It is a quote that has echoed down the ages.“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
Coined around the sixth century BC by Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, the epic line has never been more relevant in the land of his birth as it is today.
Since President Xi Jinping came to power nearly a decade ago, China’s relationship with vital trading partners in the United States, Europe, Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia has deteriorated.
Before his rise to the pinnacle of the ruling Communist Party, there was a political divide. But now there is a deeper chasm, involving the very values that are engrained in major democracies across the world.
In short, Beijing has very few friends to “keep close” and enemies that certainly do not want to be “closer” to Comrade Xi and his policies.
“What we are witnessing now is a major shift when it comes to China’s relations with central Europe, and with the [European Union] in general,” Jakub Jakobowski, of the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, told media group Axios, referring to Xi’s tacit support for close “friend” Vladimir Putin and Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.
- President Putin’s war has been a catastrophe for China’s foreign policy goals.
- Concerns about rising nationalism in the world’s second-largest economy have intensified since Russian tanks rolled into the Eastern European country.
- State-controlled media has run hysterical headlines such as War or peace: Uncle Sam’s dirty role in the Ukraine crisis and the US fails to trap China over Ukraine.
- Other Orwellian commentaries from Global Times include Is Japan reverting to its fascist ways that threaten East Asia? and Western countries smear China on Ukraine crisis in an attempt to check its rise.
- China was already staring into a PR abyss after the pro-democracy crackdown in Hong Kong and Beijing’s predatory trading practices.
- Military intimidation of Taiwan and the bullying of Southeast Asia nations in South China Sea disputes have only inflamed the situation.
Reality check: “China’s alignment with Russia is just one reason why the separation between cooperation, economic competition, and systemic rivalry – put forward by the EU in March 2019 – cannot be maintained,” Francois Godement, a senior advisor for Asia to the Institut Montaigne in Paris, and Mikko Huotari, the executive director of the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, said.
Divide and rule: “China today is an actor very much ‘inside Europe’. It affects political developments, public security and European unity in legitimate and also more clandestine ways, or with explicit divide and rule tactics,” they wrote in a commentary for MERICS, the non-profit think tank.
Delve deeper: An intelligence report that Xi’s government was prepared to help Russia militarily and break economic sanctions has further alienated Beijing’s position in the global community.
The fallout: The US, the EU and allies such as Japan and the United Kingdom were furious that China was working in the wings as part of the “no limits” agreement between Beijing and Moscow. The deal was sealed on the eve of the Beijing Winter Olympics last month just weeks before the invasion of Ukraine.
Lies and damned lies: “The Chinese side resolutely opposes any words and deeds that spread false information, or distort and discredit China’s position,” Yang Jiechi, a senior Chinese diplomat, told US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in Rome earlier this week after the American intelligence report first surfaced.
Big picture: Savage sanctions by major democracies on Russia and Ukraine’s resistance to Putin’s war have shaken China’s political elite. The EU’s speed and resolve have also made a mockery of Xi’s mantra that “the West is in decline.”
Democracy v autocracy: It is not quite as black-and-white as that. China heavily relies on food shipments from Russia such as wheat, along with ballooning oil and gas imports.
Shared goal: Yet it would be wrong to say that Beijing and Moscow do not share the same goal of fracturing the democratic global alliance. They would like nothing better than to drive a wedge between the US, Europe and its Asian allies.
Doublespeak: “Some US politicians and media outlets have repeatedly fabricated and spread false information to take advantage of the Ukraine crisis to smear China. This despicable behavior does not in any way cover up the United States’ responsibility for the Ukraine crisis,” state-owned China Daily raged in an editorial earlier this week.
Hang on there: The US and Europe did not invade Ukraine or “spread false information.” Again, this is the sort of authoritarian rhetoric that Nineteen Eighty-Four author George Orwell warned about: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
China Factor comment: Beijing has made a colossal geopolitical blunder. At a stroke, it has alienated major trading partners in the East and the West by backing Putin’s war.