As Russia becomes more desperate thanks to military shortcomings in its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, China is increasingly taking on the mantle of senior partner.
At the same time, Beijing remains concerned about the signals it is getting from the USA, the latest of which was President Joe Biden’s promise to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand brought together Chairman Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin for a sideline meeting on 15 September. It was Xi’s first overseas trip since January 2020, and the first face-to-face meeting between the two authoritarians since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
The two last met in person on 4 February during the Beijing Winter Olympics. Then, they affectionately boasted of a “friendship between the two states [that] has no limits”. Three weeks later, Putin invaded Ukraine. China has been far from impressed by Russia’s military performance as the war drags on.
Nonetheless, China is a steadfast defender of Russia, avoiding any criticism of Putin, and even refusing to call it a “war” or “invasion”. Because of this, Beijing’s image has been rightly tarnished by its association with a warmonger.
After the Putin-Xi meeting, careful scrutiny of a readout from the Chinese Foreign Ministry indicates Chinese disquiet. On the surface, things look rosy, with comments such as this: “In the face of changes of the world, of our times and of history, China will work with Russia to fulfill their responsibilities as major countries and play a leading role in injecting stability into a world of change and disorder.”
Yet, significantly, gone were the partners’ earlier mention of cooperation on “the development of the international order and global governance towards a more just and reasonable direction”.
China has certainly not let up on efforts to rewrite the current international system, but it is now reticent to explicitly state that it is doing so hand in hand with Russia. This stems from diplomatic tact, for China realizes that Russia has attracted opprobrium around the world for its malignant militancy.
Beijing has always looked down on Russia for abandoning the communist faith in 1989. Russia’s failings on the frontlines of Ukraine are a reminder for China that Moscow’s path was the wrong one, and that its own fealty to communism is the only correct way to national glory.
In the readout, Xi was silent on the topic of bilateral strategic cooperation. China did mention “effective strategic communication”, but that was a far cry from earlier “deepening strategic coordination of mutual support … The two countries have never and will never waver in this choice.” Perhaps this friendship is already showing signs of wavering?
Xi emphasized that Taiwan remains a core interest, with Russia restating it is “firmly committed to the one-China principle and condemns the provocative moves by individual countries on issues concerning China’s core interests”.
But perhaps the most interesting part, found in Russia’s readout alone, was Putin telling Xi regarding Ukraine: “We understand your questions and your concerns in this regard.”
This is highly important, for it shows that Beijing has raised questions about what Russia is doing in Ukraine. Putin was almost apologetic as he publicly acknowledged that China had questions about its “special military operation”.
Yet why did China not raise those questions in its comments? The answer is simple. China has already expressed its support for Russia. To backtrack now would be an admission that it was wrong. Naturally, Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) never make mistakes – to admit error would belie the infallibility of the CCP.
Furthermore, China has always avoided making too many references to the Ukraine invasion – it likes to pretend it is not happening, or to downgrade its importance. Therefore, it can be discerned that China is backing away from its earlier stance on the merits of Russia’s war. It appears increasingly unwilling to unreservedly support Putin the longer the war drags on.
There is another critical dynamic apparent in the way both Russia and China wrote their readouts too. They show that China is now calling the shots, with Beijing taking the lead in the relationship as Putin becomes more desperate. Xi has gained the upper hand, although he probably thought he already had that for a long time.
Indeed, Doctor Michael Clark, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Defence Studies at the Australian Defence College, wrote for the Lowy Institute: “…An interests-based assessment of China’s behavior since the Russian invasion of Ukraine indicates that Beijing is attempting an ungainly balancing act between its simultaneous desire to maintain the strategic partnership with Russia and minimize collateral damage to its economic interests and diplomatic reputation, while also extracting leverage from Moscow’s travails.”
Clark noted: “Beijing’s efforts to balance Sino-Russian relations with its broader economic and diplomatic interests may indeed look ungainly. However, they demonstrate that it will not sacrifice its own core interests on the altar of Putin’s folly.”
Indeed, China is leveraging Russia’s current weakness and vulnerability. Moscow has become the subordinate partner in the relationship, something that Xi has no qualms about.
Nonetheless, China still needs Russia if Xi is to maintain the “struggle” and attain the Chinese dream of “great national rejuvenation”. The major stumbling block to achieving that is the USA and the democratic world order that it represents. If China is to reduce and eliminate America’s decline, then he still needs Russia as a strategic ally.
There is already a benefit for China, since the USA is distracted by the war in Ukraine, and is depleting war stocks such as ammunition and missiles as it supplies Kyiv.
Clark concluded, “This calculus means that absent a complete Russian military collapse and/or overthrow of Putin, Beijing will likely continue its attempt to preserve Sino-Russian alignment, while deflecting potential collateral damage to its own interests.”
It is unlikely that China will offer any overt criticism of Russia, as they are still too important to each other for China to stab Russia in the back. However, Xi probably believes that a little distance between itself and Russia’s war is a good thing.
Xi has other considerations too. He will be seeking a third five-year term as leader soon, and he must ensure his grip on power is tighter than ever. That means a crackdown on opponents within the CCP and more restrictions on Chinese citizens are likely.
Unfortunately, as Xi attempts to emulate or even surpass Mao Zedong, the risk of miscalculation – such as a Chinese military adventure in the South China Sea or against Taiwan – grows.
Nonetheless, China continues to consume Russian natural resources such as oil and gas at a prodigious rate. Russia is now China’s largest source of oil, as it overtook Saudi Arabia as top supplier.
Incidentally, showing its true colors and tacit support for the Ukraine invasion, China signed an “all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership” with Belarus the day after Xi met with Putin. Belarus is Russia’s closest ally in its war with Ukraine.
Shortly after all this was going on in Samarkand, American President Joe Biden confirmed, during a media interview aired on 18 September, that the USA would help defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion. It was the most explicit statement so far from the USA.
The comment came during a broadcast of CBS 60 Minutes. Would US forces intervene, Biden was asked? “Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack,” the president promised.
Biden went further than any previous president, for the USA has long observed a policy of strategic ambiguity when it comes to Taiwan. In May, Biden had stated the US had a military commitment to defend Taiwan. He also said something similar in October 2021.
A White House spokesperson said: “The president has said this before, including in Tokyo earlier this year. He also made clear then that our Taiwan policy hasn’t changed. That remains true.”
However, quite apart from all the foregoing, the most significant part of the interview was Biden’s view that “Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence”. He added, though, “We are not moving – we’re not encouraging their being independent.
That’s their decision.” This amounts to a change from the USA’s long-standing policy that it does not support Taiwan independence and is opposed to unilateral changes from either side. This comment alone is likely to infuriate China far more than any promise to defend the democratic nation.
This led Euan Graham, a senior fellow based in Singapore supporting the Shangri-La Dialogue, to remark, “…This is a significant departure from no unilateral changes to the status quo. A hint, at least, that the status quo is not sustainable in the long term.”
However, it is one thing to make promises, and altogether another one to back them up with hard action. Deterrence is all about making sure that the opposition knows you have the ability and will to make good on promises or threats. The jury remains out on American will.
Remember that Biden was the president who oversaw the shambolic and shameful US military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021.
Unlike authoritarian China, where the state carefully orchestrates and controls the official narrative, the USA continues to send mixed messages to Beijing. For example, the Biden administration is somewhat watering down publicity for its new Taiwan Policy Act to prevent unnecessary antagonism of China. Yet, in almost the same breath, Biden promised to help defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression.
A report published by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) this month, entitled “US-China Signaling, Action-Reaction Dynamics, and Taiwan: A Preliminary Examination”, reached three conclusions about the signaling dynamics between China and the USA.
The first was that Taiwan Strait policy changes, especially those towards the end of Donald Trump’s administration, have had “a significant impact on China’s understanding and assessment of the Biden administration’s actions and policy signals on Taiwan”.
Example changes include the State Department’s ending of restrictions on contacts between high-level American and Taiwanese officials. The report’s authors commented, “But from the Chinese perspective, these are drastic changes that demonstrate the further hollowing out of the one-China policy that the United States has adhered to since the Nixon administration.
These changes immensely damage the political foundation of China-US relations and intensify the already serious lack of strategic mutual trust. China must therefore plan for the worst with respect to the Taiwan question.”
The second conclusion was that “the Biden administration’s efforts to unite allies and partners to address the China challenge have increased negative Chinese perceptions of the administration’s Taiwan Strait policy”. Beijing fears a greater role for Japan in the Taiwan issue, for example, something that is very sensitive for China given their bitter history. China also sees it as hypocritical that the USA should strengthen cooperation with communist Vietnam, seeing it as part of American effort to geostrategically contain China.
The third conclusion by USIP is that “there are significant differences in how the two sides interpret policy signals. Policy signals can be both strong and weak, and interpreting such signals is highly subjective, which inevitably complicates the process of sending and receiving policy signals between the two countries.”
There is growing unease in China that the US Congress will undermine the limited consensus already reached by China and the USA. Congress signalling has always been vaguer and often more radical than that of the executive branch, and this makes it more challenging for China to correctly assess the US stance on Taiwan. (ANI)