China’s foreign policy is either amazingly adept, delicately threading the needle of friendship with both Russia and the U.S., in effect eating its cake and keeping it too, or it’s putting at risk its relationship with the U.S. in a way that will be hard to repair, depending on who you ask.
China’s pro-Putin policy has arguably caused it as much diplomatic harm as the spy balloon, South China Sea spats, espionage crackdowns, alleged human rights abuses and de-risking put together.
It’s not that the U.S. is highly principled in its foreign policy, far from it. After all, the imprimatur of Henry Kissinger’s cold, calculating foreign policy “realism” is alive and well, and the Pentagon and CIA have dozens of wars and clandestine intrigue to answer for.
Even during the Clinton years, which now, in retrospect, look like a high point in Sino-American relations, the U.S. installed electronic surveillance devices on an American 747 jet that was being prepared for the use of China’s top leader at the time, Jiang Zemin.
And it took only one terrible, if errant, bombing in Yugoslavia (Was it accidental? Intentional? A case of bad maps? An accident on purpose? The public still doesn’t know…) to set back relations instantly to the point where the U.S. Embassy on Guanghua Road was besieged by a swell of angry crowds and punished with volleys of litter, paint and placards of hate.
Surprisingly, things bounced back rather quickly after that.
Another flashpoint and instantaneous outbreak of hostility took place with the mid-air collision of a Chinese jet and an American propeller driven spy plane, resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot and the humiliation of arrest and hostage-like captivity of American electronic espionage experts in Hainan.
Yet again, things also bounced back rather shortly after that.
Some of the resilience in U.S.-China relations back at the turn of the century could be attributed to cooler heads prevailing on both sides. Politicians did their predictable grandstanding but let seasoned diplomats and bureaucrats get things back on track.
Given a record of stark challenges, and such sharp rebounds, one would be tempted to say that U.S.-China relations are so profound as to be puncture proof. Common ground continues to protect the “world’s most important bilateral relationship.”
Challenges have only gotten starker. The U.S. have seen common ground erode with the 2008 financial crisis, the deadly 2010-12 sweep of CIA agents in China, and of course the more public tensions of trade disputes, intellectual property complaints, unfair economic practices and so on. And then COVID hit the world, fanning out from Wuhan, China, though to this day it is not clear where the virus first emerged. The discredited China lab leak hypothesis nonetheless led to the “kung-flu” denigrations championed by Donald Trump.
But then, just as the world was coming out of the pandemic, and Beijing was putting on the 2022 Winter Olympics, a funny thing happened. Russia’s Vladimir Putin flew to Beijing to celebrate the games. A grateful Xi announced an upgrade to the lackluster but improving Sino-Soviet relationship, declaring it a partnership of “no limits.”
If Putin had gone home and devoted his better efforts to repairing Russia’s weakened economy, the bold words spoken on February 4, 2022, might have been forgotten as diplomatic bombast of the moment.
But three weeks later, after trenchant denials to the world and his own people that he had no intention of invading Ukraine, Putin launched a brutal, full-scale invasion. This was not a minor thrust along the already hotly-contested border, but a failed decapitation strike on Ukraine’s leadership and a failed attempt to put its capital city, Kiev under Russian control.
What China knew and what it knew when about Russia’s plan for Ukraine has been a topic of heated speculation. If it was a surprise, one might have expected to see daylight between China’s view of the “Ukraine situation” and Russia’s view.
China continues to give lip service to sovereignty, a bedrock principle of international relations. When a free-standing nation is invaded and violently subjugated by another by means of war, it is not okay. But China said little, and has yet to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
A gratuitous, unprovoked war has been raging for nearly two bloody years since, leaving tens of thousands of casualties in its terrible wake, obliterating entire cities in the process, putting a strain on diplomacy and disrupting world trade.
There’s no easy way to sugarcoat this; the war was an elective choice. Hatched in secret, the shots were called by a single man on the top of Russia’s pyramid of power named Putin. Just as in the infamous case of the Nazi attack on Poland that launched a world war, this nefarious act can be pinpointed to the decision of one man.
Putin’s callous, pompous and ill-conceived military bullying has seen him widely cast as the villain for the new era, but not in China, even though his actions have put the heartland of Central Europe, a key terminus of China’s economic outreach on the Belt and Road, in flames.
The war does not reflect well on China, despite its hypocritical pretense of being a peace broker. It hurts Beijing’s credibility, it hurts the perception of fair play, and it erodes the Westphalian notion that national borders should not be violated.
Europe’s economy is a mess, energy prices have gone through the roof, and there’s less money for Europe to absorb the Chinese imports in a manner which at one point had China on track to grow into the world’s undisputed economic giant.
But it’s the politics, not the economics, I would argue, that poses the greatest impediment to U.S.-China relations going forward. Putin’s war invokes something very deep in the American psyche, especially as it metastasizes to sow distrust, hatred, ethnic persecution and an unending cycle of violence. Brutal massacres have been committed in the shadow of Holocaust memorial sites. The Kremlin controlled media spins Goebbel’s notion that a lie told often enough assumes a kind of truth with its various absurd claims of deNazification, exposing non-existent U.S. biolabs and other conspiratorial poison.
Meanwhile, China looks the other way. China’s diplomats continue to portray their country’s policy as one of principled neutrality, with respect for sovereignty and peace, but Beijing’s political embrace of Putin, as seen both in vigorous summitry and in the Chinese state media’s tendency to echo Russian media’s belligerent talking points, suggests otherwise.
Politics is never entirely clean. The U.S. government has a long record of looking the other way when client states and allies break the law and carry out human rights abuses. But the specter of authoritarian figure rising in the east falls too easily into the United States’ view. U.S.-China relations will continue to suffer for as long as Putin persists in driving a wedge between the two.