Is China in a Bind?

It wants to support Russia, but also wants to support the international order from which benefits and doesn’t want to alienate the major economies its own economy is intertwined with.



March 13, 2022
Is China in a Bind?

China is in a bind.

  • It wants to support Russia, but also wants to support the international order from which benefits and doesn’t want to alienate the major economies its own economy is intertwined with.

So far it’s working.

  • Russia has become a rogue nation, condemned and punished for its invasion of Ukraine.
  • China has neither condemned and punished nor has it condoned.
  • Sitting on the sidelines doesn’t get you thrown out of the community of nations - or accused of breaking the international order.

Some say China is operating in an international order that has already collapsed under the weight of the Ukraine invasion.

  • Others contend, on the contrary, the piling on on Russia itself demonstrates that the world order is functioning as it should.

They note a country’s justice system doesn’t break down just because someone commits a murder.

  • And the international order doesn’t break down just because one bad actor invades a sovereign nation.
  • It's the response that counts.

If this is right, then the Ukraine invasion that his energized the world order is a setback for Xi Jinping’s own efforts to shape it to his liking or to impose a new order led by China.

  • Or he may just be playing for time until the alliance against Russia runs out of gas and leaves him with an opening.

All by way of saying, there is a lot of uncertainty.

  • The best we can do for now is lay out the contours of the issues.

1 | China is in a Bind

Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine put China in a bind. WAPO’s Lily Kuo

and Christian Shepherd reflect myriad similar reports:

  • ‘China — caught between its “no limits” strategic relationship with Russia and the desire to not be seen as violating the international order or its own doctrine that a country’s sovereignty is sacrosanct — has tried to straddle a murky middle ground, supporting Moscow while not outright condoning the invasion.’

That’s China’s immediate dilemma.

  • But when you take a step back, you see China has bigger decisions to make.

Tong Zhao of the Carnegie Endowment lays this out in a series of tweets (thanks to Jim McGregor for pointing out this thread) that include: ‘China faces two strategic paths going forward:’

  • ‘Option 1 is to continue & even double down on the current "no upper limits, no forbidden zone, no finishing line" close alignment with Russia to promote global order & stability as they envision.’
  • ‘Option 2 is to seize the opportunity to improve relations with the West (especially US), by making good use of Western countries' growing interest to prevent a China-Russia bloc. After all, China strongly desires stable relations with US/West but questions their commitment.’

2 | Option 3

There is of course an Option 3: Navigate between the two.

  • That’s the best guess for how China will, sometimes torturously no doubt, manage its foreign policy.

So far that’s what we’re seeing.

‘China’s response to Russia’s war against Ukraine has been heavily scrutinized and criticized.’

  • ‘While Chinese officials have expressed concern about civilian casualties, they have declined to condemn the attack, which they regard as a response to NATO expansion, and they have declared that they will not join the West in imposing financial sanctions on Russia.’
  • ‘Yet China has hardly given full-throated support to Russian President Vladimir Putin.'

‘China’s stance is much more nuanced.’

  • ‘For starters, despite its claim to disagree with the sanctions the West has imposed on Russia, China has taken actions to comply with some of them by limiting the Chinese financing of certain transactions with Russia.’
  • ‘And Chinese financial institutions are not prohibited from complying with Western sanctions.’
  • ‘Moreover, China has repeatedly revised its position on Ukraine, gradually strengthening its disapproval of Russia’s actions.’
  • ‘Behind the scenes, Chinese leaders discussed and debated policies to modify its relations with Russia.’

So far, then, China is throwing its lot in with the existing international order.

  • But that implies there is still an international order to support.

3 | ‘Putin’s assault on Ukraine will shape a new world order’ – Not so fast

Not long ago I published here 'Under Construction: Two (Opposing) World Orders.’

In it, I quoted Michael Beckley of Tufts in ‘Enemies of My Enemy: How Fear of China Is Forging a New World Order,’ who wrote:

  • ‘The international order is falling apart,’

For some, the invasion of Ukraine proved this right.

‘The world is witnessing the largest land war in Europe since the Second World War.’

  • ‘This brazen act of aggression by the Russian Federation has prompted some officials and commentators to declare that the dams are breaking and the modern international legal order is collapsing.’

‘For example:’

  • ‘Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba predicted, “The beginning of a large-scale war in Ukraine will be the end of the world order as we know it.”
  • ‘Meanwhile, Susan Glasser of the New Yorker tweeted, “Sadly, there is no international order.” ’

And David Ignatius in ‘Putin’s assault on Ukraine will shape a new world order’ wrote:

  • ‘With his unprovoked invasion, Putin has shattered the international legal rules established after World War II, along with the European order that followed the Cold War.'
  • ‘That old architecture was getting shaky, and it was destined to be replaced eventually.’

On the other side is retired U.S. Navy admiral and former NATO commander in Europe, James Stavridis, quoted in ‘The War in Ukraine Holds a Warning for the World Order,’ who says:

  • ‘The global system was built in the 1950s, and if you think of it as a car from those years, it is battered, out of date in some ways, and could use a good tuneup.’
  • ‘But it is still on the road, rolling along.’
  • ‘And, ironically enough, Vladimir Putin has done more in a week to energize it than anything I can remember.’

On that view, the liberal world order is functioning as intended.

  • No. The liberal world order wasn’t able to prevent Mr. Putin’s invasion – Ukraine isn’t protected by treaties that under international law would obligate any country, countries, or alliances like NATO to come to its aid.
  • But the world order hasn’t broken down – and it’s not ‘destined to be replaced’; tuned up, yes.

4 | Plan B

Mr. Putin’s breach of international law didn’t break the international order, any more than the domestic justice system breaks down when someone commits murder.

  • As Drs. Hathaway and Shapiro point out:

‘Domestic law does a good job at policing legal violations, but it is not foolproof.’

  • ‘Legal institutions don’t naively assume that we will obey its demands. It has contingency plans.’
  • ‘Domestic law sets out detailed procedures for responding to its failure to guide conduct successfully.’
  • ‘That’s why we have police, courts, lawyers, wardens and parole officers.’

And it’s the same with international law:

  • ‘Like domestic law, international law has a Plan B for when Plan A fails.’

‘For hundreds of years, Plan B was war.’

5 | 'War. What Is It Good For?'

‘War was the legally permissible way that states had for righting legal wrongs done to them.’

  • ‘But thanks to the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 and the U.N. Charter of 1945, war is no longer a legitimate way for states to enforce international law—though states subject to aggression, like Ukraine today, are allowed to defend themselves under Article 51 of the charter.’

‘Since World War II, the number of interstate wars prohibited by the charter has diminished drastically. That, too, is a sign of the system’s strength.’

  • ‘The legal rules prohibiting states from resorting to force against one another are so strong and generally so effective that they are often taken for granted.’

‘Some analysts have asked, if sanctions didn’t stop Putin from invading Ukraine, then what difference do they make at this point?’

  • ‘The same question, of course, can be asked of any punishment. “Why punish the murderer? The victim is already dead!” ’
  • ‘The answer is obvious: We punish to condemn behavior and deter similar behavior in the future.’

6 | Community of Nations?

Yet China is not ready to condemn or deter Russia.

  • Neither is it prepared to condone.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called out China, saying:

  • ‘This is not a time to stand on the sidelines. This is a time to be vocal and condemn the actions of President Putin and Russia invading a sovereign country.’
  • But standing on the sidelines doesn’t put China outside the international order – or the community of nations.

As for the community of nations, The Economist points out:

  • ‘Western envoys in Beijing note that 141 countries voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the un General Assembly.’
  • ‘Chinese scholars retort that the 40 countries that abstained or backed Russia—among them China and India—account for most of the world’s population.’

So while the liberal world order may have gotten more oomph lately, its appeal is far from universal.

7 | China’s Endgame

By straddling support for the international order and support for Russia, China could be playing for time.

This from ‘Xi Jinping places a bet on Russia: China’s backing for Vladimir Putin’s war is all about its contest with America’ in The Economist:

  • ‘Chinese communist party elites can picture an endgame to the Ukraine war that suits China very well.’

‘In Beijing, scholars and high-ranking government advisers predict that today’s shows of Western unity will fade sooner or later, as sanctions fail to break Russia and instead send energy prices soaring.’

  • ‘In their telling the conflict will hasten America’s decline and slow retreat from the world.’
  • ‘A crumbling of American-led alliances will then usher in a new global order, involving spheres of influence dominated by a few, iron-willed autocracies, China chief among them.’

‘If Mr Xi believes his own rhetoric and is sure that China will secure the might-is-right world order he seeks, then Ukraine’s agonies matter less to China than might be supposed—as long as Chinese firms are not hit by sanctions on Russia, and trade ties with Europe remain intact.’

  • ‘Such self-absorption is good for domestic morale. It is a perilous way to calculate risks.’

And pretty perilous for the rest of us, as well.

  • Maybe China is not in that much of a bind.



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