Has Putin alienated China’s Xi with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a mixed blessing for Chinese leader Xi Jinping. From his perspective, there are several positives for China, such as the opportunity to showcase what China can provide Russia — notably, sharing with Moscow any U.S. intelligence that the Biden administration provides to Beijing. 

At the Sino-Russian summit in February, both parties reached an energy agreement that ensures a reliable supply of Russian oil and gas to keep China’s economy humming. Russia’s ejection from the SWIFT banking system augments China’s alternative Cross-Border Interbank Payment System and allows the People’s Central Bank of China to expand the currency swap agreement with Russia’s central bank, throwing Russia a lifeline while eroding the West’s economic system and the U.S. dollar’s global position. 

China also may welcome the conflict because Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be digging himself into a strategic hole. Putin has persisted in sustaining the invasion, and the more he digs in, the greater his dependence on China may grow. That is a welcome development for Xi — at least for now.  

At some point, Putin’s actions will compel Xi to consider how valuable he is as an ally. Through the cold lens of power politics, Russia is a source of energy, military power and an ideological ally for China. Russia’s strategic and tactical nuclear weapon systems are formidable. Its naval power, while not the Soviet navy capable of global military exercises as first demonstrated by their Okean 1970 and 1975 naval exercises, is still powerful — even though the jury is out on the performance of its army to conduct high-intensity warfare. 

Russia is China’s ideological ally in the struggle against the liberal democracies, but Putin’s dependence on Xi is a vulnerability for the Russian leader. Until now, Putin has been a thorn in the side of both the West and China, sustaining Russia as an independent force capable of resisting the West while not falling under China’s shadow. Xi might take this opportunity to support alternative political power centers, or the overthrow of Putin, should that come about, for a more compliant Russian leader — “China’s Yeltsin” — to further Russia’s dependence on China, particularly since Putin’s strategic missteps have been costly for China.

For Xi, the debit side of the equation is considerable, possibly outweighing any gains. First, Putin’s actions have unified NATO. The West once again is awake to the possibility of great-power conflict. NATO’s members are solidly behind the alliance, and the time seems propitious for its expansion to either Finland, Sweden, or both states. China’s support of Putin has demonstrated that its support for him makes China a threat to the West. 

Second, Ukraine played an important role for China as a supplier of military equipment. There are reports that China had an extended deterrence agreement with Ukraine. If true, Russia’s actions weaken China’s credibility and underscore that an extended deterrent from China is worthless.  

Third, the increased attention devoted to Taiwan’s vulnerability to an attack from China is unwelcome. The Biden administration’s dispatch of a team led by retired Adm. Mike Mullen to Taipei is a useful signal regarding a U.S. commitment to Taiwan and harkens back to the Trump administration’s efforts to demonstrate direct, tangible U.S. support for Taipei. The spigot of Western arms, personnel and support for Taiwan is open, and that is precisely the opposite of what Xi wants.

Fourth, Xi is certain to find former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s remarks this week alarming. Abe discussed how Japan should respond to Russia’s invasion and the changing global security calculus. He discussed invoking a nuclear sharing agreement with the U.S., allowing the U.S. to base nuclear weapons on Japanese soil, and abandoning the policy of strategic ambiguity regarding whether the U.S. and its allies would defend Taiwan from an invasion. 

Japan’s own possession of nuclear weapons hovers in the background. Abe’s speech helps facilitate for global and Japanese audiences the normalization of Japan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and its development of a secure second-strike capability. A nuclear Japan could act against Xi’s interests of expansion in the East China Sea far more credibly than could a conventionally-armed Japan. Putin’s invasion greases the tracks to China’s nightmare: a nuclear Japan.

Xi likely believes that Putin acted precipitously. The Ukraine crisis opens the door to a U.S. both motivated and compelled to respond to great-power challenges from Russia or China. Thus, Putin’s invasion was impulsive, from Xi’s perspective. The Biden administration is forced to respond to Russia’s — and ultimately, China’s — threat to Western interests in a way that it had not during its first year in office. Xi must have hoped that the Biden administration defined the return to a welcome period in Sino-American relations, like that before the Trump administration, where China could gain what it wanted from the West without an effective U.S. response.  

Putin has alerted the U.S. and the West that territorial aggression always remains a possibility, especially for great powers. For Xi, a U.S. lulled into believing in the obsolescence of aggression and the wonders of globalization was exactly where he wanted Washington to be. Putin’s strategic blundering has queered the pitch.

In China’s cold calculus, Russia is a useful tool; after all, Russia needs China more than the reverse. Xi wants a compliant leader in Russia, one who will depend on China and work to further Beijing’s interests against the West. This seemed to be Putin before he invaded Ukraine. But now, Xi must wonder whether he can limit the damage caused by the Russian strategic blunderbuss — at least until he can find China’s Yeltsin. 

Bradley A. Thayer is the coauthor of“How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics” and the forthcoming “Understanding the China Threat.”

Tags China aggression Japan NATO Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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