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The Next Sino-Russian Split? Beijing Will Ultimately Come to Regret Its Support of Moscow

Russian President Putin meets Chinese President Xi in Beijing, February 2022 Sputnik Photo Agency via Reuters
April 8, 2022

Written by Odd Arne Westad and originally published by Foreign Affairs

From within a war, it is hard to think about what comes next. Rarely has this been more true than for the current Russo-Ukrainian war. Our thinking is necessarily clouded by the suffering that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression has inflicted on the people of Ukraine. It is also hindered by lack of experience with this kind of warfare. Together, these make it hard to imagine where we go from here, especially amid the dangers of the era of great-power rivalry that this invasion has brought into being. It will be a time of intense competition and menace—much less stable than the Cold War and much riskier than any time since that conflict ended. Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling has already shown how high the stakes are in what comes next. 

Irrespective of how this war ends, the relationship between Russia and China will determine whether the world can avoid great-power war. If China continues to support the Putin regime in its attempts to subdue its neighbors by force, it is highly likely that the world at some point will stumble into a confrontation between Russia and Europe supported by the United States. If China reins Putin in or abandons its coalition with him altogether, a return to a more stable competition among great powers may be possible. As many observers—including some in China—have pointed out, this could be China’s moment on the international stage to do good for itself and others.

Yet so far, China has failed to seize that opportunity. Instead of trying to prevent the aggression against Ukraine, it gave Putin the green light to invade, asking only that the assault be postponed until after the Beijing Olympics. Right up to the moment of the invasion, China’s Foreign Ministry parroted Russia’s lies about the planned aggressive war being a figment of the West’s febrile imagination. On the eve of the invasion, the Chinese accused the United States of “heightening tensions, creating panic, and even hyping up the possibility of warfare.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson added, “The Russian side has said on many occasions that it does not intend to start a war.”

When Russia did invade a few hours later, China stood aside and did nothing, except appeal to high-minded notions of nonintervention and accuse the United States and its European partners of being responsible for Russia’s actions. Ukrainians and other eastern Europeans listened with incredulity as Chinese leaders went on about “Russia’s legitimate concerns on security issues” and the “historical complexities” of their countries’ situation. As Russia’s missiles hit Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol, causing almost ten million civilians to flee their homes so far, China accused “the U.S.-led NATO” of having “pushed Russia-Ukraine tension to the breaking point.”

The image of China that this rhetoric has created, especially in Europe, is that of an accomplice to Russia’s mass murder in Ukraine. It is not what China has done that has horrified Europeans—most expected Beijing to abstain when Russian actions were condemned in the UN Security Council and General Assembly. It is the callousness of the language China’s diplomats have used that has been so profoundly shocking. If “Russia’s legitimate concerns” can lead China to condone the invasion of a neighbor with whom it has had friendly relations up until the assault happened, who can trust China’s friendship? And the patter about “historical complexities” is even worse: Europe is full of historical complexities, which empires have used in the past to violate treaties and invade smaller neighbors. Is Ukraine so “historically complex” that it does not really deserve its own territorial integrity or even its statehood?

As Putin’s assault rolls on, the image of China in Europe and in the United States is in free fall. Granted, it was in decline before this happened, and tensions were on the rise. But, especially for the Europeans, Ukraine has been a remarkable eye opener. “China’s silence on the Russian atrocities speaks volumes,” says Die Zeit, one of Germany’s leading newspapers. What China says and does about Ukraine from now on will influence Chinese relations with Europe and with other countries for at least the next decade, if not longer.

China is supporting Putin’s war out of self-interest.
Is there a chance that China will pull the plug on Putin or at least facilitate real negotiations between his regime and the Ukrainians, negotiations that start from the premise of recognizing Ukraine’s right to self-determination? At the moment, this seems very unlikely. Putin and China’s leader Xi Jinping noted in their joint statement just before Putin started the Ukraine war “the significance of the efforts taken by the Russian side to establish a just multipolar system of international relations.” Presumably this is what Putin is now doing in Ukraine. There is, of course, the possibility that Xi will get cold feet if the Russians destroy more cities or use weapons of mass destruction. But even that is unlikely given China’s pro-Russian rhetoric since Putin’s attack began.

The main reason for China condoning Putin’s war of aggression is, of course, Chinese self-interest. In standing by its partner in spite of Putin violating most principles of international relations that the Chinese say they believe in, Beijing hopes to tie Russia to China for a long time to come. Xi had, of course, preferred the Russian offensive to succeed smoothly and effectively, but even after the Ukrainian defenders made a mockery of that supposition, Xi seems to believe that Putin’s military problems will in the long run work to China’s advantage. They will create a Russia evermore dependent on China, as will Western sanctions. By saying very little and blaming the West, Beijing expects a positive outcome for itself.

In terms of Chinese interests, this might not turn out to be quite as successful a strategy as Xi assumes, at least not in the long run. If Putin succeeds in subjugating Ukraine, his appetite might not stop there. If he fails, there will be years of tension on Russia’s southern border. In either case, Russia will be a wild card, rather than a reliable partner for Beijing. It is true that Russia under Putin, a bit like North Korea under Kim Jong Un, will have nowhere else to turn than to China. But that dependency of a weak regime, locked in forever quarrels with its neighbors, might not serve China well, in spite of Russia’s tempting riches in energy and minerals.

There are lessons here, for both China and Russia but also for the West, from the last time Beijing and Moscow tried to set up an alliance that aimed to confront the United States. Back then, in the 1950s, Mao and Stalin were brought together by communist ideology as well as security needs. At that time, China was the weaker partner, just as Russia is now, and that inequality by itself created fissures in the relationship. And even though today’s Sino-Russian alliance will not be driven apart by an ideological split, as happened in the post-Stalin era, there are plenty of other causes of conflict, some of which are strikingly resemblant of the late 1950s.

For China, its relationship with the United States and with Europe will always be more important than relations with Russia. Like the Chinese in the 1950s, Russians will easily get the impression that their partner is negotiating with Washington, Brussels, or Berlin above their heads and will be suspicious and resentful when Moscow’s interests are not fully taken into consideration. China has a powerful position in the global economy, and Russia does not. Financially, China has a lot of lending power, but it will not necessarily lend to a Russian economy in steep decline, even if sanctions are removed. The differences in the two countries’ overall global positions create plentiful causes for acrimony.

Relations with third powers also complicate the picture, just as they did in the 1950s. India is a friend of Russia and, disappointingly for the West, has gone out of its way not to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But India is also an antagonist and a rival of China. In the late 1950s, one key Chinese accusation against the Soviets was Moscow’s continued closeness to India, even after the first Indian border clashes with China. The same power dynamic is problematic today. And it is not just India. Vietnam, Mongolia, and the Central Asian states will come under increasing pressure by China and will look to Russia to back them up.

Russia and China are not natural partners.
Finally, there is the outcome of the war in Ukraine. Just as the Chinese looked to the Soviets for support in the Korean War in the 1950s, Russian leaders today will look to the Chinese to support them in Ukraine, especially if matters get worse for the Russian military. And if Russia loses the war or has to go back to status quo ante, as Mao had to do in the Korean War, resentment at a partner for not having supported the war effort enough to win will simmer. Putin may do what Mao did in Korea: declare the status quo a victory and have enough Russians believe him for nationalist reasons to secure the survival of his regime. But the thought that China did not back Russia to the hilt will gnaw at the relationship.

The biggest lesson from the last Sino-Russian alliance is probably this: the development of the relationship is much more dependent on the domestic dynamics in the two countries and on the relationship between them than on anything the United States can do or say. The best strategy for the United States is to watch and wait but be ready to explore cracks in the alliance as soon as they appear. The West will punish Russia for its war of aggression and will continue to rival China while seeking common-sense arrangements with it, not least in economic terms. As a long-term strategy, this is probably about the best we can do.

For Russia and China are not natural partners. There are just too many issues that drive them apart. Today, Putin’s foreign policy intellectuals hold forth about how Russia has made a fundamental decision on partnering with China now and in the future. But anyone who has spoken with them can sense, underneath, their many concerns about that choice. To them, the alliance with China is there because of a need to spite the West, not because of any natural cohesion between the two powers. Putin himself may think differently, but, if so, given Russia’s increasing weakness, he might get more than he bargains for when linking with a rising power next door.

A significant argument against this interpretation, especially in Washington these days, is that there is more long-term cohesion in the present-day Sino-Russian alliance than meets the eye. Some observers see the current war in Ukraine as the first shot in a new Cold War, which pits two power blocs against each other. Like the original Cold War, this view holds, today there are ideological divides between the two blocs as well as differences in economic systems. The new Cold War battle is therefore between democracy and authoritarianism and between market-oriented and state-centered economics.

But China and Russia today have very different political systems and very different economies. China is a communist state where the party rules in what is claimed to be a meritocratic manner on behalf of the people. Russia is a personalized kleptocratic dictatorship that masquerades as a democracy. Both economies are increasingly controlled by the government, but that does not ensure any commensurability. On the contrary, the Cold War shows that state-directed economies are usually less compatible with each other than are capitalist economies. Moreover, in government-controlled economies, everything becomes political, often complicating bilateral relations further. In the Russian-Chinese case, profound cultural differences add to the picture.

Given all of this, the broader historical parallel that comes to mind is not so much the Cold War as it is Germany and Austria at the beginning of the twentieth century. Germany then, like China today, was a rising great power with a rapidly increasing industrial and technological potential and a set of complaints about the existing international order. Germany’s ally Austria was, like Russia today, an empire in decline, with plentiful quarrels with its neighbors and lots of internal conflict. Up to the summer of 1914, German leaders believed that they could manage Austria to their own advantage. Instead, what they got was a sequence of events in which Austrian concerns drove Germany toward war. China should be very careful not to repeat that cycle of events. Sometimes looking after your own interests means defining those interests more fully, especially when opportunities arise to link with sizable but troubled empires next door.

While Beijing sizes up its options, what should the West do now? Some actions are obvious. It should arm itself better, as Europe is now beginning to do. It should support the Ukrainian resistance. It should strengthen relations with friends along Russia’s and China’s borders. It should put maximum pressure on the Putin regime, short of engaging his forces in combat. In communicating with Chinese officials, it should underline that Western policymakers see them as at least partly responsible for Putin’s misdeeds.

Appeals to principle will not help with Beijing. Even significant international embarrassment for China, which Putin’s lies and indiscriminate killing produce daily, will not do much. Ramping up pressure against Russia while showing China how its close association with Putin works against stabilization of Sino-American or Sino-European relations is the best we can do. It might not be enough to save Ukraine from further destruction. But it may make great-power war less likely by convincing at least some Chinese policymakers that Putin’s interests and their own are not as easily compatible as both sides now seem to believe.

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