It is unclear whether Russian President Vladimir Putin warned his professed friend, Chinese President Xi Jinping, about his decision to invade Ukraine. Even if Xi was forewarned, however, he and his government are growing increasingly uncomfortable with Moscow’s action.
The latest indications are Beijing’s refusal to offer Russia sanctions relief and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s comment that, “We hope to see fighting and the war stop as soon as possible,” using the previously banned term “war.” The Biden administration should take advantage of Beijing’s distancing from Moscow to improve U.S.-China ties.
One of the most disturbing changes in the international system in recent years is expanding relations between Russia and China. In 1972 Richard Nixon brilliantly exploited the enmity between Beijing and Moscow, which had fought an undeclared border war. The Soviet Union even considered striking China’s nuclear facilities. Although the differences between Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedong were profound, concern over the Soviet Union took precedence. Sino-American relations blossomed after Mao’s death in 1976 and Deng Xiaoping’s rise.
Driven by trade, for the next three or so decades the association flourished. However, over time the People’s Republic of China’s success proved to be the biggest threat to cooperation between the two nations. By means fair and foul, the PRC developed rapidly. Its geopolitical ambitions and military strength grew alongside its economic reach, culminating in President Xi Jinping’s overtly anti-Western course.
Over the last decade and a half Washington’s relationship with Russia also cratered. In his famous 2007 speech before the Munich Security Conference, Putin presented his complaints about U.S. behavior, which were compounded by Moscow’s later war against Georgia and intervention in Ukraine. U.S.-Russian ties have now collapsed with the invasion of Ukraine.
This development set up a stunning reversal of the Nixon gambit. Moscow and Beijing overlooked their important differences and forged an increasingly anti-American condominium if not formal alliance. During last month’s Olympics in Beijing, Putin and Xi tightened ties even further. Their joint statement proclaimed that their friendship “has no limits” and that ”[t]here are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.” The two governments inked several energy deals, criticized the United States by name, and denounced NATO expansion.
Washington responded sharply. Daniel Kritenbrink, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, criticized the PRC for not encouraging “Russia to pursue diplomacy and de-escalation in Ukraine. That is what the world expects from responsible powers.” Indeed, Washington reportedly provided Beijing with U.S. intelligence foreshadowing the coming attack in an attempt to convince China to use its influence for peace.
What transpired next is contested. Beijing may have provided the intel to Moscow and even asked to delay the invasion until the conclusion of the Olympics. Other reports suggest that the PRC misinterpreted Russian plans and was surprised by Russia’s attack. After all, China initially failed to evacuate its citizens. Moreover, at the February 19 Munich Security Conference, Wang opined: “The sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of any country should be respected and safeguarded,” including Ukraine.
Although Beijing later blamed the United States for Russia’s attack and refused to call the assault an “invasion,” Chinese officials, who revile “separatism,” whether in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, or Xinjiang, otherwise seemed noncommittal. China thrice abstained on the issue at the UN in votes by the Security Council, General Assembly, and Human Rights Council.
Moreover, while the PRC refused to join U.S. and allied sanctions, it also has proved unwilling to risk retaliation by flouting those rules. Rather, Chinese enterprises prepared to comply with anti-Russian sanctions. Russian officials said they would have to look elsewhere after China refused to provide airplane parts. The China-based and -managed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank even froze business with Belarus and Russia to “safeguard its financial integrity.”
The PRC expressed concern over civilian casualties, urged negotiations to end the conflict, and offered to mediate. Even Xi, in a conversation with European officials, called the situation “worrisome,” said China was “deeply grieved by the outbreak of war again on the European continent,” and expressed his government’s willingness to “work actively” to mediate.
The Biden administration should seek a reprise of Nixon. Obviously, expectations should be modest. Today’s situation is very different from a half century ago, with China now inclined toward Russia. Bonnie Glaser of the German Marshall Fund warned: “There is growing pessimism about the potential for cooperation with China on the crisis, and expectation that ties between China and Russia will be further deepened.” Perhaps sensing questions about the relationship, on Monday Wang insisted that, “The friendship between the peoples of our two countries is rock-solid” and should remain free of “interference from third parties.”
However, much about the ongoing crisis likely unsettles the PRC. First, the Russian military appeared to blunder significantly during the conflict’s early days even though it had some battle experience — in both the Donbass and Syria. The People’s Liberation Army could face similar, potentially disastrous, difficulties attempting an amphibious landing on Taiwan. Second, the West proved that it could act rapidly to impose comprehensive economic sanctions, which could be applied to China in a crisis. Although many nations would be reluctant to cut economic ties with the PRC, a united front between the United States and Europe, which has increasingly turned against Beijing, could cause major disruptions in the Chinese economy.
Third, Russia is an erratic partner. Many observers question Putin’s judgment. Even victory in Ukraine, if achieved, will occur only at great cost. And then Moscow will face what Putin feared, a revived NATO alliance with greater resources placing additional troops and weapons on member borders with Russia. The war is likely to result in a permanent increase in U.S. and European military expenditures. Moscow has recklessly left its nominal partner in a very difficult position.
The Biden administration should address Beijing with a proposal for intensive negotiations to diminish tensions over Taiwan and Asia-Pacific territorial issues. The objective should be to find a modus vivendi which all sides can accept.
Imagine, for instance, a Chinese pledge of nonviolence against Taiwan and withdrawal of missiles threatening the island; U.S. agreement to eschew a military relationship with Taipei and end naval and air patrols nearby; Taiwanese promise to roll back efforts to expand its independent identity. No one would be satisfied, but the concerted step back might prevent a Ukrainian style imbroglio.
The region’s many territorial disputes are variegated and complex. Setting aside sovereignty and focusing on shared development could push the most difficult issues into the future. Although Beijing would have to temper its reliance on its increasing military power, doing so would moderate rising anti-Chinese sentiment evident across the region, most importantly in Japan, Australia, Philippines, and even South Korea. And Beijing might note how even many of Russia’s supposed friends, such as Hungary and Kazakhstan, ran for cover after the international consensus gelled so swiftly against Moscow.
The best hope of success would be to pursue a positive agenda, rather than ostentatiously seek to divide Beijing and Moscow. An attempt to forge a grand bargain involving the many issues bedeviling the U.S.-PRC relationship would almost certainly founder. However, narrowing the focus to potential conflict in Asia, for which the Ukraine crisis offers the most relevant lessons, would have a greater chance of success. No doubt, such a strategy would require serious effort at a difficult time, but the potential gains warrant the attempt.
The Ukraine conflict is a catastrophe for all concerned. It is even a potential disaster for Beijing, tied to Russia’s misconduct through the new supposedly unlimited partnership. That offers Washington an opportunity to seek to improve relations with what should remain its priority, China.