The Invasion of Ukraine, Another Challenge for the China-US Relationship

March 21, 2022

On March 18, Presidents Biden and Xi Jinping held a two-hour-long video conference. To put their meeting in perspective, one does not have to go back all the way to China’s “century of humiliation”, but a brief chronological look at the recent past, particularly the last year could be useful.

In April 2017, President Trump hosted his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping for a two-day summit at the Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. After their meeting, Mr. Trump spoke of “tremendous progress” in the US-China relationship. A year later, the Trump administration announced sweeping tariffs on Chinese imports. The trade war escalated with more tariffs and Chinese retaliation. In December 2018, the chief financial officer Huawei was arrested in Canada at Washington’s request. The trade war intensified.

In November 2019, President Trump signed a bill supporting Hong Kong protesters.

In May 2020, Secretary Pompeo referred to “decades of Western tolerance of behaviors that we don’t accept from any place else”, the Chinese Communist Party’s desire to have “hegemonic influence around the world”.

On October 25, 2020, Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden said that the biggest security threat to the US is Russia and he called China the “biggest competitor”.

In what Reuters called a “parting shot”, the Trump administration determined that China had committed “genocide and crimes against humanity” in its repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. This was on January 19, a day before US President-elect Joe Biden was to take office.

The same day, Mr. Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated at a Senate confirmation hearing that he agreed with the genocide determination and denounced the Xinjiang “concentration camps.”

On February 1, 2021, Secretary Blinken said that China poses the most significant challenge to the US of any other country; that there are adversarial aspects to the relationship as well as competitive ones, and still some cooperative ones, too. He then added, “… we have to be able to approach China from a position of strength, not weakness. And that strength, I think, comes from having strong alliances, something China does not have…”

On February 10, President Biden spoke to President Xi Jinping. The readout of the call said, “President Biden underscored his fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan…”

On March 18, 2021, Secretary Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Yang Jiechi, China’s most senior foreign policy official, and Foreign Minister Wang in Anchorage. No one hoped for a breakthrough at this meeting but few could have expected the talks to start with an hour-long exchange of sharp rebukes. After all, this was the first high-level meeting between the Biden administration and Chinese officials.

On June 14, 2021, President Biden arrived in Brussels having mustered enough support from the G7 summit on Russia and China. His principal task at the NATO summit was to put behind Washington’s “time of troubles” with President Trump and rally NATO support in the strategic competition with Russia and China.

The 79-paragraph Summit Communiqué used the word “Russia” 61 times, and the word “China” 10 times.

The two paragraphs dealing with China, the first time in a NATO communiqué, were more carefully worded whereas the G7 had called on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially in relation to Xinjiang and those rights, freedoms, and a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.

Two months after the NATO summit, came the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan. It was a setback for transatlantic relations since Washington’s European allies were upset for not being properly consulted.

And three months after the NATO summit, on September 15, 2021, President Biden, Prime Ministers Morrison, and Johnson announced the creation of AUKUS, a new enhanced trilateral security partnership between Australia, the UK, and the US.  Mr. Morrison said that the first major initiative of AUKUS will be to deliver a nuclear-powered submarine fleet for Australia. It was another setback for transatlantic relations. China strongly denounced the new security pact.

Did these developments cause some of Washington’s European allies to regret following Washington’s lead at the NATO summit? Perhaps.

And finally, on November 15, 2021, President Biden had a virtual meeting with President Xi Jinping. It was no more than a repetition of known views.

In brief, with the Biden administration, the China-US relationship could and should have made a better beginning after four years of disarray in Washington. Unfortunately, it did not. It remained confrontational. And Washington’s openly declared strategic competition brought China and Russia closer.

Thus, on February 4, 2022, Presidents Putin and Xi Jinping held talks in Beijing. The “Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development” was issued after their meeting. It said:

“Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no “forbidden” areas of cooperation, strengthening of bilateral strategic cooperation is neither aimed against third countries nor affected by the changing international environment and circumstantial changes in third countries.”

Russia’s launching of the invasion of Ukraine on February 24 was a shock to the world. The Chinese-Russian Joint Statement issued only three weeks earlier immediately led to speculation whether President Putin had informed his Chinese counterpart about what he had in mind.

On March 14, in preparation for the meeting to be held between their leaders, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had talks with Chinese Communist Party Politburo Member and Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission Yang Jiechi in Rome. The recurrent theme of the US news outlets before the meeting was the coming “warning to China”. After the meeting, the State Department spokesman said, “The national security adviser and our delegation raised directly and very clearly our concerns about the [People’s Republic of China] PRC’s support to Russia in the wake of the invasion, and the implications that any such support would have for the PRC’s relationship not only with us, but for its relationships around the world.”

The next day, in a Washington Post op-ed on March 15, Mr. Qin Gang, China’s Ambassador to Washington said:

“There have been claims that China had prior knowledge of Russia’s military action and demanded Russia delay it until the Winter Olympics concluded. Recent rumors further claimed that Russia was seeking military assistance from China. Let me say this responsibly: Assertions that China knew about, acquiesced to, or tacitly supported this war are purely disinformation.” [i]

And, on March 17, the day before the Biden-Xi teleconference, Secretary Blinken, in remarks to the press said, “President Biden will be speaking to President Xi tomorrow and will make clear that China will bear responsibility for any actions it takes to support Russia’s aggression, and we will not hesitate to impose costs.”

China’s Foreign Ministry was the first to issue a readout of the Biden-Xi meeting.[ii] It started with the following:

“… Biden reiterated that the US does not seek a new Cold War with China; it does not aim to change China’s system; the revitalization of its alliances is not targeted at China; the US does not support “Taiwan independence”; and it has no intention to seek a conflict with China. The US is ready to have candid dialogue and closer cooperation with China, stay committed to the one-China policy, and effectively manage competition and disagreements to ensure the steady growth of the relationship. President Biden expressed readiness to stay in close touch with President Xi to set the direction for the US-China relationship.”

“President Xi stressed that he and President Biden share the view that China and the US need to respect each other, coexist in peace, and avoid confrontation, and that the two sides should increase communication and dialogue at all levels and in all fields.”

According to Beijing, President Xi pointed out that China did not want to see the situation in Ukraine come to this; that China stands for peace and opposes war; that this is embedded in China’s history and culture. He added that this is China’s policy independently of the particular aspects of conflicts. Mr. Xi advocated dialogue and negotiation but in an indirect reference to the discussion about Kyiv’s joining NATO, he mentioned a Chinese saying: “He who tied the bell to the tiger must take it off.”

White House readout of the meeting was much shorter. [iii] It said, “… The conversation focused on Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. President Biden outlined the views of the United States and our Allies and partners on this crisis. President Biden detailed our efforts to prevent and then respond to the invasion, including by imposing costs on Russia. He described the implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia as it conducts brutal attacks against Ukrainian cities and civilians. The President underscored his support for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.”

Today, China is one of the world’s two leading powers. Henry Kissinger has said, “No other country can claim so long a continuous civilization or such an intimate link to its ancient past and classical principles of strategy and statesmanship.” Yet, without even an interlude of democracy in its history, China has failed to make progress in that direction and President Xi’s terms in office are no exception. China had a two-term limit on its president since the 1990s. Xi Jinping became president in 2012. In April 2020, the National People’s Congress approved the removal of the two-term limit, effectively allowing him to remain in power for life. President Putin had taken the same path before him. China’s treatment of Uyghurs is wrong.

However, during the past decades, China has focused on economic development. It has built economic bridgeheads across the world becoming the world’s top trading nation. It has avoided getting involved in international disputes, Arab spring adventures. US officials have continuously referred to its aggressive policies, but Peking has not allowed regional questions to turn into crises. It has not resorted to force. Chinese officials have reacted to such allegations in measured language because China’s public diplomacy is generally reserved, cautious. From the outset of the Ukrainian crisis, Beijing has advocated diplomatic engagement. Recognizing Beijing a window of opportunity to prove its point could be a better option than putting it in the same basket with Moscow. This is China’s first major test as a world power.

According to the Chinese readout of the meeting, President Xi said that the direct cause for the current situation in the China-US relationship is that some people on the US side have not followed through on the important common understandings reached by the two Presidents and have not acted on President Biden’s positive statements.

He must have been referring to the many statements of the senior officials of the Biden administration targeting Beijing in strong, sometimes threatening language. Only a day before his meeting with his Chinese counterpart in Rome, Jack Sullivan told CNN that the US was prepared to act against China if it violated sanctions to support Russia. “We are communicating directly, privately to Beijing that there will absolutely be consequences for large-scale sanctions evasion efforts or support to Russia to backfill them…” he said. Why not wait for a day?

Would Washington have followed the same line towards China had it foreseen Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Probably not. Would it have tried to prevent Beijing and Moscow from closer? Yes, it would have.

Half a century after the establishment of diplomatic relations, the US-China relationship is once again at a critical point. How it evolves will shape the world in the 21st century. It is clear that this is no time for resets. But what President Biden told President Xi, according to the Chinese readout, can help improve Chinese-American relations. A policy of constructive engagement is a far better option than confrontation for the two global powers.

An extraordinary meeting of the North Atlantic Council (NAC) at the level of Heads of State and Government will take place on Thursday 24 March 2022. The Alliance has displayed unity in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Unity on relations with China, going beyond what was said in the last NATO communique, would be more complicated.

In the light of Russia’s assault against Ukraine, the reshaping of the “global order”, building a new “security architecture” have become popular topics. This will take time. The immediate question would be finding a starting point, a common understanding. And to arrive at such an understanding, world leaders should look again and again at the advice given by George F. Kennan in his 1960 Foreign Affairs article titled “Peaceful Coexistence, A Western View” in which he responded to Nikita Khrushchev’s views on “peaceful coexistence”. [iv]

This was his concluding paragraph:

“Could we not, all of us, now put aside the pretense of total righteousness and admit to a measure of responsibility for the tangled processes of history that have brought the world to its present dangerous state? And could we not, having once admitted this, drop the argument about whose responsibility is greatest and address ourselves at long last, earnestly and without recrimination, to the elimination of the central and most intolerable elements of the danger?”

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[i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/03/15/china-ambassador-us-where-we-stand-in-ukraine/

[ii] https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/202203/t20220319_10653207.html

[iii] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/03/18/readout-of-president-joseph-r-biden-jr-call-with-president-xi-jinping-of-the-peoples-republic-of-china-2/

[iv] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/1960-01-01/peaceful-coexistence

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