As the Communist Party and its advisory body gather in Beijing this month, there has been little or no mention of the Ukraine war – a silence that is all the more deafening given China’s deep-rooted sense of its unique place in history. With its unabashed great power aspirations, modern China may well be at a decisive juncture.
NEW HAVEN – With war raging in Ukraine, China’s annual “Two Sessions” convey an image of a country in denial. As the Communist Party and its advisory body gather in Beijing this month, there has been little or no mention of a seismic disruption in the world order – an omission that is all the more glaring in view of China’s deep-rooted sense of its unique place in history. With its unabashed great power aspirations, modern China may well be at a decisive juncture.
Two documents – the joint Sino-Russian cooperation agreement, signed on February 4 at the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics, and the Work Report, delivered on March 5 by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to the National People’s Congress – encapsulate China’s disconnect. The wide-ranging statement on Sino-Russian cooperation spoke of a “friendship between the two States [that] has no limits.” It featured an almost breathless accounting of common interests, as well as commitments to addressing climate change, global health, economic cooperation, trade policy, and regional and geostrategic ambitions. The West was put on notice that it faced a powerful combination as a new adversary in the East.
Yet a mere 29 days later, it was largely business as usual for Li, who presented what is by now the annual Chinese boilerplate prescription for development and prosperity. A familiar list of reforms stressed China’s ongoing commitments to poverty reduction, job creation, digitization, environmental protection, meeting demographic challenges, disease prevention, and a wide range of economic and financial issues. Yes, there was a widely noted tweak to the economic forecast – with a 2022 growth target of “around 5.5%” that, while weak by Chinese standards, was actually slightly stronger than expected – and some hints of likely policy support from fiscal, monetary, and regulatory authorities. But this work report was notable in saying as little as possible about a world in turmoil.
Yet China can’t have it both ways. There is no way it can stay the course, as Li suggests, while adhering to the partnership agreement with Russia announced by Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Many believed that Russia and China had come together in shaping a grand strategy for a new Cold War. I called it China’s triangulation gambit: joining with Russia to corner the United States, just as the Sino-American rapprochement 50 years ago successfully cornered the former Soviet Union. The US, the architect of that earlier triangulation, was now being triangulated.
Yet in the span of just one month, Putin’s horrific war against Ukraine has turned this concept on its head. If China remains committed to its new partnership with Russia, it faces guilt by association. Just as Russia has been isolated by draconian Western sanctions that could devastate its economy for decades, the same fate awaits China if it deepens its new partnership. This outcome, of course, is completely at odds with China’s development goals just enunciated by Li. But it is a very real risk if China maintains unlimited support for Russia, including tempering the impact of Western sanctions, as a literal reading of the February 4 agreement implies.
The Chinese leadership appears to sense this untenable dilemma. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was met by uncharacteristic silence from the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the top seven leaders of the Party, China has since underscored its time-honored fallback principle of respect for national sovereignty. At the Munich Security Conference last month, Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed this point, along with China’s long-standing insistence on non-intervention in other states’ internal affairs – an argument that bears directly on Taiwan.
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But, at the National People’s Congress on March 7, Wang dug in his heels, insisting that “China and Russia will … steadily advance our comprehensive strategic partnership.” It is as if Putin knew full well when he went to Beijing in early February that he was setting a trap for China.
Xi now faces a critical decision. He has the greatest leverage of any world leader to broker a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine. To do that, he needs to send a strong message to Putin that Russia’s brutal invasion crosses China’s own principled redline on territorial sovereignty. That means he will need to register a strong objection to Putin’s efforts to rewrite post-Cold War history and resurrect Imperial Russia. To negotiate an end to the devastating conflict that Putin unleashed, Xi will need to put his February 4 partnership commitment back on the table as a decisive bargaining chip. Russia’s prospects are bleak, at best; without China, it has none at all. China holds the trump card in the ultimate survival of Putin’s Russia.
Xi’s own place in history may be on the line, too. Later this year, the 20th Party Congress will convene in Beijing. The major item on the agenda is hardly a secret: Xi’s appointment to an unprecedented third five-year term as the Party’s General Secretary. China watchers, including me, have long presumed that nothing would stand in the way of this well-telegraphed outcome. But history, and the current events that shape it, have an uncanny knack of shifting the leadership calculus in any country. That is true not only in democracies like the US but also in autocracies like Russia and China.
The choice for Xi is clear: He can stay the course set by his February 4 agreement with Russia, and be forever tainted with the sanctions, isolation, and excruciating economic and financial pressures that come with that stance. Or he can broker the peace that will save the world and cement China’s status as a great power led by a great statesman.
As the architect of the “Chinese dream” and what he believes is a great nation’s even greater rejuvenation, Xi has no choice. My bet is that Xi will do the unthinkable – defuse the Russia threat, before it is too late.