China: The Dragon Wakes from its Slumber

Reading Time: 5 minutes

by Tonio Galea

The sleeping dragon might be waking from its sleep or simply taking a more assertive role in the global scene.

From economic expansion in Africa to a more active role in the Ukrainian conflict, for better or for worse, China’s presence is being felt.

 The Ukrainian conflict has allowed Beijing to emphasise its version of the world order.

An alternative vision to a US-led world order, with which it is trying to woo the rest of the globe, with particular emphasis on the Global South: Southeast Asia, Africa and South America.

The timing is also of particular importance. China’s sudden closeness with Russia is happening when relations with the United States have hit a new low, with the issue of Taiwan always firmly in the background.

China has claimed to be neutral regarding the war in Ukraine, but Western critics have scoffed at this notion and accused Beijing of tacitly endorsing Russia’s unprovoked invasion. China, which tends to side with Russia on geopolitical issues, has said it has a “no limits” partnership with Moscow. Beijing has avoided criticising Russia over the invasion of Ukraine while criticising the West for issuing sanctions against Moscow in response to the war. Meanwhile, Chinese state media has echoed the Kremlin’s propaganda about the conflict.

Also, the Chinese foreign minister’s recent foreign visits and speeches were interpreted by many in the West as an effort by Beijing to that its serious problems are mainly with the US and that the problems with Europe can be fixed.

The Kremlin threw cold water on China’s peace plan for the Ukraine war, suggesting that now is not the time to pursue such a proposal. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy did not reject China’s bid outright but responded cautiously, saying he wanted to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to discuss the plan. 

The Chinese government strongly rejected claims made by the United States that it was considering supplying weapons and ammunition to Russia.

Chinese firms are also accused of supplying dual-use technology – goods that can be used for civilian and military purposes, such as drones and semiconductor chips – to Russia.

Any large-scale assistance from China to Russia would result in a significant shift in the war.

China has no interest in the war in Ukraine being over any time soon. China would prefer that the US and Europe continue providing their best weapons to Ukraine and remain preoccupied in Europe.

China will boost defence spending by 7.2% this year, slightly outpacing last year’s increase and faster than the government’s modest economic growth forecast, as Premier Li Keqiang called for the armed forces to boost combat preparedness.

The national budget released on the opening of the Chinese Parliament showed 1.55 trillion yuan ($224 billion) allocated to military spending.

The defence budget will be closely watched by China’s neighbours and the United States, who are concerned by Beijing’s strategic intentions and development of its military, especially as tensions have spiked in recent years over Taiwan.

In his work report to the annual session of parliament, Li said military operations, capacity building and combat preparedness should be “well-coordinated in fulfilling major tasks”.

“Our armed forces, with a focus on the goals for the centenary of the People’s Liberation Army in 2027, should work to carry out military operations, boost combat preparedness and enhance military capabilities,” he said in the state-of-the-nation address to the largely rubber-stamp legislature.

This year’s hike in defence spending marks the eighth consecutive single-digit increase. As in previous years, no breakdown of the spending was given, only the overall amount and the rate of increase.

Beijing is nervous about challenges on fronts ranging from Chinese-claimed Taiwan to U.S. naval and air missions in the disputed South China Sea near Chinese-occupied islands.

Military aid apart, China has provided economic assistance to Russia by purchasing oil and other energy supplies. Since the beginning of the war, China has imported oil, gas and coal worth over 60 billion euros. These funds have helped keep the Russian economy afloat and allowed Putin to fund his vicious war against Ukraine.

China rolled out the red carpet for key Putin ally, Belarus President Aleksander Lukashenko, as the US warned against aiding Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Lukashenko visited China as the two countries agreed to upgrade their countries’ ties to an “all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership” during a September meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan, which Putin also attended.

The backdrop of Belarus’ damaged ties with the West – and an interest in diversifying a Russia-dependent economy – could see Lukashenko keen to focus on boosting economic relations with China during this visit.

Belarus was an early joiner of China’s Belt and Road development initiative, launched a decade ago, and trade between the two last year increased 33% year-on-year to surpass $5 billion.

Some of the attention was diverted when we had the Chinese balloon incident during all this. A balloon that was part of a fleet that had flown over “more than 40 countries across five continents” – a claim China has flatly rejected.

While questions remain about that incident, an examination of Chinese state media reports and scientific papers reveals the country’s growing interest in these lighter-than-air vehicles, which Chinese military experts have touted for use toward a wide range of purposes, from communication relay, reconnaissance, and surveillance to electronic countermeasures.

But China has to tread carefully in the current Ukrainian conflict and its closeness to Russia. Such a position can raise global tensions significantly and likely backfire by pushing the US allies further into Washington’s embrace, stymieing Beijing’s plan to woo some of them away.

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