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Why Beijing finds itself in a geopolitical obstacle race

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The week began with China’s financial hub and principal city, Shanghai, instituting a major lockdown to contain a surge of Covid-19 cases. Even as the rest of the world is opening up, China’s zero-Covid policy and new outbreaks are proving to be a headache for the country.

As 2022 gets underway, Beijing has found itself in a geopolitical obstacle race. It began a while ago when it chose a “zero-Covid” strategy to deal with the pandemic, and it is now in an uncomfortable position in Europe, backing Russia in its no-win war against Ukraine. In turn, this is creating other hurdles — deteriorating ties with European Union (EU) and the United States (US), even as the possibility of repairing its relationship with India looks like an uphill task.

Under its “dynamic clearing” policy on Covid-19, outbreaks are met with draconian lockdowns, mass testing and contact tracing. This had enabled many people to lead near normal lives through the pandemic and helped China avoid large-scale deaths and serious illnesses that ravaged the US and India. In addition, the Chinese economy continued to show growth in 2020, at a time when most other economies contracted

Now, however, as the pandemic high tide recedes across the world, China has ended up with a population that is vulnerable to the highly contagious Omicron variant, which is less lethal, but also less amenable to handling by the “trace-test-isolate” strategy. As a result, we are witnessing new citywide lockdowns such as those seen in Shanghai, Jilin and Shenzhen. The recent high casualty wave in Hong Kong is a warning of sorts of what could happen if the virus remains unchecked.

The biggest cost that China is paying is that it remains closed off from the rest of the world. And, even as barriers are being lowered elsewhere, China finds itself caught in a bind. The disruptions affect not just China but the world, given its role as a manufacturing and exporting giant. Beijing must take into account the disruption of the already fragile global economy by the Ukraine war.

Also, the country is dealing with a slowdown of growth and a range of economic problems arising from the meltdown of its real estate market and the impact of its “common prosperity” programme on the private sector.

One result of this has been the acceleration of efforts by companies around the world to develop alternative supply chains. This is coming on top of the political disruption of the American “decoupling” strategy that has been on for the past few years.

Even as the Covid-19 crisis plays out, China has been forced to confront the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For now, China has doubled down on its support for Russia, the only country of its size and consequence that is willing to work with Beijing to create a less Western-oriented world order. The thrust of its argument is that Russians are confronting the American-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s strategy of encirclement, not dissimilar to what the Chinese are battling in the Asia-Pacific region.

In recent weeks, it has become apparent that China has embarked on a global diplomatic campaign to rally support for Russia. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi’s visit to New Delhi was only one of several meetings with his foreign counterparts from South Asia and Africa. In addition, President Xi Jinping spoke to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and South Korean President-elect, Yoon Suk-yeol.

And now we have US President Joe Biden’s alleged faux pas, calling for a regime change in Moscow and pitting the struggle in Ukraine as a battle between democracies and autocracies. The message may have been aimed at Moscow, but it would be surprising if it did not discomfit Beijing. Any possible regime change in Russia cannot but have consequences for China, which has decided to develop a “no-limits” partnership with Russia.

As it is, US-China tensions that emerged with the Trump administration’s “decoupling” policy have yet to be resolved. So far, Biden has stayed the Trump course, and now with the Russian developments, the US has warned China that it would face consequences if it provided material support to the Russian war effort in Ukraine.

Competition with the US and the war in Ukraine have upset Beijing’s calculations. It is now seeking to focus its diplomacy on blaming the US. But its bigger problem may be that the united response of Europe to the developments have complicated its task. Beijing has long seen Europe as a key to its global strategy. At the heart of the Belt and Road Initiative are trans-Eurasian links akin to the ones that enriched the Atlantic economies in the 1950s and 1960s. Now, with its patiently built 17+1 grouping in eastern and central Europe becoming NATO’s frontline against the Russians, the Chinese have a serious problem on hand.

In shaping their policy, there is another important consideration — the coming five-yearly 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Given its important agenda of obtaining an unprecedented third term as general secretary for Xi Jinping, the CPC is looking for stability in its foreign policy, peace on its borders and a pandemic that remains firmly under control.

Manoj Joshi is a distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi 

The views expressed are personal

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