China takes pride in a lofty version of isolation. Its mandarins were unimpressed by thoughts of world conquest because in their view what the world had to offer was far inferior to what China already possessed. Their foreign policy was determined not by the rights of conquest but by the rights of superiority.
Foreigners were either supplicants or barbarians who had to kowtow. When barbarians, whether Mongol or Manchu, did breach the walls and seize Beijing, they were required to surrender to Chinese language and civilisation. The Chinese cannot easily forgive those foreigners who did not submit: the Europeans and the Japanese. The experience of European and Japanese invasion and conquest remains traumatic.
Mao Zedong was revered because he repositioned communism with Chinese characteristics, ignoring Lenin’s internationalism. Mao sent troops to Tibet to expand China’s suzerainty, and to North Korea to preserve a buffer zone against American aggression. Mao did not send troops to Vietnam. Mao’s successors have been cautious about getting involved in others’ wars. President Xi Jinping has struck a jarring note by upgrading his diplomats into wolf warriors, but he is most unlikely to throw caution aside. He will, in good Chinese fashion, wait, watch and pounce only when the opportunity becomes irresistible.
China’s strategy is to become the dominant power of the next world order, not of this one. It can wait for the present order to fall in disarray. The question then becomes different. Will Ukraine begin the swerve to a new order? The Ukraine war will wind down.
The price of sustaining it is too high on both sides. There will be a solution. People forget that a solution is liquid, not hard; from fluidity will emerge a compromise between the US and Russia which Kyiv will have to accept. In the middle of World War I, American President Woodrow Wilson proposed a peace without victory. There were no takers then, for Britain, France and Germany believed that total victory was possible. Ukraine is likely to end in a peace without categorical victory.
There will be fallout on all sides, as major nations take stock of what they have learnt from this war. The most important repercussion is one that has not been discussed. Ukraine is a European crisis with Asian consequences.
An informal alliance
Russia and China have reached out to each other. When they consider the future once the missiles stop, could they bring Iran into an informal alliance on the principle of an enemy’s enemy being a friend? That is what a wartime bloc is about in any case. After all, the confrontation with America and its allies will not cease. It will simply seek different arenas. It is likely China will assume leadership of the Beijing-MoscowTehran troika.
The three have acknowledged prowess in defence, energy, and technology. It is axiomatic that technology will be the heavy artillery of the next confrontation, with its wide range of insidious abilities to influence events and thinking. We cannot predict the specific geography of the next Ukraine.
What we can say with some certainty is that the next battle will first be fought in the mind.
(The writer is a veteran journalist and author of several books)
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