Ukraine presents opportunity to test China’s strategic outlook

BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 4, 2022: Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping pose during a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse. Alexei Druzhinin/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS.No use Russia.

Decisions undertaken by Washington and Beijing in the coming months could have outsized influence over the trajectory of U.S.-China relations, and indeed the international system, for coming decades. At its core, the question confronting both countries is whether the U.S.-China relationship remains capable of being confined to an intense interests-driven competition. The more China clings to Russia following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbarism in Ukraine, the stronger that calls will grow in the United States and elsewhere to treat China and Russia as interchangeable enemies bent on imposing their violent might-makes-right vision for the world.

To some, the outcome of this question already is foregone. As this thinking goes, President Xi Jinping made China’s choice when he jointly issued a communique for reordering the international order with Putin on February 4 in Beijing at the outset of the Olympics. Both leaders pronounced that the China-Russia relationship knows “no boundaries.” Many American analysts assume Putin used the meeting to secure Xi’s support for his plans in Ukraine. China therefore must be viewed as having blood on its hands for enabling Putin’s efforts to alter the international order from the muzzle of a gun. Both China and Russia must be treated as common enemies in an ideological contest between democracy and authoritarianism.

There is coherence to this line of thinking and Beijing may validate such analysis through their own actions and choices over time. It would, however, be premature to automatically default to such a conclusion. Blind acceptance of the impotence of the U.S. or its partners to influence how China identifies and pursues its interests would represent a failure of imagination and an abandonment of diplomacy. Successful statecraft entails opening as many pathways for dealing with problems as possible, rather than preemptively closing them.

Time for diplomacy

In response to unfolding events, there have been calls in Washington policy circles to highlight the closeness of the China-Russia partnership to make Beijing pay a reputational price for its support for Moscow. This is the diplomatic equivalent of arm-waving at an impending train wreck.

This approach is built upon two questionable assumptions. The first is that China could be shamed into splitting with Russia. If shame was a driving factor in Beijing’s strategic calculus, China would be responsive to criticism over its gross human rights violations in Xinjiang and would adjust its actions in the South China Sea to adhere to international law. In both cases, Xi doubled down. The second assumption is that nothing can be done to alter Beijing’s thinking on Russia and the objective should therefore be to make China pay as high of a reputational price as possible.

Rather than succumbing to such fatalism, now is the time for America’s most able diplomats to test whether Beijing’s approach to Russia is permanently set in stone. It is a time to probe whether Beijing believes its interests would be advanced by driving the world into rival blocs, where China is aligned with Russia while the United States deepens its partnerships with the rest of the developed world. Now is the time to explore with 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 paths are imaginable that would afford China greater opportunities to pursue its national goals. It is a time to press Chinese leaders to clarify whether they have made a permanent and unalterable decision to align with Russia in opposition to the West.

Such discussions would best be explored quietly and dispassionately. Chinese officials are not going to offer American or other country’s diplomats any satisfaction by saying that President Xi made an error in signing a joint statement with President Putin on February 4 and that China will take corrective actions to make amends. Beijing will not announce any split with Moscow. They will not publicly criticize Russia’s invasion or cast Putin as the sole author of the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine. Chinese official media likely will continue to produce anti-American and anti-West vitriol.

An objective of drawing the Chinese into a discussion about their future strategic orientation would be to push Beijing to take concrete actions to establish some daylight between Russia’s aggression and China’s interests. Beijing needs to confront the reality that they face a shrinking window to demonstrate China continues to be guided by its own interests and does not view itself as Moscow’s proxy under all circumstances.

China’s alignment with Russia will be tested many times in the coming weeks. There will be scrutiny over China’s posture on a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Russia that will pass overwhelmingly, over whether China shields Russia from future U.N. investigations into atrocities in Ukraine, over whether China recognizes breakaway republics in Ukraine, over Beijing’s posture on recognizing a puppet regime that Putin seems to want to implant in Kyiv, and over whether China backfills and softens the impact of global sanctions on Russia. There will be examination over whether China makes meaningful efforts to promote offramps to escalation in Ukraine as well.

The rub is that China may be reluctant to arrive at independent decisions on these issues on its own, given the recency of Xi’s embrace of Putin in Beijing. This is where there might be a role for subtle, quiet diplomacy.

The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Bill Burns, would be an ideal candidate to lead such efforts for the United States. Given both his depth of knowledge on Russia and the high esteem in which he is held in Beijing, his views would be taken seriously by Chinese interlocutors. Delaware Senator Chris Coons also could play a unique role in probing China’s strategic thinking, given his close relationship with President Joe Biden and his foreign policy expertise. Senator Coons conceivably could draw National People’s Congress Chair Li Zhanshu to serve as his legislative counterpart. Li is among a small handful of people in China who are authentically close to Xi Jinping. Li also is familiar with the China-Russia relationship, given his previous experience serving as Xi’s special envoy to Moscow. State Department Policy Planning Director Salman Ahmed and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Dan Kritenbrink also would be able to test Chinese thinking without attracting intense media scrutiny. Incoming U.S. Ambassador to China Nick Burns also would contribute meaningfully to any such efforts. After discussions have ripened, it would also be important for President Biden to speak directly with Xi to take his measure of China’s future direction.

Given heightened tensions between the U.S. and China, Washington also would be wise to enlist other parties in probing China’s leaders on their strategic thinking. Other influential actors such as Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Singapore all share a similar broad goal of wanting China to limit its support for Russia. They all would prefer not to see hostile ideological blocs form with China and Russia on one side and much of the rest of the developed world on the other.

A fluid moment and a slim chance for progress

Such efforts to stimulate Beijing’s thinking about the long-term consequences of its decisions in this moment may prove to be for naught. Beijing could decide that it is arrayed against a hostile West who is bent on blocking China’s rise and that its only recourse is to remain in lockstep with Moscow, consequences be damned. If I were an oddsmaker, I would rank this as the most likely scenario.

At the same time, China and Russia do not have perfectly aligned interests. China has a lot more to lose and hold at 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 accommodating of China’s vision and its values. China views itself as a country on the rise. Beijing’s interests are ill-served when the United States and the European Union view China and Russia as interchangeable foes. China remains dependent on the developed world for access to inputs to support its technological advancement. China also risks American blowback over Beijing’s support for Russia’s invasion in Ukraine taking expression in more visible and strategically meaningful support for Taiwan.

U.S.-China relations are now at a crucial point. There may be a fleeting opportunity while the repercussions of Russia’s misadventure in Ukraine are being digested in Beijing to test whether China’s foreign policy is capable of reorientation. After this moment of global fluidity passes, Beijing’s posture on relations with Russia will harden.

For Beijing, gradually reorienting from Russia need not 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 by entrenched commitment with Moscow to upend the world through brute force. Any progress along these lines would not yield any signing ceremonies or headline-worthy pronouncements out of Beijing. It would not ameliorate America’s profound concerns over China’s conduct at home and its assertiveness abroad. Even so, in the world of diplomacy, actions by Beijing to gradually distance itself from Moscow would count as progress.