The Ukrainian Mousetrap – OpEd

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Most expert observers agree that the Ukraine war has resulted in much of a military stalemate. The Russians appear to have the numerical advantage whilst the Ukrainians, up to now, can count on firm Western military and diplomatic support.

Recent statements by President Biden in Kiev and Vladimir Putin in Moscow have convinced a section of the media that any peace agreement is a long way off. They say the war will be long and point to the gulf separating Ukraine and its Western Allies from Russia and its supporters. That it is a war of attrition does not invalidate new diplomatic developments that demonstrate the importance of China in this dispute.

In the wake of these developments, the highest-ranked Chinese diplomat, Wang Yi, has travelled to the 59th Munich Security Conference (February 18-20, 2023) looking to gauge the stand of the Europeans and their ongoing support of Ukraine. While political pundits and media soothsayers point to fruitless offensives and a war of attrition, Beijing is quietly re-evaluating its early support for Russia in the Ukraine. It is asserted that, in a war of attrition, Ukraine will lose regardless of Western lethal support. Meanwhile the Chinese Politburo is recalibrating its previous position. There is a fear that, despite the unprecedented third term of Xi Jinping as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), his first real foray abroad has the potential for an unmitigated disaster for his leadership and this even in light of his heavy-handed measures to reign supreme in the CCP.

During the Munich conference, the early support for Russia, spearheaded by General Secretary Xi, came under fire. Indeed, rumors of China having decided to send lethal aid to Russia have also come as an unwelcome event in an already overcrowded field of developments. There is no mistake – Xi’s unyielding support for Russia will no longer stand. Why that has occurred and the consequences for power re-alignment in the CCP when Xi just obtained a third mandate is unclear to this writer. However, the diplomatic impact of this ‘recul’ is particularly devastating. This ‘recul’ is still in its early stages but China watchers should be looking for its signs at the United Nations and in other diplomatic fora.

Ukraine is a Chinese trap. The Americans have set it and a year ago, Beijing was almost in it completely thanks to Xi. Like a determined rat who sees the piece of cheese at the end of the cage, Xi forged ahead oblivious to the consequences of what lay ahead. Did the Americans lay the trap consciously? More importantly, how did they lay the trap?

Long before the soon to be retired Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mary Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022, her trip publicly sanctioned by a group of 25 GPO senators, the trap was being set. Beijing’s policy of no official visits to Taiwan was violated big time when Democrat Senator Bob Menendez headed a bipartisan visit to Taiwan on April 14, 2022. The two-day high-level visit was never announced to Beijing thereby violating their rules of diplomatic engagement. Visits to Taiwan are opposed by Beijing since they give credence to Taiwan’s sovereignty. More importantly, these visits and others violate the letter and spirit of America’s one China policy. Beijing is correct and the Americans continue to waffle on that policy to the consternation of the Chinese government. The US policy expressly admits that Taiwan is part of China.

Upon return to the United States, Senator Menendez continued his trouble-making by proposing a bill that would transform the diplomatic status of Taiwan in Washington. Not an Embassy yet but a resolute step in that direction.

The Chinese reaction was in a military form and illustrated the loss of initiative on Taiwan. Infuriated with the American waffling on its China policy, Beijing simply illustrated its ‘ressentiment’. The stalled Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed and disempowered China and its support for Russia. Xi was unable to sense the danger and shares in the Chinese Achilles heel – cultural blindness. In an effort to flex Chinese military and political might, they have made themselves what Mao cogently termed a ‘paper tiger’. For his part, President Biden has affirmed on four occasions that America will intervene if Taiwan were to be attacked by Beijing’s armed forces. This threat is still vague since it does not indicate the probable nature of any such intervention or whether it will even occur. Nevertheless, Beijing must take this threat under advisement in any pre-invasion planning.

We are now seemingly leagues away from the cancellation of the planned visit to Beijing by the head of American diplomacy, Anthony Blinken. The planned Blinken visit was cancelled amidst the balloon imbroglio in early February. The recent February 18th visit of the deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, Michael Chase, also increased tensions and incurred the wrath of Beijing.

Latest news out of the Munich Security Conference also lend credence to the mousetrap concept. It has been announced that several Western leaders will visit Beijing soon and have an audience with Xi to discuss the situation in Ukraine. Wang Yi has called for a ceasefire in the Ukrainian conflict. The Munich Conference is a watershed since it confirms Beijing’s ‘recul’ in the face of staunch European support for Ukraine.

Early Chinese support for Russia is now undergoing a significant change. The senior diplomat Wang Yi, whose previous job at Foreign Affairs was Taiwan Affairs, has also said, in the keynote address to the Munich Conference, that China will actively seek to help establish the parameters of a peace initiative in order to end the war in Ukraine. He has already gone to Moscow for preparatory talks. Ultimately, these moves will attempt to re-establish an economic situation and prepare the ground for future American concessions on Taiwan.

For Xi’s leadership, which appears solid for the moment, a settlement of the Ukraine war and some symbolic concessions on Taiwan will act as a baume to facilitate relations with the United States and Ukraine. Beijing could also point to a normalization of its traditionally friendly relations with Kiev.

The goal of this American-made Ukrainian mousetrap is to isolate Vladimir Putin and neutralize its Chinese support. Its fundamental basis is the linkage between war in Ukraine and Taiwan. For Beijing, Taiwan is a much greater prize and priority than the Ukraine. By inching the Chinese position towards a more neutral stance, China will also try to recover from the black eye it has received in its economic possessions abroad in Asia, South and Central America and Africa due to its previous support for Russia.

In his latest speech on the war in Ukraine, Putin has changed the main theme of the invasion from one of denazification to a much broader vision saying it is a ‘war of civilizations’. In a word, the invasion has undergone a significant transformation in Russian terms from a ‘walk in the park’ to a ‘war of civilizations’. It is now manifestly clear that this new Putinesque thematic will not pass the litmus test in Beijing. Moreover, the Chinese support of a loser in the Ukraine has consequences. War is bad for business and does not contribute to Xi’s vision of a new powerful worldwide Empire of China. A loss or even a continuing military stalemate in the Ukraine would put pressure on Xi’s international focus and instill doubt amongst its regional allies and possessions. After all, who wants to lose the lucrative European market for Ukraine? At the cost of more trouble in the Taiwan Straits?

The mousetrap has begun to descend. The Chinese, anxious to keep Taiwan as its focus, are exciting the American trap. Yi Wang senses the danger and, for now, is covering up the cultural blindness of Xi. The interests of China are best served by a timely peace negotiation and a rapid normalization of the economic sphere. These diplomatic moves could well result in China attaining its objective, which cannot and must not become a war of civilizations as Putin has framed it. Such a conflict would damage Xi’s leadership, doom Beijing’s hopes of leading a new Silk Road in Eurasia and dash its hope for world hegemony. China will have avoided a looming disaster as it exits the mousetrap with all due haste.

Bruce Mabley

Dr. Bruce Mabley is a former Canadian diplomat having served in the Middle East, and is the director of the Mackenzie-Papineau think tank in Montreal.

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