This article is an on-site version of our Swamp Notes newsletter. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every Monday and Friday
Late last week, President Joe Biden and Chinese president Xi Jinping had a high stakes call about the future of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Biden made it clear that if China were to help Russia with economic or military aid, the US would “not hesitate to impose costs,” likely in the form of secondary sanctions, tariffs and the like. It’s a warning well worth making — what China does right now will absolutely set the stage for geopolitics over the next few years.
While China hasn’t explicitly helped Russian president Vladimir Putin (aside from doing new gas deals and taking a grain export ban off Russia at the beginning of the war), it also hasn’t condemned Russia. It says it wants a quick end to the “conflict.” But it’s also not using any behind-the-scenes leverage with Russia to end the war, at least not that anyone can see.
Indeed, last week I received one of those rather ham-fisted calls from a policy person in the Beijing embassy in London. The person tried to convince me that China really had no influence over Russia, that this wasn’t at all China’s fight, and that only the west could solve things. Maybe, but the whole “we aren’t important enough to exert power on the world stage” thing is not only outdated, but farcical. If any state is a vassal state to China, it’s Russia.
Beijing is also pushing a line (via translated documents that are making the rounds among western press and public intellectuals) that the US will be the biggest winner from this conflict. Maybe, but only if Biden is strong enough to call Putin’s bluff, and keep Europe on the same page. That could mean leaning into the idea that Nato aircraft and other forces could be used in Ukraine. I don’t want world war three, for sure. But I also think that every autocrat in the world — especially Xi — is watching what’s happening quite closely. It may be better to call Putin’s bluff sooner rather than later.
China has much at stake here. I had a conversation last Friday with China expert Diana Choyleva, the chief economist and founder of Enodo Economics and a respected reader of Beijing’s tea leaves. Her take was that the Chinese and Russians aren’t natural allies, and that Putin had perhaps played Xi with the whole “friendship without limits” deal prior to the war, which now puts Beijing in a bit of a pinch. She also noted that while Americans love underdogs, the Chinese traditionally don’t. Xi might in fact be more willing to support a stronger Russia than the weak one on display now.
What’s more, the Chinese perceive Democrats as generally being weaker than Republicans, and America as being in inexorable decline (neither are necessarily true). While Ukraine might present an opportunity for the Chinese to annex Taiwan if there is a sense that the US and Europe are wishy-washy and lack a united front, perhaps Beijing will decide this is the moment to make a move on Taiwan. Better now, that line of thinking goes, than in 2024 when you might have Donald Trump or Mike Pompeo in office.
But if President Biden and Europeans together double down, call Putin’s bluff and make it clear to Beijing that there is a new line in the sand, perhaps China leaves the Taiwan issue alone for now, and everyone (except Putin, of course) ends up in a better place. This is, needless to say, an unbelievably high stakes poker game.
Richard, do you agree with this analysis? And is it time to take a stronger stand against Russia?
University of Chicago professor John J. Mearsheimer is gaining steam with his view that the west is itself responsible for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. I don’t agree, but his views are worth understanding, since his video on the topic has gone viral.
FT’s own Martin Wolf summed up the dismal state of the world quite well in last week’s column.
China expert Arthur Kroeber also wrote in the FT that we shouldn’t worry that sanctions will somehow allow Russia to circumvent weaponised dollar networks. Fingers crossed that he’s right.
Jude Blanchette argues in Foreign Affairs that Xi has bungled foreign policy badly. I would definitely agree — China with a security state in control is both scarier, but less effective, than China with competent technocrats in control.
Richard Waters responds
I’d love to think you’re right, Rana, and that there’s a way out of this that leaves everyone in a better place. But unfortunately I just can’t see it. I should stress that I’m no expert on China, but I generally think Beijing has two long-term objectives that come into play at times like this: Try to accelerate the decline of the United States’ global influence, and work towards taking back Taiwan.
I think both goals are helped by China sitting back and letting things take their course in Ukraine (so maybe your embassy friend was right about leaving this to the west to sort out — though they were being more than a little bit disingenuous to suggest that China has no interest in the outcome).
The US can certainly take credit for its coalition building ahead of the Russian invasion and in its early days. But things can (and probably will) get a lot uglier from here as Putin presses ahead with his brutal bombardment. If the US fails to respond (particularly in the face of increasingly desperate pleas from Ukraine), then its moral leadership suffers. But any military intervention is fraught with problems. I don’t see any reason for China to step in to save the US from this dilemma in any way, and every reason for it to give Putin as much behind-the-scenes support as possible, short of risking US sanctions.
Also, watching the US wrestle with this problem only helps China as it games out its position in Taiwan. I’ve got no idea how quickly China would act on any perceived weakness on the US’s part to move on Taiwan. But it seems a complex calculation where many other factors will come into play. Maybe a second Trump presidency would be a better opportunity than you suggest — after all, the man is highly susceptible to flattery and loves a deal, so President Xi might think there is a way to win him around. Or maybe, as he embarks on a third term after this autumn’s Communist Party Congress, we will see a newly confident Xi move quickly to make his mark?
As for Putin: Like you, I’m all for calling his bluff sooner rather than later. The problem is, what does it mean to call his bluff? I suspect the united front with Europe wouldn’t survive military intervention by Nato — and anyway, I think the risk of escalation towards a nuclear incident of some sort would be too high.
It would be nice to think that the pain from the western economic and financial blockade, along with the awareness that he’s in a military quagmire, would be enough to persuade Putin to seek a compromise. I’ve got no idea — but I find it scary that so much is riding on one man’s psychology.
Recommended newsletters for you
FirstFT Americas — Our pick of the best global news, comment and analysis from the FT and the rest of the web. Sign up here
Unhedged — Robert Armstrong dissects the most important market trends and discusses how Wall Street’s best minds respond to them. Sign up here
Source: Financial Times