National Security Adviser, on a row of ferns on a coordinating table draped in blue cloth, Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign affairs official, sits, his mouth frozen in an optimistic smile. The official photo released by the state-run China News Agency of two men sitting face-to-face on March 14 in Rome is a snapshot of how Beijing would like to be seen at this moment as China’s once ally Russia continues its deadly invasion of Ukraine: like a confident rising power facing the United States Frustrating and disturbing.
The reality is more complicated. Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes Chinese leader Xi Jinping will see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as another step forward in the two countries’ broader efforts to hold back the world’s democracies. Russia is courting China’s support for its attack on Ukraine and hopes that China will support Moscow’s faltering economy, which has been battered by sanctions. But if China supports Russian aggression with significant cash assistance or — more worryingly — with weapons, the backlash from the United States and European countries could threaten China’s long-term efforts to rise as a global hegemon.
What China decides to do about Russia’s needs could mark a turning point in both the war in Ukraine and US-China relations, and the outcome of China’s choice will determine the shape of the new world order. Will China continue to try to reshape the current global economy in its own image by participating in it? Or will China join Russia behind the new iron curtain of sanctions, cut off from the United States and Europe and leave it to navigate a new monetary system and new trading framework? ‘This is really a defining moment and potentially a turning point,’ says Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund. In fact, ‘they are on the side of the Russians. The Chinese are closer to the Russians than they have ever been.’
Relations between China and Russia have been tense from time to time over the past several decades. Moscow and Beijing fought a border war in 1969 along China’s northeastern border, and the two countries have never developed strong personal relationships across their 2,500-mile shared border. With China’s global influence on the rise, the Russian leadership resented the prospect of becoming a client state of Beijing.
But China’s leaders are now leaning far more toward Moscow than they did when they tried to appear neutral after Putin’s seizure of Crimea in 2014. When Xi and Putin met at the opening of the Beijing Olympics on February 4, the two agreed on their countries. The relationship will have no “boundaries” and “without hesitation,” according to the Chinese government’s description of the meeting. That was two weeks before Russian tanks entered Ukraine. An inside government official said seven hours of conversations between Sullivan and Yang inside the Rome Cavalieri Hotel were ‘intense’ and ‘reflecting the gravity of the moment,’ adding that officials had an ‘intense conversation’ about Russia’s war in Ukraine. Sullivan made it clear that US and European allies would consider isolating Chinese financial institutions involved in financially supporting Russia’s war, a person familiar with the discussions said.
Broadly, Glaser says, Xi Jinping has estimated that the United States is in decline and Western democracies have failed, and that Russia is an ally that can work hand in hand with China to create a different international order that is more appropriate. But with Russia’s violent efforts to seize Ukraine, this assessment comes with great risks for China. Should Russia becomes weaker from its war in Ukraine, and China supports it, China could suffer a major economic backlash. China is highly dependent on its trade relations with countries in Europe and it worked hard to prevent Europe from restricting trade. ‘That would be huge, if China ended up having a huge number of countries around the world allied with it because it gave it support to Russia,’ Glaser says.
Persuading European powers to sanction China may prove difficult for President Biden, who has had to work hard to persuade Europe to reduce its financial and energy ties with Russia. Biden is scheduled to travel to Europe next week to meet with NATO allies, and the degree of China’s support for Russia is sure to be shown in those meetings. US officials want to prepare allies for how to respond if China begins to contribute more financially or militarily to Russia. Meanwhile, Xi demonstrated the importance he attaches to keeping lines of communication open with European powers when he joined in a video call with French President Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor on March 8 to talk about the war in Ukraine.
The moment has put on a collision, causing two competing goals for China’s foreign policy, says David Shulman, the former chief US intelligence analyst for East Asia. The Chinese government wants Russia to be its partner in building a new world order, but it also wants to be seen as a “responsible power” that could one day lead current power, or at least at the center of a new system of global governance, says Schulman. If China supplies Russia with drones, surface-to-air missiles, or other weapons, “it would show very clearly that we have a fracture in what we have come to expect from the world order,” says Shulman. ‘It will be clear that China has sided very firmly with Russia against the democratic world and against the advanced democracies.’