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China Has a Big Ukraine Problem (Bloomberg)

27 February 2022


Bloomberg title: China Has a Big Ukraine Problem
By: Andrew Browne
Date: 26 February 2022

“When they met in Beijing just ahead of the Winter Olympics, did Vladimir Putin tell Xi Jinping he was planning to attack Ukraine?

If he didn’t, then Putin was deceptive. If he did, it’s hard to imagine Xi would have given him the green light: While the Chinese president has been sounding increasingly belligerent in recent years when it comes to Taiwan, he has yet to act recklessly. This year, Xi very much needs stability as he pushes for a third term in office, effectively a mandate to rule for life.

Yet, as the two authoritarian leaders met in Beijing, Xi ought to have had a sense of déjà vu. In 2008, Putin timed his invasion of Georgia to coincide with the opening day of the Beijing Summer Games. On the eve of the 2022 games, he was massing troops and tanks at the Ukraine border.

Not great timing for a man Xi calls friend.

The joint statement by Xi and Putin after their meeting pledged “no limits” to the China-Russia relationship and no “forbidden areas of cooperation.” It was, however, the diplomatic prelude to an unprovoked attack by Russia on a neighbor, potentially the most serious act of aggression in Europe since Nazi Germany triggered World War II.

Xi has now aligned himself with a fellow autocrat in Moscow whose behavior can increasingly be seen as unhinged. And while Xi is clearly the senior partner in this arrangement, he appears to have little influence over his junior associate, as Putin’s land grab illustrates. 

To Western powers, an unpredictable China-Russia axis looks deeply threatening, and it invites a concerted pushback that will hurt China far more than Russia. It’s not clear whether Putin’s revanchism will stop with Ukraine, or if he has grander ambitions to rebuild the Soviet Union in some form—and in the process risk direct confrontation with NATO.

“Fundamentally what we see is that two authoritarian powers, Russia and China, are operating together,” Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, said earlier this month.

Beijing has sought deeper ties with Moscow in the face of economic sanctions and political pressure from the West, highlighted by the U.S.-led diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics over China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and its crushing of basic freedoms in Hong Kong.

Yet it’s a risky partnership for Beijing, one that’s quickly placed the Chinese leadership in an awkward position. Putin’s naked aggression toward Ukraine flies in the face of every one of China’s cherished “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” —respect for national sovereignty, non-interference, nonaggression, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence.

That being said, China has been far from consistent in its application of this foreign policy doctrine. It largely retains it, however, out of deep-seated fears other countries may seek to undermine its own territorial integrity.

Still, Chinese officials won’t condemn Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine. Nor did they openly object when he recognized as “republics” two slices of eastern Ukraine that are home to Russian-backed militias, which on the face of it is astonishing given Beijing’s paranoia about Western-supported “separatists” operating everywhere from Taiwan to Tibet and Hong Kong.

After the invasion, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi struck a careful balance in a call with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. “China respects each country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Wang said, according to a Chinese transcript. “At the same time, we also see the Ukraine problem has a complex and particular historical state of affairs and we understand Russia’s reasonable concern on security issues.”

Further dilemmas will soon be on the way as Russia seeks Chinese help to evade harsh financial sanctions. If China acquiesces, it will anger European countries and undermine what’s left of the U.S.-China relationship. U.S. politicians don’t all agree that Putin is an existential threat to the global order—with some Republicans (including the party leader) going so far as to side with America’s avowed, nuclear-armed rival.

But they’re all united when it comes to opposing China. Did China realize it was signing up for all this when it forged a quasi-alliance with Russia?

Moscow and Beijing share a belief that Western democracy is in steep decline, and that the future belongs to the authoritarians of the world. The difference is that Putin is now using brute force to speed up the turn of history, whereas Xi has always taken the long view.

As Xi puts it: “Time and momentum are on our side.”

That attitude has been reflected in a carefully calibrated approach to China’s territorial claims. In the South China Sea, China has expanded its control in incremental steps that always stop just short of triggering conflict, a tactic that international relations scholars call “salami slicing.” When it comes to Taiwan, China doesn’t rule out the use of force but so far only rattles its saber.

The question now is whether Putin will push Xi to go further, faster. “Although Chinese leaders may not recognize it, their country’s closer alignment with Russia is far from prudent,” the scholars Jude Blanchette and Bonny Lin wrote in Foreign Affairs before the invasion.

In Ukraine, the two scholars argue, “China is playing a dangerous game, one it may come to regret.” “



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