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China Placed a Losing Bet on Vladimir Putin

China Placed a Losing Bet on Vladimir Putin

Sunday, 13 March, 2022 - 06:00
Hal Brands
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

So far, there aren’t many winners in Russia’s brutal conflict in Ukraine. But among the biggest losers is China.

European Union officials have plaintively called on Beijing to broker a settlement between Kiev and Moscow. That’s probably wishful thinking. China isn’t neutral enough to serve as a trusted intermediary, and won’t force peace on Russian President Vladimir Putin against his wishes. For the time being, Beijing is stuck dealing with the blowback from Russia’s debacle.

This certainly isn’t what Chinese leaders expected. After Putin and President Xi Jinping huddled in Beijing in early February, they released a joint statement touting their strategic alignment.

There were “no forbidden areas” in the relationship: The two countries were united in their opposition to US geopolitical and ideological hegemony. That statement built on roughly a quarter-century of growing military, economic and diplomatic cooperation between China and Russia, and it created the specter that autocratic powers spanning much of Eurasia might better coordinate their intensifying challenges to the American-led global order.

What isn’t clear is whether Xi expected Putin to follow up by trying to destroy Ukraine entirely — thereby creating the impression of Sino-Russian collusion — or whether he, like many observers, was taken by surprise. The latter explanation seems more likely, given that, from Beijing’s perspective, the invasion has mostly produced geopolitical trouble.

For one thing, Putin’s attack has underscored the financial and technological dominance of the Western world. There is simply no precedent for the speed and severity with which the US and its allies have punished Putin, almost totally isolating Russia from the global economy.

Sanctions are inflicting severe damage on Russia; a stock-market collapse, import problems and a debt default all loom. China is watching from the sidelines as the world’s leading democracies have shown the willingness and ability to pummel international aggressors economically. Although China, with a larger, more diversified, more globally integrated economy, is a far harder target that Russia, Xi must be wondering what economic carnage awaits his country if it attacks Taiwan.

Second, Russian aggression has activated antibodies to Chinese power. Japan, Singapore and Taiwan joined the anti-Putin sanctions team because they worry that unchecked aggression in Europe will tempt Beijing to make moves in the Pacific. If Putin sets a precedent of successful conquest, Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida has said, “it will have an impact on Asia, as well.”

Warnings that Beijing might use force against Taiwan in the next few years no longer seem so hyperbolic, which means that Putin’s gambit could result in more determined, multilateral containment of China. And Beijing’s relationship with Moscow is now taking a toll on its ties to European countries, which can reasonably conclude that Chinese backing has emboldened Putin to start a catastrophic war on their doorstep.

To be sure, there are some offsetting benefits. For the moment, the war in Ukraine will make the US pivot away from Asia. Debates in the Pentagon about how to spend scarce defense dollars will become more agonizing, notwithstanding the possibility of modest increases in military spending.

But Putin’s war is mostly making China’s life harder, while testing the implicit bargain at the heart of the relationship.

China and Russia have generally tried to stay out of each other’s way, by avoiding initiatives that compromise or endanger their partner’s objectives. Putin may be brushing up against that norm, especially if he did not warn the Chinese leadership about what was coming. And that Moscow so seriously botched the initial military operation in Ukraine, while also underestimating the global response to the invasion, probably doesn’t inspire confidence in Beijing. The man in the Kremlin just doesn’t look as cunning as he did a month ago.

Yet it’s important not to exaggerate: Nothing that has happened is likely to provoke a shift in China’s alignment with Russia. Indeed, one reason Beijing can’t be a reliable mediator is that has mostly parroted Russian talking points blaming Washington and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for inciting the war, and even accused the US — baselessly — of putting bioweapons in Ukraine. Over the next few years, the war’s fallout may push Beijing and Moscow closer together.

A Russian pariah-state will be even more dependent — economically, technologically, militarily — on China. And unless Beijing makes fundamental changes to a foreign policy that has alienated most of the world’s democracies and earned it the designation as America’s global enemy No. 1, it won’t have anywhere to go if it turns away from Moscow.

A more plausible outcome of the crisis is that it will accelerate China’s rupture with the West. Xi will double down on cultivating his internal market, promoting domestic innovation and pursuing selective financial and technological decoupling to ensure that Washington and its friends can’t do to China what they have done to Russia. Just as Putin is being forced to revive Stalin’s autarky, Xi may have to resurrect Mao Zedong’s push for Chinese self-sufficiency.

So don’t expect a new geopolitical geometry soon: The alignment between Washington’s enemies could grow even stronger. But the Ukraine crisis may also provide a preview of how that uneasy entente eventually ends, by demonstrating to China that proximity to a violent predator has a price.


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