This Q & A has been adapted from a Carnegie live event assessing U.S.-China relations one year into Joe Biden’s presidency.
Paul Haenle: From a U.S. perspective, China appears to be stuck between two mutually exclusive positions. On one hand, it wants to support Russia, its strategic partner. On the other hand, it wants to maintain its stated support for sovereignty and territorial integrity. How do you assess China’s strategic dilemma here? What choices does it have regarding the Ukraine crisis, and how has it handled those choices to date?
Tong Zhao: My impression is that this war is increasing China’s overall concern about the United States because Beijing has a different understanding of the nature of the war and America’s role therein. China genuinely blames the United States and NATO for causing the conflict and believes that the United States and its Western allies launched a coordinated effort to strangle Russia using all sorts of illegal measures, including crippling sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and political demonization. China sees this as happening because Russia was simply trying to defend its legitimate interests.
I think this dynamic reinforces many Chinese strategists’ previous beliefs that the United States is the ultimate “black hand” behind all of this because Washington is inherently hegemonic. They believe that the United States is inherently biased against different political systems, such as those favored by Russia and China. This strengthens the existing power-centric mindset in China and will motivate Beijing to focus on building its material power and to prepare for its eventual contest with the United States. In this context, China believes that Russia’s importance as a strategic partner is even more salient to its eventual contest with the United States, as only Russia can provide China with critical support. This makes China even less likely to undermine its partnership with Russia simply so it can please the United States.
China still wants to balance its strategic interests: maintaining a partnership with Russia and stabilizing its relationship with the United States. There is still a lot of internal debate within the Chinese expert community about how to achieve both goals. China may end up having a worse relationship with the United States because of its increasing belief in the importance of achieving self-reliance, even autarky, in strategic economic and technological areas. This will work against China’s goal to maintain its access to U.S. technology and markets. Thus, the internal tension in Beijing’s own geo-economic strategy will also become more salient. These tensions also limit how much China can really contribute to mediating the war in Ukraine. All of these limits are real, and we may end up squandering this opportunity of improving China’s relationship with the United States.
Paul Haenle: There was a lot of speculation prior to the Ukraine invasion that Chinese leaders would watch to see how the international community would respond and would be thinking about that in the context of Taiwan. How has the Ukraine crisis impacted Chinese thinking on Taiwan? Has it had more of a deterrence effect or has China taken lessons that could contribute to its calculus regarding Taiwan?
Tong Zhao: First, I think there is a recognition that the Ukraine war is exacerbating some of the domestic challenges and difficulties China faces today, including the very significant economic consequences it is facing because of the sanctions on Russia. During his recent virtual meeting with Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping mentioned the growing economic challenges in many countries. Because Chinese leaders recognize these growing global economic challenges, the effects of which China could feel, they are prioritizing maintaining a very stable domestic situation in the run-up to the 20th Party Congress later this year.
There is a lower near-term risk of any deliberate Chinese effort to take advantage of the Ukraine war to do something against Taiwan militarily. The ongoing war is making China reflect on some of its assumptions about a military operation against Taiwan. Many Chinese strategists have assumed that China could achieve a quick military success and that there would be little Taiwanese resistance. That stemmed from the belief that the Chinese military could easily create a new status quo after invading, as Beijing would be able to maintain the island’s high living standards due to its growing economic power.
China also assumed that international support for Taiwan in the face of an invasion would not be substantial. Additionally, China has assumed its military superiority would be decisive vis-à-vis Taiwan, but Ukraine revealed how new military technologies and tactics really make a big difference on the battlefield. I would add that many of those changes have not been fully revealed yet.
There is also an assumption in China that taking Taiwan militarily would demonstrate to the international community that China has not only the capacity, but also the resolve, to defend its own core national interests. In turn, the thinking goes, such an action would win China global respect and help the international community eventually accept China as a new international power and leader.
All of these assumptions are now being challenged. Overall, I think the consequence is that China is likely to pay more attention to its conventional wisdom, which is to buy time and use this peaceful period in the region to further accumulate power and shift the balance in the Asia-Pacific region to its advantage. By that time, there may not be a need to launch a military operation.
There has been much recent assertion that China urgently wants to resolve the Taiwanese issue in the short term. This sense of urgency, however, comes neither from the general public nor from the policy elites. Instead, it seems to come from the top leader’s personal preferences and his desire to establish his historical legacy. I think this influence may decrease, and we may go back to the conventional wisdom of focusing on shifting the balance of power in a long-term manner. The good news is that the near-term risk of military conflict is much lower. But the long-term competition at the military level is growing.