The conflict in Ukraine is increasingly looking like the first major battle of a new Cold War — between the US and China. As the Biden administration rallies its democratic allies behind the embattled government in Kyiv, the communist regime in Beijing has largely embraced Russia‘s view of the fight.
While President Biden has warned China of “consequences” if it sends military aid to Russiamost regional analysts say it’s a no-brainer that Beijing‘s plan is to seize upon the strategic opportunities presented by the Ukraine crisis to expand its own power and pursue its own vital interests, regardless of what Washington wants.
At the same time, concerns are growing in Washington that Beijingwhich has ties to both Moscow and Kyiv, is poised to assume a leading role in mediating an end to the conflict, while the United States gets left largely on the sidelines despite having spent decades — and trillions of dollars — rallying nations in Europe and East Asia to stand together against Russian and Chinese authoritarianism.
Few dispute Beijing‘s leverage in the current crisis. China emerged as Ukraine‘s top trading partner in 2019 and has been Russia‘s for more than a decade. Chinese President Xi Jinping has also quietly inked Belt and Road strategic investment deals with every one of Ukraine‘s neighbors, several of whom are NATO members, over the past nine years.
More hawkish analysts in Washington say the question is not whether, but rather when and how aggressively Beijing intends to exert its economic leverage to affect an outcome in Ukraine that brings the biggest benefit for China. Most agree the Xi government intends to wait until the Russian economy is truly breaking beneath the impact of massive sanctions now being imposed by the US and Western European nations.
Doing so would augment Beijing‘s ability to geopolitically transform Russia into the junior partner in an anti-US alliance, one that backs Chinese regional and global strategic interests in exchange for helping Russian President Vladimir Putin secure relatively minuscule territorial gains and avoid a total disaster in his troubled invasion of Ukraine.
“As the Ukraine war progresses, Russia will be weakened and the Russians will grow more dependent upon Chinagiving Beijing more power over Russia,” said Mr. Roughwho argues that the Biden administration is clinging to a pipe dream if it believes China can be relied upon as partner to pressure Mr. Putin to back down in Ukraine.
“The Chinese are not going to act because the Biden administration wants to work with America to save the liberal international order,” Mr. Rough said.Beijing is in this to advance China‘s own national interests, period.”
Will Taiwan be next?
David Sauer, a retired CIA officer who served in top posts in several East and South Asian locations, said one of China‘s top interests is to absorb Taiwan over the coming years, using military means if necessary. The Ukraine crisis is proving an unexpected asset for Beijing.
“I think the view of Chinese officials is that they will benefit from having Russia‘s support as they try to focus their attention on retaking Taiwan,” Mr. Sauer told The Washington Times in an interview.
Such support would be cemented as China rescues the collapsing Russian economy, easing the pain for the Kremlin from stiff US and European trade and financial sanctions.
Mr. Sauer noted China‘s record of helping other authoritarian nations evade Western sanctions — most notably buying embargoed oil from Iran and blacklisted coal from North Korea.
“The Chinese government will embrace the opportunity to buy Russian energy resources — taking care to attract as little international attention as possible while helping Moscow evade sanctions,” he said. Over time, he added, Beijing‘s goal will be to “extract whatever it can from the Russians.”
“We’re living in a fantasy land if we don’t think China has already agreed to back the Russian side in Ukraine,” Mr. Sauer said, asserting that the notion of China playing the role as a fair mediator in Ukraine is “ridiculous.”
others say Chinawhich has spent the past decade building up its military, is equally keen to extract advanced weapons technology from Russia in preparation for a potential future confrontation with the United States and its Asian allies.
Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Moscow Center, predicts Russian-Chinese symmetry “will be massively accelerated” by the war in Ukrainewith Russia “very likely to move closer to China as a junior partner, providing China with the most advanced designs of weapons [and] most sophisticated parts of its nuclear expertise.”
Beijing is likely to play its cards carefully and “for now China definitely doesn’t want to be seen as supporting Russia,” Mr. Gabuev told a panel discussion hosted last week by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
He said the Xi government is likely to wait until the “Russian economy really finds its bottom and it’s in a state of free-fall,” at which point Beijing is likely to seek geopolitical favors from Moscow in exchange for bailing it out.
Mr. Gabuev pointed to a range of possibilities, including Russian support for Beijing in Chinese-Indian border disputes and in South China Sea territorial disputes, in addition to the pursuit of “the most sensitive weapons systems” that Russia has been reluctant to sell to China.
Watered down threats
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters ahead of the Biden-Xi March 18 videoconference that Mr. Biden would give the Chinese leader a robust warning that the US “will not hesitate to impose costs” on Beijing if it militarily backs the Russians in Ukraine. “China will bear responsibility for any actions it takes to support Russia‘s aggression,” Mr. Blinken said.
However, a Chinese government summary of the summit said Mr. Biden was anything but confrontational during the call with Mr. Xi, asserting that Mr. Biden spoke of how the US-China relationship “will shape the world in the 21st century.”
While US analysts warn that such official Chinese government summaries amount to propaganda, the White House’s own readout of the summit was notably more restrained than what Mr. Blinken had told reporters Mr. Biden was planning for the call.
“President Biden detailed our efforts to prevent and then respond to the invasion, including by imposing costs on Russia,” the White House summary said. “He described the implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia as it conducts brutal attacks against Ukrainian cities and civilians.”
China has called US claims that it was considering military support to Russia groundless. China‘s state media have strongly endorsed Russia‘s claims that the US-led expansion of NATO to Russia‘s borders was the prime cause of the war, and China‘s Foreign Ministry has echoed Russian allegations that the US had been operating a string of suspect bio-weapon labs in Ukraine.
Following Friday’s Biden-Xi call, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao tweeted an animated video of a map depicting NATO‘s eastward spread, essentially endorsing Mr. Putin’s characterization of the alliance as offensive rather than defensive in nature.
An editorial this week in the state-controlled nationalistic Global Times accused the US of attempting to “bully” China and countries around the world to endorse its view of the Ukraine war, an effort the Beijing-based news website said was bound to fail.
“China has no self-interest in the Ukraine issue and is making real efforts to alleviate the humanitarian crisis while urging peace and promoting talks, which is in stark contrast to Washington’s inflammatory operations of sending weapons and imposing extreme sanctions,” the Global Times piece read in part. “Who is on the right side of history?”
“The Chinese are basically adopting the Russian arguments on the origins of the war,” said Mr. Roughwho argues that the war in Ukraine is the beginning of much bigger, longer conflict between the US and China.
“After the opening salvo of COVID, this is the second blow that inaugurates the Cold War 2.0 Sino-American rivalry,” he said, adding that nations across the world — especially on China‘s periphery in East Asia — are watching closely to see whether Beijing or Washington comes out on top.
“If you’re a Taiwan or Vietnam or a small or medium-sized country in the Asia Pacific facing growing Chinese power, it’s not going to make you feel so great to see Ukraine being parceled in a way that really amounts to a failure of deterrence on the part of the United States,” he said. “The Biden team likes to crow about having rallied the West into an alliance. … But in reality, the West has stood by while Ukraine is being hammered and potentially sliced in two.
“That’s not a bad outcome for the Chinese.”