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Washington Is Missing a Chance to Turn China Against Russia

A rare confluence of crises has created the possibility of Beijing changing course.

By , a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center and its Reimagining Grand Strategy Program, and , director of the China program at the Stimson Center.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a meeting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a meeting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a meeting in Beijing on April 26, 2019. Kenzaburo Fukuhara/Getty Images

It may seem counterintuitive, but the political and economic costs to China of Russia’s war in Ukraine, a wobbly economy, anti-zero-COVID backlash, and Chinese President Xi Jinping rolling back an array of policies may be opening space for U.S.-China cooperation on Ukraine. The war in Ukraine’s galvanizing global support for Taiwan may also weigh on Beijing.

Since the start of the war, China has offered rhetorical support to Russia and demonized NATO’s actions—but avoided any actual commitments to aiding Moscow. The Sino-Russian entente is not, as it is often viewed in the West, a simple ideological sympathy between two revisionist autocracies. Rather, it’s a pragmatic, somewhat transactional union, one where the United States may be missing opportunities to pry the two apart—at least on particular issues.

First, on a visit to the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan last September, Xi pledged to “resolutely” support its sovereignty, a snub to Moscow. Then at a Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting that same month, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly and unprecedentedly acknowledged China’s “questions and concerns” over the war in Ukraine. In early October 2022, China abstained from both United Nations Security Council and General Assembly votes to condemn Russia’s annexation of the Donbas rather than voting against them. Beijing also joined India in calling for an end to the war.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the political and economic costs to China of Russia’s war in Ukraine, a wobbly economy, anti-zero-COVID backlash, and Chinese President Xi Jinping rolling back an array of policies may be opening space for U.S.-China cooperation on Ukraine. The war in Ukraine’s galvanizing global support for Taiwan may also weigh on Beijing.

Since the start of the war, China has offered rhetorical support to Russia and demonized NATO’s actions—but avoided any actual commitments to aiding Moscow. The Sino-Russian entente is not, as it is often viewed in the West, a simple ideological sympathy between two revisionist autocracies. Rather, it’s a pragmatic, somewhat transactional union, one where the United States may be missing opportunities to pry the two apart—at least on particular issues.

First, on a visit to the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan last September, Xi pledged to “resolutely” support its sovereignty, a snub to Moscow. Then at a Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting that same month, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly and unprecedentedly acknowledged China’s “questions and concerns” over the war in Ukraine. In early October 2022, China abstained from both United Nations Security Council and General Assembly votes to condemn Russia’s annexation of the Donbas rather than voting against them. Beijing also joined India in calling for an end to the war.

This comes alongside an attempt by Beijing to repair its damaged diplomatic relations with the West. EU officials say Beijing has dropped blaming NATO from its talking points and that Beijing officials told them that China views Russian nuclear use as unacceptable.

In its awkward, contradictory effort to straddle both sides, China has consistently reiterated its support for Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” although it has also left plenty of room for favoring Russia’s interpretation of what Ukrainian territory is. It has called on “all parties” to exercise restraint—including Russia, whose invasions it rationalizes—and has expressed dismay at the current situation in Ukraine. Yet, despite its pre-Feb. 24, 2022, robust economic and military relations with Ukraine, it has provided only a minuscule $3 million or so in humanitarian aid, whereas Chinese media puts out a constant stream of pro-Russian and anti-NATO disinformation.

Russia and China have been brought together by their shared views about the international order being unfairly dominated by liberal democracies as well as the primacy of the United States. Both countries have been perceived as geopolitical threats to the liberal international order, which naturally gives them a similar threat perception about the West, especially the United States. These shared geopolitical concerns accelerated in 2014, after the Crimea crisis, which isolated Russia, and the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, which enhanced China’s anxiety about its security environment in its immediate periphery. In addition, Xi’s affinity toward Russia from the Cold War and his admiration of Putin as a strongman added another layer of top leaders’ endorsement of the close alignment between China and Russia.

But despite these links, China, like other nations, puts its own interests first. And those interests are increasingly divergent from Moscow’s with regard to Ukraine. China has been quite embarrassed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a country with which it had a robust relationship, especially in agricultural trade, cooperation on military technology, and Belt and Road infrastructure projects.

When Putin invaded, more than 6,000 Chinese nationals were living in Ukraine; Beijing, with little apparent warning time, had to scramble to launch an evacuation mission. Privately, Chinese officials have conceded that some evacuees were killed. This suggests that Putin was less than forthright with Xi about what was coming, backing up claims made by Chinese officials in private that they were not informed about the war. Putin left China in an impossible position to square the circle between of its “no-limits” cooperation with Russia and Putin shattering its fundamental, mantra-like (if selectively applied) foreign-policy principles on sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Putin’s war in Ukraine has hit Chinese economic interests at a time when its own economy is in trouble. The war’s disruptions to the world economy have had a toll on some of China’s largest overseas markets. As China is the largest lender to troubled developing nations, the rise in energy, food, and fertilizer prices spurred by the fallout from the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions has complicated China’s efforts to get loans repaid, thus worsening its own massive debt problem.

Ukraine has strengthened U.S. alliances—anathema to Beijing—and weakened Russian ties with former Soviet nations that fear they could be next and are now increasingly interested in talking to Washington. The impact of the war in Ukraine brings into question the credibility of China’s foreign policy as a great power. Where Putin is a disrupter, viewing chaos that harms the U.S.-led order as in his interests, Beijing is more interested in reshaping global institutions to favor Chinese interests. This is an important distinction that should be factored into U.S. policy.

And not least, there is the impact on the Taiwan issue. The West’s response to Putin’s war, and the analogies to Taiwan, as Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida captured with his “East Asia could be the Ukraine of tomorrow,” quip, has almost certainly added new factors to Beijing’s consideration of future actions toward Taipei.

As the toll of sanctions on Russia’s economy increases, one measure will be whether China will provide semiconductors or other key technology. It may be that Beijing’s limits on cooperation with its troubled junior partner are more about Chinese fears of secondary sanctions than an indicator of it distancing itself from Russia. In any case, the United States has little to lose by testing the proposition that new opportunities may be opening up that are sufficient in allowing U.S.-China cooperation on Ukraine.

If the United States is slow to discern that political space between Russian and Chinese views on Ukraine might be widening enough to open up new opportunities for discreet U.S.-China cooperation, then it wouldn’t be the first time. The potency of Cold War anti-communism complicated and delayed U.S. exploitation of China-Soviet Union tensions, even when the two fought a brief but violent conflict on the border. Sino-Soviet tensions were obvious to U.S. intelligence analysts by the mid-1950s, yet it wasn’t until 1971 before then-U.S. President Richard Nixon and then-U.S. top advisor Henry Kissinger took advantage of their opening to China, creating one of the greatest strategic shifts of the era.

U.S. myopia and confirmation bias drive China and Russia closer to each other and oversimplify China’s policy toward Ukraine. By taking Sino-Russian allied proclamations at face value, the United States is failing to capture key differences in their respective national interests and approaches that may open space for U.S. diplomacy.

Since the beginning of the war, Washington has been an endless stream of “J’accuse,” denouncing China as Russia’s accomplice. Multiple leaks to the news media about China’s prior knowledge of Putin’s invasion plan aimed to hold China responsible for a crime that it did not commit. Xi certainly seems to have been imprudent and unwise to commit himself to “no-limits” cooperation with Russia, which Putin cashed in on as a blank check. But Beijing’s near-impossible balancing act, a sort of pro-Russian effort at neutrality, is categorically different from active participation in the war.

China’s continued economic engagement with Russia is troubling, but so too is that of India and Turkey and many countries in the global south. Beijing has canceled oil and gas projects as well as Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank loans to Russia. By July 2022, U.S. government officials openly acknowledged that China had not helped Russia evade sanctions or provided military assistance in Moscow’s war effort, even as it wagged fingers at China, threatening sanctions.

Beijing’s refusal to condemn Russia or impose sanctions is, of course, morally disturbing and politically unhelpful, as is its consistently pro-Russian domestic messaging. But this is a practical question as well as a moral one.

Washington operates under the assumption that a China-Russia alliance has been established and is unwavering, whereas in reality, it is more a limited strategic partnership. There is no Article 5-type agreement on mutual defense between the two nations.

The United States’ repeated public condemnation has not helped. As long as strategic competition with the United States remains the most consequential theme in China’s external relations, especially with growing tensions over Taiwan, Beijing will see Moscow as a necessary partner to counter the United States. However, as the war drags on, China’s reputational and economic costs are mounting, and it may be possible distance Beijing on some issues from what it increasingly sees as a bad bargain with a declining strategic asset.

The United States should seek to explore Sino-Russian fault lines rather than mitigate and bridge their differences for them. A moral plea, like the one U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made to his Chinese counterpart in July 2022, tends to inflame Chinese nationalism rather than effect change. Within the context of strategic competition, tactical pivots to cooperate or deconflict with China shifts when interests overlap, which can benefit interests and perhaps rebuild a modicum of trust. To shape Beijing’s calculus, Washington must point to areas of mutual vulnerability and concerns, not just punitive actions.

U.S. warnings to deter China’s economic contributions to Russia outside the sanctions’ regime are unlikely to be heeded. China’s No. 3 top leader, Li Zhanshu, committed China to more economic cooperation with Russia during his trip to Russia in September 2022, including regarding trade, infrastructure, and energy. This was reinforced last December in a Xi-Putin Zoom meeting. In Beijing’s view, the United States cannot permanently prevent China from economic ties with Russia, particularly with regard to cooperation in the realm of energy-related technology and other natural resources.

As one of the few parties that still possess critical influence over Russia’s decision-making, China’s early offer to mediate in the Ukraine crisis should be probed. China might claim that it is not a party to the conflict, though it has been an enabler. Washington should make it clear that, as a great power, Beijing cannot evade the responsibility of bringing the war to a speedy end.

A possible entry point to U.S.-China dialogue on Ukraine is mutual concern about Putin’s public threats of nuclear use and the consequences of breaking the 77-year-old nuclear taboo. U.S. President Joe Biden spoke of the threat of “Armageddon.” China has a stated “no first use” policy, and Russian use of nuclear weapons will put Beijing in an impossible position to defend itself. Not least, shared concerns that nuclear use in Ukraine could lower the threshold for North Korea and spur potential nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia suggest an urgency to discuss preventive measures.

In addition, Washington must look beyond the war to think through both ways and means of its termination as well as the future of Ukraine’s economic reconstruction. Given the politics involved and resources exhausted, it will be very difficult to coordinate among the United States, European Union, Japan, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to mobilize the economic resources needed. If China, the world’s leading lender, is not offered an opportunity to be included in that discussion or to coordinate efforts, a separate Chinese reconstruction effort may complicate or obstruct Western efforts. Dialogue on China doing its fair share in a coordinated and global campaign should be explored.

The challenge is how to suspend, or at least compartmentalize, the mutual grievances on both sides to open political space sufficient enough to explore areas where interests may overlap with regard to Ukraine. The United States would be wise to tone down its moral rhetoric and initially use a quiet backchannel approach to Beijing to gauge interest. It should emphasize the limited and realistic scope of issues and try to shape a Ukraine agenda during Blinken’s forthcoming trip to China.

There should be no illusions about the degree of difficulty involved in this despite signals from Beijing of a softer approach. But given how dire the Ukraine situation has become, necessity may well be the mother of invention.

It will require creative diplomacy but a dose of sobriety, including over the Sino-Russian rifts, Beijing’s wider interests, and the positive role Beijing can play in ending the war and rebuilding post-conflict Ukraine. Such an interest-based transactional approach could go far in avoiding the self-fulfilling prophecy of a Beijing-Moscow alliance.

Robert A. Manning is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center and its Reimagining Grand Strategy Program. Twitter: @Rmanning4

Yun Sun is director of the China program at the Stimson Center.

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