The conflict is on its way to becoming protracted while Russian-Ukrainian relations have become a major source of instability in Europe. Despite the fact that this issue has been raised by the candidates for the presidency, there is a lack of new ideas about the ways to tackle the effects of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. There was, however, an appearance of an alternative to the stalemated Minsk format on the electoral agenda of one of the favorites of the presidential race, Yuliia Tymoshenko. It is called "Budapest Plus", referring to the Budapest memorandum of 1994, according to which Ukraine got security assurances in exchange for giving away its nuclear weapons. The main idea behind Budapest Plus is to engage such powers as the US, Great Britain, France, China, Germany, and the EU into an extended format, which would replace Minsk as a principal tool for conflict resolution. And while there are still discussions on imperfections in the text of the Budapest memorandum itself that leaves space for various interpretations, the issue of bringing global powers on board needs major attempts and attention. Especially, when it comes to China, the role of which has been omitted since the crisis broke out in 2014.
China has recently boosted its presence on the continent and seems to pursue a long-term economic and political agenda. Altogether these developments open up a window of opportunity for engaging China into more effective management of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The task by no means will be easy. But it may prove worth trying in the end. Here is why.
First, the role of Europe in Chinese grand strategy is getting more important. China’s European investments jumped from $11 billion in 2013 to $86 billion in 2016, with a subsequent drop in 2017-2018. Heavily concentrated in Germany, Great Britain, and France, China’s economic power is aimed at securing better access to markets and technologies, development of infrastructure, and creating a more favorable political environment for Chinese geostrategic interests. China needs Europe not only as a market for Chinese goods but also as a politically friendly partner.
Driven by old Chinese strategic wisdom, Beijing may also take steps to ensure some degree of control over Europe by other means. A recent 16+1 format, introduced in 2012, is aimed at solidifying China’s influence over 16 countries of Eastern Europe, most of which are EU members. It envisages access of European partners to Chinese investments and joint projects, mostly in infrastructure, energy, and high technologies. In return, China would get stronger political positions in both EU members and countries that can join the Union in several years. Although currently the volume of Chinese investments within this format hardly exceeds $10 billion, the political implications of the project are much more far-reaching. Given a complicated decision-making process in the EU, China gets more influence over the policies of the Union – a trend disliked by many in Berlin, Paris, or Brussels. China would need more security in Europe to get a better strategic environment and a more favorable context for its massive infrastructure projects, including those within One Belt One Road development strategy. Resolving the conflict in Donbas would be the most principal task.
Second, US-Chinese relations are getting more complicated. Seen either through the lenses of global power transition or from a trade-war point of view, they look less predictable and more competitive. The more zero-sum a dialogue between Washington and Beijing becomes, the more both will look for long-term allies. EU and Russia will appear as the most immediate possible partners. Terms of engagement of European powers and Russia into what may turn a global Chinese-American rivalry are currently being defined. The conflict in Ukraine is a strategic problem for all, and every side would be better off if it is resolved. Current formats of managing the conflict proved to be ineffective. Bringing in Chinese strategic interests of regional stability may help provide additional resources in managing the conflict, which European states obviously lack.
Third, there are Chinese interests in Ukraine. They are mainly concentrated in military industry and agriculture, but may possibly go beyond that into infrastructural and transit areas. After the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU came into force Ukraine has also become another road to Europe for China. The current volume of trade between the two countries is under $8 billion; while China’s direct investment into Ukraine totaled $18 million in 2017. These are not big numbers. For instance, China invested $200 million in Poland the same year. That means there is a huge potential in bilateral trade and economic cooperation. One of the major obstacles is the ongoing war in Donbas.
When it comes to China in the context of geopolitics, Ukrainians usually take a cautious stance. China is believed to be too closely cooperating with Russia on international issues. The Asian superpower abstained at the vote for UN General Assembly Resolution "Territorial Integrity of Ukraine", which took place eleven days after the so-called "referendum" Russia arranged in the process of occupation of Crimea. The Resolution claimed the "referendum" invalid and committed to the territorial integrity of Ukraine. China’s further stance has been much more loyal to Russia’s geopolitical desires than most Ukrainians would want to.
However, we need to be pragmatic. Cooperation with China may prove beneficial in a variety of ways. China may become a political mediator in dealing with Russia, a source of investments, and a bigger trading partner. After all, China needs Ukraine as a part of its ambitious plans of political advance in Europe, and the next Ukrainian president should consider the ways of integrating China to the country’s foreign policy strategy.
At the same time, Ukraine should be selective in designing its Chinese policy. Joining the 16+1 initiative could be tempting, but we need to think twice how it would affect Ukraine’s relations with the EU and major European powers. Balancing on the edges of American-Chinese-Russian geopolitical triangle will surely be demanding. Ukraine has already failed once in carrying out a "multivectoral" foreign policy. Today conditions for that are even tougher. However, leaving everything as it is may seem safer, but leads to assured geopolitical defeat.
Mykola Kapitonenko for Censor.NET