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TAG Virtual Conference: China under Xi

By Julian Lindley-French

“Change is coming that hasn’t happened in 100 years and we are driving this change together”.

President Xi Jinping to President Putin, March 21st, 2023

The debate was focused on the nature of the profound contentions between China under President Xi and the West over the fact and nature of the rules-based order.  China sought a return to Machtpolitik in which might would be right in dealing with regional security issues, whereas the West remained determined, by and large, to uphold a constraining rules-based system that prevented extreme state behaviour.  The debate highlighted China’s (and Russia’s) de facto rejection of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and the ‘assurances’ that both Beijing and Moscow “re-affirmed” at the time.  With its support for Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine China’s de facto abrogation of the 2013 China-Ukraine Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, under which Beijing should be helping Kyiv to defend itself, reveals the extent of Xi’s hypocrisy over the centrality of sovereignty in Chinese foreign policy.  Chinese duplicity must be publicly highlighted.

Western ‘policy’, such as it exists, swings between a US focus on the growing military threat posed by China and Germany’s emphasis on mercantilism, even though the lessons are clear. China’s betrayal of Ukraine is extensive.  “90% of Russian troops in Ukraine is only possible due to Sino-Russian relations”. Between 2008 and 2022 Ukraine played a decisive military-technical role in support of the People’s Liberation Army when Russia continued to deny Beijing vital information. It is a salutary warning to the Global South and China’s claim to be “the champion of democratisation of international relations” and the belief China will honour its agreements indefinitely. 

Where next? For all the rhetoric, Sino-Russian relations are not as close as Putin would like and even limited Chinese support has reduced Russia to little more than a vassal state of China. Xi offered no more Chinese weapons for Russia at the summit and nor was the much-touted Siberian pipeline announced.  The aim of Western statecraft must thus be the defence of shared core interests and where possible to drive a wedge between China and Russia.  Crucially, China’s trade with the West is at least 10 times greater than that with Russia.  There are also concerns in Russia about Moscow’s kow-towing to Beijing.  There are also concerns in Beijing about the damage being done by Xi to China’s relations with the global democracies at a time of relative economic weakness. China has not sought to break Western sanctions on Russia.  

China’s geopolitical perspective? The democracies, Europeans in particular, must guard against Merkel-esque naivety in its dealings with China.  Ukraine is discovering that “gratitude is not a very popular concept in geopolitics”.  The Chinese got what they wanted from the Ukrainians and no longer have need of them. It is the message implicit therein that the West should take from Ukraine’s experience and deal with China in terms of transactional reciprocity by focussing on shared interest. Xi is driven by a deep resentment of Western policy towards China for almost two centuries and the ‘unequal treaties’ that were imposed on the Middle Kingdom by the imperial powers.  Xi also believes that China must “break out of the encirclement” imposed by the democratic powers who he sees as the direct descendants of past imperialists. It is Xi’s China’s with which the democracies must deal because the many internal challenges faced by Beijing are normal for a country of 1.3 billion inhabitants and are unlikely to lead to profound political change in the short-term.

The practical consequences of Realpolitik?  Could it be that Russia’s rejection of the new START Treaty is not simply a rejection of all constraining treaties per se but an opportunistic gambit to enable both Russia and China to gain permanent nuclear ascendancy? The paradox of Xi’s message to Putin, and the consequence of the Machtpolitik they both espouse, is that the ‘treaty’ China is imposing on Russia is little different in substance to the ‘unequal treaties’ imposed by nineteenth century imperial powers. That begs a question: for how long will Russians be comfortable with such imposed inferiority?

For the democracies the message should be clear: whatever treaties and agreements China has signed under Xi they are seen by Beijing as primarily instruments to constrain the West thus enabling maximum effect for Chinese coercion as and when Beijing chooses to defect. China and Russia? Echoes resound of the ‘opportunistic’ Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939, not least because of the return to secret diplomacy.  China is not Russia and dialogue with Beijing is essential albeit infused with realism and respect.  

Julian Lindley-French