In the morning of February 24, Russian military forces launched a comprehensive invasion of Ukraine, and Western governments immediately announced a new round of sanctions against Russia. Beijing’s public statements have been as ambiguous as ever, expressing respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, yet at the same time expressing understanding of Russia’s security concerns, and refraining from calling the military action an “invasion.”
Driven by the need to jointly confront the United States, China has chosen to form a strategic alliance with Russia. Just before the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin met, and the two sides signed 15 significant cooperation agreements covering a wide range of geopolitical and trade areas. On the very day of Russia’s invasion, China announced that it would allow wheat imports from Russia. This kind of cooperation at such a time is undoubtedly an expression of commitment to and support of Putin, which increases his confidence in his aggression against Ukraine and Russia’s ability to resist Western economic sanctions.
While Putin is the main culprit of the unfolding Ukraine crisis, Xi’s role of “holding a candle to the devil” cannot be ignored. As the military conflict intensifies and economic sanctions against Russia take hold, while Xi will not directly support Russia’s invasion, it is still his premeditated plan to maintain China’s partnership with Russia and secretly provide economic assistance to it. China has been Russia’s largest trading partner for 12 consecutive years and Russia is China’s largest energy exporter. When Western countries announced sanctions against Russia, Beijing said that such measures “are never a fundamental and effective way to solve the problem.” This would undoubtedly bring great hope to a Russia embattled by economic woes.
The Russian invasion has put Putin in the harsh spotlight of international public opinion, relieving the Xi regime of the diplomatic problem of being regarded as the greatest threat to the democratic world in recent years. At the moment, Xi may be enjoying the euphoria of being arguably the biggest winner of the Ukraine crisis. He must also be closely scrutinizing the reaction of all parties, which will serve as reference material for calculating his Taiwan plans.
The United States and NATO have so far shown no desire to engage in direct military intervention, which could be a positive sign for Xi. Although in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum the United States and Britain made certain security guarantees for Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine’s abandonment of nuclear weapons, now Biden has said the U.S. military will not go to war with Russia over Ukraine. If there is a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait, will the United States adopt the same strategy? Although Taiwan and Ukraine differ in terms of geopolitical strategy, geographic environment, and their role in international supply chains, U.S. military restraint in this Russia-Ukraine incident has undoubtedly become an important consideration for Xi, perhaps leading him to underestimate the resolve of the United States and the West to defend Taiwan militarily.
But Xi will surely also pay close attention to the fact that although the United States and NATO are not directly carrying out military strikes against Russia, the economic sanctions are biting and widespread. Perhaps Xi is not very concerned about that. First, as mentioned above, at the Winter Olympics Russia and China already discussed how to limit the effect of Western economic sanctions. China will provide an economic transfusion to Russia’s economy, so that the effect of sanctions against Russia will not be immediate. Second, if Beijing militarily attacks Taiwan, while it must consider the economic sanctions that major Western countries will inevitably take, China, with a stronger and broader industrial base than Russia, may be more able to rely on its domestic market to prevent its economy from collapsing. In this regard, the Xi regime has done certain preparations in recent years.
What must be more alarming to Xi is the economic sanctions imposed by Western countries on Putin and his close associates, including freezing the overseas assets of he and his family. Due to the intricate connection between China and the international financial and trade system and the fact that countless officials and their families have transferred assets to the United States and other countries over the years, there is no doubt that similar sanctions would be hugely damaging to the Xi regime. This will affect China’s major political families. Since reform and opening up, these political elites have been able to accumulate huge fortunes, big portions of which are constantly being transferred overseas. Moreover, the second and third generations of communist China’s founders are more internationally oriented, and this overseas wealth functions as the foundation of their international ties.
If faced with severe economic and personal sanctions, can a consensus be formed within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime to engage in behavior similar to Putin’s? The CCP’s power structure differs from the narrow one of the Putin oligarchy. Even if he is indisputably the “core” leader, Xi may have to consider the demands of other political figures, and other top CCP leaders may in fact have the ability to restrain Xi’s risk-taking impulse.
It is also important for Xi to pay heed to the reaction of the Russian people to the invasion. Anti-war demonstrations have broken out in numerous Russian cities. Hundreds of Russian scientists and journalists who cover international politics have signed an open letter condemning Russia’s military action. If Xi takes military action against Taiwan, will the attitude of Chinese people from all walks of life toward the war be what he desires? Or will the people, who will have to endure greater economic hardship in case of war, be willing to take risks and threaten the stability of the regime?
In this regard, Xi may be more confident even than Putin was, because the CCP regime has a huge advantage over Russia in terms of monopoly of information, suppression of speech, and deceiving the public. Moreover, Xi has mobilized his people’ s nationalism by advocating the “great rejuvenation of the nation.” During the China-U.S. trade war, and management of the COVID-19 epidemic, Xi cultivated nationalist enthusiasm to shift the focus away from the CCP’s mistakes. Now many netizens of China have expressed support for Russia’s invasion, believing that the intervention of the United States was an important factor leading to the conflict. If Xi launches military conflict in the Taiwan Straits, this well-controlled public opinion could be a blessing to the legitimacy of such action. This is certainly what Xi wants.
However, if the anti-war attitude of the Russian people could catch fire and endure, and thus threaten Putin’s rule, it would definitely undermine Xi’s confidence. There is no guarantee that Chinese who demand freedom, who oppose any war launched by Xi, or who are suffering from economic sanctions, along with members of the ruling clique who will be hit personally by individual sanctions imposed by the West, will not form forces beyond Xi’s control.
Given this, in the face of Putin and Xi’s joint efforts to date, and Xi’s possible calculations on Taiwan in reference of the Ukraine crisis, we suggest responses for the United State and its allies to take.
China has become Russia’s economic lifeline. Given China’s extensive trade relations with the United States and Europe, for now Western sanctions against Russia will mean that China will parasitically benefit from the hardship of the Russian people, thereby simultaneously alleviating Putin’s pain and lessening the impact of these sanctions. Therefore, the United States must also closely monitor trade between Russia and China, preformulate collective economic sanction plans on China, and impose them when necessary. China’s economy is still largely dependent on international trade. Given the potential inadequacy of purely domestic economic activity to promote continued growth in time, if international financial ties are suddenly lost, China’s economy may falter or even fall. Xi is in urgent need of maintaining both political and economic stability together to build up his mandate to stay in power for an unprecedented third term at the 20th Party Congress this fall. He could not afford to ignore major economic sanctions imposed by the West.
Political power is as personal as it is institutional within the CCP in general and its ruling class in particular. Therefore, it is critical to leverage on what matters to individual leaders and the institutions that support them. The most obvious target is the vast wealth of China’s ruling elite. Much of it is entwined with China’s most significant multinational companies or hidden in foreign banks, making this elite more vulnerable to financial sanctions. The intelligence agencies of Western countries know a great deal about the hidden assets of members of the Chinese ruling class, and publishing such information would itself be a serious blow to the CCP regime. The United States has never taken these systematic actions, but now is the time to openly prepare for such actions, which by itself will be an effective deterrent to Xi’s ambitions for Taiwan.
Another element of deterrence is also necessary: strategic clarity. Although the United States and NATO have yet to take direct military action against Russia, and may not in the future, the United States must explain to its people and the world that the Taiwan issue is different, and that the United States has not only a moral but legal responsibility to defend Taiwan. The past policy of strategic ambiguity may have played its due role, but as China’s ambition and capacity to unify Taiwan by force is becoming more and more obvious, and especially given that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has become a reality, the United States must abandon the existing strategy. Vagueness will no longer be enough to stop Xi.
Finally, Russia is currently standing at the forefront of those confronting the democratic world. In addition to sanctions, the international community should fully support the anti-war and pro-democracy forces of the Russian people and strive to achieve political reform there so as to remove the root causes of dictatorship and military violence. This would not only be a more fundamental way to end the Ukrainian crisis and erase Putin’s fascist rule. It would also present the most profound warning to Xi, because what he fears most is the possibility that the liberal-minded and peace-loving people might combine with breakaway members of his ruling clique to form an effective force against Xi and CCP totalitarianism. Russia’s growing isolation, especially Putin’s political downfall, over its aggression against Ukraine would tell Xi that the same fate might await him if he dared invade Taiwan.