As Europe slid into its first war of the 21st century, the Biden administration made a desperate play, hoping that China somehow would work with the West in dissuading Russia from invading Ukraine.
According to reports in The New York Times, for months the Biden administration plied the Chinese with U.S. intelligence indicating that Russia was planning on invading Ukraine, “and beseeched the Chinese to tell Russia not to invade, according to U.S. officials.”
Given past U.S. intelligence losses to China, one has to wonder what sources and methods were jeopardized by the Biden administration in its quixotic scheme to draw China away from Russia. After all, Beijing was not simply going to take Washington’s word that an invasion was imminent, it would desire significant evidence.
And this administration would likely be willing to provide it, as there is a pattern of Biden officials turning to Beijing for help. The approach on Ukraine echoes the call by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as Kabul was falling, imploring Wang to help with the Taliban and “guide” them during the American retreat from Afghanistan.
For the Biden administration, begging Beijing for help seems to have become a habit. It also ignores the growing array of ties between Beijing and Moscow that reflect cooperation at the top as well as increasing economic, diplomatic, and military ties.
Even before the Russian invasion, Sino-Russian ties had deepened steadily. China is now Russia’s largest trading partner, dominating both imports and exports. Total trade in 2021 reached some $146 billion, increasing by a third over 2020.
Notably, at the summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the beginning of the 2022 Winter Olympics, the two sides agreed to grow their economic ties further, aiming to reach $250 billion by 2024.
Like the United States, China imports significant amounts of Russian oil. Russia is the second-largest source of foreign oil for China, after Saudi Arabia. Other Chinese imports from Russia include timber and, increasingly, food. Russia, meanwhile, has sought Chinese expertise to help build its 5G communications network.
China and Russia also clearly have become closer diplomatic partners. They have supported each other at the United Nations over Syria (a key Russian partner). Of China’s 17 vetoes, 10 have been on behalf of Syria’s Assad regime, at times even after Moscow already had cast its veto.
At U.N. conferences on space arms control, China and Russia perennially and jointly proposed agreements to “ban” certain types of anti-satellite weapons, while both countries test a variety of ASATs for themselves.
Most strikingly, Sino-Russian military coordination has advanced steadily. China conducted its first military exercises with Russia in 2005, when Chinese and Russian forces engaged in “Peace Mission 2005.” Since then, however, those exercises have become much more extensive.
About 3,000 Chinese troops and a reported 900 vehicles participated in the Russian Vostok 2018 exercises, signaling that Russia was neither politically nor militarily isolated. In 2021, “West-Joint-2021” saw very close Russian and Chinese cooperation, with Russian troops disembarking from Chinese armored personnel carriers.
To imagine that China would wish to support the United States against Russia, given these extensive ties,is to imagine a shared set of interests between Washington and Beijing that is belied by reality.
Perhaps the Biden administration agrees with its climate envoy, John Kerry, who believes that the Ukraine war is only a distraction from climate change, and thinks China sees it the same way.
Unfortunately, China’s behavior makes clear that it disagrees with Washington on both climate change and Ukraine. Indeed, even as Russia was finalizing preparations to invade Ukraine, Chinese and Russian negotiators were inking a deal for 100 million tons of Russian coal to help fuel China’s 38 new, coal-fired power plants.
Since the invasion began, China has agreed to lift restrictions on Russian wheat imports.
None of this makes China and Russia formal allies. They have neither a bilateral nor multilateral commitment to come to the other’s defense. Nor is there any evidence of some kind of joint military planning structure analogous to NATO, despite the combined military exercises.
Moreover, given reported Russian difficulties advancing in Ukraine, the prospects of opportunistic Chinese moves against Taiwan now become more dubious. Ukraine’s resistance likely gives Beijing pause on how easily it could swallow Taiwan.
But American policy-makers should wake up and smell the pu-erh. At times, the United States has confronted more than one adversary, with little to no prospect of drawing off one or the other.
Between 1939 and 1941, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany worked together to partition eastern Europe, with the USSR helping to fuel the German war machine. Between 1949 and 1960, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China were tightly joined in facing the capitalist threat embodied by the United States.
Domestic, internal factors drove these authoritarian alliances apart more than foreign pressure did, much less importuning and begging.
Given the even greater economic and military ties that now link Moscow and Beijing, Washington needs to reprioritize strengthening the United States itself.
The Biden administration also must strengthen its alliances, friendships, and economic partnerships with the rest of the world, rather than chase after the unicorn dream of splitting Russia from China, or Putin from Xi.
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