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Foreign Policy

U.S.-China Relations at a Tipping Point

Feb 22, 2023
  • David Shambaugh

    Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies and Director of the China Policy Program, George Washington University

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U.S.-China relations have been very volatile and very stressed for a long time now, but they may now really be at a tipping point—if China decides to provide lethal military assistance (weapons, ammunition, and military technologies) to Russia. Such assistance would not have to be specifically publicly designated by Beijing for use against Ukraine (it is doubtful Beijing would do so)—simply such provisions would serve to re-stock Russia’s badly depleted military supplies. If a single weapon, bullet, or defense technology is transferred from China to Russia—whether directly used on the battlefield against Ukraine in Russia’s war of aggression—or not, or if Beijing more actively sought to help Moscow evade the sanctions regime placed by many countries, such actions will cross real “red lines” of the United States and its European partners. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken explicitly warned State Councilor and Politburo member Wang Yi of this at the recent Munich Security Conference, and Blinken indicated to Wang (as well as publicly on television) that U.S. intelligence had picked up strong indications that Beijing is actively considering such lethal assistance. Indeed, Chinese drones supplied by Da-Jiang Innovations Science and Technologies of Shenzhen (known as DJI) are already being used by Russian forces to target Ukrainian forces. These drones not only target Ukrainian military and civilian targets, but also allow China to gather crucial intelligence concerning Western weapons systems that may be used in a potential Taiwan conflict. 

Such further actions by China could, in turn, really send China’s relations with the entire West (plus Asian allies) into full freefall. Ties are already deeply strained with Washington owing to cumulative troubles and the China’s surveillance (spy) balloon that overflew the United States and loitered for two days over American nuclear ICBM silos in Montana. Although some modest stability had been restored to the bilateral US-China relationship following the summit between Presidents Xi Jinping and Joseph Biden in Bali in November, and the anticipated visit by Secretary Blinken to Beijing (prior to the spy balloon incident)—Beijing should not (but it seems to) underestimate the seriousness by which the American government and people view that incident. 

Wang Yi’s brusque brush-off of the incident as a “hysterical overreaction” to the Munich Security Conference delegates is evidence of this and was not at all welcome. Somehow, because a U.S. Air Force F-22 fighter blew the spy balloon out of the sky in U.S. territorial airspace, Beijing has contrived the contorted and distorted narrative of China as the injured party. Wang Yi also doubled down on the denial that the balloon was an intelligence surveillance craft, reiterating the claim it was a weather balloon that had blown off course—and he also went further by denying the evidence that China’s spy balloon program had transgressed the sovereign airspace of over 140 countries on five continents. Such information and intelligence has been shared by the United States with concerned countries, and China’s blanket denials have little credibility. 

Beijing’s close bilateral relationship with Moscow and Xi Jinping’s close personal relationship with Vladimir Putin, its failure to explicitly condemn the invasion and war of aggression against Ukraine, and its continuing trade with Russia, have all deeply undermined China’s reputation in the West. China-Europe relations have rarely been more strained, and they would deteriorate to new depths if Chinese military materiel were to be transferred to Russia. 

Should Beijing undertake this risky step, and not heed U.S. and European warnings of “definite consequences,” China would then be facing a more united and hostile West. China’s relations with both the United States and with Europe are already far more fragile and strained than Beijing realizes—but both could easily nosedive further should Beijing make the mistake of arming Russia. China’s huge trade with both Europe and the United States could be endangered. 

If this were to occur, there would then be no doubt that Cold War 2.0 was underway. A united West (plus Asian allies and some in the Global South) would face off against a Russia-China axis (with some in the Global South). The world would thus be bifurcated into competing strategic and diplomatic blocs (although not in economic or cultural terms). 

This is a very dangerous moment, and Beijing has a clear choice to make. The choices it has made to date over the war in Ukraine have allowed it to maintain a fig leaf of neutrality, but the provision of Chinese military equipment to the Russian aggressors would quickly erode its already shaky position on the conflict—and would truly endanger China’s ties with European Union, the United States, and their allies. Is this really what Beijing seeks? It is hardly in China’s national interests.

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