Is China Stepping Up Its Support for Russia?

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Beijing signals support for Moscow as the anniversary of Russia’s war in Ukraine approaches, the year’s second plenary meeting could lead to some government restructuring, and a Chinese business mogul disappears.

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China Signals More Support for Russia

Attempts to establish a so-called floor for U.S.-China relations have crumbled, revealing a gaping abyss beneath. The spy balloon controversy earlier this month seems to have strengthened hard-line anti-U.S. views within the Chinese leadership. One year after Russia invaded Ukraine, Beijing is signaling ever stronger support for Moscow, despite U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s warning that any lethal aid would bring “serious consequences.”

The result is a barrage of diplomacy and propaganda against Washington and in favor of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Over the last week, top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi visited Europe, participating in the Munich Security Conference before traveling on to Moscow. In Munich, Wang refused to apologize for China’s intrusion into U.S. airspace and called Washington’s reaction “weak” and “near-hysterical.”

Anti-U.S. sentiment in Chinese state media has ramped up since the spy balloon crisis began. Much of it has focused on Russia’s war in Ukraine, which Chinese outlets portray as a righteous response to NATO aggression. This week, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a clumsy communique on U.S. hegemony to Western journalists, seeking to draw attention to the “perils of the U.S. practices to world peace and stability and the well-being of all peoples.”

Although there have been backdoor efforts to portray the balloon as a mistake, China’s public statements have largely overridden them. Part of the problem may be that Chinese officials are used to saying things in public for domestic political reasons that differ from what is said in private.

Meanwhile, other stories that could reflect poorly on the United States are receiving significant coverage in China, including correspondent Seymour Hersh’s dubious reporting that claims a U.S. conspiracy was behind the sabotage of the critical Nord Stream natural gas pipelines from Russia to Germany last year. Chinese state media has also focused on more speculative claims about the environmental effects of the derailment of a train carrying toxic materials in Ohio.

Wang has reinforced anti-U.S. messaging while in Moscow. On Wednesday, he called the China-Russia alliance “as stable as Mount Tai,” using a common Chinese idiom. He added that a “third party” would not be able to trouble it—seeming to respond to Blinken’s injunctions over lethal aid.

But it’s not clear what caused the U.S. secretary of state, along with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, to speak out about the possibility. China has so far kept its support for Moscow rhetorical and economic; crossing that line would be a dangerous step. European Union High Representative Josep Borrell said he’d been reassured in “frank” private discussions that China won’t supply such aid.

Instead, China seems keen to play to developing countries, many of which are unenthusiastic about Western efforts to defend Ukraine. It may push a Beijing-brokered peace deal that would likely leave Russia in control of seized territory in Ukraine, including Crimea. This could be a useful Chinese propaganda tool to demonstrate its desire for peace. But it’s not likely to gain traction, mostly because Ukraine does not see China as an honest partner and because surrendering territory is a nonstarter.

China may already be providing non-lethal military aid to Russia, according to U.S. officials. Supplying weaponry would be a major escalation—but a plausible one in the current geopolitical context. It’s also possible that China sees the war in Ukraine as an opportunity to test its weaponry, which hasn’t been used on the battlefield since the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979, save for brief skirmishes in the mid-1980s. But the lethal aid Russia could use in Ukraine wouldn’t bear much resemblance to the components needed for a naval and air war over Taiwan.

Beijing seems determined to find trouble for itself when it comes to hawkishness in Washington. After all, it is convinced that the United States already sees it as an enemy. But every incident of Chinese intransigence convinces more U.S. officials that China is not a good-faith partner. Furthermore, any U.S. response to Chinese lethal aid would be swift. After the spy balloon incident, additions of Chinese firms to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Entity List, a key national-security trade tool, went from conception to implementation in just five days.

If China starts to treat Ukraine as a proxy war against the West, it will solidify global divisions for the coming decades. Russia’s war in Ukraine increasingly feels like this generation’s Korean War—a brutal conflict instigated by Moscow that sets the stage for the Cold War to come.

Bureaucratic reorganization. Another round of Chinese government restructuring is likely at this year’s second plenary meeting, a regular Chinese Communist Party (CCP) event scheduled from Feb. 26 to Feb. 28. It’s always hard to tell what will come out of the plenary meetings, which are often said to focus on topics like “modernization” or “optimization.”

But this round is likely to see a further extension of CCP power—just as in previous years several departments were absorbed into the United Front, a key tool of civil society control. The meetings may have a strong emphasis on both technological dominance and financial control—the two chief concerns of the Chinese leadership at the moment—and it could presage a round of purges in the state-led banking sector later this year, following recent concerns over financial technology and tech-connected corruption.

The meetings could also lead to a cleanup in the security and medical structures that grew to be a key part of state power and budgets during the last two years as a result of China’s zero-COVID policy.

Xi embraces Global Security Initiative. One of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s big buzzwords during his third term is likely to be his Global Security Initiative (GSI), which basically boils down to the supremacy of sovereignty, a disdain for democracy promotion, and an opposition to “blocs” (read: the United States and its allies).

The GSI got a boost in coverage this week in the context of China’s position on Russia’s war in Ukraine. Much of it likely appeals to developing countries unhappy with U.S. hegemony—except for China’s neighbors, which increasingly resent Beijing’s regional power.

There is nothing particularly new or interesting about the concepts laid out in the GSI, but it feels like it could follow the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in that regular diplomacy will get swept into its remit. As the year goes on, U.S. politicians will likely portray the GSI—as with the BRI before it—as a world-spanning plan rather than just another piece of jargon.

South Korea ends COVID testing for Chinese travelers. In another sign that China’s initial wave of COVID-19 infections has ended, South Korea will stop mandatory testing for arrivals from China after the positive rate dropped from around 18 percent in early January to 0.6 percent this week. Other countries, such as EU states and the United States, are likely to follow suit in removing their requirements.

China, which required all visitors to take mandatory tests and imposed a long quarantine period until last December, complained about the latest measures and imposed reciprocal tests in response. A shift away from testing may allow some diplomatic recovery with other countries, although any return to normality in U.S.-China relations remains unlikely.

FP’s Most Read This Week

What Putin Got Right by Stephen M. Walt

The Drone War in Ukraine Is Cheap, Deadly, and Made in China by Faine Greenwood

Washington’s China Hawks Take Flight by Robbie Gramer and Christina Lu

Chinese mogul disappears. Bao Fan, the well-connected and wealthy head of the China Renaissance Bank, has been missing for nearly a week—usually a sign that someone has vanished into Chinese government detention. Bao was once known as a rainmaker in China, but he was recently trying to shift some of his money out of the country. Wealth in China is perpetually insecure; it exists only at the sufferance of the CCP.

It’s not clear what error Bao made, if any. He could have fallen on the wrong side of a business deal, or simply had something that some high-up party official sought. Like other business leaders, Bao was doing his best to appease Xi’s CCP, but it clearly wasn’t enough. That will leave other members of the Chinese elite nervous. After all, one disappearance often suggests others to come.

AI strikes again. As China Brief covered recently, language-generation programs such as ChatGPT make official Chinese documents easy to simulate because they’re so reliant on cliché and the right political terminology. A good example of this surfaced this week, when a viral gag imitating a government announcement about an unpopular anti-traffic congestion program in Hangzhou was widely assumed to be real.

That suggests a potential problem: The Chinese internet tends to platform badly sourced rumors and even outright lies during emergencies, sometimes causing panic. Contradictory government statements augmented those tendencies during the years of COVID lockdowns.

The ability to produce convincing fake announcements with a simple prompt could lead Chinese authorities to act on their convictions that more censorship is needed to control rumors—and dissidence.

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