of the sanctions would not be a factor, though of course, China’s economic and trade relationships may provide it a great deal of leverage with certain countries. How this all would play out is impossible to predict. But in the Ukraine drama, the current sanctions, however symbolic and lacking in persuasive teeth, may keep piling on a determined and daring Russia, whose volatile leader (and successors) will not be able to repair relations with the EU for decades. The power plays will prepare the US, the EU and others in their like-minded camp to a bigger, much tougher fight that may emerge in the future. The concerted action to rein in Putin, however, may yet turn out to be an effective incentive for Beijing to avoid risking a major conflict.