China finds itself in a tricky position — stuck between the White House and the Kremlin
It’s been a good couple decades for China. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 — turning its attention to war and nation-building in Central Asia — China’s economy was roughly the size of Indonesia’s today.
Now it’s 18 times larger, nipping at the heels of the U.S. for the outright title of the world’s biggest.
No wonder then that Beijing sees strategic advantage in Washington getting sucked into another generational global conflict thousands of miles away from its borders. Back then, China actively supported America’s war on terror as a pretext to intensify repression of Muslim Uyghurs to quell dissent in Xinjiang while opting for spectator status to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
While the U.S. squandered blood and treasure in a morass of twin foreign conflicts, China went on with its business and reaped the benefits of America’s distraction.
Today though, China is slowly learning the hard way that it’s now too big, and too globally important, to remain effectively neutral in geopolitical conflicts.
As Russian troops lay siege to Ukrainian cities, China has tried to walk a tightrope: abstaining from condemnations of Moscow, maintaining trade with its neighbor, and professing a bland sympathy for the thousands of civilian deaths thus far.
But over the weekend, Washington revealed intelligence that appeared expressly designed to make China choose a side, telling reporters that Russia had requested Beijing’s material assistance in the Ukraine war effort through provision of unspecified economic and military assistance. A senior U.S. official said the Chinese government had “responded” to that request, but there are no details as to the nature of that response.
Russia denies that allegation and China has dismissed it as “disinformation,” while refusing to categorically state that it won’t provide such assistance. China has weaponry including attack drones that Russia could use to its advantage in Ukraine, which has led to explicit warnings from the Biden administration and Congress that the U.S. won’t hesitate to sanction China for supplying Moscow with arms.
The administration’s dilemma is that China isn’t what it used to be a couple decades ago. It’s the world’s second largest economy and the origin point of countless global supply chains. Russia, despite its energy and banking sectors (and some oligarch’s expense accounts at Harrods), was relatively unimportant to the functioning of Western economies, making it relatively easier to sanction.
But China is a dominant player in everything from electrical appliances to shipping to solar panels, which could help it prevent a unified response on sanctions and certainly better endure any forthcoming economic punishment. Moreover, as Norway, South Korea, Lithuania and Australia know all too well, Beijing can inflict painful economic counterattacks when it feels threatened.
Thus far, however, China’s showed little evidence that it aims to fulfill Russia’s request for assistance.
“Without getting into details, I’m aware of instances in the last few weeks when China said no to Russian requests [for economic and military assistance] and I would hope that continues,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee member Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.). “The administration has been pretty clear that we would not hesitate to sanction Chinese entities that attempt to undermine the sanctions we have imposed on Russia.”
At least one Russian government agency has confirmed Malinowski’s assertion that China has denied recent Russian requests for assistance. The head of the Continuous Airworthiness Management Department at the Russian Federal Air Transport Agency said last week that the Chinese government had declined to provide spareparts to Russian airlines, forcing them to turn to possible suppliers in Turkey or India.
But observers say that Russia’s possible drone acquisition efforts don’t necessarily reflect a recent effort to secure Chinese weaponry for deployment in Ukraine. And the U.S. allegation of that Russian request may more reflect U.S. diplomatic tactics rather than an impending Chinese hardware sale.
“It is very plausible that Russia is discussing with China the sale of drones and other types of equipment, but it’s most likely a long-standing negotiation that precedes war in Ukraine,” said Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “I think that the intelligence [about drone sales] is accurate, but it’s framed … as Russia kind of rushing to China for material help. It’s part of the diplomatic pressure tactics based on a kind of right intelligence, but curated.”
Others question the logic of a Russian request for military assistance from China. “I don’t really understand why it is convenient for Russia to use Chinese military aid rather than using its own resources and why it might be important for China, given its interests,” said Igor Denisov, senior research fellow at the Center for East Asian and Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Institute of International Relations at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s MGIMO University.
China’s interests — to maintain an equilibrium between its relationship with Russia without sacrificing economic and diplomatic links with the international community built over the past 50 years — would appear to preclude providing obvious military support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“China doesn’t want to be further implicated in Putin’s scorched earth campaign or to be strong-armed by the Americans into turning away from Russia mere weeks after the two leaders declared a partnership ‘without limits,’” said Danny Russel, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s statement last week that his government is “deeply concerned and grieved” by the invasion suggests that the optics of China’s relationship with a Russian army implicated in mass death of Ukrainian civilians are becoming too much for Beijing. And Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s statement Tuesday that “China does not want to see the situation in Ukraine to become what it is today,” suggested a hint of buyer’s remorse for how the China-Russia alliance is playing out publicly while Russian troops shell Ukrainian maternity hospitals.
“I suspect the calculus in Beijing revolves around the question of how to provide support to Russia — if it was indeed requested — in ways that are less likely to be perceived as tied to the violence in Ukraine,” said Jason Kelly, assistant professor at the U.S. Naval War College. “Chinese officials have been framing China’s position on the war in Ukraine as above the fray — an arms-length observer hoping for peace talks, de-escalation and a diplomatic settlement. It’s harder to maintain the credibility of that posture when you’re seen to be funneling supplies to the side that initiated the conflict and is pummeling its smaller neighbor.”
There are faint calls from Chinese foreign policy think tanks for a rethink of Xi Jinping’s alignment with Putin. Russia’s aggression is evoking near-universal revulsion across the globe: It’s rippling, if unevenly, through developing countries in Africa and Latin America, threatening to undermine Beijing’s soft power aspirations underwritten by billions of dollars for Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure investment program.
“China cannot be tied to Putin and needs to be cut off as soon as possible,” said Hu Wei, vice chair of the Public Policy Research Center of the Counselor’s Office of China’s State Council in an opinion piece published March 5. Chinese censors have already deleted the Chinese-language version of Hu’s essay, Radio France International reported Wednesday.
Wang Huiyao, president of the Beijing-based think tank the Center for China and Globalization, suggested in a New York Times op-ed Sunday that China step up as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia to provide Putin “an offramp” from his current aggression.
But those opinions fly in the face of China’s lockstep alignment with Russia and their influence on Xi’s decision-making process is questionable at best.
The Chinese government won’t disclose whether it intends to materially aid the Kremlin’s wareffort, but it’s clear about its opposition to Western sanctions against Moscow — and their possible spillover impact. “China is not a party directly involved in the crisis, and it doesn’t want to be affected by sanctions even more. China has the right to safeguard its legitimate and lawful rights and interests,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares Bueno on Monday.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao deflected questions Monday about China’s possible support for Russia by accusing the U.S. of “maliciously spreading disinformation targeting China.”
But getting China to adopt a more Western-aligned public position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — or even to quietly do the right thing — is a big ask.
If national security adviser Jake Sullivan went into his Monday meeting with China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, to secure a commitment that China won’t circumvent sanctions against Russia, that effort failed. Sullivan conveyed “deep concerns about China’s alignment with Russia at this time, and … was direct about those concerns and the potential implications and consequences of certain actions,” a senior administration official said of the meeting. U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price underscored that point later the same day by stating that the U.S. “will not allow any country to compensate Russia for its losses.”
It’s uncertain if Beijing is listening. China’s Foreign Ministry 669-word readout of the Sullivan-Yang meeting — which devoted three words to Ukraine (“the Ukraine issue”) and 332 words to Chinese concerns about the U.S. position on Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong — suggests Yang had different priorities.
The Biden administration is unambiguous that China risks damaging economic sanctions from the world’s largest economies if it opts to bolster Russia’s war effort.
“If China were to decide to be an economic provider [to Russia] … they only make up 15 to 20 percent of the world’s economy,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said Monday. “The G7 countries make up more than 50 percent. So, there are a range of tools at our disposal in coordination with our European partners should we need to use them.”
That warning echoes one issued last week by Gina Raimondo, U.S. Secretary of Commerce, about the likely U.S. response if it discovers that China’s state-owned Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation is circumventing sanctions by selling high technology items, including chips, to Russia. “We could essentially shut SMIC down because we prevent them from using our equipment and our software. … It would be devastating to China’s ability to produce these chips,” Raimondo told the New York Times.
Psaki’s and Raimondo’s comments have caught Beijing’s attention. “The U.S.’ remarks reflect thinly-veiled bullying and intimidation and expose the ingrained Cold War zero-sum mentality and bloc confrontation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao growled on Wednesday.
That likely reflects Beijing’s assessment that the impact of such sanctions would pummel the Chinese economy. “Since China is 10 times more engaged with the world economy than Russia, the economic dislocation in China will be enormous,” said Gary Hufbauer,former U.S. Treasury department deputy assistant secretary for international trade and investment.
“China is more [economically] integrated and that makes us more vulnerable [to countersanctions], but it also makes China more vulnerable than Russia, so I don’t think it would be wise for the Chinese to get into that game of chicken with us,” said Malinowski.
But there are questions regarding the degree of unity the U.S. might find in imposing impactful sanctions against China. That’s because China’s economic heft and its role as an indispensable export manufacturing center will inevitably impose serious pain on sanctioning countries.
“China has more to lose [than Russia], but I would also argue that I don’t think anybody will impose the same sanctions on China that they’re imposing on Russia, especially voluntary ones, like Inditex’s decision to leave Russia,” said Alicia García Herrero, senior fellow at the European think tank Bruegel. “I think that [the international community] will not be as united against China, which means that the sanctions will be weaker, which means the impact might be less.”
If the White House is worried about the impact of rising gas prices at home due to sanctions on Russian energy, it’s clearly aware that bottling China would have far more severe domestic effects. A powerful sanctions regime against China will require the U.S. and allies to bear significant economic hardship and possibly weather Chinese economic retaliation.
“It will be much more difficult to inflict ‘severe costs’ on the economic giant China than Russia. We cannot be effective unless we gain allied unity, especially Europe and Japan, and the American business community and people are willing to absorb pain,” former U.S. Ambassador to China Winston Lord said in a statement. “With those two prerequisites I think we could seriously hurt the Chinese economy, given its enormous reliance on the world economy.”
But Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says that the U.S. shouldn’t hesitate to wield its economic power to punish both Russia and China for assistance that harms Ukraine.
“The strongest deterrent is action. Authoritarians don’t listen to talk [so] we need to make a strategic assessment that Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are one and the same and we need to start applying the same types of rules to both of them,” McCaul said. “We’re still the world’s largest economy, and I think we underestimate our own strength here [because] when we actually use our strength, it has serious repercussions for the PRC.”