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Advice for Xi Jinping on China’s Ukraine choice

National security adviser Jake Sullivan’s meeting on Monday with China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, underscores that more than any other nation, China is uniquely positioned to help end Russia’s catastrophic war in Ukraine. As Sullivan told CNN, standing on the sidelines while it can stop atrocities – or worse, as U.S. officials warn, providing military aid – will leave China widely viewed as culpable. Constructive diplomatic intervention, on the other hand, could allow Beijing to reset its failing relations with most of the globe. China has a strategic choice to make.

Despite parroting Russian propaganda, China appears uneasy about Putin’s invasion. This may reflect, as Sullivan hinted, not having been advised by Putin that a full invasion was planned, one that would drag on for weeks, and one that would cause so much barbaric devastation. Indeed, Chinese President Xi Jinping was manipulated by Putin, much as Stalin played Mao leading to the Korean War in 1950. It appears that Beijing was shocked by the full-scale war, even more so by its brutality and, not least, by the swift, furious and unprecedented global economic and political response.  

Putin’s actions contravene China’s stated core foreign policy principles: the inviolability of national sovereignty, non-interference in the internal affairs of others and diplomatic resolution of disputes. The consequences of Putin’s breach of international norms may have a calamitous impact on China’s economic and diplomatic interests, with a risk of economic recession and huge reputational damage to Beijing. 

Since President Nixon’s opening to China 50 years ago, no nation has benefited more from the existing international system than China, which is perhaps why China prizes stability and caution. China has also opposed international economic sanctions and promoted multilateral cooperation, economic growth and stable trade.

NATO expansion may have been a misplaced excuse for Moscow. But neither NATO nor Ukraine attacked Russia nor had any intention to do so. Russia invaded a sovereign nation that was not posing a threat. It has triggered unprecedented international condemnation and unparalleled financial and trade sanctions that will likely impact Chinese economic growth. 

As the world’s largest oil importer, the rise in the price of oil, perhaps soon to $150 a barrel, will have ripple effects throughout China’s economy. China’s international financial standing may also be imperiled through secondary sanctions. China must be sobered by the unified and firm international opprobrium. 

Putin’s invasion threatens all these fundamental Chinese principles and interests. The Ukraine war has revealed that there are significant limits to Moscow and Beijing’s common interests. History also points in this direction.

While China has expressed some discomfort in statements and United Nations abstention votes, it is still defending Russian security interests and blaming NATO. China’s abstentions in the UN Security Council and General Assembly votes were noticed, as were China’s freezing of Asian International Development Bank loans to Russia and Belarus. And Beijing’s effort avoid breaching financial sanctions, as Chinese state banks halted issuing credit for Russian shipments of oil and other commodities.

Yet by not denouncing Putin’s Ukraine invasion, China is trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. Absent some greater distancing from Putin, China is putting relations with the U.S. and EU (a combined $1.2 trillion a year in trade) at risk.

But China now has a rare opportunity to alter perceptions of China in the West. Many in the U.S. think China’s immutable goal is to overturn the world order and that Beijing disdains accommodation. Others think that China mainly wants the power and influence accorded to its economic and strategic weight. Playing a strong role in resolving this crisis is an opportunity to prove that constructive, if competitive, coexistence is possible. Biden should make clear to Xi that decisive help in ending the war and reaching a sustainable resolution will open new possibilities for U.S.-China ties.

Beijing has not served its interests well by instructing its media outlets to avoid posting “anything unfavorable to Russia or pro-Western” on their social media accounts. The Chinese people deserve an honest view of what is happening in Ukraine. Well-informed, the Chinese public would support the Chinese Communist Party in taking an initiative to end the slaughter. 

China’s offer to mediate is constructive. But it is vague and insufficient. Standing on or near the sidelines while China has the wherewithal to stop atrocities is leading many to view China as an accomplice. Constructive diplomatic intervention, on the other hand, could allow Beijing to burnish its image and reset failing relations with most of the globe. It’s time for Beijing to conduct a sober cost-benefit analysis weighing its long-term interests and then to take quick action. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have been meeting with Xi, consultations that may influence Beijing’s thinking.

China has this opportunity at a historic inflection point. The past two years have been disastrous for China’s international image. Wolf warrior diplomacy backfired badly. Its coercive economic practices have alienated trade partners. NATO and the EU have united in opposition to Chinese predatory industrial policies. New coalitions like the Quad and AUKUS have further united the Atlantic and Pacific regions against China. None of this serves Chinese interests. 

China also must decide on the kind of world it wants to inhabit. Russia’s invasion has clarified that. Does Beijing want a bipolar world in which it is saddled with the liability of a global pariah that is in fact a wrecked petrostate? Or will China chose the more multipolar world it so often acclaims? 

For China’s mediation offer to be effective, it will need to make very clear to Putin that he has overturned too many of their principles and that he needs to reverse course or lose Chinese economic support. Beijing will be doing Russia a favor by brokering a path to an exit ramp that is also acceptable to Ukraine. Chinese good offices, perhaps together with Israel, which also has good relations with Moscow, could reach a deal where, as our former Secretary of State James Baker used to say, “nobody gets everything, and everyone gets something.”

China faces a strategic choice. It can gain international goodwill and achieve a degree of reset with the U.S. Or it can fall back on personal ties with Putin, which will only result in a confrontational bipolar system that does not serve China’s broader interests.

Hans Binnendijk is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served previously as director of NDU’s Institute for National Strategic Studies and as NSC senior director for defense policy. Follow him at Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and its New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council. He previously served on the U.S. Department of State policy planning staff (2004-08) and on the National Intelligence Council’s Strategic Futures Group (2–8-12. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.

Tags China China–Russia relations Emmanuel Macron Jake Sullivan NATO Russia Russia-Ukraine war Ukraine us-china policy US-China relations

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