Beijing may be tempted to side with Putin in the Ukraine conflict. But at what cost?
As Russia pushes into Ukraine and President Biden marshals the global response, the elephant standing in the shadows is China.
On the surface, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack may seem to hand Chinese leader Xi Jinping a golden opportunity — a chance to pursue the common goal of the two U.S. rivals to damage Washington and its alliances.
But the conflict also puts Xi in an uncomfortable position that ultimately could prove consequential for his country and its relationship with the United States and American allies.
If Putin continues to use military force to re-create his dream of restoring the boundaries of the former Soviet Union, China’s dual goals of discomfiting the West and benefiting its economy may be hard to maintain.
That is particularly true if China is seen as enabling Putin’s destabilizing behavior and personal ambitions to restore Russia’s glory, something China has little self-interest in supporting.
While Russia and China are not formal allies, their strengthening partnership has raised concerns in Washington and other capitals about how well Western powers could combat challenges in a two-front cold war.
The Ukrainian conflict coincides with the 50th anniversary of President Nixon’s trip to China, meant to diplomatically draw the country away from the Soviet Union. Some in the U.S. have advocated similar efforts to limit Beijing’s backing of Moscow, although few see that as likely.
“This is a very different world than 50 years ago,” said Bin Yu, senior fellow at the Russian Studies Center at East China Normal University in Shanghai. “America was on the top, able to deal with both countries. Now America is faced with two large powers.”
Beijing has never been a supporter of economic sanctions as a means of upholding international order, let alone when imposed by individual countries. And just as it has done with North Korea, China is expected to quietly help Putin soften the blow of Western measures, whether by providing backdoor channels to facilitate Russian finance and trade, or buying more oil and gas.
Some experts argue that China’s tacit support has emboldened Putin in his latest military action. With China’s soft backing, Russia can direct its military power toward Ukraine without worrying about disputes along its China borders.
“The Chinese can provide almost everything the Russians need, and Russia in return provides China with more and more energy,” Yu said. “But the most important thing is this diplomatic support.”
The risk is that China may find itself lumped together with Russia in the eyes of the West, alienating many of the nations it now relies on for trade.
“One possible outcome of the events [involving Ukraine] is a sharper division of the world into autocracies and democracies. And I think that’s a world that China does not benefit from,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“China continues to have hope that it can have a somewhat normal relationship with the West,” she said. “It continues to rely on Western countries for all sorts of technology, and whether we’re talking about collaborative research or people-to-people exchanges, China does not want to have all that cut off and be seen as in the same camp as Russia.”
After Putin’s meeting with Xi during the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing, Russia issued a 5,300-word joint statement seeming to declare a new unity with China. It denigrated American political activities, NATO and other Western democratic coalitions, and promised a new partnership with no “forbidden” areas of cooperation.
But there are strict limits on how far Beijing is likely to go in backing military adventuring by Russia or anyone. China’s long-professed principle of noninterference in sovereign states is the centerpiece of its foreign policy. Putin’s military aggression and recognition of separatists in Ukraine clashes with China’s messages of stability and national sovereignty as sacrosanct.
Many of the world’s largest nations were quick to condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine. But the response from China reflected Beijing’s increasingly close ties with Moscow.
On Wednesday, hours before explosions were reported across major Ukrainian cities and airports, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry blasted the United States as the “culprit” in the current problems over Ukraine, accusing the U.S. of “heightening tensions, creating panic and even hyping up the possibility of warfare.”
Many American analysts were puzzled by Beijing’s antagonistic statement. But it was a reminder that the Biden White House and Congress have not let up on their criticisms of China’s human rights abuses in Hong Kong and the western Chinese region of Xinjiang. Nor has the U.S. pulled back from the tariffs and other hard-line policies under former President Trump.
And unlike Trump, Biden’s negotiations and strengthening of U.S. alliances, including the security pact with Australia and Great Britain, have put more pressure on Chinese leaders.
Most American analysts as well as some Chinese scholars say Beijing does not want to join with Russia in being isolated from the West. Indeed, China is in a very different situation from Russia. Unlike Russia’s much smaller and anemic economy dependent on oil and gas, China is the world’s second-largest economy. The Chinese Communist Party’s political stability and interests are tied directly to the development of its economy that is deeply intertwined with the U.S., Europe, Japan and other democracies.
“I’m pretty convinced that the Chinese are not enthusiastic about a bifurcated world order and the emergence of two blocs,” said Daniel Russel, a top Asian affairs official in the Obama administration and now a vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “And if there were two blocs, I don’t think Russia would be their choice of preferred parties, certainly not on the economic side.”
China does stand to gain some concrete things from its deepened ties with Moscow, notably a stable source of energy in Russia’s vast oil and gas fields. Beijing also has purchased Russian military technology, including jet engines that China cannot produce by itself. But by and large, experts said, Putin has given up most of the technology Moscow has to offer.
Russia’s diplomatic support also could prove valuable, especially over China’s claim on Taiwan, a self-governed island that Beijing considers a part of its territory. As Xi has ratcheted up reunification rhetoric and warplane incursions over the island, some in Taiwan worry that the invasion of Ukraine foreshadows a similar show of force from China.
As for Xi’s shared interest with Putin in a weakened America and the Western-led connections, so far, Russia’s actions in Ukraine seem to have done the opposite: It’s strengthened U.S.-led alliances and deepened their resolve, instead of splintering NATO and dividing Washington and its allies. In fact, Glaser thinks that the Putin-Xi statement attacking the West may have been a wake-up call to some Europeans that have been reluctant to go along with the U.S. in pressuring China.
“The best outcome for China would have been a diplomatic solution in which NATO says there will be no more expansion, an outcome in which the United States was not closely aligned with its European partners,” Glaser said.
In confronting the West, Putin has sought to raise doubts about America’s credibility and deterrence in the eyes of the world, Russel said. “To the extent that [other] countries start to question whether the United States can or will actually protect them, the more likely they are to cave under pressure from Beijing to go along [with them]. That’s the central axis of Chinese interests.”
In Washington, one important question is whether the closer Moscow-Beijing ties are more than a short-term marriage of convenience. There’s a history of suspicion between the two. Also, Putin’s unpredictability and the one-sided leverage that Beijing has over Moscow will test their relationship.
Whether China is able to back Putin depends on how much the situation deteriorates. An extended conflict or war could increase economic and political pressure on China as more U.S. allies get involved. China also has economic relations with Ukraine, a trading partner and important hub for its Belt and Road Initiative.
“Now things get a lot riskier for China,” said Ja Ian Chong, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. “How much would Beijing want to risk its own ties with the rest of the world?”
It’s a question that China may not yet have an answer to. Some Chinese policy experts seemed taken aback by the strikes that Russia launched on Thursday. Afterward, the Chinese Embassy in Ukraine notified local citizens to stay home and avoid glass and windows. Those driving long distances should pay attention to refueling opportunities and display a Chinese flag conspicuously on their vehicle, the embassy said.
“The Chinese didn’t think that it was going to happen, so there was an element of surprise,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at Washington-based think tank Stimson Center. “Then again, when this actually happened, they did not see it as a strategic loss. So far, there’s no cost to China’s actions.”
Lee reported from Washington. Yang reported from Taipei.
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