Why hasn’t China joined the U.S. and other developed nations in condemning Russia’s attack on Ukraine? China doesn’t want to involve itself in the turmoil, as it watches both Russia and the United States deplete themselves, and decline. Andrew J. Nathan discusses China’s plan to steadily rise in status as the United States defeats itself. He writes in Foreign Policy:
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.
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