In a stroke of historical irony, the main topic of conversation at a gathering in Shanghai on Friday to mark the 50th anniversary of former U.S. President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China was the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nixon’s Beijing visit—which produced rapprochement between the United States and Beijing to counter their common enemy, the Soviet Union—was dubbed “the week that changed the world.” Now, the world has changed again, with Moscow and Beijing aligned together against Washington. Many at the Shanghai gathering, representing entities that promote Sino-U.S. relations, were rattled by the news from Ukraine and the toll they have taken on U.S.-China relations.
But Chinese officials seem to believe that embracing Russia is entirely consistent with the real lesson of Nixon’s visit. A Feb. 23 commentary in China’s Global Times, which often reflects strident, state-approved nationalistic voices, pointed out that former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger himself had counseled Nixon that the United States should “play the balance of power game without any emotion.” In a couple decades, Kissinger said, China would become ever more powerful, and then the United States should “consider how to rely on Russia to keep China down.” As in the classic Chinese historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which describes three powerful fiefdoms forever trapped in a cycle of warring, spying, allying, and vying for the upper hand, China’s leaders believe the only enduring fact about their country’s relationship with other great powers is rivalry. That fact applies to the United States—but also, of course, to Russia.
Many Chinese officials seemed startled that Russian President Vladimir Putin would move so far so fast—and so forcefully—when his forces invaded Ukraine. At a press conference Thursday, China’s assistant foreign minister, Hua Chunying, revealed, “What you are seeing today is not what we have wished to see. … We hope all parties can go back to dialogue and negotiation.” But she avoided calling it an “invasion” several times. And she did not place blame squarely on the Russian government. Instead, she suggested the United States bore some responsibility: “The U.S. has been fueling the flame. … How do they want to put out the fire?”
At least Putin waited until after Beijing’s Winter Olympics ended on Feb. 20 before unleashing the dogs of war. (By way of background: Putin’s military had occupied parts of Georgia during the first week of Beijing’s Summer Olympics in 2008.) In early February, Chinese President Xi Jinping had welcomed Putin to Beijing and made him a VIP visiting dignitary at the Winter Games’ opening ceremony. Xi stated that China opposed further NATO expansion—for the first time publicly—and that Russia’s security concerns were legitimate.
At the same time, the Biden administration warned with increasing urgency that Moscow was poised to attack—and even predicted D-Day could be Feb. 16. The following day, the Global Times derided U.S. “war rhetoric” and “media disinformation,” saying Moscow displayed “strategic composure,” in a piece headlined: “Ukraine ‘invasion’ day passes peacefully, defies ‘war hype.’”
Just a week later, however, Russian tanks really did roll. Global markets tanked. The cost of crude oil surpassed $100 a barrel. Western nations began rolling out economic sanctions against Russia. Now, Chinese officials are scrambling to clarify their position. They counsel restraint in the face of an international outpouring of revulsion—and sanctions—targeting Moscow and other nations “stained by association” with the pariah state, as U.S. President Joe Biden put it.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s rhetoric has become less overtly supportive of Putin. According to unconfirmed reports circulating in Beijing, after Russia’s strongman left town, the all-powerful Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee convened and decided to soften the perception that Xi was in lockstep with Putin.
Then, in a phone call late Friday, Xi urged Putin to end the Ukraine crisis through negotiation, and Putin said he was willing to have high-level dialogue with Ukraine, according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency. Xi said it was necessary to “abandon the Cold War mentality” and “form a balanced, effective and sustainable European security mechanism through negotiations”, said Xinhua. It also quoted Xi as saying China’s respect for “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries” and abiding by the U.N charter “is consistent.” Putin argued that the US and NATO have “long ignored Russia’s reasonable security concerns”, said Xinhua. The news agency did not say Xi endorsed the invasion, but rather quoted him as saying, “China decides on its position based on the merits of the Ukrainian issue itself.”
A handful of times over the past three months, Biden administration officials met senior Chinese counterparts, imploring them to advise Putin to stay his hand, according to the New York Times, but were rebuffed because the Chinese “did not think an invasion was in the works.” The Biden administration also softened the original wording of a U.S.-backed Security Council resolution deploring the invasion, to make it easier for China to refrain from casting a veto; China, India and the United Arab Emirates abstained.
Chinese officials had been sending mixed signals in the run-up to the invasion. “China would never support a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, but it also would never publicly criticize Russia,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international affairs at Renmin University of China. Depending on their audience, top aides had four sometimes contradictory Chinese positions on Ukraine, according to a foreign diplomat in Beijing who spoke on condition of anonymity. One line insisted that China respects the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of countries; Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi repeated this traditional formulation when diplomatic negotiations still appeared viable during a security conference in Munich.
Then there was the Chinese line calling for dialogue, consultation, and peaceful resolution in accordance with the Minsk agreement, a series of Europe-focused international pacts intended to end the war in Ukraine’s Donbass region. “Why bring up Minsk? Because the agreements are regional, with no Americans involved,” the diplomat explained. “This could have kept the U.S. from meddling.”
A relatively new version is China’s declaration that Russian security concerns are legitimate and NATO enlargement must end, which hit headlines during Putin’s visit to Beijing in early February. Finally, Beijing officials have also alleged the United States of “stirring up trouble,” said the diplomat, who described some Chinese diplomats in full “wolf warrior” mode, accusing Washington of blatant propaganda and “lying, lying, lying.” The last two strategies appeared dominant in early February, triggering criticism that Xi was the Russian leader’s “enabler” and had squandered an opportunity to talk Putin out of launching Europe’s biggest conventional conflict since World War II.
In fact, Xi and Putin’s friendship isn’t exactly overflowing with trust. Beijing and Moscow have been herded together partly because both are autocratic regimes—and partly because Biden sees each as a rival. Since 2018, Xi has called Putin his “best friend,” but the friendship remains a wary one. “Even if China privately advised the Russians not to invade, they wouldn’t have listened,” Shi said. “China’s influence on Putin actually is quite limited.”
Now, Putin’s adventurism has trapped Xi in a precarious situation. The last thing China’s leader wants is a cascade of unexpected external challenges on top of his formidable but expected internal ones. Politically, 2022 was always slated to be a delicate year for Xi, as he prepares to begin a highly unusual third term as party head at a key National Congress in the fall. Meanwhile China’s regulatory crackdowns, defaulting real estate firms, strict zero-COVID-19 restrictions, and lagging consumer demand have raised question marks on the economic front.
Chinese officials likely assumed Putin’s 2022 adventurism would be geographically limited, as it was when Russia gobbled up bits of Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014. They seem to believe “they could follow the old 2014 playbook again,” said Evan Medeiros, a professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University and formerly the top advisor on the Asia-Pacific in former U.S. President Barack Obama’s National Security Council. Beijing never endorsed Crimea’s annexation—but neither did it criticize Moscow’s occupation; instead, it called for all parties to “exercise restraint.”
But the world—and its perceptions of China’s increasingly aggressive behavior—isn’t the same as in 2014. Chinese officials “didn’t have a clue about what was going to hit them this time,” Medeiros said. “Despite Chinese claims of neutrality, the Biden administration likely will see Beijing as a co-conspirator with Moscow. And if any Chinese companies try to provide sanctions relief to Russia, they’ll be hit hard.”
“Some Chinese tech firms may have to choose between selling products to Russia or selling them to the U.S.” if the items use chips designed using U.S. tools and software, he added.
When Biden unleashed the latest tranche of U.S. sanctions against Russia on Thursday, it was the middle of the night for Beijing authorities. A whole new world of international outrage over Ukraine and potential economic hurt awaited them. Biden’s vow to cut off half of Russia’s high-tech imports, hobbling Moscow’s strategic ambitions, means Putin will almost certainly turn to China to fill the gap—making secondary sanctions a very real concern for Beijing.
Even more worrisome is the fact that Putin’s recklessness has galvanized U.S. alliance structures, which former U.S. President Donald Trump had undermined for his four years in office. Xi has been trying to promote his vision of a multilateralist world unhampered by traditional alliances. In a Jan. 17 address to a virtual session of the World Economic Forum, Xi called for economic globalization and true multilateralism: “We should remove barriers, not erect walls. We should open up, not close off. We should seek integration, not [decoupling].”
It was a veiled reference to Biden’s attempts to repair old alliances and build new partnerships, especially in the Pacific. Now, in the immediate aftermath of Moscow’s invasion, U.S.-focused alliance networks are enjoying a new lease on life. Putin’s aggression has left NATO “more united and determined than ever,” Biden said. Some European analysts speculate NATO might even gain two new members, Sweden and Finland, who’ve been jolted by the outbreak of war on their doorstep.
“It’s complicated” is the mantra many Chinese analysts repeat when asked about Beijing’s predicament. Despite the fact that Xi and Putin vowed a strategic partnership without limits, there clearly are limits to their relationship. It’s not an alliance, and the Ukraine crisis has heightened Beijing’s nervousness about perceived analogies between Ukraine and Taiwan. “China would never declare, directly or indirectly, that it would give direct military support to Russia over Ukraine,” Shi said. “It’s just like the Taiwan Strait’s situation: Putin would never say, in any way, that if war broke out, Russia would give China any military support.” It’s also hypocritical for Beijing to give Putin a pass when he invades a sovereign country, when one of Beijing’s cardinal foreign-policy principles has been respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Meanwhile Putin’s invasion of Ukraine unleashed a wide range of excited and diverse views posted on Chinese social media, underscoring Beijing’s dilemma. Xi’s team must try to allay the jitters of economic elites and also satisfy ultranationalistic aspirations of some young Chinese. The first group took to Weibo to express their dismay at the way markets are nosediving. At the same time, apparently emboldened by Putin’s recklessness, extremely nationalistic internet users called on Beijing to liberate Taiwan—and capture its president alive. (Beijing considers self-governing Taiwan a part of China that must be reunited with the mainland eventually—by force if necessary. Meanwhile, the United States is committed to selling defensive arms to Taiwan and maintains “strategic ambiguity” over whether it would come to Taipei’s defense if it was attacked.)
One big question is the degree of Xi’s willingness to help find a way out of the Ukraine crisis, since Beijing is the most likely source of assistance to Putin once Russia’s high technology sources dry up and its foreign currency hoard runs low. Asked if he would urge China to help isolate Russia, Biden said during Thursday’s press conference that he’s “not prepared to comment at the moment.” Then on Friday, Xi’s phone conversation with Putin was a significant diplomatic intervention—and a gauge of Chinese concern. In coming days and weeks, Xi will face many opportunities to ponder whether his friendship with Putin is yielding quite so many benefits after all.
Melinda Liu is Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief and the co-author of Beijing Spring, about the events of April-June 1989.