Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, we have witnessed a conflict that is far from clear as to when or how it will end. What is certain is that it has brought to the surface some major geopolitical shifts that were already underway. On one side the US, Europe and more broadly the West, united together in their condemnation and heavy sanctions on Russia. On the other, a stronger authoritarian partnership emerged between Russia and China, with Xi Jinping declaring no limits to the friendship with Putin. For some, Putin’s war in Ukraine has already become a turning point in US-China relations that reflect the dynamics of a new Cold War between a Liberal West and Authoritarian rest led by Russia and China.
Beijing found itself in a conundrum. It officially declared its neutrality in the conflict. It tried not to step back from its special partnership with Russia, with which it released a joint statement that reaffirmed their alliance and expressed opposition to NATO expansion. At the same time, it tried not alienating itself entirely from the West. However, Chinese state-controlled media have actively promoted the Russian government’s line and disinformation on the Ukraine war, despite recent efforts to be more balanced such as Xinhua’s interview with Ukraine Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba, who made his case against Russia.
While China refrained from providing military aid to Moscow, it maintained a normal business relationship with Russia, similar to India and other NATO members. Both the US and Europe are increasing pressure on Beijing to support their restrictions on Russia. If China decides to undermine the Western alliance, it could be ostracized, becoming itself the next target of sanctions. Washington warned Beijing of “consequences” should it provide military or financial assistance to Moscow and condemned China for failing to side with the West against Russia.
However, China was not the only country that did not join the West in its criticism of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Democracies like India and South Africa also abstained from the UN resolution condemning Russia on March 24. Moreover, what would be the benefit for China to adopt a more pro-Ukraine approach, given that it shares with its most significant and militarily capable neighbor approximately a 4,300-km long border and wants to avoid the 1958-1971 era of the Sino-Soviet split?
At a time when the United States is committed to a strategy of de facto containment against China, it is unlikely that the United States and its allies would treat China much better even if it adopted a pro-Ukraine position; there is no benefit for China in condemning Russia. China’s relatively neutral approach is the best-case scenario for the West.
On the other hand, if China were to intervene militarily in support of Russia or if China acted similarly to Russia by taking action in Taiwan, this might be a turning point for US and China relations. However, both situations are unlikely. China has no intention of supporting Russia militarily and risking having the same sanctions imposed on itself. In its rhetoric, Beijing has continued to be one of the strongest promoters of globalization because its economic growth has depended on it in the past few decades. If the US or the West were to impose similar sanctions on China on top of the already damaging tariffs following the Trump trade war, it would be devastating for China and the US, which has much larger economic ties with China than with Russia. Moreover, even Chinese economic support for Russia has been lukewarm, and there continues to be distrust between the two powers. It is doubtful that China will support Russia militarily, as Beijing will risk substantial economic losses.
Some have argued that what Russia did to Ukraine will also prompt China to do the same with Taiwan and this will lead the US to intervene. However, the situation in the two cases is very different. Taiwan is not a sovereign country independent from China, like Ukraine from Russia. Under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ promoted by Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s and recognized by the US in the Taiwan Relation Act and the Six Assurances in 1979, the People’s Republic of China was recognized as the sole legal Government of China. Despite Xi Jinping’s grip on power and its ambitions to fully reunify the motherland by the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the PRC in 2049, the process of reunification can be made through economic and legal statecraft, as in the case of Hong Kong and the National Security Law of 2020 that criminalized secession of Hong Kong and subversion against the Chinese government. There is no desire from the Central Government to use brutal force to bring back Taiwan.
The Ukraine war has not been, and will unlikely be, a turning point in US-China relations. The first real turning point in the US-China relationship was Obama’s Pivot to Asia, launched in 2012, which gave substance to a sentiment in Washington that was already brooding since the early 2000s. With the trade war, Trump just gave a more concrete form to those sentiments and Blinken’s approach, labeled as ‘Trump light,’ or ‘Trump plus,’ continued the former administration’s tough approach to China and continued lack of a proper strategy. Even the much-awaited speech of Blinken scheduled for Thursday, May 5th at George Washington University, and postponed due to Covid, was not likely going to provide anything substantially new from his statement in March 2021: “Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.”
The White House China strategy is partly contained in its Indo-Pacific strategy released in early February, which pledged to boost US diplomatic, economic and security cooperation with Indo-Pacific regional players to counter China’s increasing regional and global influence. “Our objective is not to change [China] but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates, building a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favorable to the United States, our allies and partners, and the interests and values we share,” the document said.
If the war in Ukraine is not a turning point in US-China relations, it is a turning point in broader geopolitical terms. The financial crisis of 2009, the Covid Pandemic, and now the Ukraine war, are all contributing to bring us to a new 21st century’s global order. When Biden outlined his overarching vision in his first speech to Congress a year ago, he said, ” We’re competing with China and other countries to win the 21st Century.” Whatever world will emerge from these events, the competition to win the 21st century will not be won by either the US or China. They will be key players in an emerging multipolar world that is much less the result of manifest destiny than choices that can be changed, including the self-fulfilled prophecy of a New Cold War.