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A Dangerous Dance: Evan Feigenbaum on China’s Role in Ukraine

Dr. Evan A. Feigenbaum

For all the analysis of the Ukraine war that’s been churned out since Russia invaded the country last Thursday, one key angle remains underexplored: the role of China. As Russia’s strongest strategic partner and one of the few countries to have taken its side in the crisis, China’s influence on what happens in Ukraine is enormous. For that reason, we’ll be publishing several interviews in the coming days that look at China’s role and the mindset of its leader, Xi Jinping.

Of course, reporting on China has become so difficult in the last few years that figuring out what Beijing really thinks is now very hard. Experts who say they understand China are still plentiful. But experts who actually understand it are rare. Evan Feigenbaum is one of the few who really do. A veteran of the U.S. State Department, where he served in several Asia-related roles from 2001-2009, he’s now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. We spoke on Wednesday afternoon.

Alexis Druzhinin / Getty

Octavian Report: Do you think that the Chinese leadership was surprised by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last Thursday?

Evan Feigenbaum: We weren’t privy to the discussions between the Russians or the Chinese. But the U.S. government has taken a position on that question, and its view is that the Chinese were aware and gave tacit consent—and they may have had some requests on the timing. Those of us on the outside have no way to establish how accurate that is. But it is possible for two things to be true at the same time: namely, that the Chinese were aware, but not of the scope, intensity, nature, and details of the invasion.

OR: China has long been a vocal supporter of noninterference, national sovereignty, and the sanctity of territorial integrity, at least on a rhetorical level. Has the invasion of Ukraine put China in an awkward position?

Feigenbaum: The Chinese have a basic problem: they’re trying to reconcile three interests that are fundamentally irreconcilable. The first is a strategic partnership with Russia that is not an alliance, but more like an entente. In other words, an unsentimental partnership of common strategic interest and tactical convenience, but without any love in it. They’re trying to reconcile that with, number two, their longstanding foreign-policy principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and noninterference. And then the third principle is their deep desire not to be collateral damage from the sanctions now being imposed on Russia.

The Chinese know that the more they lean toward the Russians, the more they’re likely to be a target of the sanctions, either indirectly or through the adoption of secondary sanctions. So they can’t have all three of these things at once, which is forcing them to straddle, to tack back and forth in their emphasis. And my expectation is that the principles will soon go out the window entirely, buried under some sly diplomatic language. Beijing will make a hard lean toward Moscow. We’re already seeing it. The difference between what’s happening today and what happened in the wake of the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, when Moscow detached Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is really noticeable. In 2008, Dmitry Medvedev was the Russian president and he went to a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. He tried to get the group to endorse the Russian position and he was unsuccessful. At that time, a lot of China’s resistance had to do with trying to preserve a hold on these principles. But if you fast forward to today, there’s absolutely no way to square the facts on the ground with China’s principles. So they’re abandoning them in favor of their partnership with the Russians.

OR: Do you think Beijing cares about what the crisis will do to its already-strained relations with the West?

Feigenbaum: Not really. The people that matter in Beijing have already decided that the United States intends to confront China in every dimension of national power: economic, financial, military, ideological. They’ve baked that into their calculations about the next decade. On a tactical level, as I said, their challenge is not to end up as a target of sanctions. So they do care about relations with the West in that tactical sense, but not when it comes to national strategy.

Let me say one more thing about sanctions. The Chinese are going to give the new Russia sanctions a lot of scrutiny, in two different ways. They’re going to think about defense: how to avoid putting a target on China’s back. But they’re also going to think about offense, which means studying how effective these tools are and to seeing whether and how China might assimilate some of them into its own coercive arsenal. When Americans talk about Taiwan, our discussion tends to be too military-centric. China has kinetic tools to coerce Taiwan, but it’s spent a couple of decades building up a pretty robust arsenal of non-kinetic tools too. And that includes ways to coerce individuals, to coerce businesses. So I think this new round of sanctions will be very instructive for China.

OR: Do you think that Xi Jinping likes the idea of Russia becoming even more reliant on China, an even-more-junior partner in their relationship?

Feigenbaum: Everyone presumes that China is the senior partner and Russia is the junior partner. That’s intuitive, because on every metric of national power except the number of nuclear weapons, China is by far the more powerful country. But power is highly situational. And the Chinese are now carrying a hell of a lot of freight for Moscow. China’s acting diplomatically as a proxy for Russia. That suggests that the Russians have been able to enlist the Chinese to serve their ends. So maybe we need to rethink who’s the senior partner and who’s the junior partner here.

OR: How do you explain this decision to subsume China’s interests to Russia’s, given Xi’s intense sense of national pride?

Feigenbaum: Xi has decided that the structure of global power is changing in ways that require partners who share some of China’s views of the world, particularly in terms of the strategic balance. This is a deliberate decision designed to help China resist American and European pressure. The Chinese leadership has decided that the United States is a fundamental threat to the Chinese Communist Party’s definition of its national interest and security. And therefore there’s nothing to be gained to aligning with the United States on this or other issues because it would not alleviate American pressure. It would change nothing about the structural competition between the United States and China. With very little to be gained and, they’re betting, not much to be lost, they think they can straddle.

OR: How do you think China would like the crisis to end?

Feigenbaum: I think they just want it to end, period. However it ends, they’ll deal with it. They have a close strategic partnership with Russia, but they had also developed a pretty robust economic relationship with Ukraine. So the Chinese preference would be to go back to the status quo ante. But that’s not going to happen. They’ll have to find some way to accommodate themselves to whatever the new reality is, and I’m sure they will.

OR: The conventional wisdom is that the invasion of Ukraine makes an invasion of Taiwan more likely and more imminent. But some experts argue that the opposite is true, because China has just seen what the consequences of an invasion would be. Which view do you think is right?

Feigenbaum: Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine last week. But the Chinese have spent decades figuring out whether and how they might be able to coerce Taiwan. So the idea that this is all about Russia and Ukraine is just silly. The Chinese are on a timeline that they’ve developed for their own reasons. I’m guessing that they’re learning lessons from watching what’s happening to the Russians in Ukraine. But I don’t believe that what’s happening in Ukraine is any kind of trigger for the Chinese.

OR: For years now, a number of U.S. policy experts have been arguing that China is America’s big enemy and Russia is the little enemy—so Washington should try to befriend Russia and peel it away from China. That now looks impossible. What about the opposite? Is there any way in the foreseeable future that the United States could get China to move closer toward Washington and further from Moscow—the opposite of what the United States did during the Cold War, when President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger turned China into an ally against Russia?

Feigenbaum: The idea of doing a reverse Kissinger—and peeling Russia off from China—was always ahistorical and preposterous. It was ahistorical because when Kissinger went to Beijing in 1971, it was in the context of a Sino-Soviet split. The Soviet Union and China were enemies. They had nearly gone to war on their border in 1969. Today they are not enemies. They have not nearly fought a war. In fact, they’re strategic partners. So it’s a preposterous historical analogy. The idea that the U.S. was ever going to peel Russia off from its close strategic buddy is just nonsense. There was never any chance of that.

On the flip side, there are good reasons for the United States to want to not have a relentlessly confrontational relationship with China in every aspect of their interaction. But there have been some pretty significant changes in U.S.-China relations over the last five to seven years that would make changing things a lot harder. Before then, if you wanted to improve the relationship, you would have looked to economic levers: trade, investment, co-innovation in areas that provide public benefit, like drug development to treat disease. But that’s all become very difficult now, because the economic relationship is being refracted through the prism of security. Technology cooperation with China, for example, is no longer viewed in Washington as a public good, but as enabling the rise of a competitor to the United States. And China has its own mirror image version of that view. It would take a lot of creativity and a willingness on both sides to overcome these political obstacles.

OR: Having said all that, can you imagine a scenario where the cost of supporting Russia gets so high that China starts to ease away from it?

Feigenbaum: If China were all in for Russia, they would flip their middle finger at the sanctions and dare the United States to respond. But they’re clearly not going to do that. They’re all in with Moscow strategically and diplomatically, but not in terms of economic interaction, because they gain so much more from global markets. Which is why they’ll try to straddle. Is there a point at which they might lean away from Moscow strategically and diplomatically? I have trouble seeing it. We’ve just witnessed a significant reorientation of China’s foreign policy. Given the state of the U.S.-China relationship, given the state of the China-Europe relationship, I don’t see China changing course again in the near term.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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