Ukraine offers opportunity to test China’s strategic prospects
Decisions made by Washington and Beijing in the coming months could have an outsized influence on the trajectory of US-China relations, and even the international system, for decades to come. Basically, the question facing the two countries is whether the US-China relationship remains capable of being limited to intense interest-driven competition. The longer China clings to Russia in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbarity in Ukraine, the stronger calls will grow in the United States and elsewhere to treat China and Russia as interchangeable enemies bent on imposing their vision. violent in the world.
For some, the result of this question is already lost. With this in mind, President Xi Jinping made China the choice when he jointly issued a statement to revamp the international order with Putin on February 4 in Beijing at the start of the Olympics. The two leaders said Sino-Russian relations knew “no borders”. Many US analysts assume that Putin used the meeting to gain support from Xi for his plans in Ukraine. China must therefore be seen as having blood on its hands for enabling Putin’s efforts to alter the international order from the barrel of a gun. China and Russia must be treated as common enemies in an ideological struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.
There is consistency in this line of thinking and Beijing could validate such an analysis by its own actions and choices over time. However, it would be premature to automatically fall back on such a conclusion. Blindly accepting the powerlessness of the United States or its partners to influence how China identifies and pursues its interests would represent a lack of imagination and an abandonment of diplomacy. A successful policy involves opening as many avenues as possible to solve problems, rather than preemptively closing them.
The time of diplomacy
In response to the unfolding events, calls have been made in political circles in Washington to stress the closeness of the Sino-Russian partnership in order to make Beijing pay the reputational price for its support of Moscow. It’s the diplomatic equivalent of waving at an impending train wreck.
This approach is based on two questionable assumptions. The first is that China might be ashamed to secede from Russia. If shame were a factor in Beijing’s strategic calculation, China would be sensitive to criticism of its gross human rights abuses in Xinjiang and would adjust its actions in the South China Sea to comply with international law. In both cases, Xi doubled. The second assumption is that nothing can be done to change Beijing’s thinking on Russia and so the goal should be to make China pay as high a reputational price as possible.
Rather than succumb to such fatalism, now is the time for the most able US diplomats to test whether Beijing’s approach to Russia is set in stone for good. Now is the time to consider whether Beijing thinks its interests would be advanced by pushing the world into rival blocs, where China is aligning itself with Russia while the United States is deepening its partnerships with the rest of the developed world. Now is the time to explore with their Chinese counterparts whether they see their ability to achieve their ambitions enhanced by an antagonistic and ideologically fueled rivalry with the United States, and if not, whether other avenues are imaginable that would provide greater opportunities for China to pursue its national development. goals. Now is the time to pressure China’s leaders to clarify whether they have made a permanent and unalterable decision to align themselves with Russia in opposition to the West.
Such discussions had better be explored calmly and dispassionately. Chinese officials will offer no satisfaction to diplomats from the United States or other countries by saying that President Xi made a mistake in signing a joint statement with President Putin on February 4 and that China will take corrective action to redeem itself. Beijing will not announce any split with Moscow. They will not publicly criticize the Russian invasion and make Putin the sole perpetrator of the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine. Chinese state media will likely continue to produce anti-American and anti-Western vitriol.
One goal of drawing the Chinese into a discussion of their future strategic direction would be to push Beijing to take concrete steps to establish a daylight between Russia’s aggression and China’s interests. Beijing must face the reality that they face a shrinking window to demonstrate that China continues to be guided by its own interests and does not see itself as Moscow’s proxy under all circumstances.
China’s alignment with Russia will be tested repeatedly in the coming weeks. There will be scrutiny of China’s position on a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Russia which will be passed by an overwhelming majority, of whether China is shielding Russia from future investigations by the on the atrocities in Ukraine, on whether China recognizes the breakaway republics in Ukraine, on Beijing’s position on recognizing a puppet regime that Putin seems to want to establish in Kiev, and on the question of whether if China fills in and mitigates the impact of global sanctions on Russia. There will be a review of whether China is making meaningful efforts to promote escalation to escalation in Ukraine as well.
The catch is that China might be reluctant to reach independent decisions on these issues on its own, given the recentness of Putin’s embrace of Xi in Beijing. This is where there could be a role for subtle, low-key diplomacy.
Central Intelligence Agency Director Bill Burns would be an ideal candidate to lead such efforts for the United States. Given both his extensive knowledge of Russia and the high esteem in which he is held in Beijing, his views would be taken seriously by Chinese interlocutors. Delaware Sen. Chris Coons could also play a unique role in probing China’s strategic thinking, given his close relationship with President Joe Biden and his expertise in foreign policy. Senator Coons could eventually attract National People’s Congress Chairman Li Zhanshu to serve as his legislative counterpart. Li is one of a small handful of people in China who are genuinely close to Xi Jinping. Li is also familiar with Sino-Russian relations, given his previous experience as Xi’s special envoy in Moscow. State Department Director of Policy Planning Salman Ahmed and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Dan Kritenbrink could also test Chinese thinking without drawing attention. medias. Incoming US Ambassador to China Nick Burns would also contribute significantly to such efforts. Once the discussions have matured, it would also be important for President Biden to speak directly with Xi to take his measure of the future direction of China.
Given heightened tensions between the United States and China, Washington would also be wise to call on other parties to sound out Chinese leaders on their strategic thinking. Other influential players such as Germany, France, the UK and Singapore all share a similar general goal of wanting China to limit its support for Russia. They would all rather not see hostile ideological blocs forming with China and Russia on one side and much of the rest of the developed world on the other.
A smooth moment and a slim chance of progress
Such efforts to stimulate Beijing’s thinking about the long-term consequences of its decisions at this time could prove futile. Beijing could decide that it is pitted against a hostile West that is determined to block China’s rise and that its only recourse is to stand shoulder to shoulder with Moscow, whatever the consequences. If I was a bettor, I would rank this as the most likely scenario.
At the same time, China and Russia do not have perfectly aligned interests. China has much more to lose and risk than Russia. Putin is essentially an arsonist of the international system presiding over a country in terminal decline. Xi sees himself as a renovator of the international system to make it more suited to China’s vision and values. China sees itself as a booming country. Beijing’s interests are ill-served when the United States and the European Union see China and Russia as interchangeable enemies. China remains dependent on the developed world for access to the inputs necessary for its technological advancement. China is also risking the U.S. backtracking on Beijing’s support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, translating into more visible and strategically meaningful support for Taiwan.
US-China relations are now at a crucial point. There may be a fleeting opportunity as the repercussions of Russia’s misadventure in Ukraine are digested in Beijing to test whether China’s foreign policy is capable of reorienting itself. Once this moment of global fluidity passes, Beijing’s stance on relations with Russia will harden.
For Beijing, gradually reorienting itself from Russia does not necessarily mean moving closer to the United States or the West. It would simply mean that Beijing continues to be guided by its own calculations of its interests, rather than an entrenched commitment with Moscow to disrupt the world by brute force. Any progress in this direction would not result in any signing ceremony or headline-worthy statement from Beijing. That would not allay deep US concerns about China’s conduct at home and assertiveness abroad. Even so, in the world of diplomacy, Beijing’s actions to gradually move away from Moscow would be seen as progress.