The conflict in Ukraine is looking increasingly like the first major battle of a cold war between the U.S. and China. As the Biden administration rallies its democratic allies behind the embattled government in Kyiv, the communist regime in Beijing has largely embraced Russia’s view of the fight.
Although President Biden has warned China of “consequences” if it sends military aid to Russia, most regional analysts say it’s a no-brainer that Beijing plans to seize the strategic opportunities the Ukraine crisis presents to expand its own power and pursue its vital interests regardless of what Washington wants.
Concerns are growing in Washington that Beijing, which has ties to both Moscow and Kyiv, is poised to assume a leading role in mediating an end to the conflict while the United States gets left largely on the sidelines. The U.S. has spent decades and trillions of dollars rallying nations in Europe and East Asia to stand together against Russian and Chinese authoritarianism.
Few dispute Beijing’s leverage. China emerged as Ukraine’s top trading partner in 2019 and has been Russia’s for more than a decade. Chinese President Xi Jinping has quietly signed Belt and Road strategic investment deals with every one of Ukraine’s neighbors, several of which are NATO members, over the past nine years.
More hawkish analysts in Washington say the question is not whether, but rather when and how aggressively, Beijing intends to exert its economic leverage to effect an outcome in Ukraine that brings the most significant benefit for China. Most agree that the Xi government intends to wait until the Russian economy is truly breaking beneath the impact of massive sanctions that the U.S. and Western European nations have imposed.
Doing so would augment Beijing’s ability to geopolitically transform Russia into the junior partner in an anti-U.S. alliance. China would get support for regional and global strategic interests in exchange for helping Russian President Vladimir Putin secure relatively minuscule territorial gains and avoid a total disaster in Ukraine.
“The Chinese are not going to act because the Biden administration wants to work with America to save the liberal international order,” Mr. Rough said. “Beijing is in this to advance China’s own national interests, period.”
Will Taiwan be next?
David Sauer, a retired CIA officer who served in top posts in several East and South Asian locations, said one of China’s principal interests in the coming years is to absorb Taiwan, using military means if necessary. Meanwhile, the Ukraine crisis is proving an unexpected asset for Beijing.
“I think the view of Chinese officials is that they will benefit from having Russia’s support as they try to focus their attention on retaking Taiwan,” Mr. Sauer told The Washington Times in an interview.
China would cement the support as it rescues the collapsing Russian economy, easing the Kremlin’s pain from stiff U.S. and European trade and financial sanctions.
Mr. Sauer noted China’s record of helping authoritarian nations evade Western sanctions, most notably by buying embargoed oil from Iran and blacklisted coal from North Korea.
“The Chinese government will embrace the opportunity to buy Russian energy resources, taking care to attract as little international attention as possible while helping Moscow evade sanctions,” he said. Beijing’s goal over time will be to “extract whatever it can from the Russians.”
Others say China, which has spent the past decade building up its military, is equally keen to extract advanced weapons technology from Russia in preparation for a potential confrontation with the United States and its Asian allies.
Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Moscow Center, predicts that Russian-Chinese symmetry “will be massively accelerated” by the war in Ukraine. Russia is “very likely to move closer to China as a junior partner, providing China with the most advanced designs of weapons [and] most sophisticated parts of its nuclear expertise,” he said.
Beijing is likely to play its cards carefully, and “for now China definitely doesn’t want to be seen as supporting Russia,” Mr. Gabuev told a panel discussion hosted last week by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
He said the Xi government is likely to wait until the “Russian economy really finds its bottom and it’s in a state of free fall,” at which point Beijing is likely to seek geopolitical favors from Moscow in exchange for a bailout.
Mr. Gabuev said a range of possibilities could include Russian support for Beijing in Chinese-Indian border disputes and in South China Sea territorial disputes and “the most sensitive weapons systems” that Russia has been reluctant to sell to China.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters ahead of the Biden-Xi videoconference Friday that Mr. Biden would give the Chinese leader a robust warning that the U.S. “will not hesitate to impose costs” on Beijing if it militarily backs the Russians in Ukraine. “China will bear responsibility for any actions it takes to support Russia’s aggression,” Mr. Blinken said.
However, a Chinese government summary of the summit said Mr. Biden was anything but confrontational during the call with Mr. Xi. It said Mr. Biden spoke of how the U.S.-Chinese relationship “will shape the world in the 21st century.”
Although U.S. analysts warn that such official Chinese government summaries amount to propaganda, the White House’s readout of the summit was notably more restrained than what Mr. Blinken told reporters Mr. Biden was planning.
“President Biden detailed our efforts to prevent and then respond to the invasion, including by imposing costs on Russia,” the White House summary said. “He described the implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia as it conducts brutal attacks against Ukrainian cities and civilians.”
China said U.S. claims that it was considering military support to Russia were groundless, but its state media have strongly endorsed Moscow’s claims that the U.S.-led expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders was the prime cause of the war. The Chinese Foreign Ministry echoed Russian accusations that the U.S. had been operating a string of suspect biological weapons labs in Ukraine.
After the Biden-Xi call, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted an animated video of a map depicting NATO’s eastward spread, essentially endorsing Mr. Putin’s characterization of the alliance as offensive rather than defensive in nature.
An editorial this week in the state-controlled nationalistic Global Times accused the U.S. of attempting to “bully” China and other countries around the world to endorse its view of the Russia-Ukraine war. The Beijing-based news website said the effort was bound to fail.
“China has no self-interest in the Ukraine issue and is making real efforts to alleviate the humanitarian crisis while urging peace and promoting talks, which is in stark contrast to Washington’s inflammatory operations of sending weapons and imposing extreme sanctions,” the Global Times piece read in part. “Who is on the right side of history?”
“The Chinese are basically adopting the Russian arguments on the origins of the war,” said Mr. Rough.
“After the opening salvo of COVID, this is the second blow that inaugurates the Cold War 2.0 Sino-American rivalry,” he said.
“If you’re a Taiwan or Vietnam or a small or medium-sized country in the Asia Pacific facing growing Chinese power, it’s not going to make you feel so great to see Ukraine being parceled in a way that really amounts to a failure of deterrence on the part of the United States,” he said. “The Biden team likes to crow about having rallied the West into an alliance. … But in reality, the West has stood by while Ukraine is being hammered and potentially sliced in two.
“That’s not a bad outcome for the Chinese.”
• Guy Taylor can be reached at email@example.com.
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