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Foreign Policy

Blinken Will Be Disappointed

Apr 25, 2024
  • Gu Bin

    China Forum expert at Tsinghua University, Associate Professor of Law at Beijing Foreign Studies University

Closely following the footsteps of U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will soon begin a three-day visit to China. The top topic of interest to the international community is expected to be Blinken’s voice of concern about China’s position on the war in Ukraine.

The conflict has been in full flower for more than two years. The United States has offered both money and weapons to fuel the war, resulting in an entire generation of Ukrainian men being wiped out. The most recent example of military aid is the $61 billion package passed recently by both houses of Congress.

The U.S. doesn’t hesitate to pressure countries and international organizations to side with it and isolate Russia. However, it has been unable to persuade China to follow suit. With China, America’s carrot-and-stick policy simply does not work. Instead, China says it intends to stay on the right side of history by seeking a diplomatic solution — mediation to bring an end to the war, while maintaining normal relations with both sides.

China has good reasons for this posture:

First, it places central importance on its economy. Therefore, it will not sever its close economic ties with Russia just because the United States is unhappy. The two countries’ trade volume reached a historic high of $240 billion last year.

While the Biden administration seeks to keep Chinese items — including competitive EV cars, outside the U.S. by calling them products of overcapacity or national security concern — the Russian people are happy to have them, as evidenced at this year’s China Import and Export Fair, at which Russian orders have been plentiful.

China is a faithful disciple of the American presidential campaign slogan “It’s the economy, stupid.” The determination of the U.S. to kick away the Chinese ladder is probably the world’s best-known story today. But China is not as naive as Japan was in the 1980s, when it chose to disarm itself at the will of the U.S. by voluntarily restraining its export capacity.

Yellen’s story of overcapacity is a false one. And so is the Blinken story of China’s support for Russia’s military-industrial base, which in essence means normal trade and economic relations between the two nations.

Second, China’s political position is rational and humane. Many nations have suffered an Anglo-Saxon pattern of coercion — to force changes in the political stances of foreign governments (or change the governments themselves) by means of unilateral and incrementally heightened economic and financial sanctions. Russia is a victim of such coercion, and so is China, whose banks are threatened with being cut off from the global financial system as Blinken arrives. 

By contrast, the Chinese pattern of action is “Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to yourself.” With this mentality, China opposes all forms of unilateral sanctions and refuses to join the American sanction campaign against Russia.

Instead, China has responded constructively to America’s export controls on semiconductors. Chinese corporations, such as Huawei, did not kneel but rather embarked upon a heroic path of innovation, aiming to achieve independence.

Third, China’s approach to the war in Ukraine has been fair and equitable. It does not side with Russia, to be clear. President Xi advocated that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” immediately after the outbreak of war, and he reiterated that with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently. The warnings were clearly aimed at Russia, which has a formidable nuclear arsenal and has repeatedly threatened to use it. Regrettably, a couple of days ago, Poland declared its readiness to host NATO nuclear weapons to counter Russia.   

Western media’s relentless efforts to paint China as an ally of Russia serve their own feelings but not necessarily their own interests. They feel that China’s neutral position on the war is another felony, committed on top of the nation’s “crimes” of overcapacity and industrial policy. India’s pragmatic policy toward the war has been accepted; but for China, the story is different. Another motto is applied: “You are either with us, or against us.”

In recent years, a deeply divided United States, with its two rival political parties, cannot agree on anything except on the U.S. rivalry of China. It fears that the problems of Russia, Iran and Palestine (which, by the way, are of its own making) might deflect limited resources to beat China. But it needs China to resolve them before it can realign resources against China.

Probably in that sense, some Western media claim that China is a beneficiary of the war in Ukraine. But this beneficiary status is bestowed by the U.S. willingly and generously, and without even a short notice to China. And the status is not what China intended, and China will not accept it.

Rather, China holds high the banner of building a community with a shared future for mankind. It cares for its own interests, as well as those of others. Unlike the U.S., China never asks nations to pick sides. It maintains the moral high ground in the U.S.-China rivalry, seeing its soft power increasing steadily before the clear-eyed international community. China welcomes Blinken as a friend and will be frank with him during the discussions in Beijing. 

(Bin Gu is the author of “Chinese Multilateralism in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank” published by Springer.)

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