Any way you look at China’s relations with Russia, any way you dissect every nuance of Chinese policy – to the limited extent there is such a policy – makes clear that in Beijing, Vladimir Putin has transitioned from an asset to a liability. All it took was an unsuccessful invasion of Ukraine.
On February 4, the Russian president was an asset. Xi Jinping, standing next to a grinning Putin as the two countries signed a “partnership agreement,” proclaimed ceremoniously that China’s friendship with Russia “has no limits.” China and Russia were embarking on a tacit journey to restructure the international security order and downsize Washington’s unfair and outdated dominance, as both countries view this “American order.”
On February 22, when Putin announced the de facto annexation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine, he was still an asset. China didn’t think he would risk a full invasion.
On February 24, when Russia invaded, Putin became a questionable asset. Beijing was surprised but would monitor both Russia’s military campaign and the framework for negotiations with the United States and NATO. If this worked, the same could be done in the future with Taiwan and the South China Sea.
On March 1, Putin was on track to become a liability, with massive sanctions imposed on Russia and the fighting at an impasse. China was deliberating a policy change, albeit incremental at first.
By March 16, Putin has become a full liability.
At the same time, China is refreshing the concept of what is known as the Malacca Dilemma. In 2003, then-President Hu Jintao warned that China, heavily reliant on imports of energy, food and technology, was vulnerable to a U.S. naval blockade in the Malacca Strait between Indonesia and Malaysia. Such a move would effectively cut off China, so Russia was nurtured as an alternative.
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Now a much stronger China than in 2003 is being forced to decide which vulnerability it can live with: The Malacca Dilemma or the Putin Dilemma.
After the initial surprise of Putin’s full invasion, which Beijing apparently wasn’t apprised of, and after grimly watching Russia’s failure to subdue Ukraine, China vacillated.
This was the epitome of ambivalence with a grain of duplicity. While both can be attributed to confusion during a crisis and war, the writing was on the Great Wall: China wasn’t acting like the superpower it believes it is.
China condemned aggression but reiterated support for Russia.
China urged a preservation of “Ukraine’s territorial integrity” but refrained from criticizing Russia’s invasion.
China vociferously denounced Western sanctions but quietly indicated that Chinese companies would comply.
China then reportedly offered Russia military assistance, only to immediately deny it after Washington leaked the news and embarrassed Beijing.
So China is now recalibrating. A barrage of Chinese scholars, all with close ties to the government, are writing articles on the need to exploit the situation by developing a new and coherent policy.
The most alarming development for China was America's resolve and NATO’s response. Does this portend developments in Asia, with Washington trying to build a NATO-like structure of alliances with the objective of containing China?
No less important for the Chinese was U.S. intelligence’s penetration of Russia. China too must assume that it may be compromised.
Putin’s miscalculations have stoked unprecedented unity between the United States, NATO and their Asian allies. China is altering its approach in a way that would be consistent with its grand strategy, hopefully yielding long-term benefits but more importantly avoiding short-term damage.
China is looking to stay above the fray with a policy that would keep it disentangled from a conflict it believes is taking place between two declining powers. That may seem like a very savvy approach, but it’s also an impossible approach.
There may be some room for adjustments and opportunities for a course correction, but China essentially has two policy choices. One is to gradually, elegantly, politely but ruthlessly disengage from Russia and disown Putin.
Guilt by association with Putin’s violent actions isn’t the image China wants to project to the world, particularly not to Western economies and nervous Asian rivals. China sees itself as America’s competitor and a future source of stability and prosperity. Aligning with a pariah like Putin runs contrary to that goal.
Conversely, China may see a continued alliance with Russia as a strategic imperative if it wants to challenge the U.S.-dominated world order. In this case, China may be tempted to stay as detached as possible, ignore the potential strategic repercussions and stick it out with Putin’s Russia.
On the face of it, this shouldn’t even be a dilemma. In fact, if China wants to raise its superpower profile and project power, it has the levers to make Putin stop. But judging by Xi’s actions, it looks like there’s no clear general strategic policy, with the process of crafting a new one tentative and events-sensitive.
China may believe that it can elevate itself above the American-Russian ancien régime and present a new model of superpower conduct. It probably can’t.
The idea circulating in China, expressed in some scholarly articles, is that Washington has pivoted back to Europe, where it may be bogged down by a persistent Russian threat. That, in turn, will slow the pivot to Asia that China views as patently anti-Chinese and an arrogant attempt to curb China’s rise as a superpower of commensurate stature.
This may prove to be a very flawed assumption. First, the Ukraine crisis has generated more defense spending in Europe, which would decrease U.S. responsibilities and investments, not increase them.
Second, consider the U.S. alliances in Asia with Japan and South Korea, as well as the new AUKUS (Australia, U.K., U.S.) and the nascent Indo-Pacific Quad of the United States, India, Japan and Australia. They will be emboldened by the U.S.-NATO unity that they saw in Europe. This should concern China, not mislead it into thinking that the United States will relent.
As for relations with Russia in this context, China has to revisit outmoded premises. Trade between the countries grew by 35 percent last year to $147 billion, with China the largest importer of Russian products after the European Union, which is dependent on Russian energy.
But Putin’s reckless, callous and violent invasion of Ukraine changed China’s calculus. Putin is already a pariah and Russia is under the harshest sanctions ever. Any association would expose China to sanctions itself. Even if the economic costs are bearable, relations with Western economies will be damaged, as will China’s reputation.
Now Xi, ahead of the Communist Party congress in the fall to confirm his third five-year term, must convince the other political powers in Beijing that he can be trusted to navigate China through the crisis, avoid the long-term fallout of an alliance with Russia, and not seem to be flinching in China’s rivalry with the United States.
This is a very intricate task, but if China wants to be regarded as a superpower, playing at the highest levels of world diplomacy, Xi will have to make a decision. The possibilities seem clear, yet no one knows exactly what course China will take. Well, if you’re Vladimir Putin, you should be worried.