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In divide over Ukraine, China stakes a position further from US


China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Bali, Indonesia, last week.

By Jane Perlez


When the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, pressed China last weekend to ditch its support of Russia’s war in Ukraine, he was pushing up against a red line now firmly entrenched in Beijing.


The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, double downed on his country’s position, retorting that Beijing was neutral and lashing out at the United States for “China phobia” and policies that offered “a dead end” with no way out.


The standoff, after the G20 meeting in Bali, showed how bound the leader of China, Xi Jinping, is to the battlefield fortunes of Russian President Vladimir Putin and how unlikely he is to help the United States secure an end to the Ukraine conflict. It also underscored the deep chasms in a relationship that is getting worse, as the Biden administration tries to come up with a cohesive China policy.


“For Chinese strategists, if the war ends with Russia being severely defeated, China would face a far worse geostrategic environment than today,” said Zhao Tong, a research scholar at Princeton University’s Science and Global Security Program.


Despite being rich and powerful, China fears being isolated without a viable Russia at its side, left to fend for itself against what Beijing sees as the “strategic aggression of the U.S.-led West,” he said.


The worst outcome for Beijing, he added, is a defeated Russia and a pro-Western government in Moscow.


From the outset of the war, Washington was able, with the threat of heavy sanctions, to dissuade China from providing weapons and economic assistance to Russia. China claims it is neutral since it has refrained from such explicit support.


Last week, the Chinese authorities deleted posts by the White House and the State Department on China’s social media platforms that described Washington’s policies on NATO, and Hong Kong. “The PRC ought to allow the Chinese people to see what American leaders say, as the American people hear what Chinese leaders say,” the U.S. Ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, posted on Twitter after the censorship, referring to the People’s Republic of China.


China’s tough language after the Bali meeting was calculated to show that Wang had stood up to an implacable United States, said Yun Sun, the director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington.


The statement implied that “the U.S. has to lower its head and bow,” an image that fit with Beijing’s conclusion that Biden was “weak,” and that the Democrats were about to lose the mid-term elections, she said.


“Beijing doesn’t believe Biden will change the direction of the China policy,” Sun said. “So what’s left is to speak tough, stand their position and squeeze Washington as hard as possible.”


A Chinese expert on U.S.-China relations, Wang Huiyao, the president of the Center for China and Globalization, which advises China’s government, said the atmospherics at the Bali meeting were better than in recent encounters between the U.S. and Chinese officials.


But of the United States, he said, “the main thing is to stop treating China as the biggest imaginary enemy, so that we can better mobilize the international community and make a more positive response” to Russia.


Also at stake in Bali was a possible meeting later in the year between Biden and Xi. Both sides were gauging whether it was worthwhile for the two men, who have not met in person since Biden won the election, to try to defuse the worst of the tensions.


Senior U.S. and Chinese officials have had about half a dozen meetings, ​Sun said. And both sides, she said, sense a crisis is at hand, believing that it would take the two top leaders to at least come up with some ground rules.


If talks between Xi and Biden went badly, it could signal whether the world will revert to a Cold War-like division of two well-armed blocs: one led by the United States and its democratic partners, the other anchored by China, Russia and other similarly-minded autocracies.


At a NATO summit in early July, the United States and its western allies formally declared that China was a systemic “challenge,” an action that drew withering denunciation from Beijing.


Washington has devised a series of plans to counter China, but few of them have won firm support in the region.


A coalition between the United States, Japan, Australia and India, known as the Quad, is meant to show solidarity in the Asia-Pacific region, but India buys huge quantities of oil from Russia; a new U.S.-led economic group of 14 countries, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, received a lukewarm reception from its members since it fails to offer tariff reductions for goods entering the United States; and an agreement for the U.S. and Britain to share technology to help Australia deploy nuclear-powered submarines remains vague.


When the U.S. first opened relations with China 50 years ago, it was relatively easy for Washington to pry China away from the Soviet Union.


Poor and isolated, China needed friends, and President Richard Nixon persuaded the leader, Mao Zedong, to join the side of the U.S. during the Cold War. By 1972 when Nixon visited China, the two big Communist powers, China and the Soviet Union, had also fallen out over differences in ideology and other matters.


The relationship between Washington and Beijing became so close that for a while they even shared joint intelligence facilities, located in China’s western province of Xinjiang, aimed at the Soviet Union.


“The table is turned,” Zhao said, of the current relationship. “Beijing is in an intense ideological competition with Washington and genuinely shares Moscow’s perspectives on many domestic and international issues.”


It was “unrealistic,” Zhao said, “to expect China to take a value-neutral approach in managing the U.S.-China-Russia trilateral relationship and to switch sides just based on calculations of power balance and material interests.”


Xi often refers in speeches to great changes in the world that have not been seen before, a nod to China’s growing ideological divide with the U.S. and its allies.


In an address last month to a gathering of the group of emerging economies, known as BRICS, Xi criticized Washington and its allies, for “expanding military alliances and seeking ones own security at the expense of other countries’ security.”


The administration’s effort to get more cooperation from China on Ukraine has been complicated by the lack of economic incentive.


China is facing a slowdown, in part over its insistence on eliminating virtually all COVID infections through tight lockdowns and extensive restrictions. The government is unlikely to meet its goal of 5.5% growth for 2022.


With energy costs soaring, Russian oil offers some relief. China is able to buy large quantities at a discount from the current market price.


“China is definitely supporting Russia with these purchases, and it is a puzzle why they haven’t pushed for a bigger discount,” said Simon Johnson, professor of global economics at the Sloan School of Management at MIT.


The administration’s efforts to find common ground on certain issues, such as climate change and trade, have been dismissed by Beijing, sometimes with derision.


“The U.S. wants climate change cooperation to be an ‘oasis’ of U.S.-China relations,” Wang said last year after talking with the U.S. climate envoy, John Kerry. “However, if the oasis is surrounded by deserts then sooner or later, the ‘oasis’ will be desertified.”


The testy exchange between Blinken and Wang was only the most recent round of blustery confrontation, said Charles A. Kupchan, professor of international relations at Georgetown University. But it is still possible, he said, for the administration to drive a wedge between China and Russia.


“Washington should explore whether a reset with China and a strategy that entails a better mix of containment and engagement,” he added, “can help tame the rivalry with Beijing, and ultimately hem in Moscow.”

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