Who needs enemies when you have friends like Vladimir Putin?
This is what Xi Jinping must be thinking just six weeks after the two announced a “no limits” friendship to make the world safe for autocracies by taking on America and the other democracies, weakening Washington’s alliances in Europe and Asia and overturning the primacy of liberal democratic norms in place since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.
In recent days, the Russian president requested military assistance from his Chinese counterpart to fight a war when much of the world is uniting against him. The cascading sanctions could soon begin to affect Chinese companies doing business with Russian entities.
If Xi makes good on his earlier promises to support Putin, China will find itself joining the club of pariah nations that includes Russia, North Korea, Syria and Iran. If Xi turns his back on Putin in this time of need, his word can no longer be believed while his country will not regain the trust of the West. In short, Xi has seriously miscalculated.
Where does China go from here?
Under Xi, Beijing cannot reverse course. He is a genuine ideologue in the mold of Mao Zedong who sees the Chinese Communist Party as being in permanent conflict with liberal democracies. Xi Jinping Thought, officially included in the party’s constitution in 2018, promises a “tireless struggle” against alternative systems.
Xi has made clear that his intention is to take Taiwan, replace American pre-eminence in Asia and establish China as the uncontested leader in the Indo-Pacific before emerging as the leading global power. As with Russia, the Chinese plan is to demand a formal sphere of influence over its neighbors, which means shaping and even vetoing their domestic and foreign-policy decisions.
Having put more than 1.5 million party officials, including many of his rivals, in jail under a so-called anti-corruption drive, his political and possibly personal survival depends on him producing what he is promising. Bear in mind that the National People’s Congress just removed the two-term limit on the presidency, which effectively opens the way for Xi to remain leader for life — provided he can deliver. That doesn’t leave much room for compromise or genuine cooperation with America or the West.
Xi, moreover, cannot tolerate an embarrassing Russian retreat. That would only energize the West by showing that it is possible to stand up to dictators and prevail. The Taiwanese people would take heart, as would those in other Asian states. If that occurred, Xi’s plans to gradually impose a Sino-centric order in the Indo-Pacific will meet even more resistance.
This means Xi will try to offer just enough economic and military assistance to prevent Russian humiliation, but seek to do so quietly and even surreptitiously. This means walking back his “no limits” friendship in appearance but not substance.
China is playing a longer game and still needs capital, technology, know-how and access to Western markets to eventually surpass the United States. For this reason, Xi will try to convince the world he is vastly different from Putin even if both loathe democracy, seek the end of America’s alliances and resort to coercion to rewrite borders and rules in their favor.
If America can’t change who is in power in Moscow and Beijing, it can prepare better for what is to come. In an observation attributed to Vladimir Lenin, there are decades where nothing happens; and then there are weeks where decades happen. Putin’s violence has brought us to that time when developments that might have taken decades are playing out in a matter of weeks.
Russia is a declining power and China a still-rising one. This explains Putin’s rashness and impatience on the one hand and Xi’s caution and uncharacteristic indecisiveness regarding how to respond to the Ukraine crisis on the other.
Regardless, current events should invigorate democracy’s sense of fight and mission. China will come with force and in numbers if it ever thinks it can succeed — whether it be in Taiwan or another disputed territory. What we do now and then after the Ukraine crisis will determine whether the democracies are truly in decline as Xi believes or if it is the latter who must rethink his mission and China’s place in history.
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