Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Putin’s war against Ukraine has emboldened no one but America

  • Europe now realises the high costs of conflict while mainland China knows what a ruthless Western proxy war in Taiwan would look like

The West has run two completely contradictory narratives on Ukraine ever since Russia launched its invasion. One is that with steadfast Western support and Ukrainian courage, Vladimir Putin has already lost the war, or is at least losing it fast. The other is that Putin’s invasion has emboldened authoritarians everywhere. Well, they can’t both be true, can they now?

However, many trapped in this narrative matrix are so driven by either moral fervour or virtue-signalling that they hardly notice the absurdity.

The reality is quite the opposite. Whether Putin ends up claiming victory or is defeated – realistically, there will more than likely be no clear-cut victory for either side – the high and (self-)destructive cost of invading someone else’s territory will deter most countries except, of course, the United States!

While a Ukrainian victory looks increasingly out of reach by the day, as its latest counteroffensive has clearly failed, the alleged emboldening of autocrats should really be reduced to the singular; that is, it has always been a not-too-subtle insinuation about mainland China being posed to invade the island of Taiwan, any day now.

Both propositions above are not only contradictory but untrue. No, Putin is not losing the war. But even if he manages to keep some Ukrainian territories and then claim victory, the high costs he imposes on his country and the potential regime change to which he exposes himself is enough to deter many an autocrat.

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Except for the Kim regime in North Korea, the few autocratic regimes around are too small to have any significant impact, whatever they do, on the world stage. The domino coups that took place across the Sahel region in Africa may be an irritant to Western interests, but they are manageable. But those Western scaremongering narratives have nothing to do with the Chinese. China is not Russia, and Taiwan is not Ukraine. Their frequent equations or associations are purely the products of Western propaganda and (self-)deception. Why? Ever heard of the saying: the more you possess, the more you are possessed.

Even before the Ukraine war, China’s economy was more than eight times bigger than Russia’s. Now, with the Western sanctions and collapse in productivity across key Russian industries, the gap is even wider.

Western critics who write about China really should visit a few big Chinese cities sometimes. They will realise no Chinese, whether leaders or citizens, would ever want to see their hard-won wealth – well, wealthy at least by developing countries’ standards – reduced to rubble. With almost total certainty, a cross-strait war will destroy Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” once and for all.

As an export-driven country with supply chains extending like tentacles across the globe, Chinese wealth is closely tied to the world economy. The old Soviets were cut off from the capitalist West. China is intimately connected with it. In both cases, paradoxically, you have a version of mutually assured destruction (MAD). In the former case, it was nuclear war. In the latter, it’s the destruction of the world economy, followed by a nuclear war.

A more rational US should acknowledge not only can it not afford to have a war with China, it can’t even afford to decouple from it. But Beijing now realises the lengths to which the West, or at least the US, is ready to go in prosecuting a proxy war. Clearly, Washington and its Western sycophants have no difficulty seeing Ukraine reduced to rubble – with the noblest intentions and motives, of course!

However much the West professes love for Taiwan, or precisely because of such pretension, the Chinese leadership now understands Western leaders may be just crazy or cynical enough to let Taiwan be reduced to rubble.

The ones really emboldened were, at least initially, the Western allies, until they realised in Europe the high costs of the war and the effects of sanctions that have ricocheted back to them. Beijing is a lot more rational over Taiwan than Western critics realise. The US is still emboldened, but no one else is.