Given that China is known for ruthlessly pursuing its own interests and has no interest in shoring up the Western-led world order that Putin is seeking to buckle, it seems fanciful that Xi will choose what the US sees as the right side of history on the Ukraine conflict — at least until its own economic self-interest dictates a change of course. And US-China relations are so toxic that many analysts had been predicting a new Cold War in the Pacific between the rivals, before the original version reignited in Europe with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine at the end of last month.
The theatrics of a call that will be closely watched around the world cannot be dismissed. Just by holding the conversation, and publicizing it heavily beforehand, Biden is sending a signal to Putin that his “no limits” friendship forged with Xi in Beijing shortly before the invasion may not be as significant as the Russian leader had hoped. The conversation also fosters an impression that Washington sees China as the key global power other than itself — instead of Moscow.
It comes as a surprisingly swift and effective Western and international front has clamped a devastating economic, banking, cultural, sporting and diplomatic boycott on Russia. Any significant help from China for Russia could, therefore, be hugely valuable to Putin, possibly allowing him to offset some of the isolation and economic blight in his country and sustain his brutal Ukraine war longer.
Any pledge from Xi not to break international sanctions on Russia would be seen as a major victory for Biden, though it’s possible the Chinese would seek concessions from the US for such a move — possibly over Trump-era tariffs.
A tough warning for China
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday offered a robust preview of the call, saying that “China will bear responsibility for any actions it takes to support Russia’s aggression,” and that the US “will not hesitate to impose costs” on China if it does so.
His comments were a barely disguised hint that Chinese firms could face secondary sanctions if the government in Beijing offers aid to Moscow. That would be a concern for Xi’s government given the current slowing of China’s traditionally soaring growth rates and the economic consequences of the latest Covid-19 surge. The US President may have some leverage since Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares on Monday that China was not a party to the conflict and “still less wants to be affected by the sanctions,” according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
Xi’s government has attempted to adopt a delicate balance throughout the Ukraine crisis.
It has a clear interest in Putin’s attempt to use the conflict to weaken democracy, the West and the rule of international law. And if the United States is bogged down for years in Europe, it could frustrate Washington’s goal of pivoting military, intelligence and diplomatic resources to Asia to deal with broader consequences of China’s rise.
But China’s long-term economic interests are also at risk if the Ukraine war sends the global economy into reverse. So Beijing has sought to create a diplomatic middle ground, refraining from criticizing Putin but seeking to avoid going to a point of no return with the US — and its significant trading partners in the European Union.
While China has not formally condemned the invasion, Xi did stress the situation was “worrisome,” that China was “deeply grieved” by the war and that it would “work actively” to support a peaceful settlement. Those comments came in a video call with French and German leaders last week, Xinhua reported.
Beijing also endorsed comments made by its ambassador to Ukraine, Fan Xianrong, that were quoted in a press release from the Lviv regional government. “China will never attack Ukraine. We will help, especially economically,” Fan said in comments that appear incompatible with any possible Chinese military aid to Putin’s war effort.
Biden’s call on Friday is expected to be equally frank.
“This is an opportunity for President Biden to assess where President Xi stands,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday, promising that her boss would be “candid” and “direct” on the call.
What could change China’s mind?
Robust US rhetoric running up to the telephone call, which almost verges on scolding of China, would not seem likely to improve the chances of a successful conversation. Xi, who has adopted an increasingly nationalistic and belligerent tone in foreign policy, is unlikely to want to seem to be bowing to US pressure. The American rhetoric might also reflect the tense nature of most of the contacts between the Biden administration and China so far in the US President’s term. And it may be indicative of low expectations in the White House of success on the call following Sullivan’s reception in Rome.
Beijing is showing every sign of trying to keep its options open and avoiding committing itself beyond its own area of interests.
“I think there is a mismatch in the views about what the optics are,” said Scott Kennedy, trustee chair in Chinese business and economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Either you are with Russia or you are with Ukraine and the rest of the world” is one view, Scott said but, “I think China’s view is that there is a third path, an unaligned path.”
Still, the longer the war drags on, the harder China’s choices could get, and it might find itself forced to adopt a tougher stand toward Moscow — one that could make Xi’s new friendship with Putin look like a strategic error.
In the long term, China has little to gain from a prolonged economic crunch because of the war. While it has a strong trading relationship with Russia, the value of its exports to the United States and the European Union are worth may times more in dollar value. And Chinese growth prospects are intertwined with the American and European economies in a way that gives the West leverage if it were to sanction China for aiding Moscow’s war effort.
Years of higher crude prices could also hurt China’s oil-thirsty manufacturing sector. And the current year is also an important one for Xi, who is set to secure a third term at the Community Party’s National Congress in the fall, cementing his status as one of his country’s most historic leaders alongside Mao Zedong.
Economic disruption from Ukraine that worsens the knock-on effects of a new Covid-19 wave, which saw restrictions imposed in the crucial southern trading city of Shenzhen, could also disrupt Xi’s hopes for a smooth political year.
Kennedy suggested several possibilities that could prompt Xi to reconsider his current path regarding Russia. First, if the war starts to go even more poorly for Putin and it threatens his own rule. “They don’t want to back a loser,” Kennedy said of the Chinese. Then, if the so-far unified Western front against Russia is sustained — and might be turned on China if it seeks to breach the sanctions barricade against Moscow — Xi might shirk from a serious confrontation.
Dramatic course shifts are unlikely in Biden’s call. But if the President is able to pry China even a slight bit away from Putin — or give Russia the impression he has done so — he may be able to claim some progress.