The leaders of China and Russia had a face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on Sept. 15.
Xi Jinping greeted Vladimir Putin as “my old friend,” and noted that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was ready to work with Russia in “extending strong support to each other on issues concerning their respective core interests,” according to state media. Xi made no mention of Ukraine in his public remarks.
Putin told Xi, “We highly value the balanced position of our Chinese friends when it comes to the Ukraine crisis,” and “we understand your questions and concerns about this.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price described Putin’s statement about Xi’s concerns regarding the Russia-Ukraine war as “striking” but “not surprising.”
He added that the PRC had been engaging in “geopolitical gymnastics” in recent months to avoid openly condemning what Moscow describes as a “special military operation” to defeat Ukraine’s army and topple its government.
The “geopolitical gymnastics” that Price mentioned indicate that Beijing is trying to run a balancing act as it attempts to derive long-term benefit from its partnership with Russia while mitigating ire from the U.S.-led international order. Far from the actions of a genuine ally, the Xi leadership’s calculus in not criticizing Moscow is rooted in China’s historic rivalry with Russia, as well as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime’s attempts to strengthen its position as it faces multiple serious challenges at home and abroad.
But as pressures grow for the PRC, the returns from Xi’s “strategic neutrality” on Russia and its war in Ukraine will diminish. The Party and its leader could even see their crises deepen.
While Beijing and Moscow appear to enjoy a robust partnership, the Chinese regime has its reasons to be pleased with Russia’s military quagmire in Ukraine. China and Russia have been geopolitical rivals since the 17th century when the Qing Dynasty clashed with Tsarist Russia over territory in northeastern China and the Russian Far East — and much of the land seized from the declining Qing empire remains part of Russia to this day.
This rivalry did not end after the fall of the Qing and Russian empires, nor with the establishment of communist regimes in both countries. In 1961, the PRC under Mao Zedong would declare the USSR “revisionists” and “imperialists” as Nikita Khrushchev pursued de-Stalinization at home. The Sino-Soviet split drove a wedge in relations until 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev visited Beijing and “normalized” the relationship after meeting with Deng Xiaoping. The PRC and Russia would continue to be wary of each other after the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
China’s long-term rivalry with Russia means that it would not suit Beijing’s overall strategic aims to ensure that Moscow secures overwhelming victory in Ukraine. Rather, the PRC would prefer a scenario where Russia is greatly weakened by the war and is forced to become more reliant on China. Over time, Russia would be “transformed” into the PRC’s “strategic reserve” for energy and grain — a far cry from the threat it posed in the late Qing era or at the height of the Sino-Soviet split.
Neither would it be in the PRC’s interest to allow the U.S. and its allies to defeat Russia in Ukraine. Such a defeat could lead to Putin’s ouster and the rise of a pro-Western government in Russia. In this scenario, Xi and the CCP would have to contend with an openly hostile Russia right on China’s northern border, as well as the risk of being completely encircled along its borders by U.S.-aligned states.
Washington plays the ‘Taiwan card’
Xi Jinping’s “balanced position” on Ukraine is likely also motivated by a need to avoid antagonizing the West and inviting penalties at an inopportune time for the PRC. For one, the Chinese economy has sharply deteriorated this year and can hardly-afford a further exodus of foreign capital or crippling sanctions should the U.S. and its allies decide to punish China for more strongly supporting the Russian invasion. To continue attracting funds to China and avoid sanctions, Beijing has no choice but to only back Moscow verbally and indirectly.
Moreover, Xi will not want to give the U.S. and its allies any excuses to strengthen their support for Taiwan with the pretext of deterring a PRC invasion in the wake of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August, dozens of lawmakers from several countries have traveled to Taipei while governments have condemned the PRC’s increased military maneuvers around Taiwan in response to the Pelosi trip.
Reuters reported on Sept. 13 that Washington is considering options to preemptively sanction the PRC to deter it from invading Taiwan, and Taipei is pressuring the European Union to do the same. The following day, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations voted to pass the Taiwan Policy Act (TRA) of 2022 by 17 to 5.
Billed as the “most comprehensive restructuring” of U.S. policy towards Taipei since the 1979 version of the legislation, the 2022 TRA called for providing Taiwan with $4.5 billion in weapons and security assistance over the next four years, as well as provocative symbolic gestures like formally designating Taiwan a “major non-NATO ally” and renaming the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office — Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Washington — the “Taiwan Representative Office.”
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden said in a CBS 60 Minutes interview broadcast on Sept. 18 that U.S. troops would defend Taiwan if there was an “unprecedented attack” by China. Biden also said that Taiwan “makes their own judgments about their independence” while insisting that the U.S. is “not encouraging their being independent.” The White House also clarified, as it has before, that Washington’s position on Taiwan and the One-China Policy have not changed.
Whatever Washington’s assurances, the CCP can only see Biden’s statements and the recent actions by U.S. officials to support Taiwan as further moves toward the ultimate goal of achieving formal statehood for the island and denying Beijing the opportunity for “reunification.” Such developments put intra-regime pressure on Xi to take action lest he appear weak and the Party suffer defeat at the hands of the “American imperialists.”
Xi does not want to be provoked into having to mount a military invasion of Taiwan before the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is ready to do so. Apart from rapidly worsening economy and mounting social problems in China, Xi has reshuffled too many senior military commanders in recent years — a result of his efforts to boost his position amidst factional struggle — to be confident in the PLA’s ability to pull off a successful invasion on short notice.
The Biden administration has made similar observations about the PLA’s capabilities. On Sept. 7, U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy Colin H. Kahl said at a defense conference that it is “no mystery that Xi Jinping has given his military until 2027 to develop the military capabilities to forcefully reunify with Taiwan — if he makes the decision to do that. But I’ve seen no indication that he’s made that decision to do so.”
On Sept. 16, a CNN reporter tweeted that CIA Deputy Director David Cohen had said that Xi wants the military to be able to take Taiwan by force by 2027, but he “has not made the decision to do so.” Cohen added that the U.S. intelligence community believes that “Xi’s interest in Taiwan is to get control through nonmilitary means.”
No good solution
Xi Jinping’s “geopolitical gymnastics” have not endeared him to the West, and are not likely to have the intended delaying effect as the Russia-Ukraine war drags on. Russia’s military setback in northeastern Ukraine in September further places the PRC between a rock and a hard place. In the worst case, the CCP risks having NATO on its doorstep if the Ukrainian counteroffensive leads to Putin’s downfall and the PRC does nothing to support its geopolitical “frenemy.” Yet doing more to back Russia at this time risks bringing down the wrath of the international community upon the PRC when China can ill-afford additional economic and diplomatic costs.
Xi’s “balanced position” on Russia and Ukraine will eventually become untenable further down the road and the PRC will face increasing global pressure over its stance. The U.S. and its allies go ahead with economic and technological sanctions against China, and take China and Xi to task over the Taiwan issue and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Waves of “anti-Xi, not anti-CCP” measures before the 20th Party Congress could inject a degree of uncertainty in whether Xi can secure his political agendas at the 20th Party Congress. Even if Xi manages to take a third term and favorable personnel reshuffles at the Party Congress, mounting external pressure against his leadership will sharply raise his personal political risks and raise the chances of greater troubles coming his way.
Larry Ong is a senior analyst with New York-based political risk consultancy SinoInsider. He was part of the SinoInsider team that forecasted the 19th Party Congress and 2018 Two Sessions personnel reshuffles with a high degree of accuracy.