Even setting aside the impact of COVID-19, this year’s Olympic opening ceremony felt decidedly different from Beijing 2008. After all, China’s stance on the world stage has changed significantly, from semi-engaged world power to overarching behemoth.
The consequences of that change were visible in the stands of the Bird’s Nest stadium last week. Unlike in 2008, when Western leaders descended on Beijing, this time you would be hard-pressed to find a democratic leader cheering alongside President Xi Jinping.
Back in 2008, while U.S. President George W. Bush attended the Olympics, Prime Minister Stephen Harper caused a stir by not attending. In this current environment, it is difficult to imagine either leader going anywhere near the festivities.
And yet, despite the diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Games, Chinese President Xi Jinping cheered enthusiastically. And who can blame him? While Joe Biden and Justin Trudeau may have snubbed China, 22 other world leaders showed up, as did the heads of the UN and the WHO. For Xi, those 22 nations represent the future of China’s global affairs — and none more so than Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The leaders assembled in Beijing reflect something that many have already said: there is a massive shift in global foreign policy taking place before our very eyes. China and Russia, two countries with a tumultuous history, have cemented a new axis of influence based in recognition of the benefit of mutual co-operation.
And while the fruits of this renewed alliance were on display in Beijing, its roots lie thousands of miles west, in Ukraine.
Ever since Putin amassed over 100,000 Russian troops near eastern Ukraine, the West has contemplated its appropriate response. While most Western allies currently stop short of committing to military action, America has corralled a coalition willing to consider economic punishment of the highest order.
Indeed, the package outlined by President Biden represents the most sweeping sanctions yet to be considered against Russia, with grave implications for both the country’s economy and its oligarchs’ wallets.
Earlier this week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz came to Washington to reaffirm unity among Western allies. While Scholz dodged the question of whether Nord Stream 2 would be included in any sanctions, Biden made it clear that “unity” will include German acquiescence on shutting down the Russian natural gas pipeline.
In turn, Putin is preparing for the worst, knowing that he can rely on China to offset the economic fallout. Xi, for his part, has confirmed that there are “no limits” to the ties between China and Russia. What he really means, of course, is that China will bolster the Russian economy in defence of Putin’s aggression.
For every dollar or euro lost from Russian coffers, China will eagerly offer up a yuan. For every Nord Stream 2, there is a project like Power of Siberia 2, a planned pipeline to move Russian natural gas into China. And ultimately, the tragic implication is that for every NATO aircraft, there will be a Chinese one prepared to deploy.
Whether or not Russia invades Ukraine — “partially” or otherwise — this fundamental shift has taken place in global affairs. The security of Ukraine is essential, but Western allies cannot afford to miss the forest for the trees. After an era of covertly fomenting dictatorships around the world, China and Russia have chosen to openly embrace one another. In doing so, they have formally committed to propping up a system that rivals the Western liberal order.
I believe strongly in Ukraine’s sovereignty and its right to self-determination. With that said, we must remember that this is about much more than Ukraine. For countries like Canada — which has not only supported but greatly benefited from Western multilateralism — the stakes are so much higher.
So, instead of waffling about Canada’s role in the Western alliance, it’s time to imagine where we would be with no alliance at all.