Vladimir Putin (left). Xi Jinping (right). Photo credit: G20 Argentina / Flickr (CC BY 2.0) and COP PARIS / Wikimedia (CC0 1.0)
The problem is that global wealth and technology are overwhelmingly on the side of the US, Europe, and their clients while Russia’s economy is only slightly greater than that of Spain. China’s top trade partner is the United States, and vice-versa. For China’s leader, Xi Jinping, ditching the rest of the world in favor of Russia is a risky gamble that would prove extremely costly and upend China’s economy. The global order as we know it would change beyond recognition.
It is not clear if Putin warned Xi that he was about to wreak mayhem on Ukraine when he met with him three weeks before the invasion. Regardless, Xi appears stuck with Putin for the moment, especially since they both signed a document pledging virtually unlimited cooperation, friendship, and support. Putin may have convinced Xi that Ukraine would surrender overnight, or he could simply have hidden his intentions. Either way, the fact that Ukrainian resistance proved stronger than expected has put Xi in a tight spot. If Putin is forced to pull out of Ukraine in disgrace or suffers political consequences at home, Xi will lose face for having aligned China’s future with a loser at his uncivilized worst.
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Xi himself is far from invulnerable. He is coming under increased scrutiny from China’s ruling oligarchy. China’s red-hot economy, which expanded at an astonishing rate averaging as much as 10 percent a year over the last three decades, is finally cooling off. Growth dropped to 4 percent in the last quarter of 2021. Chinese consumers are increasingly cautious about the future, construction has slumped, and property sales are stagnating. The draconian sanctions that the US and Europe imposed on Russia are likely to slow growth in China even further.
Slow growth would be an annoyance in any European country or the US. In a top-down, authoritarian state like China, it can be fatal. Being the top strong man in China is frequently compared to riding a tiger. The ride is exhilarating, but when you step off the tiger’s back, you are likely to be eaten. Maintaining the balance between political control and economic growth is a tricky proposition.
Marc Faber, a Hong Kong-based Swiss economist who publishes a newsletter, The Doom, Boom and Gloom Report,points out that power in China periodically oscillates between Beijing and Shanghai. The political power is in Beijing but is unsustainable unless accompanied by a vibrant economy. The engine of economic growth is centered in Shanghai and the coastal cities. Beijing is regularly forced to loosen its control in order to generate growth. COVID-19 and Putin’s disruption of the global economy have put Xi in a tough spot.
The relationship between China and Russia has always been based more on the principle that the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” than on any true affinity. Ethnic Russians have been wary of China ever since the first inhabitants of Moscow were reduced to being vassals of the Mongols. Ivan the Great eventually defeated the Mongols and secured Russia’s independence, but Russia’s relationship with the rest of Asia has never been easy. Ivan’s grandson, Ivan the Terrible, who was brilliant, paranoid, and brutal, set the tone for Russia’s future leaders. Putin is merely continuing a tradition that has extended through the centuries. Ivan ordered anyone suspected of opposing him tortured, murdered, or in some cases burned alive. Whether they were innocent or guilty didn’t matter. Putin is doing the same in Ukraine, only by remote control. (See William Dowell piece on back to the Cold War)
Xi may hate the United States as much as Putin does, but he is also aware that he faces a delicate balancing act. China’s trade with the West is six times greater than anything it gets from Russia. The only exports Russia has to offer are fossil fuels and weapons, and they have been reluctant in the past to sell China any advanced technology. The Russians aren’t afraid that the Chinese will actually use the weapons against them, but they know that whatever they sell to China will be copied and put on the market at a cheaper price.
Xi’s main concern in addition to all this is that he faces an election later this year. He wants to be confirmed to an unprecedented third term in office. If he finds himself tied to Putin’s catastrophic actions in Ukraine, both his judgment and his future will be effectively over. It’s in Xi’s interests to see Putin extricate himself from the Ukraine catastrophe with a minimal loss of face.
Putin is clearly a problem, but Xi’s longer-range concerns are also focused on the United States. There has been a lot of talk in foreign policy circles about the “Thucydides Trap.” The ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, observed in his history of the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta that when an emerging power challenges a reigning superpower for global domination, war is more than likely to follow.
Graham T. Allison, an American political scientist, observes that over the last 500 years, there have been 16 cases in which a reigning power was replaced by an emerging power. In 12 of the cases, the result was war. In an article in Foreign Policy, Allison noted that former President Donald Trump, while still in office, invited Xi to Mar-a-Lago to tell him the US has enough missiles to blow North Korea off the face of the planet. Allison says that Xi likely interpreted Trump’s offhand comment as proof that the Thucydides trap is real, and that a struggle in which China needs to best the United States is a foregone conclusion.
Xi has other reasons for seeing the US as a potential enemy to be taken seriously. Few Americans spend much time considering the history of the Opium War. In Xi’s mind, however, the war, launched in the middle of the 19th century by Britain as a retaliation for the Chinese setting fire to warehouses that stockpiled British opium, still rankles as the “Great Humiliation.”
Britain had hoped that the sale of opium grown in India would offset the outflow of currency from British coffers that was paying for the imports of Chinese tea. When the Chinese protested that British opium threatened destruction of China’s coastal cities, Britain refused to listen. After defeating China in several battles, Britain demanded that the Chinese surrender Hong Kong as payment for the damages done to the opium traders. The result was the collapse of government power in Beijing and the gradual colonization of China by Western powers. The West soon forgot the injustice. China never has.
All this took place more than a century ago, and it might be easy to dismiss those events as ancient history; but Xi clearly sees nationalism and patriotism as powerful forces that can hold China together. Reminding China’s public of the injustices of the past is an effective way of molding national support for his agenda.
Even without delving into the colonial past, both China and Russia have problems with Western concepts of democracy. Putin clearly believes that the Soviet-tsarist tradition of strong-man rule has proven more effective than democratic elections. From Xi’s point of view, Western democracy offers advantages if you are white and come from European stock, but tends to ignore everyone who is not. China finds it hard to forget that Western democracies failed to intervene when Japan invaded China in the 1930s and raped an estimated 20,000 Chinese women while slaughtering 150,000 male prisoners of war during the “Rape of Nanking.”
Xi clearly sees the US, which still dominates the international institutions — like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization — that make global trade possible, as playing a rigged game, essentially giving with one hand and taking back with the other. Xi believes, with some reason, that the US will always manipulate the system so that the West stays on top. (See William Dowell article on Russia’s political appointee as the head of the United Nations in Geneva).
The question for Xi is whether to risk openly breaking with the West now — incurring American sanctions and seeing what kind of power he and Putin can build behind a bamboo/iron curtain — or continuing with the pretense that he is neutral and seeing what kind of deal he can continue to work on with the US and Europe.
As for the mayhem in Ukraine, from Xi’s point of view, it is just another case of westerners killing westerners. It has nothing to do with Beijing.
Foreign correspondent and author William Dowell is Global Insights Magazine’s America’s editor based in Philadelphia. He is also a contributing editor to Who,What,Why. Tom’s Paine is his regular column. Over the past decades, he has covered much of the globe, including Asia as Hong Kong bureau chief for TIME. He has also worked for ABC News and other news organizations.