The liberal world order fashioned in the aftermath of WWII by Western democracies has brought peace and prosperity for much of the world over the past 75 years. China, more than any other nation, was a significant beneficiary of a stable, rules-driven international order. Indeed, China was transformed nearly overnight from an agrarian peasant society to an industrial giant that raised millions of ordinary Chinese out of poverty and set the stage for China’s aspiration as an emerging world superpower. U.S.-China relations during this period prospered as well, with mutually beneficial trade, cultural, and political cooperation reaching new heights.
Alas, all began to change with the ascension of Xi Jinping as the CCP General Secretary (2012) and President (2013). He has steadily taken steps to compete with the United States for world leadership across a broad swath of economic, military, educational, and technological issues. “Happy Days” of the recent past have receded over issues of fair trade, intellectual property, human rights, and democratic values. In brief, U.S.-China relations have soured.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has further complicated the uneasy U.S.-China relationship, as China has refused to declare Russian aggression unacceptable and has disapproved of Western sanctions on Moscow. Yet, China’s leaders are fully aware of the extensive economic coupling with the U.S. and do not want to exacerbate tensions by running afoul of U.S. sanctions.
Nor does China want to compromise its strategic partnership with Russia. After all, it was just a few months ago that Presidents Xi and Putin shook hands and declared that “Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.” Russia’s special military incursion in Ukraine has created a delicate balancing act for all.
China is also confronted with the need to defend the sanctity of territorial integrity that underpins its claim for justifying the reunification of Taiwan with the Chinese mainland and to counter increasingly loud international voices critical of human rights violations in Tibet and Xinjiang and the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong. No small task, is it?
The view from the U.S. government of relations with China are equally delicate. President Biden does not want to take any action that might encourage China to attack Taiwan. Nor does he want to escalate tensions with China over its support of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Above all, President Biden wants to deter China from providing any military aid or economic support that Russia might seek.
The Ukrainian puzzle has many pieces yet to be known, but we can speculate some about what might be ahead for U.S.-China relations. Let’s consider two outcomes: 1) Russia is stymied in its effort to absorb Ukraine, and 2) Russia is successful in eliminating Ukraine as a sovereign state. The first outcome, largely maintaining the status quo, is certainly the preferred outcome for Western democracies and a healthy U.S.-China relationship.
Outcome two bodes ill for the viability of the West as a political and normative entity and the international order. A Russian victory will produce a new normal in international relations—serial rule breaking and a return to balance of power politics. U.S.-China relations are likely to be severely stressed, if not tested to the limit, over the Taiwan issue. Moreover, China’s geopolitical military footprint in the Indo-Pacific region is likely to expand.
So where exactly do we go from here? It’s anyone’s guess. My guess is that the U.S. will reluctantly find it necessary to challenge Russia’s Ukraine aggression with more direct military support, perhaps creating no fly zones over strategic zones, breaking the Russian Black Sea blockade of grain exports, or increasing the supply of advanced weapons that Ukrainian leaders say is essential to stop Russian advances. These steps, of course, will escalate tensions and run the risk of widening the war.
Is there no path for a diplomatic solution to end the war? Most experts think not, given Putin’s obsession with restoring Russia’s claim of empire. He has recently compared himself to Peter-the-Great, the 17th Century Emperor credited with turning Russia into a great European power. Need more be said about diplomacy?
Wait! Before you scroll down to Don's Bio, Bud Collyer, Dorothy Kilgallen and Betty Carlisle all asked me to remind you of our To Tell the Truth challenge. Short version: tell us about an adventure you had when you were young and felt immortal. You can be totally truthful, or you can make the whole thing up. Will our panel--er, readers--be able to tell? Let's find out. For the full story, click here. —Editors
Donald C. Menzel, Ph.D. is a past president of the American Society for Public Administration, author and international speaker on ethics reform. Before his move to Colorado, Don organized OLLI-USF’s China Special Interest Group. He also served as an OLLI-USF faculty member for over 10 years.