China is still claiming neutrality when it comes to Russia’s war against Ukraine. As that position is becoming increasingly unconvincing, the US is putting pressure on China to choose sides, threatening with economic sanctions if it continues its tacit support of Russia. But the deeper, structural, geopolitical factors in play mean that China’s alliance with Russia is here to stay. The US seems unwilling to recognise this, but does so at its peril, argues Alexander Korolev.
China’s position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable. On the one hand, Beijing calls for respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, including Ukraine, but on the other hand, it advises that Washington must respect Russia’s legitimate security concerns in the region, including in Ukraine. Beijing’s attempts to walk a tight rope of diplomacy have not been remarkably successful.
As the war drags on and the West’s comprehensive blockade of Russia consolidates, the pressure from the US and its allies to compel Beijing to explicitly distance itself from Moscow intensifies. From accusing Beijing of irresponsible fence-sitting, the US has moved to threatening sanctions if China anyhow aids Russia’s war effort. In this context, a China with economic development on its mind, which also aspires to be a responsible global power, should be expected to heed the warnings and, if not join the sanctions against Russia, at least explicitly condemn Russia’s behaviour.
There are strong international-systemic reasons why Beijing cannot turn its back towards Moscow.
However, China is unlikely to do that. There are strong international-systemic reasons why Beijing cannot turn its back towards Moscow. These reasons compel China to not only continue business as usual with Russia (which means gradual consolidation of China-Russia strategic partnership) but even accelerate the formation of a stronger China-Russia alignment.
Research on the power transition theory suggests that out of 16 power transitions known to historians only 4 turned out to be peaceful. In the contemporary international system, power transition is happening between China and the US, not between Russia and the US. According to World Bank, in 1991, the US’s total Gross National Prodict (GNP) of $6.158 trillion was more than 16 times that of China ($383,373 billion). By 2013, China’s GNP reached more than half of that of the US ($9.57 trillion vs. $16.785 trillion). By 2019, it became almost 70% ($14.343 trillion vs. $21.374 trillion). Thus, the current power structure resembles the one that existed during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union’s GNP reached its peak of 60% of the US total in 1975, and when great power balancing was the defining feature of international politics.
These structural shifts are more important than the characteristics of individual policymakers because they determine the horizons of probable actions for great powers, regardless of who is in charge of foreign policy. They also create a strategic environment that is most conducive to the confrontation between the rising and declining superpowers. Facing China as a long-term strategic adversary, Washington attempts to maintain its still existing power advantage by containing the challenger. China, strong but still weaker than the US, is incentivised to respond by enhancing its military capabilities and cooperation with other powers to deal with the US containment more effectively. This triggers further acts of containment from the US, which further incentivise China’s stronger reaction.
In this context, China started to be perceived in the US as more nationalistic and more aggressive, which required a balancing response. The US’s “rebalancing to Asia” aimed at reinstating Washington’s strategic leadership in the Asia-Pacific. The “free and open Indo-Pacific,” in turn, aimed at fending off China’s Belt and Road initiative in the same region. Both have been viewed in Beijing as security threats and attempts to create containment lines against China in the Pacific.
In a similar vein, in January 2012, Washington adopted new strategic guidelines that identified China as an anti-access threat in the Asia-Pacific and announced a new approach to organizing its military power – the new Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC) that required increasing the deployment of US naval capabilities to Asia-Pacific. Five years later, in December 2017, the US National Security Strategy called China the US’s major adversary – an explicit identification of China as the primary competitor that drives Washington’s defence decisions and military resource allocation.
The US containment measures contribute to a situation when China starts viewing the US the same way the US views China – as the greatest national security threat and the primary focus of China’s defence policy.
The US’s Third Offset Strategy – a defence innovation initiative to counteract strategic technological advantages by top US adversaries – can be added to the mix of US’s measures to contain China. It explicitly targeted China and included steps to engage Beijing in direct military-technological competition. Likewise, the AUKUS alliance is aimed at tackling a growing threat from an “arc of autocracy” led by China and pushing back against the China threat by enabling regular visits of US and UK nuclear-powered submarines to Australia’s east coast. One must also mention the economic containment measures, such as US-China trade and tariff wars, embargoes on goods, and bans on Chinese 5G mobile network technology.
Not surprisingly, these containment measures contribute to a situation when China starts viewing the US the same way the US views China – as the greatest national security threat and the primary focus of China’s defence policy. Many Chinese strategists view the US as a direct military competitor and a potential adversary that does not want to see China become stronger. Analysts from the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences recommended that China must build strategic balancing capabilities in nuclear, space, and air deterrence, “even if this leads to an intense arms race.” Some high-ranking Chinese officials have openly stated that the US is China’s greatest national security threat – a perception that is widely shared in China’s defence and security establishment and in the Communist Party’s ideological organization. The COVID-19 global pandemic and the subsequent deterioration of US-China relations are reported to have further added fuel to the fire of an already heated bilateral relationship.
Instead of using the war to pull China away from Russia, the US and its allies seem intent on reconstituting a Cold War II in their relations with China.
The most puzzling, from the standpoint of pulling China to the “right side of history” with regards to Ukraine, is Washington’s high-profile arms sale and official visits to Taiwan. Ten days after Russia invaded Ukraine, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travelled to Taipei and publicly promoted that Washington should “take necessary and long-overdue steps to do the right and obvious thing” – to recognise “free and independent” Taiwan. For Beijing, Taiwan’s independence is the red line. If the US’s strategic goal is to change China’s stance on Ukraine, brandishing Taiwan’s independence is not the most effective way to do that. Instead of using the war to pull China away from Russia, the US and its allies seem intent on reconstituting a Cold War II in their relations with China.
Another factor that looms large in the background and contributes to China not willing to change its attitude towards Putin’s war in Ukraine is Western hypocrisy of not making any noises about India’s stance towards Russia. India, like China, never condemned Russia. In fact, it supports Russia more openly than China does. On 23 March 2022, the President of the Federation of India Export Organisations, A Sakthivel, announced in front of the world that India was preparing a rupee-ruble trade arrangement with Russia which can allow the bilateral trade to continue despite the Western sanctions. However, New Delhi is never criticised. Instead, the Quad has accepted India’s position on Ukraine by highlighting that “each country has a bilateral relationship”, which is why “no one has ever accused India of supporting what is going on in Ukraine.”
The way China must have viewed this is that the US’s criticism of Beijing is not about whether China is with or against Russia. Instead, it is about containing China. From this standpoint, it is not surprising that top US officials highlighted that “China, while rising alongside India, has done so less responsibly, at times undermining the international rules-based order, even as countries like India operate within a framework that protects other nations’ sovereignty.” Indeed, US-India relations have been viewed as based on a “broad convergence of geostrategic interests.” The US is still capable of countering China by itself, but it would be much easier to deal with China in cooperation with India. Even though policymakers are reluctant to admit it publicly, experts argue that the US’s relationship with India is “clearly a response to the rise of China.”
The current behaviour of the US suggests a lack of questioning if confronting both China and Russia make strategic sense.
However, significant discrepancies between the US’s and India’s interests make New Delhi reluctant to step into an anti-China alignment with Washington. India’s developmental needs require cultivating functional relations with China to facilitate the bilateral economic cooperation. Despite frequent diplomatic and military confrontations, India has always sought dialoge with China. Beijing understands that, and, interested in preventing India’s strategic turn to the US, reciprocates by willingness to cooperatate even during diplomatic stand-offs. It also considers Russia as an extra channel to engage with India – something that China values.
In the context of these structural trends, why would China ever consider condemning Russia and risking undermining China-Russia strategic alignment? Russia’s anti-US foreign policy orientation, military and geopolitical parameters, along with the permanent seat in the UN Security Council, makes the country an important ally to China, offering it an effective way to balance power against the United States.
Since Beijing’s approach to the Ukraine war and China-Russia relations more broadly is permeated by the logic of system-level balancing, the only effective response for Washington must also start at the systemic level. With regards to Russia, it could be selective cooperation with Moscow in the Indo-Pacific, where the US’s and Russia’s interests do not clash, and concessions on the status of Crimea. With regards to China, an agreement on the thorny issue of Taiwan would make a change. However, these moves are politically unacceptable for Washington. The current behaviour of the US suggests a lack of questioning if confronting both China and Russia make strategic sense. At the same time, some leading American strategists have stated in a recent special report to Congress that the US’s military superiority has “eroded to a dangerous degree,” to the extent that the US “might struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia,” especially “if it is forced to fight on two or more fronts simultaneously.” The tragic history of power transition is likely to repeat itself.