An engagement moment for the United States and China
An engagement moment for the United States and China

An engagement moment for the United States and China

In this file, taken on November 15, US President Joe Biden will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit from the Roosevelt Room in the White House in Washington, DC. – Agence France-Presse / Mandel Ngan

ONE of the more interesting developments in Putin’s war against Ukraine is China’s withdrawal from full support from Russia. When the Russian invasion began, many experts were concerned about the Putin-Xi final declaration when the Winter Olympics closed, specifically its reference to ‘no borders’ in Sino-Russian conditions. As I have noticed, that conclusion was wrong. Since then, Chinese support for Russia has gradually eroded. There may be an opportunity here for American diplomacy with China.

Political distancing

TWO days before Russia’s invasion, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that ‘sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity in any country should be respected and protected’, adding: ‘Ukraine is no exception.’ China also did not recognize the two ‘people’s republics’ that Putin proclaimed in eastern Ukraine. Immediately after the invasion, Xi, according to China’s ambassador to the United States, called Putin to call for peace talks. The ambassador claimed that Xi ‘received a positive response.’ In that case, it was obviously a lie. China then abstained on two UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion, one in the UN Security Council and another in the General Assembly.

Beijing continues to support Russia’s ‘legitimate security concerns’, but so far it has done little to alleviate Russia’s economic pain from US and European sanctions. Although China began buying Russian wheat and increasing its imports of Russian gas, two of its main banks complied with US sanctions by refusing to issue letters of credit in dollars for the purchase of Russian goods. Sanctions are clearly China’s biggest concern. “Sanctions will affect global finance, energy, transport and stability in supply chains and dampen a global economy already ravaged by the pandemic,” Xi said. ‘And this is in nobody’s interest’, which of course means China.

It seems that Chinese support for Russia has softened in direct relation to Russia’s military failures, Ukrainian resistance and the unprecedented series of sanctions against Russian trade, banking and overseas investment.

Not only China’s economy and trade are likely to be affected; its leadership must certainly be as nervous as Western leaders are about to hear Putin raise the possibility of using nuclear weapons. And Chinese leaders have certainly noted how European governments, including those that are not NATO members (Sweden, Finland and Switzerland) and have been friendly towards Russia (Hungary and Turkey), are now united in the defense of Ukraine. China has thus emphasized a diplomatic resolution on Ukraine calling on the parties to ‘seek reasonable solutions’, even though Beijing’s mass media continue to repeat Putin’s disinformation campaign on Ukraine.

But here’s the spark: When it comes to actively playing the role of a peacemaker, Beijing has refused. In short, China has so far failed the global leadership test. Far from being a ‘responsible superpower’, it has chosen to step over the fence at a crucial time in European and perhaps global security.

To be sure, Beijing may have been caught flat-footed by the scale of Putin’s ambitions. But it has had plenty of time to recover. Instead, China offers platitudes such as Chen Yi’s and Xi’s expresses a willingness to ‘play a constructive role’ in peace negotiations and work with ‘the international community’.

Pure self-interest – the removal of sanctions that might one day be imposed on China if it ever attacked Taiwan – is the main factor in China’s stance on Ukraine, not humanitarian concerns, Russia’s war of aggression or Russia’s goal of converting Ukraine into a vassal state. Beijing’s leaders have not taken actions that could raise China’s international status, such as launching a peace conference for major players, calling for a ceasefire and a halt to Russia’s arbitrary bombing or sending significant aid to Ukraine.

Help with Russia or accommodation for the USA?

NOW Putin is calling on China to provide military and economic aid to Russia. The Biden administration has warned Beijing not to provide significant new aid to Russia.

But it is very unlikely that warnings will affect Chinese decision-making. Why not instead offer incentives that will start moving the US-China relationship in a positive direction? Incentives could mean the removal of tariffs from the Trump era, the lifting of visa restrictions and proposals to resume pandemic research.

Officially, the Chinese maintain their stance on respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and respect for Russia’s security concerns. But there are voices in Beijing who want a turnaround in relations between China and the United States and recognize how the disaster in Ukraine could affect China badly. They value China’s reputation, which would be enhanced if it took a leading role in a Ukraine peace.

Judging from the Chinese reading of the Biden-Xi phone call on March 18, the key to a shift in China’s policy is the content of its relations with the United States. Xi said: ‘China-US relations have still not escaped the dilemma created by the previous administration, and have instead encountered more and more challenges.’ Xi focused on Taiwan, distinguishing between Biden’s assurances about Taiwan and ‘some people’ who have not implemented the president’s ‘positive remarks’ about a China.

“The US side has misunderstood and misjudged China’s strategic intentions,” Xi said, possibly referring to speculation that China was using the Ukraine crisis as an opportunity to attack Taiwan. With regard to Ukraine, however, Xi maintained the Chinese standard position that it is up to the parties to the conflict to say that the humanitarian situation is worrying and (again) that sanctions are undermining global economic stability.

Nevertheless, there may be an opening here, and Biden should seize it and test China’s intentions. What goes on behind the scenes may be more hopeful than what Chinese officials say publicly., March 23rd. Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective.

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