The author is a professor at Georgetown University and served on the staff of the U.S. National Security Council from 2009-2015
With each passing day, it becomes more likely that the war in Ukraine will trigger the most consequential shift in geopolitics since the end of the Cold War, if not World War II. China drives this conclusion. Its strategic alignment with Russia before the invasion, combined with its enabling Russia since the first missile was hit, is an expression of the 1950s Sino-Soviet alliance.
In fact, China is now crossing some dangerous thresholds. According to reports in the Financial Times, China has responded positively to Russian requests for military assistance. Beijing is coordinating with Moscow to spread disinformation about US biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine. Its compliance with global sanctions remains an open question.
China’s ultimate stance on the conflict – either to maintain its support for Russia or to embrace geopolitics with stability, growth and integration – will ultimately define the world order. Europe now has a historic opportunity to shape China’s strategic choices. To do so, European leaders must reject the fantasy that Beijing is mediating with Moscow and explicitly convey the cost of its continued or expanded support to Russia. China will reject anything less than such a clear signal.
The war in Ukraine puts considerable pressure on China and creates an opening to shape its perceptions and policies. As Xi Jinping prepares for the change of leadership this fall, the last thing he needs is a geopolitical distraction or even worse ammunition for his critics. China is also facing its worst economic outlook in two decades. Both the structural and cyclical driving forces behind growth are declining as covid increases. The war has created historic price increases and supply disruptions in critical energy and agricultural imports.
Diplomatically, the war revived American alliances and revitalized sanctions as a diplomatic tool. Now China is being presented with an unpleasant strategic trilemma. First, Beijing wants to remain in line with Moscow given their shared vision, values, and significant energy and military technology interests. Second, China must adhere to the most sacred principles of its foreign policy: the protection of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Third, it wants to minimize the damage to its relations with the United States and Europe, its best trading partners over the past decade.
Still, China’s top diplomats have in response rejected the 2014 examined neutrality, when Russia annexed Crimea. It openly expresses sympathy and support for Moscow’s actions, avoids any responsibility, denies the contradictions in its position, blames the United States and NATO, and calls for diplomacy. The war and its geopolitical and economic consequences thus put more pressure on China during an unusually challenging year for its leaders.
This is where Europe has an opportunity because it enjoys a moment of maximum strategic value for China. The war is a growing responsibility, China is clearly in line with the aggressor, and most importantly, Beijing has concluded that relations between the United States and China have turned into a long-term rivalry. In this equation, Europe is the most important geopolitical turnaround. In contrast, China has long underestimated Europe as a global center of power, believing that it has neutralized the continent through economic ties between the EU and China and divide-and-rule strategies. Now is the time to change that, but the message from European capitals must be sharp, clear and unified.
For Beijing, a future in which the United States and major European powers – along with Asian allies – are in line with China is definitely damaging. The message of European leaders to Beijing must be twofold. The first is that China will be subject to suspicion and sanctions if it arms Russia. Europe should also pressure China to increase humanitarian aid to the Ukrainians and publicly call for an end to Russia’s attacks on civilian targets.
The second message is strategic. Europe and the United States need to emphasize their view that Vladimir Putin’s actions will create global disorder and a new type of Cold War. This undermines the international structures that facilitated China’s progress. Europe must pressure China to recalibrate its relations with Russia – at least put a ceiling on it – or risk everything it has achieved during the reform era.
These are difficult messages to deliver, and even harder for China to hear. If that does not work, then at least Europe and the United States will have a clarifying moment about China. They can then be more adapted to the complex and expensive policies necessary for the long, fierce battle of strategic competition with the world’s second largest economy.
Chinese officials say to European diplomats in Beijing: “You have lost Russia, you can not lose China either.” Europe should answer that if China has lost the United States and is linked to Russia, then it cannot afford to lose Europe as well.