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China's place in the Russia-Ukraine war

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk to each other during their meeting in Beijing, Feb. 4, 2022. China on Thursday, March 3, 2022, denounced a report that it asked Russia to delay invading Ukraine until after the Beijing Winter Olympics as "fake news" and a "very despicable" attempt to divert attention and shift blame over the conflict. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)
Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk to each other during their meeting in Beijing, Feb. 4, 2022. China on Thursday, March 3, 2022, denounced a report that it asked Russia to delay invading Ukraine until after the Beijing Winter Olympics as "fake news" and a "very despicable" attempt to divert attention and shift blame over the conflict. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

Early last month, China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin declared theirs was a partnership with no limits.

But then … Russia invaded Ukraine.

“Beijing was shocked by how poorly the Russian troops performed on the battlefield and was shocked by the very strong resistance from Ukraine and the very strong support from the rest of international community,” Tong Zhao, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment’s Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, says.

Is Putin presuming China will fully back Russia?

“Beijing feels very uneasy. Beijing feels that it’s hard to predict how this war would fundamentally shift and transform not only European but international geopolitical landscape,” Zhao says.

Today, On Point: What will Xi Jinping do about Russia and Ukraine? Whatever China decides now will have global implications for years to come

Guests

Tong Zhao, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment’s Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. His research focuses on strategic security issues, such as nuclear weapons and China’s security and foreign policy. Author of Narrowing the U.S.-China Gap on Missile Defense: How to Help Forestall a Nuclear Arms Race. (@zhaot2005)

Dr. Yangyang Cheng, fellow and research scholar at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center and a frequent columnist on Chinese politics and U.S.-China relations.

(@yangyang_cheng)

Oriana Skylar Mastro, fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Non-resident senior fellow at American Enterprise Institute. Author of The Costs of Conversation: Obstacle to Peace Talks in Wartime. (@osmastro)

Transcript

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Last month, as China prepared to open the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, President Xi Jinping met with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

XI JINPING [Translation]: I’m glad to hold the first in-person meeting with President Putin in more than two years … We believe this new spring meeting will inject more vitality into China-Russia relations.

CHAKRABARTI: Xi and Putin declared their two countries had a partnership with quote ‘no limits.’ That meeting took place on February 4th. At the same time, the Biden administration had been warning the world that Russia was about to invade Ukraine. Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeated that warning at the United Nations Security Council on February 17th.

ANTONY BLINKEN [Tape]: Russia has amassed more than 150,000 troops around Ukraine’s borders. Our information indicates clearly that these forces, including ground troops, aircraft, ships, are preparing to launch an attack against Ukraine in the coming days.

CHAKRABARTI: Russia attacked Ukraine seven days later on February 24th. The Chinese government insists it had no prior knowledge of the invasion. Quote, ‘Assertions that China knew about, acquiesced to, or tacitly supported this war are pure disinformation,’ wrote Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the United States in the Washington Post. ‘Had China known about the imminent crisis, we would have tried our best to prevent it.’

Does Xi Jinping still value the Beijing-Moscow relationship as one without limits? Well, Washington has been warning China to put hard limits on its support of Russia. On Sunday, national security advisor Jake Sullivan met with his Chinese counterpart in a seven-hour-long meeting in Rome. Later that day, Sullivan said on CNN:

JAKE SULLIVAN [Tape]: I’m not going to sit here publicly and brandish threats, but what I will tell you is that we are communicating directly, privately to Beijing that there will absolutely be consequences for large-scale sanctions, evasion efforts or support to Russia to back fill them. We will not allow that to go forward and allow there to be a lifeline to Russia from these economic sanctions, from any country, anywhere in the world.

CHAKRABARTI: On Monday, U.S. intelligence officials told NATO and several Asian countries that China is willing to send military and economic aid to Russia. Hu Xijin, a commentator close to the Chinese government, slammed Washington in a video distributed by the state sponsored English language news outlet Global Times.

Hu Xijin [Tape]: Washington is too arrogant. Russia does not need to ask China to provide substantial military assistance for the limited scale war in Ukraine. Moreover, and China is not obligated to promise now to export arms to Russia.

CHAKRABARTI: And this morning today, President Joe Biden and President Xi spoke by phone. This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. Understanding China’s position at this moment means understanding opinions and views within the massive global economic power. It means understanding China’s recent votes and abstentions in global diplomatic bodies, and it means understanding what President Xi believes is in China’s best interests. In combination, those factors mean that whatever China decides to do regarding the war in Ukraine at this moment will have worldwide implications for years to come.

So we’re going to try to begin to understand those implications. And joining me first from Beijing is Tong Zhao. He’s a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment’s Center for Global Policy, where he researches China’s strategic security issues. Tong Zhao, welcome back to the show.

TONG ZHAO: Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Also with us from New Haven, Connecticut, is Yangyang Cheng. She is a fellow and research scholar at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, a frequent columnist as well on U.S.-China relations. Yangyang, welcome back to you as well.

YANGYANG CHENG: Thanks so much.

CHAKRABARTI: So, Tong Zhao, let me start with you. At this moment, what do you think is at the top of mind for President Xi in terms of how he sees what’s going on in Ukraine?

ZHAO: Well, first, I think Mr. Xi didn’t predict this war. And he was shocked and he was still taking time to process and evaluate what is going on and what has potential implications for China. But I think as he watches the war unfolding, he becomes increasingly anxious about how the Western countries can work together to strangle Russia. You know, I think he’s understanding about the nature of the war. It’s the Western countries, the U.S. information warfare, illegal economic sanctions, to punish Russia, who only sought to defend its so-called legitimate interests.

I think so, therefore, he would become more worried that if Russia is defeated, then that would embolden Western countries. And it would encourage them to apply the same kinds of pressure on China if there is a future confrontation between China and the West. So I think that is very much driving his thinking. But of course, on the other hand, he understands China’s also under growing international pressure. China has to protect its own economic interests, not to be dragged by Russia into a confrontation with the West at this moment. So he’s certainly walking a very fine line here.

CHAKRABARTI: You mentioned what Xi might think if Russia is defeated, but the other end of their spectrum, is if Russia succeeds in Ukraine. Does that not also pose a particular challenge for China? Because that will guarantee a further hardening of the European stance against Russia, of America’s stance. It will essentially further consolidate Western attitudes and actions, which could then be negative on China.

ZHAO: Well, I think the reason many Chinese people, including experts, seem to want to see Russia succeed is, you know, firstly they think, you know, China basically may have the same need to take some actions in the future, especially maybe against Taiwan. So if Russia can succeed, that gives the hope that China can repeat similar military success. That means Western countries fundamentally doesn’t have the capacity and resolve to prevent countries like China and Russia to achieve their national interests. So that’s, I think, where they are coming from, increasingly convinced that Western countries are inherently hegemonic.

And especially the case against China, they are becoming more desperate to contain China’s rise as China’s growth continues to challenge the western countries predominance in international systems. So it is only a matter of time that this confrontation between China and West will come about. So they see this as something that is very likely to happen anyway. So the only thing that really matters is, can China succeed? Can Western countries be discouraged from applying the same type of pressure on China if push comes to shove?

CHAKRABARTI: OK. Yangyang, I appreciate you listening there along with me. So many questions here. I wonder if I might first ask you, I’m still quite taken aback by China’s insistence that it had no idea that Russia would indeed invade Ukraine. Do you believe that?

CHENG: This is really difficult. Really great question. And I think ‘no idea’ is a complicated term, right? We know that the U.S. and its allies have gathered a lot of really credible, and turned out to be true, intelligence. And it would be farfetched to think that the Chinese side doing so much intelligence gathering on its own had zero idea about truth, mobilizations and other types of movements that were in the build up to the war. On the other hand, I also think … this invasion has put Beijing in a very difficult position, and there are a lot of conflicting interests on Beijing’s side as well. So to think that Beijing knew this invasion was going to happen or reading that as some kind of tacit approval towards Russia’s actions would also be wrong.

CHAKRABARTI: The reason why I ask is because we’re hearing now that the Chinese government feels surprised, rather deeply surprised, at not only Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion. I mean, it would have been an entirely different story, right? China’s position at the moment, if Russia had indeed just steamrolled over Ukraine in 48 or 72 hours. That has not happened. We’re beyond week three now. But also that the Chinese government is rather surprised, if that’s the right word, by the consolidation of support by western nations for Ukraine. It seems to me that there’s some kind of fundamental misread that the Chinese government is having about major parts of the rest of the world right now.

CHENG: Hmm. So I think this is again, I don’t know whether it’s a misread because war is a dynamic situation and no one could predict how it develops. I think it is more just a development of conflicting interests. On one hand, I think China and Russia historically have had a very complicated relationship. In imperial era, there were many wars throughout into the 20th century, and the Sino-Soviet split was a major turning point in the whole dynamic of the Cold War. So it’s not as if the two countries are somehow best friends. And a militant aggressive Russia on China’s borders, it’s not something that Beijing would desire.

So, this is an important context as well. And if we actually read like, say, the other statement from February 4th between Xi Jinping and Putin, the joint statement. And if we look at the statements coming from the Chinese official channels since the invasion started, it’s not so much as pro-Russia or anti-Ukraine. It’s more resolutely critical of the U.S. and of NATO and of the West. And so we should look at this issue as not isolated as in Beijing or Moscow, but in a complicated geopolitical context.

CHAKRABARTI: That is so vitally important and is exactly why we want to have this conversation this hour. Standby for just a moment. We are talking about China’s position right now regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the worldwide implications for years to come in what China decides to do now.

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point, I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. And today we’re trying to understand how China looks at the current crisis, the invasion, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I’m joined by Yangyang Cheng. She’s a fellow and research scholar at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. And Tong Zhao joins us as well. He’s senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. He’s in Beijing, and Yangyang is in New Haven, Connecticut.

And Tong Zhao, if I may, I’d like to actually turn the same question to you that I asked of Yangyang. And that is, can you help us understand what the significance is or how to read that shock or surprise that China is communicating about the fact of the Russian invasion, the fact of Ukrainian resistance, and the international reaction as well? What should we understand about that?

ZHAO: I think firstly, it shows that both China and Russia, they care more about their own interests than about each other. I don’t think Putin revealed his full war plan to Mr. Xi in Beijing. So going forward, we do need to understand how China perceives its only interest, because China isn’t going to put its own mistakes out there to defend every Russian interest. China is going to react according to its perceived national interests. And China is very surprised about the Western response. I think this shows that even the international community, even, you know, Russian experts, they didn’t know there was going to be such strong international support to Ukraine. I think including China, most major powers didn’t foresee this.

So I think this will, I think, influence China’s thinking about its future plans, including potential military plan over Taiwan. It won’t have the same optimistic view that China can overtake Taiwan very quickly, very easily. I think Chinese experts are starting to reevaluate these strategies and policies. This will take time before we know how this will eventually affect China’s policies along all these important directions.

CHAKRABARTI: OK, so first of all, we should completely fully acknowledge that the United States has very often misinterpreted the intents of other nations. It’s not as if you know, we sit here sitting in the United States have some perfect crystal ball to understand potential international reaction to U.S. actions. I want to acknowledge that. But at the same time, Tong Zhao, help me understand why it is that China could not foresee that if Russia actually did invade Ukraine, launch a war on European soil, essentially, that at the very least, European nations wouldn’t have a strong and instantaneous reaction to that. That sounds virtually unbelievable, that President Xi’s government wouldn’t presume that as a default.

ZHAO: Because China fundamentally has a different understanding from the rest of the international community about the nature of the war. I think the majority of Chinese experts, including officials, genuinely believe the war was caused by Western countries, by NATO expansion, by American aggressiveness, and Russia was forced to defend its legitimate interests. So China genuinely is sympathetic to the Russian cause. I think that’s a major factor contributing to Chinese thinking.

And as a result, I think all of this happens against the context of major information gap, and a perception gap between China and the Western countries. People here absorb different information on a daily basis for decades from the Western countries. So it is no surprise that they have very divergent views about what is going on and what is the immediate response.

CHAKRABARTI: Understood. So let’s take a step back here for a moment. Yangyang Cheng, to me, China is the most important nation of the 21st century. Russia, though it may be devastatingly flexing its military muscle right now, is a nation of the 20th century, sort of, in my mind. So what does China gain from the Beijing-Moscow relationship? Why call it a partnership without limits?

CHENG: Hmm. This is really interesting. So first of all, I should say that the statement, this phrase that has so often quoted friendship without limits, cooperation with no forbidden zones from this February 4th statement. It’s not the first time that it’s been said. This dates back at least to January of 2019, describing China-Russia relations. And similar phrasing has also appeared in, say, describing China’s relationship with Pakistan some years ago as well. And so that is one point to be said.

With that said, we should still see this statement from February 4th as important. But we should interpret it with when it was said and what was actually said. First of all, it was signed on the eve of the Beijing Winter Olympics, and that was when the U.S. and its closest allies have announced a diplomatic boycott officially or in effect of this Olympics, and criticizing China’s human rights records, et cetera.

And this joint statement between Xi Jinping and Putin, between the two leaders in the two countries, should be seen as a first as a signaling to the West, to the U.S. and the allies. And then if we do look at the statement itself, that’s how it starts as well. The first point is about the definition of democracy, that certain countries should not monopolize the definition of democracy. And China, Russia, with long history and traditions, have different definitions and then goes on to talk about COVID. Talk about climate change. Talk about weapons. Nonproliferation.

It was only in the last and fourth and last section in a bunch of platitudes about international systems. And this and that, where this phrase of friendship without limits, cooperation with no forbidden zones, was mentioned. And that was only the first part of one whole sentence, which was immediately followed by how this friendship and cooperation would not be bound or restricted by third countries. So it needs to be read in context that this is a significant statement with regards to China and Russian relations. But it should also be read not as something isolated only concerning these two countries. But it is also a certain gesture towards the West, towards the U.S. and its allies as well.

CHAKRABARTI: OK, so that is really important to understand. Tong Zhao, pick up on that. I mean, so then how does that play out practically now? Well, not now, but over the past several years between Beijing and Moscow? Is it in terms of trade, military support? Tell me more.

ZHAO: I think it has two implications. One is, as I said, as China watches the war, China would become more anxious about Western countries’ capacity to attack China or strangle China in the future. China-West confrontation. If that happens, Russia would be China’s most important partner. So China has to preserve its strategic partnership with Russia, regardless of what happens. So that basically determines China is not going to criticize Russia over this war. In fact, China would try to preserve its special relationship. But China announced there is no limited partnership right before the war.

That hope that China and Russia can work together, back to back, to push back against perceived Western aggression. I think that hope is now being reflected upon. It looks like Putin was able to make some big mistakes, and that could undermine China’s core interests. But the uncertainties, how much China can conduct this self-reflection, because much of this China-Russian partnership is … based on the personal bonds between President Putin and President Xi.

How can Chinese experts and operational level bureaucrats question Mr. Xi’s wisdom and judgment? So I think on the second part, we still need time to see the actual impact and how much can really make China distance itself from Russia and readjust its orientation towards Russia in the future.

CHAKRABARTI: OK, so just to underscore the points that you both have made. I was looking at recent votes in international bodies that have happened since the 24th of February, and it’s quite telling. At the U.N. International Court of Justice, there was a vote to order Russia to halt its invasion of Ukraine. The vote was 13 to 2. China voted against the order, along with Russia. The International Atomic Energy Agency took a vote on a resolution that deplores Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and urged Russia to let Ukraine control nuclear facilities there, 26 to 2. Five abstentions. China voted against, with Russia. At the Human Rights Council, a vote on a request to hold an urgent debate and condemn Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, 29 to five, with 13 abstentions. China abstained while noting its opposition to the request. And at the U.N. General Assembly, a vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 141 to 5, 35 countries abstained, including China.

So with that in mind, Yangyang Cheng and Tong Zhao stand by for just a moment. Because I’d like to bring Oriana Skylar Mastro into the conversation. She’s a fellow at Stanford University’s Institute for International Studies and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Oriana, welcome back to On Point.

ORIANA SKYLAR MASTRO: Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: OK, so you’ve been hearing what Yangyang Cheng and Tong Zhao have been saying. What’s your first most important point [that] you think we need to understand about China in this moment?

MASTRO: I think we’re fundamentally misunderstanding what China is learning from this conflict, and that’s partially because our assessments of the China-Russia relationship are incorrect. My bottom line on the China-Russia relationship is that alignment is extremely deep, but the scope is very narrow. They have been very clear that to date, the scope has been Russia helping China challenge U.S. hegemony in Asia. And it doesn’t go the other way around, and there’s a lot of data points to show how that relationship is particular about Asia. And so we shouldn’t expect China to be forthcoming in support for Russia in Ukraine. And in terms of what they’re learning from the situation, I know the conventional wisdom is that the West has responded extremely strongly to this invasion. But we failed to deter this war.

And now the costs were imposing on Russia thus far, not enough to get them to pull out of Ukraine. Russia’s far weaker than China is. China spends $280 billion on their military. Russia spends about $69 billion. China has increased its military spending by 640% over the past 15 years, while Russia increased it only about 65%. And then don’t even get started with the economic heft that China has. The type of sanctions we have levied against Russia, we would not levy against China because of the amount of pain China could bring to bear on us.

And furthermore, the Chinese economy could have handled this level of sanction. So I think the bottom line is the Chinese always thought to get Taiwan, for example, they’d have to move quickly before the United States could respond militarily in force. The situation in Ukraine only consolidates their previous views that they’ll have to move quickly, that the type of sanctions levied against them will be acceptable, that they can manage them and that potentially the military support coming from U.S. allies and partners to Taiwan will be limited.

CHAKRABARTI: Now we’re moving towards our second break here. So what I’d love to hear from all three of you is, What do you think, given everything that’s been said so far right now in the Russia-Ukraine situation? I mean, China is an extraordinarily important player. That’s why President Biden had his call with President Xi today. That’s why, as we heard Jake Sullivan say earlier, there’s direct talks going on between national security advisors, et cetera. But if you are China right now, if you’re President Xi. And Yangyang Cheng, let me just first start with you. What do you think is the desired outcome for this in this current conflagration?

CHENG: I think I wouldn’t project my own sentiments on the Chinese president. Of course, I’ll speak on my personal capacity. We, of course, would like to see this war end. But I think it is also important to note here that I think about this line from the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska, that after every war, someone has to clean up. So it’s not just about ending this current war, it’s also about what kind of world we want to live in next. And these kinds of war empowers the extreme factions and a lot of policies implemented during the war in response to a war would have long term ramifications long after the current hostilities have seized.

We see some of the most contentious issues in the current war. With regards to say the existence of nuclear weapons were developed to intentionally to stop the last World War. So I think it is also a very, very important to keep in mind that what we do now, it’s not just about doing something, it’s also about not doing harm, about what kind of world we want to live in next.

CHAKRABARTI: No, totally true. Now I am noting, though, that the Associated Press is reporting that today China sought to highlight its calls for negotiations and donations of humanitarian aid, while also accusing the U.S. of provoking Russia and fueling the conflict by shipping arms to Ukraine. That’s from The Associated Press. Tong Zhao, the reason why I asked that question of, What is the outcome that President Xi would like to see? … It’s because it makes sense that based on that desired outcome that will dictate China’s actions in the coming days and weeks, will it indeed support Russia militarily? Will it not? Will it change any of its votes on the world international stage? So that’s why I asked that question. So I wonder how you might answer it in the minute we have left before the break. What is China’s desired outcome right now?

ZHAO: I think China has less clear expectations of outcome than the U.S. The U.S. may have two main expectations of ways to tell China to do no harm, not to supply, not to bail out Russia economically, not to provide Russia with defense supports. And secondly, maybe better, maybe China can use this influence to lean on Russia and tell Putin to stop the war as soon as possible. I think on both these issues China is not going to fully deliver.

China is not going to lecture Putin how he’s going to do. And I don’t think China is going to send a defense support to Russia to help Russia win the war. But China may continue some of its economic and trading relations with Russia simply to preserve its partnership with Russia. But I think what most important to President Xi for this talk is to use this opportunity to show China is a responsible international leader. China also has an interest to stabilize its overall relationship in Washington.

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point, I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. We’re talking today about China, and its view and what it might do regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I’m joined by Oriana Skylar Mastro. Yangyang Cheng joins us as well, and Tong Zhao is with us from Beijing. Tong Zhao, I wanted to give you a chance to finish your very important point about President Xi. In particular, the outcome that he may want to see regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and understanding that and what it might lead China to do in the coming days and weeks, but go ahead.

ZHAO: Well, thank you, I think President Xi, he sees two opportunities. One is to project an image of China being a responsible power. You know, the emphasis on China’s humanitarian support to Ukraine is part of these efforts. And second, I think President Xi may see opportunity to do some bargain with the United States. He understands that the U.S. wants China to use its influence. Therefore, he may expect us to offer something back to China. Maybe U.S. should not support Taiwan or should criticize or attack China’s political system, cetera. So his focus is on China-U.S. relationship and China’s own international image. So there is a clear mismatch between the two leaders’ expectations.

CHAKRABARTI: Tong Zhao is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. And he joined us today from Beijing. Thank you so much for being with us.

ZHAO: Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: OK, so Oriana Skylar Mastro, let me turn back to you. First of all, pick up where Tong Zhao left off. Do you think the United States would be open if indeed President Xi wanted to position himself as the responsible power, a global power here, right now? Or perhaps use this as an opportunity to bargain with the United States? What do you think?

SKYLAR MASTRO: I think that the United States is going to prioritize ending this war over whatever influence or power China gets from serving as the mediator. It’s absolutely the case that in their competition with the United States, China does try to insert itself as a conflict mediator when it suits their interests, and when it can really enhance their international image. But more importantly, they only do that when the costs and the risks of doing so are relatively low, when they don’t have to put anything on the line.

And so the most important thing for me is if China agrees to mediate, it means the Russians have promised to them that they’re going to negotiate in good faith. I think the bottom line, what China wants from this war is a quick resolution through a negotiated settlement that includes the West and explicitly the United States, making security assurances to Russia that then China can use to say this was partially the United States’ fault for not respecting red lines that great powers have, and they can use this to enhance their legitimacy if they need to use force over Taiwan.

CHAKRABARTI: OK. Yangyang Cheng, I’m going to come back to you in just a second. But Oriana, if I might ask you, then how do you judge the Biden administration’s recent actions, their meetings with China, what they’ve been saying coming out of those meetings? I mean, is it effective or not?

SKYLAR MASTRO: I think it is effective because another part of China’s strategy is they’re trying to stay out of all of this. They’re trying to say that they’re a neutral party, that they’re not responsible in any way for what is happening. And Xi Jinping, whether explicitly or implicitly did give his support to Putin to go in, this isn’t the Georgia conflict. This isn’t Crimea.

We’re now at a situation where China is powerful. China has influence and they’ve tied themselves to Russia to a certain degree. So we can’t let them off the hook and pretend that they don’t have a role in this conflict. I think they’re very surprised with the amount of focus that the world has had on their role, because they’re largely acting the same way they did the past two times Russia invaded a neighbor, except our response to China is now to put more responsibility on them. I think that’s the right call.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, so hold that thought. Because I want to come back to that in a second. But Yangyang Cheng, the previous times we’ve had you on the show, you have brought a very, very important analysis when we’re talking about China. Because of course, saying China just like it’s one word used to describe a massive country, more than a billion people. It’s an oversimplification. So help us try to understand in a little bit more detail about what the Chinese people are hearing, how can we best judge the impact of what’s happening in Ukraine within China?

CHENG: Yeah, so with regards to the Chinese society, the public sentiments. First of all, it’s always something that’s very difficult to gauge in the tightly controlled information environment. And that kind of control goes both ways, right, in terms of what Chinese people can express, but also in terms of what kind of information they could get. So earlier we talked about disinformation from the Kremlin and from Russian state media and other outlets. And a lot of these are being parroted on Chinese state media and other media platforms as well.

And so Chinese people reading these would also be misled. And that also drives into a lot of people’s preexisting sentiments with regards to hostility and antagonism towards the U.S. and towards NATO, in particular. And that is indeed a very strong driver in terms of a lot of the public sentiments that are being expressed on Chinese social media. That it’s not so much pro-Russia per se, but it’s really anti-U.S and anti-NATO.

And on the other hand, there is also a layer where it’s just a sort of misogyny, a certain craving for power and a certain attraction towards a certain strongman showing. And that has to be seen on Chinese social media as well. With this said, there are indeed important dissenting voices have come out from Chinese civil society in different layers. Shortly after the war started, five prominent Chinese historians wrote this joint letter condemning Russia’s invasion. There were alumni from top Chinese universities who wrote joint letters. And all of these are being censored on the Chinese internet.

There is this Chinese bookstore that put out a display with books on the devastation of war. … And then also there are Chinese citizens in Ukraine who have been witnessing some of these devastations and using their voices and their firsthand experience to express their opposition towards the invasion and to appeal to the conscience and the humanity of the Chinese people and the world at large.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, in fact, you pointed us to one of those voices. This is Wang Zeshan, a Chinese computer programmer who lives and works in Odessa in Ukraine. And since the war began, he’s been posting videos on YouTube and WeChat, drawing hundreds of thousands of views. And for example, here’s a recent message to the government of President Xi Jinping in Beijing.

CHAKRABARTI: And the message says, I am Wang Zeshan, I live in Ukraine. What are you so afraid of? Why are you so scared of my being able to speak? My language contains no threats. I don’t advocate for murder. All I have done is to make a plea. Respect life. Stop war. Why are you so afraid of people learning the truth?

Yangyang Cheng, is that penetrating a lot, though, those messages? Because I’ve also and I think you pointed this out, I’ve also been seeing that there’s a lot of social media activity in China that’s completely aligned with the Russian view.

CHENG: Yeah, so I think … it’s actually really, really interesting to to hear his voice and his perspective. And the way he talks is very, very distinct. He’s from Beijing and he’s really eloquent and he quotes these Chinese revolutionary leaders from the early 20th century to ancient scholars. … So he’s someone who is really very unapologetically Chinese, but he shows a side of China that is rooted in its culture and its tradition, but also deeply decent.

And there is a sense of resilience and dignity, and that is a part of China. The Chinese state wants to, but cannot fully claim. But that is also important to note that a lot of [his] statements, he posts on YouTube and you post them on WeChat initially. But then his WeChat account was disabled by Chinese platforms. So there is a certain limitation towards whom he could reach. But so it is important to both see these diverse voices, and see the humanity and dignity of Chinese people. And not equate that with Beijing’s rhetoric. On the other hand, also be cognizant of the power of very real power dynamics here.

CHAKRABARTI: Yes, and that’s why I really appreciate every time you come on the show because I, you know, due to time and just the medium of radio, I frequently say Washington, Beijing, China. But beneath those words are the billions of people, in fact. And so any kind, any time we can get a deeper understanding, I think it really helps us make more sense of the moment we all find ourselves in.

So Oriana Skylar Mastro, let me let me turn back to you here because I’m thinking about something that Tong Zhao said a little earlier about [what] one of President Xi’s main lines of thinking right now might be. Because Tong Zhao said that really, in a sense, if Russia is defeated in Ukraine, President Xi may worry that it would further embolden the West. Maybe not to act against China, but to press against China. And really what they’re looking at, or President Xi is looking at, is whether he can repeat a similar military success. Now you talked about that a second ago because we are talking about Taiwan. Taiwan here. So just just tell me more. Do you think that that it really is the next area of? Concerned that what happens in Ukraine could inform what may happen in Taiwan.

SKYLAR MASTRO: I think the situation in Taiwan is already fraught. And what has happened in Ukraine has only strengthened or consolidated the already existing viewpoints of the Chinese leadership about the Taiwan situation. So for example, when they look at the amount of response and economic sanctions against Russia, the Chinese leadership have always expected that there would be sanctions against them in the event that they would use force. But they expect limited sanctions, probably three to five years worth, ones that they could definitely deal with. We still are allowing Russia to sell oil and gas. That’s like sanctioning China, but letting them sell, you know, consumer electronics or something like that.

So I think this just shows that Russia has very little economic heft. A country like Singapore, which proudly sanctioned Russia, has less than $3 billion of trade with Russia, and they have $60 billion with China. So I think this just confirms Chinese viewpoints of yes, of course, there’s going to be economic costs if they use force, but those costs are acceptable. And then when it comes to the military side, I don’t think this changes in any way how China views its likelihood of success over Taiwan.

Ironically, if the United States had responded more strongly militarily, such that we were then distracted from the major force posture changes we have to make in Asia, then perhaps China would be emboldened. But our approach so far has been relatively moderate in terms of committing any sort of new military forces to the situation. And for that reason, I think Beijing’s just keeping an eye out to see is the United States going to get dragged into something else? Are we going to get distracted again? Is there going to be another window of opportunity in which they can continue to become powerful, and the United States does not respond?

CHAKRABARTI: Oriana, do you think that the United States is also actually in something of a difficult position? Because the Biden administration has not wanted to do anything to provoke China since President Biden came into office. And yet right now it, you know, it’s in a sense in trying to push back Russia, a 20th century foe. Does it risk disturbance with China? You know that the rising power of the 21st century?

SKYLAR MASTRO: I think it doesn’t necessarily risk disturbance with China, but when we’re thinking about the great power competition between China and the United States, it’s not as much about that bilateral relationship as it is about the United States relationship with the rest of the world, and China’s relationship with the rest of the world. China has been able to build extreme amounts of power and influence over the past 25 years by doing things differently than the United States.

And one example is that the United States has used military projection of power abroad and foreign military interventions as a key tool of foreign policy. We’ve done over 100 of these since the end of World War II, and it’s extremely costly. The United States, 20 years in Afghanistan, cost 10 Belt and Road initiatives. China’s come to the conclusion that they can outcompete the United States, because they’re going to protect their overseas interests in a different way without having to project military power everywhere. And so it is very complicated for the United States to have to balance its interests and its alliance commitments in Asia. And at the same time, bounce those in Europe while we’re competing with a country that has no such commitments anywhere.

CHAKRABARTI: Yangyang Cheng, do you want to respond to that?

CHENG: So I think one thing that is important to note also with regards to this conflict is that more than one thing can be bad at the same time. So just because one political system have made one country, one government has made many mistakes, does not automatically justify the actions or legitimize the systems or ways of governance of the other.

And so this is an important thing for both the Chinese government and for the U.S. government or any government to keep in mind, as well as the society in terms of analyzing the matter. And how the Chinese government, in the current context is putting itself into a bind is that it cannot show any kind of favoritism or alignment with Washington’s objectives. And even if that is on the side of humanity and that, of course, is wrong.

CHAKRABARTI: Yes, we have about 30 seconds left. Oriana, last question to you. I mean, I’m thinking about the again, the long term implications here, and I just have to ask. Isn’t China’s decision to build roads rather than drop bombs on people like the United States has done, possibly the better one in the long run, at least for China?

SKYLAR MASTRO: The short answer is yes. But the difficulty is what makes countries great powers offered is not what keeps them there. Of course, the colonial power made Great Britain powerful, but it also is what led to its decline. The United States needs to pivot and assess the fact that the strategic environment has changed, and the competitive environment has changed. China has a second mover advantage, but the United States has to get its house in order to make sure that it can still stay at number one.

From The Reading List

Foreign Affairs: “Invasions Are Not Contagious” — “As Russian President Vladimir Putin intensifies his assault on Ukraine, a growing number of U.S. military and foreign policy analysts are voicing concern that China may be emboldened by Russia’s example and try to take Taiwan by force.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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