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Timofey Bordachev: Zelensky’s top aide publicly insulted China, here’s why Beijing’s response has been so restrained

The chief advisor to Ukraine’s president, Mikhail Podoliak, used a cheap slur to denigrate two Asian powerhouses

By Valdai Club Programme Director Timofey Bordachev

FILE PHOTO: Advisor to the head of the Ukrainian President’s Office Mykhailo Podoliyak speaks to the media in Gomel region, Belarus on February 28, 2022. ©  Alexandr Kryazhev / Sputnik

Last week a representative of the Kiev regime openly spoke about the «weak intellectual potential» of countries like China and India. Mikhail Podoliak’s outburst perfectly illustrated many features of modern international politics. 

First of all, there is the way it interacts with the information space. Here, each nation makes its own choice in how to respond to insults. There is no hard and fast rule about which of them will turn out to be the most correct. But China, in this case, is on the way to developing great power in foreign policy.

In general, the practice of public insults in world politics is not new. It would be naive to think that they did not exist in the «good old days.» During the Cold War, many American-backed puppets and dictators publicly called the USSR or China the dirtiest words. The public realm just hardly ever knew about it.

The Bolsheviks in their early years were no strangers to harsh denunciations, and the Chinese themselves were fond of teasing Western and Soviet politicians with “eloquent” statements until the mid-1970s. Mao Zedong, the founder of the modern Chinese state, was a master of this, by the way.

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Irresponsible statements are an inherent feature of the behavior of regimes whose future is uncertain. They live in the present, are sincere in their manifestations and do not know whether they will physically exist in the very near future to worry about the consequences.

Today, China is a great and solid power. Over the past 50 years, it has become an economic behemoth with the strength for global influence. And in its new situation, Beijing may believe that the time needed to respond to the cries of American lackeys could be put to much better use. All the more so as it seems that China has decided to move away from the practice of harsh statements by its officials in recent years. Obviously, they have come to the conclusion that such behavior does not achieve anything special and diminishes China’s image.

At the very least, we no longer hear harsh foreign policy statements from officials. 

Now the official representative of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Mao Ning, says that the Ukrainian figure «should analyze his statements in good faith and work on developing the right attitude.» Such formulations are a compromise between the need to react to any nonsense and an as yet unformed understanding of how this should be done.

Whether such arrogant exhortations will have any effect is by no means certain. They probably won’t. And there are several reasons for this. Foremost among these, the object of China’s discontent lives on a different political plane. Second, the persuasiveness of Beijing’s rhetoric depends on the general state of affairs in the world, which includes the military and political crisis in Europe.

From the point of view of the political culture that prevails in Ukraine, this is generally not surprising, and nobody knows this better than Russians. We constantly hear the most venomous rhetoric from the Kiev regime. How they react to this outburst is up to them.

Something similar happened a few years ago with tiny Lithuania, which also had a dispute with China. This time over its relations with the authorities in Taipei. At the time, Beijing’s reaction was quite angry. It broke off economic relations with the Baltic republic and turned the screws in those areas of the global economy that the Chinese government could reach. However, this had no effect on Vilnius’ behavior. It turned out that Lithuania’s trade relations with China were so insignificant that their disappearance posed no threat. And, in general, since Lithuania’s sovereignty is only formal, it cannot be held accountable for its actions. Beijing has probably learnt its lesson and will not repeat such an unsuccessful experience of punitive diplomacy. 

All the more so, a sharp reaction from China will not work in the case of Ukraine. Firstly, because Beijing’s attitude towards the Kiev authorities is already clear. China is now Russia’s most important partner in its conflict with the West. Despite the fact that Chinese companies are no less afraid of falling under US repression than others, economic cooperation between the countries is only growing. Nor does the extent of Chinese support for Russia in the military-technical sphere depend on Kiev’s behavior. 

Beijing’s political sympathies are clear, and they are not on the side of the Ukrainian authorities. The Chinese see the Ukrainian authorities as nothing more than a battering ram in the hands of the United States. Thus, Kiev risks nothing. 

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The survival of the Zelensky-led regime depends entirely on the West and has nothing to do with other factors in international politics. The Chinese do not have many options to punish Kiev, if any at all. Beijing can, of course, hold a grudge. But what good is it if the object of its resentment does not know how long it will survive in this world?

Of course, it is possible to put pressure on Washington’s clients. But it only makes sense in cases where measures at least represent something. Take South Korea, for example, for which economic relations with China are very important.

However, in most cases, vassals of the US are either incapable of defending their national interests or simply do not have any. This is the peculiarity of the modern world, where a significant group of countries are only formally sovereign. In reality, they are projections of various manifestations of US diplomacy. The only way to change such an order on a global scale is to completely restructure it.

So every word Beijing says to US satellites is ultimately part of its relationship with the US. That’s why China is being cautious. Everyone knows very well that the cautious reactions of not only major countries (such as China or India) but also of most members of the international community towards the antics of the Americans and their cronies is only due to Washington’s continuing power capabilities.

Americans have no other means of defending their interests in the world, and «soft power» or subtle political influence has long been forgotten. But the ability of the US to force others to play by its own rules is still enormous, and we should not forget that. Beijing is playing a complex game, the ultimate goal of which is to defeat the US without directly confronting it. And it will be as restrained as possible.

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