Why Xi Is Trapped in Ukraine

Now, it is Russia, not China, sitting in the geopolitical driver’s seat.

By , a senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Xi and Putin in Moscow
Xi and Putin in Moscow
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at a Chinese tourism event in Moscow on March 22, 2013. SERGEI ILNITSKY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Among the Ukraine war’s surprising geopolitical takeaways—such as Russia’s military ineptness and the transatlantic alliance’s unexpected resilience—is that China is not yet a great power. Beijing has proven incapable of influencing either Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculus in Ukraine or the West’s response to Russia’s unprovoked invasion. What’s more, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been reduced to a bystander seemingly at the mercy of decisions made not in Beijing but in Washington, Brussels, and, more importantly, Moscow.

None of this was part of Xi’s plan. His vision for a “new democratic world order” was predicated upon Russia playing an important, albeit supporting, role in advancing Beijing’s own revisionist agenda. Putin, it seems, had other plans. Now, it is Russia, not China, sitting in the geopolitical driver’s seat.

Certainly, Xi’s decision to tacitly back Putin has contributed to China’s growing international isolation. That extends to the United Nations, where China was widely criticized for being the lone veto-wielding Security Council member to abstain from condemning Russia’s belligerence. But make no mistake: Xi is not about to turn his back on Putin—even if Beijing has called reports about widespread Russian human rights violations in Ukraine “disturbing.” The reason is because Xi’s “Chinese dream” is first and foremost about rewriting China’s story to make up for the country’s perceived humiliation by the former colonial powers—the very ones that have now teamed up to punish Putin.

Among the Ukraine war’s surprising geopolitical takeaways—such as Russia’s military ineptness and the transatlantic alliance’s unexpected resilience—is that China is not yet a great power. Beijing has proven incapable of influencing either Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculus in Ukraine or the West’s response to Russia’s unprovoked invasion. What’s more, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been reduced to a bystander seemingly at the mercy of decisions made not in Beijing but in Washington, Brussels, and, more importantly, Moscow.

None of this was part of Xi’s plan. His vision for a “new democratic world order” was predicated upon Russia playing an important, albeit supporting, role in advancing Beijing’s own revisionist agenda. Putin, it seems, had other plans. Now, it is Russia, not China, sitting in the geopolitical driver’s seat.

Certainly, Xi’s decision to tacitly back Putin has contributed to China’s growing international isolation. That extends to the United Nations, where China was widely criticized for being the lone veto-wielding Security Council member to abstain from condemning Russia’s belligerence. But make no mistake: Xi is not about to turn his back on Putin—even if Beijing has called reports about widespread Russian human rights violations in Ukraine “disturbing.” The reason is because Xi’s “Chinese dream” is first and foremost about rewriting China’s story to make up for the country’s perceived humiliation by the former colonial powers—the very ones that have now teamed up to punish Putin.

It is therefore a safe bet that Xi will take concrete, perhaps even provocative, steps to help Putin outwit the West, all in the name of keeping China’s revisionist hopes alive. The problem, whether Xi realizes it yet or not, is that he almost certainly cannot accomplish the former while still securing the latter. That is, unless he is prepared to embrace a different kind of world order than what he initially envisioned—one with primarily Russian, not Chinese, characteristics.

Xi and Putin’s marriage of convenience has always been more symbolic than substantive. The partnership is rooted in a mutual loathing of the United States rather than a shared vision for the world. Putin, for the better part of two decades, has relished Russia’s role as a spoiler, often resorting to political and military aggression to subvert and shock the liberal international order. Xi, meanwhile, has waxed poetic about “reforming and improving” the international system to “collectively safeguard international security.” Put plainly, Putin’s impatience to dismantle the post-Cold War architecture was destined to collide with Xi’s long-term desire to co-opt it.

Disavowing Putin is a non-starter, as doing so would represent a complete repudiation of Xi’s judgement.

That divergence is now playing out in Ukraine, where China is scrambling to frame the war as a byproduct of the West’s belligerence rather than a preview of the “more just and rational” world order foreshadowed by Xi.

Central to Xi’s dilemma, however, is that he mistakenly bought into the conventional wisdom that Russia’s status as a great power had waned, condemning Moscow to ride on Beijing’s revisionist coat tails, not the other way around. Needless to say, if the true test of a great power lies in its ability to control the world’s fate by influencing the decisions of others, Putin put any such doubts to rest the moment his tanks rolled into Ukraine. As a result, Xi suddenly found himself trapped between supporting his “no limits” partner and avoiding any actions that could allow Putin’s barbaric brand of revisionism to become synonymous with Xi’s own.

Just as troubling for Xi is that Putin’s aggression and the resulting fallout have exposed, for all the world to see, that China remains incapable of operating completely outside the existing order—let alone remaking it in Beijing’s image. That realization stands at odds with Xi’s claims that his policies have put China on “the road to self-reliance,” a neo-Maoist throwback often parroted by the Chinese Communist Party to justify its push for autarkic independence. If anything, the war has revealed that China appears as reliant as ever on Western capital and technology to drive its development.

Look no further than China’s inability to shape, let alone stop, sweeping Western sanctions levied against Russia, many of which place China’s already faltering economy directly in Washington’s regulatory crosshairs. While Beijing rejected the sanctions outright, the same cannot be said for Chinese banks or companies. They began complying with Western sanctions almost immediately, likely fearing that doing otherwise could result in being excised from the dollarized economy or being stripped of their ability to source from U.S. and European suppliers. Either possibility could seriously imperil Xi’s ambitious yet still very nascent reform agenda, which is why Xi will almost certainly look the other way when his own companies defy his edicts to ignore Western sanctions.

Xi’s tacit backing for Putin’s messy, brutal, and half-baked incursion has also given ammunition to his domestic detractors, many of whom have criticized Xi’s fervent attempts to eschew the established liberal order’s largesse. In one widely read essay, Hu Wei, an advisor to China’s State Council, asserted that “China cannot be tied to Putin and needs to be cut off as soon as possible.” He added, “being in the same boat with Putin will impact China should he lose power.” Other influential historians and academics have since piled on in open letters and petitions. Their message, which has resonated on Chinese social media, is clear: However well-intentioned Xi’s desire to support Putin may be, it must not come at the expense of the aspired “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” or China’s already fraught relationship with the West.

Unfortunately, Putin has left Xi with few good options to turn the geopolitical tide. Disavowing Putin is a non-starter, as doing so would represent a complete repudiation of Xi’s judgement. It would also be seen, at home and abroad, as a capitulation to the Western powers and likely further set back Xi’s great-power ambitions. Alternatively, significantly ramping up support for Putin also appears unthinkable because Western nations could impose sanctions on China at a time when China’s economy is weakening and Xi’s efforts to re-orient it faltering. That leaves Xi with only one viable option: to muddle along like most every other middle power, knowing full well that China lacks either the means or the political will to meaningfully influence the war’s outcome.

Certainly, Xi will continue to pursue face-saving tactics aimed at securing a resolution to the war that is favorable to China’s long-term interests. Beijing will also devise creative work arounds to some Western sanctions to sustain trade and defense ties with Moscow while likely making sure that such moves fall short of antagonizing Washington and Brussels. China may even go so far as to provide Russia with non-lethal military support, particularly in the event of a protracted conflict, although it will almost certainly not supply Moscow with advanced weaponry out of concern that the West could retaliate. However, these and other balancing acts will only compound Xi’s troubles by reinforcing the growing tension between China’s great-power ambitions and its current limitations.

When the war in Ukraine ends, Xi will be forced to contend with a dramatically different geopolitical landscape than the one he so confidently surveyed just months before. Despite Russia’s many battlefield setbacks, Putin will almost certainly succeed in extracting some concessions from Kiev, likely maintaining quasi or semi-permanent control over some of Ukraine’s easternmost provinces. In doing so, Putin will have proven, yet again, that he is capable of redrawing Europe’s borders by force. For his part, Xi will seek to shift his focus back to China’s interests in the Indo-Pacific, although not before claiming a role in mediating a cessation of hostilities in Europe. However, both Russia and China’s reputations will be much worse for the wear. Xi will also bear the burden of propping up Russia’s badly battered economy while contending with a Western world even warier of Beijing’s stated commitments to territorial integrity and mutual non-aggression.

But the real blow will be to Xi’s ego as Putin is seen around the world as having taken up the autocratic mantle. To make matters worse, the more pugnacious paradigm put forward by Putin will be far more chaotic and unpredictable than anything Xi ever envisioned. And, like it or not, Xi will have little choice but to embrace Putin’s more violent vision—not because it is better per se, but because Putin managed to deliver on his revisionist promises while Xi dithered. Whereas Xi’s legacy was predicated on a partnership with Putin aimed at remaking China into a great power, Putin always recognized that Russia never stopped being one. In other words, Putin always had the upper hand.

That realization, more than anything, is why Xi cannot actually win in Ukraine, even if his partner eventually does.

Craig Singleton is a senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former U.S. diplomat. Twitter: @CraigMSingleton

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