Both Russia’s scorched-earth invasion of Ukraine and the swift fury of the U.S. and European Union-led global response seem to have come as a shock to Beijing. China’s ambiguous stance—clearly anti-American but not explicitly pro-Russian or anti-Ukrainian—in part comes because the West’s surprisingly strong response has frustrated Chinese ambitions.
It may not have fully sunk in yet in Beijing, but the resurgence of an economic and strategically unified West, and the risk of the financial and political liability of protecting a dependent, wrecked petrostate, should lead Chinese President Xi Jinping to see the wisdom of cooperating with the global economic order, albeit with a larger Chinese voice and modest distancing from its partner in Moscow. Despite its echoing of Russian disinformation, Beijing has cautiously cut off Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank loans and trade financing to Moscow, and China’s state-run Sinopec halted gas and petrochemical projects in Russia. With $3 trillion in mostly dollar and euro assets and watching the United States disappear Russian Central Bank assets overnight, Beijing’s caution is understandable.
But would the United States accept inclusion of a more cooperative China if Beijing changed course and used it leverage to help resolve the Ukraine question? Given relentless U.S. indictment of Chinese behavior on Ukraine, even before China has taken any actual moves to aid Moscow, Xi could be forgiven for thinking that the answer is: probably not.
I’ve never quite understood the endgame of the many efforts to forge common cause solely with democracies on global trade, technology, and all things digital. I thought the point was to position the United States to shape global rules and standards—which means accepting major authoritarian economies in that order, lest a dangerous race to the bottom from a fragmented order of competing rules and standards ensues.
The unified public and private sector sanctions placed on Russia underscore the imperative of reaching consensus on rules and standards with allies and like-minded partners to the degree possible. It’s a smart U.S. starting point, a force multiplier for U.S. leverage. And in strategic areas of supply chain security and technology like 5G, it can be a viable end goal. But what jumped out at me watching U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy last December was the question of whether this is viewed as an end in itself across the board. If the United States can, for example, reach a consensus with the EU and Japan on World Trade Organization (WTO) reform or standards for artificial intelligence, shouldn’t this provide leverage to negotiate with China, Russia, and others to shape global norms?
Instead, the opposite appears more the conventional wisdom. In February, when asked about consulting with the region on the recently released U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Kritenbrink said emphatically, “There is currently no intention to engage the People’s Republic of China on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.”
Yet China is hardly impervious to change. Aside from 12 major (and dozens of minor) dynasties over the past 4,000 years, since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took power in 1949, there have been no shortages of major shifts. There was Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, a catastrophic collectivization campaign launched in 1958 that led to some 30 million Chinese starving to death. That was preceded by Mao’s “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom” campaign to encourage diverse, new thinking—but then Mao cut the flowers with an anti-rightist campaign against those who spoke out.
In 1966, to reassert control over what he feared was a bureaucratizing CCP government, Mao started the disastrous Cultural Revolution, empowering Chinese youth (so-called Red Guards) to attack the CCP bureaucracy, institutions, and intellectuals. Nearly 2 million people were killed and millions imprisoned or tortured, disrupting a generation and setting China back.
The led to the reform period. After Mao had a stroke in 1972, Deng Xiaoping gradually took the reins of power, following internal CCP struggles against Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and the “Gang of Four.” Market-oriented reforms took off, first with incremental experiments and then writ large, with Deng proclaiming, “To get rich is glorious.” Collective leadership followed, implementing change, until Xi’s rise and his “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” undoing some market reforms and Deng’s restrained foreign policy. The reactionary trend of policy under Xi is, in fact, a sign that China is capable of change—in both directions.
But even a post-Xi leadership is unlikely to see any incentive to change if it believes the United States has no interest in seeing it or in reaching accommodations with China in a viable international order. Despite the wild political roller coaster of CCP rule, much of the deluge of commentary by the post-engagement commentariat seems to view the party as a monolithic, relentless force. There may be some truth in Xi’s own inflexibility. Though he has eliminated many rivals, Xi has his share of enemies and, as noted above, a CCP history of course changes.