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Why China Threads the Needle on Ukraine

Beijing is confident in the United States’ decline and unwilling to rock the boat.

By , a professor of political science at Columbia University.
An outdoor screen shows a virtual meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Beijing on December 15, 2021.
An outdoor screen shows a virtual meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Beijing on December 15, 2021.
An outdoor screen shows a virtual meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Beijing on December 15, 2021. Jade Gao/AFP via Getty Images

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine falters, Moscow has many opponents and few backers. Even China, Moscow’s closest diplomatic partner other than Belarus, maintains a studied distance—on the one hand blaming the West for its supposed threat to Russian security and condemning the United States for imposing sanctions while on the other hand reaffirming its principled support for the territorial integrity of sovereign states and calling for a negotiated resolution of what it calls “the Ukraine crisis.” Why does China neither endorse nor condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war?

The answer lies in what has become the first principle of Chinese foreign policy: distrust of the United States. For decades, China has embarked on a quest to assume what it regards as its historically mandated position as the dominant power in Asia. As strategic realists, Chinese leaders always expected the United States to push back, seeking to protect its legacy status as the region’s dominant power. And in Beijing’s view, the United States has done just that. As China’s power and ambitions have burgeoned, Beijing assesses that Washington has assaulted the Chinese Communist Party on ideological and human rights grounds; sought to undermine Chinese control of peripheral territories like Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong; perpetuated the division of Taiwan from the mainland; opposed China’s assertion of its rights in the South China Sea; colluded with U.S. allies and partners in thinly disguised coalitions to contain China, such as the U.S.-India-Japan-Australia Quadrilateral Security Dialogue; and used tariffs to try to force China to open its economy and change what the Communist Party views as its successful economic model.

But China remains steadily on course. Despite a host of challenges—exacerbated by recent draconian COVID-19 lockdowns in Shanghai and other cities—the ruling party remains confident that it can build a “great modern socialist country [that is] prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful” by the 100th anniversary of China’s founding in 2049.

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine falters, Moscow has many opponents and few backers. Even China, Moscow’s closest diplomatic partner other than Belarus, maintains a studied distance—on the one hand blaming the West for its supposed threat to Russian security and condemning the United States for imposing sanctions while on the other hand reaffirming its principled support for the territorial integrity of sovereign states and calling for a negotiated resolution of what it calls “the Ukraine crisis.” Why does China neither endorse nor condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war?

The answer lies in what has become the first principle of Chinese foreign policy: distrust of the United States. For decades, China has embarked on a quest to assume what it regards as its historically mandated position as the dominant power in Asia. As strategic realists, Chinese leaders always expected the United States to push back, seeking to protect its legacy status as the region’s dominant power. And in Beijing’s view, the United States has done just that. As China’s power and ambitions have burgeoned, Beijing assesses that Washington has assaulted the Chinese Communist Party on ideological and human rights grounds; sought to undermine Chinese control of peripheral territories like Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong; perpetuated the division of Taiwan from the mainland; opposed China’s assertion of its rights in the South China Sea; colluded with U.S. allies and partners in thinly disguised coalitions to contain China, such as the U.S.-India-Japan-Australia Quadrilateral Security Dialogue; and used tariffs to try to force China to open its economy and change what the Communist Party views as its successful economic model.

But China remains steadily on course. Despite a host of challenges—exacerbated by recent draconian COVID-19 lockdowns in Shanghai and other cities—the ruling party remains confident that it can build a “great modern socialist country [that is] prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful” by the 100th anniversary of China’s founding in 2049.

They are equally sure that the United States is locked in an irreversible process of decline that will gradually eliminate it as a serious rival in Asia. Their confidence is based partly in Marxist theory, which says that a mature capitalist economy like that of the United States must encounter financial crises and class conflicts that will drag it down from the heights of prosperity. And it is based partly in their understanding of recent history, as events in the United States seem to unfold in the ways that theory predicts. Chinese confidence was boosted by the U.S. financial crisis of 2008, when Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan famously told then-U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry “Hank” Paulson, “[Y]ou were our teacher—and our teacher doesn’t look very smart!” Next came what Beijing viewed as an indecisive Obama administration; the vicious 2016 presidential election, when then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton responded to electoral pressures by abandoning a prime strategic asset against China, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal; the Trump administration’s trashing of U.S. relations with its allies; the disastrous mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic; the Jan. 6, 2021 assault on Capitol Hill; the catastrophic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan; and the political paralysis and widening polarization of the Biden era—all while the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Ocean complained that it did not have enough ships to deter China, and the American share of global GDP declined from 30 percent in 2000 to 24 percent in 2019.

Putin’s attack on Ukraine might have contributed to this decline by exposing U.S. indecision and the fragility of its alliances. Instead, it reversed the process—though, China believes, temporarily. The war created a rare consensus in U.S. domestic politics, strengthened the U.S. alliance system, and consolidated Washington’s view of relations with Russia and China as an existential conflict of values and systems. Putin’s war has given the United States an excuse to put increased pressure on China, demand more cooperation from its Asian allies, and pressure India to reduce economic ties with Russia. Worst of all, it has strengthened the U.S. defense commitment to Taiwan.

In this context, China’s strategic priority is to avoid doing anything that would interrupt the process of U.S. decline. China deeply resents American moral posturing, claiming to stand up for what is right and lawful, telling Beijing what is in China’s interest and how it will be punished if it does not comply. Although the American side is sincere about these attitudes, to China, they look like hypocrisy or (at best) self-delusion because it believes that American actions always reflect hard interests. As Beijing sees it, moral posturing is the way in which the United States has always legitimized its numerous political dominations and military interventions—what Beijing calls U.S. hegemony. Now, the United States would like to harvest additional benefits from Putin’s war by splitting China from Russia.

Beijing is not about to fall into that trap. Instead, it seeks to preserve whatever remains of its only substantial partner (aside from North Korea) in its efforts to check U.S. arrogance. The tie that binds China and Russia is antagonism to the United States. The two leaders exaggerated the state of their relationship at their last face-to-face meeting before the war, when they described the partnership as one with “no limits.” In fact, Russia has no interest in China’s primary security issues in Taiwan and the South China Sea, and China has no interest in Russia’s primary security issue of Western encroachment in Eastern Europe. Even though the last of the two countries’ border disputes was settled in 2008, China has not forgotten what it regards as Russian historical aggression, and Russia remains chronically anxious about the influx of Chinese workers into the lightly populated Russian Far East. The two countries forged cooperative security policies through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, founded in 2001, but continue to compete for influence over the four Central Asian members of that organization. China buys oil and gas from Russia but drives a hard bargain on price. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ideology is a version of atheist socialism; Putin’s is a form of Christian kleptocratic capitalism.

Despite all these differences, Chinese strategists live in the world as they find it, not as they wish it to be. No doubt Putin has rendered Russia a much-diminished strategic asset. Its military is degraded, its leverage over Western Europe through energy sales is disappearing, and its diplomatic credibility is bankrupt. China does not appreciate Moscow’s mishandling of the situation, its misestimation of Ukrainian resistance, Euro-American determination, and its own military prowess. Nor do they like that Russia is wrecking a valued trade partner of China: Ukraine. Yet barring a collapse of the Putin regime, even a diminished Russia will remain an asset in China’s resistance to U.S. hegemony. China is not about to throw away its main strategic partner.

But neither does China want Putin to drag it into a premature confrontation with the West. China prefers to let history take its predetermined course, with China gradually rising and the United States gradually declining, without the United States taking flight and adopting an outright containment policy toward China. For all the boilerplate flavor of his remarks, Xi was not misrepresenting Chinese views when he told then-U.S. President Donald Trump in April 2017, “There are a thousand reasons to make the China-U.S. relationship a success,” or when he told U.S. President Joe Biden in November 2021, “A sound and steady China-U.S. relationship is required for advancing our two countries’ respective development and for safeguarding a peaceful and stable international environment. … China and the United States should respect each other, coexist in peace, and pursue win-win cooperation.” Keeping the United States and its allies calm has been a hard enough strategy to pursue as China’s reach for influence has generated inevitable backlash not only in Washington but even in many of its client countries. But for Beijing now to fall in line with Putin’s failing war would only harden resistance to Chinese influence and reduce Chinese access to Western markets, capital, and technology.

These complex calculations explain why China has threaded a middle position in both its rhetoric and its actions. It blames the United States for putting Putin in a position where he needed to defend Russian security, but it asks for an end to the war and respect for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. It trades with Russia (and will get some good deals on oil and gas), only to the extent that it does not run afoul of international sanctions.

U.S. policymakers seem to understand this careful strategy and are willing to accept it. In his video conference with Xi on March 18, Biden tacitly gave room for China to pursue this middle position by limiting U.S. threats to China’s provision of what Biden called “material support” for Russia. The term is ambiguous but probably refers to supplying Moscow with weapons or backfilling against sanctions without banning normal commerce. China will remain on the sidelines as the drama in Europe unfolds, and when the dust settles, it hopes to resume its long march toward preeminence in Asia.

Andrew J. Nathan is a professor of political science at Columbia University and the author of China’s Search for Security, with Andrew Scobell.

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