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The Last Boulder to Break the Camel’s Back?

Jun 16, 2022
  • Chen Dongxiao

    President, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies

Implications of Russia-Ukraine Conflict for China-U.S. Relations[1]

In the year prior to Russia’s “special military operation” against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, there was already a “paradigm shift” in the interaction between the U.S. and China. The Biden administration has by and large inherited the containment policy from the Trump administration, with the difference being the former more focused on shaping an international environment that better facilitates the “containment of China,” while at least putting a verbal emphasis on setting “guardrails” to prevent the derailment of strategic competition. Correspondingly, Beijing is increasingly convinced that China-U.S. relations have come to a strategic stalemate of competition and struggle. The dominant narrative on the Chinese side is that this strategic competition between the two countries reflects the struggles for power, institutions, and perceptions, which will last throughout the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. In general, it is thus believed that competition and struggle have been adopted as key words for both Washington and Beijing in managing their relations. 

The reality, however, seems more nuanced. On the one hand, in contrast to the occasional bickering between officials, leaders on both sides have continued to emphasize in their numbered dialogues the need to leave room for cooperation between China and the United States in addressing global issues, and each has expressed a will not to allow relations to slip into a “new cold war”. On the other hand, the year 2022, China is fully engaged in preparing for the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, and the U.S. is also faced with the more pressing political agenda of the midterm elections. Considering the domestic needs for economic stability on each side and the not-so-warm but more predictable interactions between the two policy teams as opposed to that in the Trump term, there are rising expectations for a relative stable China-U.S. relationship. To this end, China has clearly been more action-oriented than the U.S. side. Earlier this year, Beijing ceremoniously commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Shanghai Communiqué, calling on Washington to revive the spirit of “seeking common ground while reserving differences” to guide the way forward in China-U.S. relations. 

Nonetheless, the drastic escalation of the Russia-Ukraine crisis that led to a direct Russian military attack on Ukraine not only took Beijing by surprise, but the prolonged fighting and the ensuing danger of further exacerbation have certainly piled another boulder on the already difficult and fragile China-U.S. relationship, significantly adding complexities for Beijing to handle the bilateral relations with Washington. 

Rising Antagonism 

First, the Russia-Ukraine crisis has further intensified suspicion and hostility between China and the United States. On the one hand, Washington and Beijing have profound divergences over the origins of the conflict and the attribution of responsibility for it, which are in essence major discrepancies in their perspectives on the nature of current international order and its future development. Washington condemned Moscow for “waging a war of aggression” against Ukraine, which violated the UN Charter and basic norms of international relations, while accusing China of not publicly condemning Russia’s aggression. Beijing, in turn, stressed that the Russia-Ukraine crisis is not only complex in its historical context, but also that NATO’s incessant eastward expansion, regardless of Russia’s legitimate security concerns since the post-Cold War era, is a major cause of the current conflict, for which the U.S. and the West themselves are to blame. 

With unprecedented economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation on Russia, backed by the U.S. military assistance to Ukraine and the passage of a $40 billion aid bill, senior officials in the Biden administration and bipartisan leaders in the U.S. Congress have expressed their determination to “weaken Russia” on all fronts. In this regard, China has pointed out that the United States and NATO are engaged in a “proxy war” with Russia, and that their real strategic goal is to exhaust Russia by perpetuating the war in Ukraine. Adding to the fact that senior White House officials have repeatedly indicated that the Russia-Ukraine conflict will not divert the U.S. presupposition on China as its primary strategic adversary, what the U.S. and the West want through this war, as Beijing sees it, is in fact to restore the weakened western leadership in the international order and to reverse the “East-rise, West-fall” trajectory of power dynamics that Beijing refers to. 

On the other hand, that U.S. deliberately stepped up the hype about the “China-Russia axis” after the Russia-Ukraine conflict has added to Beijing’s growing strategic vigilance and antagonism toward Washington. In Beijing’s view, Washington and NATO leaders interpreted out of context the line “no forbidden areas for cooperation” in the February 4, 2022 Sino-Russian Joint Statement, in an attempt to substantiate the charge against China’s “complicity” in Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. After the U.S.-led West launched massive economic and financial sanctions against Russia, Washington also threatened China not to help Russia out or else it would face serious consequences. The U.S. House and Senate passed the so-called AXIS Act, which requires the State Department to submit regular reports to Congress on Sino-Russian cooperation and the so-called China’s assistance to Russia to escape the Western sanctions. 

In response, Beijing criticized such actions as “a thief crying ‘stop thief’,” arguing that the U.S. not only intends to utilize the Ukraine crisis to make war money, but also tries to use the “democracy against autocracy” rhetoric to form an international coalition against China and Russia. Since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the U.S. has significantly accelerated its coordinated military alliance in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, with China and Russia as its imaginary enemies. As Beijing points out, this “Asia-Pacific tended” and “globe-extended” NATO has demonstrated the U.S. strategic intention to launch a new Cold War by coercing containment of China and Russia on both fronts. 

Meanwhile, the escalation of strategic hostility between the U.S. and Chinese governments over the conflict has also led to greater antagonism between the two public. According to an April 28 survey by Pew Research, more than 90 percent of Americans interviewed believe that the partnership between Russia and China is a “serious problem,” while negative views of China have reached a “new high” of 82 percent. Correspondingly, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has also aroused widespread concern among the Chinese people. Although different perspectives exist on the causes and effects of the conflict, as the fighting continues to escalate, a majority of the Chinese public believes that the Russia-Ukraine conflict has evolved into a Western “proxy war” against Russia, and that the real objective of the U.S. and NATO is to sabotage both China and Russia.

Decoupling and International Financial Firewalls 

Second, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has further worsened the overall economic situation, including the respective economic security of China and the United States, and has accelerated the decoupling of their science & tech collaboration as well as the bifurcation of key industrial chains. For one thing, the conflict, combined with the fractured pandemic recovery and high inflation, has exacerbated the energy and food crises, adding to the already fragile and unbalanced post-pandemic world economic situation, with the two leading economies, China and the U.S. seriously affected. Price spiral of commodities sets the U.S. Federal Reserve in a dilemma between the policy options of curbing high inflation and preventing recession. A number of international agencies have issued warnings of stagflation or even another economic crisis in the United States. For the Chinese economy, the war between Russia and Ukraine as well as the unprecedented scale of sanctions and collateral sanctions by the U.S.-led West on Russia have directly blocked Chinese investment and economic and trade exchanges with Ukraine and restricted China’s normal trade and investment projects with Russia prior to the war. Moreover, China is accelerating the diversification of its food import in recent years, especially increasing imports of food crops and agricultural materials such as fertilizers from Russia and Ukraine to enhance food security. The impact of the conflict and its derivative effects on the supply chain of food and fertilizers, overlaid with the negative impact of extreme weather on domestic food production, has further raised China’s food security risks. 

For another, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has not only accelerated the decoupling between the U.S. and China in technology and key industrial chains, but has also had a considerable impact on the Sino-U.S. cooperation in the financial sector. Beijing is particularly concerned about two steps that the U.S. is taking. One is the Senate’s America COMPETES Act of 2022, marking a fast-track push by the U.S. legislative branch to decouple technology and key industrial chains with China. The second is President Biden’s May 23 announcement of the formal launch of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), marking an accelerated build-up of the U.S. alliance to “decouple key supply chains” from China. For Beijing, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has not only exerted further pressure on decoupling, but the unprecedented U.S.-led financial war against Russia, including the freezing of more than $300 billion Russian foreign exchange assets, has also made Beijing increasingly aware of the importance and urgency of comprehensive prevention and countermeasures against the potential “financial war” in the future. How to comprehensively improve the defensive and offensive capabilities of China’s “financial weapons” in the fight against the U.S. has become an important task that the Chinese government needs to vigorously plan and build. This, as a matter of fact, also indicates that the trend of “decoupling” of economic relations between China and the United States is expanding from the real economy, such as technology and key industrial chains, to the virtual economy, represented by finance and banking. 

Alarm Bells across the Taiwan Strait 

Third, the alarm of escalating tensions in the Taiwan Strait has been sounded time and again. On the one hand, long before the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the Biden administration had inherited its predecessor’s strategy of “containing China with the Taiwan issue”, i.e., within the policy framework of long-term competition with China, Washington had significantly elevated the political, economic and security significance of Taiwan in the U.S. global and regional strategy. By means of such, the U.S. government’s “One China Policy” has been continuously hollowed out. Two major regressions by the Biden administration on Taiwan issue have caused great vigilance and dissatisfaction on the part of China. One is that Biden has basically inherited the major adjustments to Taiwan policy from his predecessor, and has explicitly placed the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances in parallel with the three U.S.-China Joint Communiqués as the legal and political basis for dealing with the Taiwan issue and cross-Strait relations. This will greatly enhance the political and strategic significance of the U.S. relations with Taiwan. Another is that the Biden administration continues to intentionally confuse the positioning of the mainland and Taiwan under the U.S. “One China Policy”. 

Washington’s frequent threats to pressure “Taiwan’s diplomatic states” who want to establish official diplomatic relations with Beijing have been perceived by Beijing as serious provocative moves in support of the “One China, One Taiwan” policy being actively pursued by Taiwan’s DPP authorities. In Beijing’s view, the U.S.’s increasingly hollowed “One China Policy” no longer shares much in substance with China’s “One China Principle”, hence the then cornerstone of normalization of China-U.S. relations has been severely eroded. Not only is the U.S. government increasingly hollowing out its “One China policy”, but it is also de facto deterring mainland China from unifying Taiwan by enhancing the U.S. political, military and economic cooperation with the Island. And for this reason, whether the timetable of peaceful reunification still remains in China’s hands has become a hot-button issue in China. As a consequence, such Beijing’s perception of U.S.-Taiwan relations is bound to shape the policy direction of the Chinese government and the timing awareness of the general public toward the Taiwan issue. 

On the other hand, the U.S. government’s cross-Strait policy has shifted to a more “strategic clarity” since the Russia-Ukraine conflict, making it more difficult for China and the United States to effectively manage the Taiwan issue. Although there have been debates in recent years about whether to abandon the “strategic ambiguity” in Taiwan Strait policy, it has generally been confined to the circle of think-tank experts, and the U.S. government has remained cautious about whether to intervene militarily in the event of a Taiwan Strait incident. 

Yet after the outbreak of the conflict, not only have Washington think-tank experts intensively discussed in high profile the so-called “impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict on the Taiwan Strait,” but the U.S. government and Congress have also signaled warnings about the prospect and consequences of a so-called “potential military attack” on Taiwan by Beijing. For instance, the U.S. Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Jake Sullivan said China would learn from Russia’s war in Ukraine to prepare for a future “invasion” of Taiwan, and reiterated the U.S. security commitment to Taiwan. U.S. Treasury Secretary Yellen threatened to impose sanctions on Beijing similar to those on Russia if mainland China used force against Taiwan. From the American perspective, the all-round isolation and sanctions against Russia and solidarity of the U.S.-led West to assist Ukraine in its “protracted war” against “invasion” will not only weaken Russia, but also add to the deterrent effect on Beijing’s so-called “armed reunification with Taiwan”. The most notable was Biden’s public declaration during his visit to Japan on May 23 that the U.S. military would help defend Taiwan in the event of a war in the Taiwan Strait. Although the White House and Biden himself later expressed no change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan, Beijing’s trust in the administration’s Taiwan policy, including Biden’s own, has fallen to a new low. At the same time, many think-tank experts in Washington have unabashedly encouraged Taiwan to learn more from Ukraine’s “asymmetric” and “nimble” military strategy against Russia to counter the mainland in conflict scenarios. In addition, Washington has encouraged allies such as Japan and Australia to pressure Beijing on the Taiwan issue by strengthening military alliances in the Asia-Pacific region. 

From China’s perspective, Washington deliberately equating Ukraine, a sovereign state, with Taiwan, an entity with no sovereign status, exposes the U.S.’s hypocrisy of so-called “not supporting the Taiwan independence”, which is actually paving the way in legal terms, for future interference in China’s unification process. Also, the U.S. government’s latest policy pronouncements or threats to China on the Taiwan Strait after the Russia-Ukraine conflict are further evidence of the escalating intensity of U.S. efforts to “contain China with the Taiwan issue” and further clarification of its policy to prevent cross-strait reunification even at the stake of military intervention. With Beijing’s growing dissatisfaction and distrust of Washington on Taiwan-related issues, coupled with the current weak functioning mechanism of dialogue and exchange between the two sides, uncertainty and the risk of crisis around the Taiwan Strait will continue to rise in the future, which is bound to seriously affect Sino-U.S. relations and even global peace and stability. 

The Curse of “Security Dilemmas” 

The Russia-Ukraine military conflict is another watershed event in the three decades since the end of the Cold War, in terms of the international security order, the major power dynamics and world economic development. In this time of turmoil and uncertainty, it is particularly important for deep reflection. For China-U.S. relations, the lessons and implications behind the Russia-Ukraine conflict are manifold, two of which are of utmost significance. 

First, security dilemmas among great powers must be managed prudently. In general, unless there is an alliance, security dilemmas between major powers are the usual case, which can only be managed not removed. Numerous cases in history show that the way to effectively mitigate security dilemmas between major powers calls for, in the first place, regular strategic communications and confidence-building measures to prevent mutual stereotypes from solidifying respective dynamic perceptions of their adversaries, thereby constantly enhancing understandings of each other’s strategic intentions. Meanwhile, the major powers should be highly sensitive to each other’s core security interests, and prevent the escalation or even loss of control of the security dilemma due to continuous “sausage slicing” on each other’s core interests. The security dilemma theory also emphasizes the need to manage the stimulus of domestic politics and ideologies, especially to prevent the intensification of strategic hostility and confrontation among major powers, i.e. speculating on “foreign enemies” in order to relieve domestic pressure and transfer various domestic problems. 

These theoretical summaries come from the recurring tragedies in history of the evolution and even aggravation of great power security dilemmas. The U.S.-Soviet Cold War that broke out after WWII was closely related to the failure to manage the security dilemma between the two big powers. On account of differences in security cultures and historical experiences, for example, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had difficulty understanding the complex reasons for each other’s security policies, and the so-called defensive security actions taken by both sides constantly provoked anxiety and escalated reactions from the other side. This security dilemma has been further amplified by two factors in the process of its continuous intensification. One is the attribution of ideological and even ethnic identity to the other side’s strategic intentions, such as George Kennan’s long telegram, which typified the U.S. perception of the Soviet Union at the time. Another important factor was that the domestic politics of both countries further exacerbated the mutual security dilemma. The nature of the U.S. political system, the check and balance of power, and the role of interest groups encouraged U.S. leaders to exaggerate the dangers from abroad and to use them to enhance their power at home. Similarly, the Soviet Union’s ideological interpretation of U.S. behavior and the Soviet hierarchy’s strong desire to control Eastern Europe escalated the inherent security dilemma between the two powers into a series of security confrontations that led to a full-blown Cold War. 

Today, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has finally erupted into a military showdown, bringing severe impact on European security and stability of the international order. While there are certainly complex historical origins and realistic entanglements of security interests behind it, it also reveals the failure of managing the long-term security dilemma between Russia vs. the U.S. and NATO that back the current Ukrainian government. Many U.S. strategists and former senior officials, including Kennan, Kissinger and Gates, have all recognized that NATO’s continued eastward expansion after the Cold War, reneging on its promises, has seriously stimulated Russia’s hostility. The U.S. and West’s long-standing zero-sum game mentality toward Russia, deep-rooted stereotypical enemy intent, and the need to serve domestic political agendas have ultimately led to a dramatic escalation of the West’s security dilemma with Russia, adding fuel to the fire of catastrophic consequences. Similarly, China and the United States should learn from the historical and on-site tragedies and work together to manage the increasingly serious security dilemma between the two countries. 

“Mushroom Cloud” of Hybrid Warfare 

Second, every effort must be made to prevent a new type of hybrid war between the major powers, before it gets out of hand. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has not only evolved into a “proxy war” between the U.S.-led West and Russia, but also a new type of hybrid war in the 21st century that combines warfare on multiple fronts, including military, intelligence, financial, cognitive, and diplomatic wars. This new hybrid war has many similarities to traditional military conflicts, in terms of the large number of military and civilian casualties and property losses, but the biggest difference is the increased risk of unpredictable escalation in both horizontal and vertical ways. This unpredictability manifests itself in at least three aspects. 

One is that the economic impact of a new hybrid war can quickly extend beyond the geographic scope of traditional warfare, causing an economic crisis on a global scale. According to studies by UN agencies, the Russia-Ukraine military conflict, especially the U.S. and the West’s mega economic war against Russia, has caused severe energy and food shortages and a crushing debt crisis to rapidly hit the vast number of developing and emerging economies, exposing them to the double hardship of a difficult post-pandemic recovery and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Unlike traditional military conflicts, the risk of economic damage to the world from this new hybrid war has risen sharply. 

Two is that the “weaponization” and abuse of financial tools increase the risk of escalation of traditional military conflicts. Just as the U.S. and Western governments relish the serious impact of super-economic sanctions against Russia, its damage to economy, society and the Russian public did go far beyond financial spheres. And just because such damages are not as visually bloody as the human casualties and cities ruins caused by war, those who impose the mega sanctions often do not have much psychological burden, thus leading to the misuse and perpetuation of financial weapons. For the victims suffering from such super financial weapons, is it simply a matter of fighting back with economic means in kind, or is it a matter of fully escalating the military conflict to counter the mega damage? If one side of the war believes that its adversary’s financial warfare has caused irreversible damage to its core security interests, it may significantly increase its incentive to escalate the war massively to force its adversary to back off. 

Three is the ghost of nuclear war hanging over Europe again. Let’s not forget that behind the Russia-Ukraine conflict is a battle between the world’s two largest nuclear forces. With the Biden administration sending a clear signal to “permanently weaken Russia” through the war, the U.S. has significantly elevated the position of Ukraine in the U.S. global strategy. Does this reaffirm the Putin administration’s belief that Russia’s battle with the U.S. and the West in Ukraine is a “life-or-death” struggle for Russia? The Russian side has also signaled once again that if NATO and the U.S.-led West’s involvement in the war causes a strategic cost that Russia cannot afford, Russia will not hesitate to strike back with lethal weapons, which means that NATO as a whole will face another “Cuban missile crisis” and the resulting danger of a “nuclear war”. 

2,500 years ago, the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu pointed out that “the art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.” Similarly, no matter how much warfare changes, we must always be conscious of its fundamental life-and-death ramifications on nation and people. Along this line, for Chinese and U.S. policymakers, maintaining the stability of Sino-U.S. relations, managing responsibly the competition between the two countries, and preventing it from getting out of control or even falling into confrontation or military conflict are matters of national & global importance, which can on no account be neglected. Especially for those in the U.S. who are currently relishing the effects of a new type of hybrid war, the Russia-Ukraine conflict does have some sobering takeaways for serious consideration. 

[1] The author is Prof. Chen Dongxiao, Senior Fellow and President of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS). He is also director of the SIIS Center for International Communications and editor-in-chief of the SIIS Report.


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