Beijing’s New Dilemma
Beijing may aspire to a more complete breakup with the West, but not on a timeline this fast: China cannot yet function as a global powerhouse on its own.
Communist China’s apparent support of Russian aggression belies a dilemma facing Beijing: whether to use the war in Ukraine as an opportunity to move closer to the West.
Beijing’s opportunity to reposition itself occurs on the 50-year anniversary of President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Nixon’s visit was important because over the next several decades, with the help of permanent normal trade relations with America, China rose to become America’s primary strategic competitor.
China’s relationship with the West is fraught with tension. In a never-ending balancing act, Beijing allows the West into certain areas while keeping it at bay elsewhere. These days, Chinese citizens may dine at McDonald’s or purchase a Chevrolet, but cannot easily gain access to Instagram or watch videos on Netflix.
This balancing act has become increasingly unstable. China has shown growing hostility to Western organizations, and American officials have raised concerns about China’s increasing power relative to America. Events of the past few years have pointed toward an increasingly contentious America-China relationship.
A stronger Russia-China relationship would seem to fit the trend of China moving further apart from America, and recent statements by Chinese state-run media in support of Russian aggression in Ukraine may seem unsurprising.
Yet China’s economy continues to need the West. Beijing may aspire to a more complete breakup with the West, but not on a timeline this fast: China cannot yet function as a global powerhouse on its own.
Beijing thus faces a dilemma. It can help Russia form a new global bloc opposed to NATO and other American-aligned countries. Or, China could use this moment as an opportunity to move closer to the West and forge itself a more advantageous position.
Moving closer to the West would provide China with four benefits.
First, it would enjoy stronger economic growth than if subjected to Western sanctions. This growth would limit the risk of internal political threats to the ruling regime.
Second, China would regain more control of its own destiny. It would be able to confront the West whenever it felt ready and however it wanted, rather than being pushed into conflict prematurely by Russia. Historically, China has gone to great lengths to avoid the use of military force, an approach at odds with Russia’s.
Third, in the event of a Russian defeat, China could expand its influence northward toward the Arctic and westward across Eurasia, providing it with valuable resources.
Finally, China could use the threat of an alliance with Russia to gain significant de facto concessions from the West elsewhere, quickly improving its own position relative to America and its allies.
Those concessions could involve regional conflict areas such as Taiwan or the South China Sea. Concessions might also include a stronger Chinese presence in other areas farther afield where Beijing would like to project power, such as Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, or the Middle East.
China might not have an easy time working through a dilemma this consequential. A new opportunity of this magnitude may open up new tensions within Beijing’s leadership. Some may seek closer alignment with Russia; others may seek closer alignment with the West. The outcome could be that somehow — whether under President Xi or a new chairman and president — China does reposition itself as a key Western partner against Russia.
As Western governments try to make sense of new conflicts, partnerships, and uncertainties around Russia and Ukraine, a reset with China may be a short-term temptation and would certainly be good for China. Yet it may be a Faustian bargain.