Stopping Putin and Xi From Ganging Up Against Ukraine
The U.S needs to convey that such an alliance would end badly for Xi
Wikipedia. Creative Commons. Kremlin.ru
As the Ukraine war enters a critical phase, Beijing’s ostensibly close ties with Moscow add yet another layer of uncertainty as to how the conflict will evolve. Just weeks after Xi’s visit to Russia, Putin released a new foreign policy doctrine that named the United States as Russia’s main threat and called for deeper relations with China and India, an idea Beijing quickly took onboard. The question for Washington now is whether it can stop Beijing (which is already considering sending lethal aid to Russia) from inching toward Moscow even further.
The good news is that the Sino-Russian partnership is only skin-deep and driven mainly by convenience. The United States and its allies can prevent this alliance from growing even stronger if they can articulate how poorly it would end for Xi’s military ambitions.
A Marriage of Convenience
It is no secret that China and the Soviet Union didn’t get along, even when they shared the same Communist ideology. For about 10 years after Stalin died, his successor Nikita Khrushchev was trying to rid the USSR of Stalin’s near-totalitarian control and ease its tensions with the West. But to Mao, that was a betrayal of Communist fundamentalism. Not only did diplomacy disappear between the two countries, but they even fought a border war in 1969. It would take another 20 years for both countries to move away from their respective command economies, paving the way for bilateral ties to be restored.
For the most part, the normalized relationship has been based on pragmatic—rather than ideological—concerns. Chinese leaders between Mao and Xi mostly followed Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy doctrine of “hide your strength, bide your time”—an attempt to rise on the global stage without drawing unnecessary attention. As Putin attempted to infringe on other countries’ territories every few years, that strategy also meant a cap on Beijing’s warmth toward Moscow in order to stay on the good side of the Western economies with which China wished to engage.
But that’s before Xi came to power and started to ruffle feathers. The past 10 years have clearly seen a more assertive China, from expanding in the South China Seas and absorbing Hong Kong under its rule to intimidating Taiwan and clashing with India over the border. When Putin went to the Winter Olympics in Beijing last year and announced the “no limit” relationship with Xi, the reality was that Russia was one of the most powerful friends China had left after alienating so many others.
That brings us to Xi’s current dilemma now that the “no limit” relationship with Putin has lapsed under the harsh spotlight of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Underappreciated by many is the sense of a “winner’s curse” Beijing enjoys vis-à-vis Moscow. By being the Kremlin’s most valuable ally, China has finally turned Russia from its Communist “big brother” of 80 years to a junior partner for the foreseeable future. But the curse is that as in many auctions, by bidding the highest to win, chances are good that the prize is not worth nearly as much.
The balance China now needs to strike regarding the war is no small matter. On one hand, Beijing would not want to see the Kremlin fail. That would mean the fall of a major fellow dictator, and no matter how China’s propaganda machine tries to paint it over, such a failure would make Xi look bad domestically. As I have written in this space, China’s chaotic exit from Covid lockdowns has also made a dent in Xi’s authority at home. Letting the Chinese people see how a dictatorship crumbles would no doubt stoke too much rebellious imagination.
On the other hand, there’s a clear limit as to how much Beijing is willing to aid Moscow in its invasion. The latest indicators suggest that the Chinese economy is still underperforming in its post-Covid recovery. Providing Russia with meaningful lethal aid would further strain China’s resources or, at a minimum, divert them from other ambitions like taking over Taiwan. Another critical unknown is how much more pressure China would face from Western powers through sanctions, particularly in the tech sector.
In other words, when it comes to the Russo-Ukrainian war, China is akin to a swing voter in a tight election—someone who can be flipped if the price is right. Clarifying the West’s response if Xi supports Putin’s war is where Washington has the best chance to dissuade the Chinese leader.
An On-Ramp for Xi
Incentives matter, and even the most ruthless dictator responds to them if they are strong enough. That explains the debate among Western powers about offering Putin an off-ramp from the invasion since pretty much the beginning of the war. But the problem with using an off-ramp to stop the conflict is that any reasonable offer at the beginning wouldn’t be attractive enough for Putin to take, but any offer Putin would entertain now is far from what the West, or Ukraine, can accept.
When it comes to deterring Beijing from getting involved, Washington should learn that lesson and focus on developing an unappealing “on-ramp” for Xi instead—that is, a clear signal at the outset that it would use all peaceful means to turn him into an international pariah and marginalize him along with Putin.
That would mean, for starters, a repudiation of the Obama-era approach of intense engagement with China and doubling down on the Trump-era strategy of strengthening ties with Taiwan. Siding with China over Taiwan was less objectionable when Chinese presidents before Xi believed in China’s peaceful development and the use of soft power to advance its goals. Not anymore.
The United States should also use China’s sordid human rights record under Xi—particularly its persecution of Uyghurs—to oppose its bid to host prestigious international events like the 2031 Women’s World Cup so the Chinese leader can’t pretend at home that his rule has the world’s endorsement. However, diplomatic maneuvers like these might help but only on the margin; Washington was already doing some of that before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The Biden administration last year followed his predecessor’s lead in imposing sweeping controls on exports of semiconductor chips to China out of national security concerns. These exports fall under the category of dual-use technologies; they are not only prized by the Chinese military but also basic to civilian applications. But sanctions are a double-edged sword that hurt not just Xi’s regime—but also the Chinese people, and American businesses and consumers. They also play into Xi’s efforts to demonize America in China and consolidate his hold on power and could backfire.
Going Easy on Economic Sanctions
The use of economic force, therefore, needs to be carefully thought through despite the temptation to resort to a “sticks” over “carrots” approach. It is true that the latter approach, though successful with countries like Japan and South Korea where deeper trade ties helped political liberalization, has borne little fruit with Russia or China. Russia joined the World Trade Organization in 2012, barely two years before it annexed Crimea, and another eight years before it invaded Ukraine. The last two decades since China joined the WTO haven’t fared much better.
Still, unlike narrow policy debates on taxes and health care, quantifying the costs and benefits of geopolitical strategies is much more challenging. At a minimum, policy makers should try to avoid measures that obviously hurt the American people’s freedom without advancing any security interests. One example is the Trump-era tariffs war with China, which President Biden has broadly maintained to this day. Likewise, it would be equally nonsensical if the United States imposes broad restrictions on investment to or from China. At least, the Biden administration’s export ban on semiconductor chips used in advanced technologies had Beijing struggling to respond.
To the extent sanctions are used, they should target bad actors and sectors with closer military ties in China and avoid hurting the broader Chinese population. The Chinese Communist Party’s military-civil fusion ecosystem poses a threat to the liberal world order. Some of the Chinese companies in that ecosystem are already on the U.S. Department of Commerce’s entity list, which means that they face extra scrutiny when American companies wish to do business with them. More pro-CCP players could be added to that list because China’s military-civil fusion is pervasive. But if the sanctions were broadly imposed across the Chinese population, especially on the poor, it would only give ammunition to Beijing to foment more anti-American sentiment.
Also, the threat of sanctions works better than sanctions themselves. Minimizing the costs inflicted on the United States’ economy would make the threat more credible in Xi’s eye, possibly prodding him to rethink his newfound love for Putin before they need to be deployed.
It is important to lay out a thoughtful roadmap of targeted, smart sanctions early on such that Xi realizes that aiding Putin’s war is indeed unattractive. Transparency in this situation would enhance the credibility of United States’ intentions. Making the on-ramp public would also allow the American public to weigh the cost-effectiveness of this economic weapon and signal its buy-in, which will also help grab Xi’s attention.
It’s anyone’s guess when or how the Russo-Ukrainian war will end, but there’s a real chance for policymakers to at least prevent China from making it an even bigger crisis. They can seize that opportunity if they can tell Xi how—and how poorly—it would end for him.
A Beijing-Moscow axis is a reality. Biden is helpless even if he tried to prevent it from taking place and growing by the minute.