China seems to be backing itself into a corner while Chinese officials attempt to curry favor with Russia while denying they have gotten in bed with the bear.
As Russian troops bombard and occupy Ukraine, Beijing is rejecting any suggestion that they are betraying their core foreign policy — that sovereignty is sacrosanct. China’s fundamental stance has been anything but consistent or clear; do they stand with a tyrant invading a sovereign nation or an outraged world attempting to hold Putin accountable? Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin declared earlier this year that there are “no limits,” to Russia-China ties. This statement is about to be tested.
China, the U.S., and their respective allies and proxies – Russian aligned with China and Ukraine with the EU aligned with the U.S. – are playing a real geopolitical game of “Go” or Weiqi. Weiqi, which translates to “encirclement game,” is an abstract strategy board game invented in China over 2,500 years ago with the aim to surround more territory than the opponent. More aptly, the game is about surrounding territory as well as the opponent's territorial influence.
How will this Russia War game “go,” and what strategic moves will China make as it attempts to navigate the land mines laid by Russia?
Putin and Xi met at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics and part of the statement on their meeting reads: “Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions,” and “intend to counter interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries under any pretext” – exactly what they are doing in Ukraine today.
Russia and China’s growing resolve to build a coalition of ideologically like-minded nations against Western influence is something Moscow and Beijing can get behind, but at what cost to China?
Is China offering Russia a lifeline as much of the world seeks to isolate Russia? Russian officials have reportedly contacted Chinese counterparts about obtaining military equipment from China amid Moscow's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Beijing has denied these reports. China can’t have it both ways— do they support Russia’s invasion and war on a sovereign nation and the war crimes being committed against the Ukraine people? Or do they side with peace and the ability of a sovereign nation to govern itself?
President Joe Biden sent his national security adviser for talks with a senior Chinese official in Rome as concerns grow that China is aligning with Russia and may help Russia evade punishment from the Western economic sanctions. The U.S. has made clear it will not stand idly by if China or any other nation attempts to help Russia’s war efforts.
Today the U.S. and China are major players in a disruptive, transformational, technologically-driven world. Some argue the 20th century belonged to America and the 21st century will ultimately be led by China. Only time will tell if this will ring true. Even so, the destinies of China and the United States are inextricably linked. The two nations must find ways to live, work, and solve problems together or we will surely fall together.
Time For China to Lead
Clearly, Putin won’t stop until he is forced to do so. President Xi has the greatest leverage of any world leader to broker a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine. To do that, President Xi needs to send a strong message to Putin that Russia’s brutal invasion crosses China’s own principled redline on territorial sovereignty. Economic sanctions now levied against Russia will have catastrophic consequences if they spill over to China.
China, in collaboration with the U.S. and EU, hold the key to resolving this war. No matter how antagonistic things get we need our respective leaders to find ways to build constructive bridges forward and stop digging moats and continue to build on what I refer to as the 6 -C’s: Communication, collaboration, cooperation, coordination, and competition. Adhering to the 6-C’s will offer – for better or worse - competition and conflict resolution between all nations in a new world order.
The classic precondition for any successful negotiation is victory for both sides. The challenges of leadership for both Presidents Biden and Xi is to lead our respective nations and the world into a positive future direction. Momentary issues should not obscure the important long-term goal of a successful bilateral relationship. Ultimately, the only thing more tragic than the present war would be tripping into an even bigger, bloodier one where there would be no winners.
China will have to make the next move and decide which side of the real-time Go game they will play. If China agrees to Russia’s request for arms and economic assistance, that will make a direct lie out of China’s long-standing policy to support territorial sovereignty of independent countries and turn this conflict into a full superpower democracy vs. authoritarian proxy war. China will then brace itself for substantial sanctions, making itself a pariah on the global stage. China would be wise to find a way to lead or else partner with the U.S. and West to end the insanity Putin created.
If China throws Russia a lifeline— it may turn out to be an anchor. The result will be to drag China into an economic and ideological war that will ultimately take no prisoners. It could damage the Chinese economy, which is growing slower than it has in the past 30 years.
This is a “Nixon goes to China” moment for Xi Jinping. Latching onto the West’s desire for a peaceful and diplomatic settlement to Putin’s unnecessary and selfish war would greatly benefit Xi’s image while resetting the geopolitical chessboard for decades to come.
Sun-Tzu’s “The Art of War" remains one of the world's most famous military texts even 2,500 years after it was first put to words. Perhaps one of his most profound lessons was Choose your Battles: “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight."