Jake Sullivan looks blushing and his jaw is tied together. Opposite President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, over a row of ferns at a matching table draped in blue cloth, sits China’s senior foreign affairs official Yang Jiechi, his mouth frozen in a singing smile. The official photo released by China’s state-run news agency of the two men sitting face to face on March 14 in Rome is a snapshot of how Beijing wants to be seen in this moment as China’s once allied Russia continues its deadly invasion of Ukraine: as a confident, budding power facing a frustrated and worried United States.
The reality is more complicated. Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes China’s leader Xi Jinping will see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as another step forward for the two countries’ broader efforts to push back towards the world democracies. Russia is wooing China’s support for its attack on Ukraine and hopes China will support Moscow’s shaky economy hit by sanctions. But if China further supports Russia’s aggression with significant monetary aid or – even more worryingly – weapons, the setbacks of the United States and European countries could threaten China’s long-term efforts to rise as the dominant global power.
What China decides to do whether Russia’s needs can mark a turning point in both the war in Ukraine and the relationship between the United States and China, and the outcome of China’s election will define what a new global order looks like. Will China continue to try to reshape the current global economy by participating in it? Or will China join Russia behind a new iron curtain of sanctions, cut off from the United States and Europe and left to navigate a new monetary system and trade framework?
Yang Jiechi, Left, Member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and Director of the Office of the Central Committee of the CPC Central Committee, will meet with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Rome on March 14.
Jin Mamengni — Xinhua / Alamy
“This is truly a crucial moment and potentially a turning point,” said Bonnie Glaser, Director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund in the United States. “They are really on the side of the Russians. They are closer to the Russians than they have ever been. “
China and Russia have occasionally had strained relations over the past few decades. Moscow and Beijing fought a border war in 1969 along the edge of China’s northeastern territory, and the two countries have never developed strong person-to-person ties across their common 2,500 miles of border. As China has grown in global influence, Russia’s leadership has resented the prospect of becoming a customer state in Beijing.
But China’s leaders are now leaning much more towards Moscow than they did when they tried to appear neutral after Putin’s conquest of Crimea in 2014. When Xi and Putin met at the opening of the Olympics in Beijing on February 4, the two agreed whether their countries’ relations would have “no borders” and “no wavering,” according to a Chinese government description of the meeting. It was two weeks before Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine.
This has posed a delicate and growing challenge to the Biden administration in talking to China about its assistance to Russia. The seven-hour talks between Sullivan and Yang inside the Rome Cavalieri Hotel were “intense” and “reflected the seriousness of the moment,” said a senior administration official, adding that the two officials had a “comprehensive conversation” about Russia’s war in Ukraine. . Sullivan made it clear that the U.S. and European allies would consider cutting off Chinese financial institutions involved in supporting Russia’s war financially, a person familiar with the discussions said.
Overall, Xi Jinping has calculated that the United States is in decline and Western democracies have failed, Glaser says, and that Russia is an ally that can work with China to create another international system that is more favorable. But with Russia’s violent efforts to occupy Ukraine, this assessment comes with a significant risk for China. If Russia emerges weaker from its war in Ukraine and China backs it, China could suffer major economic setbacks. China is heavily dependent on its trade relations with European countries and has worked hard to prevent Europe from restricting trade. “It would be huge if China ends up with a large number of countries around the world that are set on it because it has taken Russia’s side,” Glaser says.
Convincing European powers to punish China could be a difficult task for President Biden, who has had to work hard to convince Europe to limit its economic and energy ties to Russia. Biden is set to travel to Europe next week to meet with NATO allies, and China’s degree of support for Russia will certainly emerge in these meetings. U.S. officials want to prepare allies for how they will react if China begins to contribute more economically or militarily to Russia. Meanwhile, Xi showed the importance he attaches to keeping lines of communication open with European powers when he took part in a video call with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on March 8 to talk about the war in Ukraine.
This moment has set two competing goals for China’s foreign policy on a collision course, says David Shullman, a former senior US intelligence analyst in East Asia. China wants Russia to be its partner in building a new global order, but it also wants to be seen as a “responsible power” that can one day lead the current one, or at least be at the center of a new system of global governance and connectivity, says Shullman. If China supplies Russia with drones, surface-to-air missiles or other weapons, “it would very clearly demonstrate that we have a break in what we expected out of the world order,” Shullman said. “It would be clear that China had taken a very firm stand on Russia’s side against the democratic world and against developed democracies.”
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