Who can stop Russia’s war in Ukraine? European and U.S. diplomats have worked hard to win help from China, a country powerful enough and close enough to Russia, they hope, to change Vladimir Putin’s plans. On March 8, China’s President Xi Jinping held a video call with France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Olaf Scholz to talk about the war, fueling hopes that Xi will become more actively involved in brokering a deal to end the fighting.
No one should get their hopes up.
The war in Ukraine is hurting China
There’s no doubt that Russia’s war is bad for Beijing. China imports more oil than any country on Earth, and the conflict in Ukraine has pushed prices to their highest levels since 2008. It needs energy, metals, and minerals to fuel its economy, and agricultural products to feed its people. (Both Russia and Ukraine are major suppliers of wheat and other food products, and the U.N. warned that, depending on how long it lasts, the war could drive food prices between 8% and 20% higher this year.) All these commodities have become much more expensive for China and everyone else since the Russians crossed Ukraine’s borders.
President Xi also acknowledged this week that Western sanctions “will affect global finance, energy, transportation, and the stability of supply chains, and dampen the global economy that is already ravaged by the pandemic.” By publicly blaming sanctions for the upheaval, he’s careful not to hold Putin accountable, but he knows that the war in Ukraine is a war of choice— and he knows whose choice it is.
The invasion is also damaging China’s international reputation. Xi understands that many Europeans and Americans are ready to tag China’s as Russia’s accomplice. On the eve of last month’s Winter Olympic Games in China, Putin and Xi met and made a big show of their emerging “friendship,” which their joint statement claimed had “no limits.” Two weeks later, Russian invaded Ukraine. If Xi knew what Putin had in mind, what does that say about what sort of future partner he might be for Europe and the U.S.? Or what he might do in Asia?
Finally, Russia’s war in Ukraine has also shifted geopolitics to China’s disadvantage. In recent years, the emerging giant has benefitted greatly from disagreements between Europeans and Americans about what sort of world they want to build and how best to protect it. Three decades after the Cold War’s end, many in the West, including the previous U.S. president, have questioned NATO’s purpose and value. That has lessened the risk for China that Western leaders might expand NATO’s mission into Asia or work with China’s Asian rivals to build a NATO knock-off that frustrates its regional ambitions. But the war in Ukraine has instantly created unity between Europe and America, and within the E.U., that hasn’t existed since the 1980s. It has given NATO a clearer purpose and a new sense of urgency, and raised questions in Washington and European capitals about how China might try to destabilize Asia as its friend Russia has done at Europe’s eastern edge.
In all these ways, a quick end to Russia’s war would be very good for China.
But China’s motives are mixed. While Putin has worked tirelessly in recent years to destabilize Russia’s less-cooperative neighbors and to redraw post-Cold War boundaries, the international status quo has worked very much to China’s advantage. Whether Xi likes it or not, his country’s future depends on decent relations with the West. Unlike Russia, China has benefitted mightily from relative global stability and positive commercial relations with Europe and America.
Xi also knows that Russia is a much less valuable commercial partner. In 2021, China’s trade with Russia topped out at $147 billion. Compare that with $756 billion with the U.S. and $828 billion with the E.U. U.S. and European companies have also served as a source of invaluable investment and have provided access to vitally important new technologies that China will need to extend its economic rise and political stability.
But China’s supreme leader also has good reason to build a friendship with Putin. A sharp turn in Washington’s attitude toward China has convinced many in Beijing that America is determined to stunt China’s growth. Barack Obama’s plans for a “pivot to Asia,” a shift in US security strategy from a traditional US focus on Europe and the Middle East toward deeper involvement in Asia, certainly got Xi’s attention. Then Donald Trump launched a trade and technology war on China, and though Joe Biden has spoken more softly than Trump on Beijing, he hasn’t changed Trump’s policy course.
In addition, though China has many clients and commercial partners, it could use a like-minded and powerful friend. For years, it’s only true ally has been North Korea. Russia is a much more valuable sidekick. While Americans treat the end of the Cold War as settled history, Xi and Putin can talk over the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s Tiananmen Square brush with civil war in similarly bitter terms. More to the point, Xi and Putin share a common grand ambition: to end American hegemony in their respective regions. Commercial interests are important, but a shared worldview matters too.
China’s mixed motives have been apparent in Beijing’s choices of the past two weeks. Russian officials said earlier this week that China has refused to supply Russian airlines with key parts that America’s Boeing and Europe’s Airbus will no longer provide. But state-dominated media coverage in China has been overtly pro-Russian, and China’s foreign ministry has publicly backed recent Russian claims that the U.S. is supporting an illegal bio-weapons program inside Ukraine.
China won’t play peacemaker
For now, China will say soothing things about how cooler heads must prevail to stop the war in Ukraine and the West’s economic assault on Russia. Xi will try to undermine European suspicions of his Russian sympathies by agreeing with them on the importance of diplomacy. But while he sees America and Europe as commercial partners of necessity, in Putin he sees a true fellow traveler.
China’s leader also understands that his power to force a Russian climbdown is limited. Whatever Beijing’s preferences, Putin will continue this war until Russia achieves something he can credibly claim as a lasting victory. China is left to ride out this storm— and like everyone else to hope it ends soon.
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