China is making bad choices

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China is making bad choices

Michael Green
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington.

When I served on the National Security Council staff in the Bush administration, one of our premises was that it might be possible to work with China on major geopolitical challenges like North Korea or even the global war on terror despite geopolitical rivalry. The record was mixed and yet Beijing did show some signs of wanting cooperation. After Sept. 11 Jiang Zemin agreed as host of the APEC meeting weeks later to focus on international terrorism at the U.S. request, and while the Chinese delegation to the Six Party Talks was more likely to urge compromises with Pyongyang than real denuclearization, Beijing did join the majority in the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear and missile tests after 2006.

The premise that problems like North Korean nuclear proliferation will be easier to solve with Chinese help is still correct, but tattered. For its part, the Biden administration appears to have given up on that premise for now. It was striking that in an otherwise thoughtful Indo-Pacific Strategy in February there was no vision for a future U.S. relationship with China that might yield such cooperation on areas of mutual concern. This omission is understandable, given Beijing’s new pattern of linking cooperation on problems such as North Korea to U.S. concessions on Chinese demands regarding Taiwan, human rights, and the rest. This is a disturbing pattern. When I was in government both sides were very careful not to cross-link issues in that way since the result would be a slippery slope towards a zero-sum Cold War-style relationship. Now Beijing repeatedly cross-links issues.

And as the world becomes more dangerous, Xi Jinping is giving even more reasons to doubt that cooperation with China on important global issues is possible. With the invasion of Ukraine and Pyongyang’s latest ICBM test, it appears that China’s stance has gone from demanding transactional concessions for cooperation on common challenges to actually enabling dangerous actors as they escalate.

In the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, multiple commentators noted the difficult position China found itself in — unable to endorse an attack on a sovereign state’s territory yet unwilling to see Putin fail. China’s Foreign Ministry sent vague signals about playing a diplomatic role while refusing to put any pressure on Moscow to cease its brutal attacks on Ukrainian civilians. President Joe Biden spoke with Xi Jinping on March 18 to warn against Chinese material support for Moscow. European leaders were more hopeful that China might play a brokering role in Ukraine and privately expressed some skepticism at Washington’s view that Beijing was considering substantial support for Moscow. By the end of March, however, the Europeans had also concluded that China was enabling Russian aggression and a China-EU virtual summit ended in friction as European leaders urged Beijing to pressure Moscow to end its invasion, warning that material Chinese support for Moscow would irreparably harm China-EU relations into the future. The fact that the American and European leaders are both frustrated with Beijing’s unwillingness to put pressure on Moscow and alarmed at Chinese consideration of more material support for Russia indicates how much Xi is willing to damage relations with the West to help Putin. Chinese banks will avoid triggering Swift banking sanctions, which is significant, but the Chinese government is clearly willing to do what it can to keep Putin afloat. This is further indication that in Xi’s worldview, there is already an epic clash underway between China and the West. And now with shocking evidence of atrocities and war crimes by Russian troops in the areas they have evacuated around Kyiv, the international condemnation and pressure on Russia will only increase — and with it the damage to international society caused by China’s supportive stance towards Moscow.

North Korea’s test of the Hwasong-17 is further evidence that Beijing is in a different place than before when it comes to using its leverage to maintain global order. When North Korea tested the Hwasong-15 in 2017 China joined in a UN Security Council resolution the next month imposing new sanctions on Pyongyang. As Pyongyang began escalating missile tests in February and early March of this year, however, China and Russia blocked efforts by the ten other members of the Security Council to censure Pyongyang. This was a clear signal to the North that the cohesion in the Security Council was broken and there would not be severe punishment for further escalation as there had been in 2017. Predictably, with the test of the Hwasong-17, China once again blocked action in the Security Council. China’s Ambassador to the UN, Zhang Jun urged “prudence” stating that, “all is not quiet on the international front; no parties should take any action that would lead to greater tensions.” By this tortured logic the greater the escalations and international tension, the more the Security Council should be passive and avoid imposing consequences on bad actors. Beijing’s stance is an invitation to further escalation by Pyongyang in future. It is still possible China will come around, but that does not appear likely. Or perhaps the next escalation — a North Korean nuclear test — will bring China around, but even that is uncertain.

The trendlines of Beijing’s strategic choices are worrisome. I would not abandon consideration of a future where the United States and China might find common cause on emerging challenges to international order, but I suspect that will only come after Chinese leaders realize the consequences of their current path for relations with the leading democracies. And with its support of Russia and North Korea, China is clearly driving those democracies closer together.
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