China and the Ukraine War one year after the invasion, with Evan Feigenbaum and Alexander Gabuev
Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with The China Project. Subscribe to Access from The China Project to get, well, access. Access to, not only our great daily newsletter, but to all the original writing on our website at thechinaproject.com. We’ve got reported stories, essays and editorials, great explainers and trackers, regular columns, and of course, a growing library of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region, to Beijing’s ambitious plans to shift the Chinese economy onto a post-carbon footing. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.
I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
It’s now been a year since Vladimir Putin launched his unprovoked war against Ukraine on February 24th, 2022. For several weeks after the invasion, I focused the show’s attention on what the war met for China, how Beijing viewed the unfolding events, how its relationship with the U.S. and its European allies would be affected, and much more. The series started with a conversation with Evan Feigenbaum, who can always be counted on for deeply informed and tightly delivered sense making. Today, I welcome Evan back to revisit China and the Ukraine War, a year on. But today I get a twofer, as one of Evan’s colleagues who specializes in China and Russia, Sasha Gabuev, also joins us. First, let me reintroduce Evan.
Evan Feigenbaum is Vice President for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he oversees research in Washington, Beijing, and New Delhi on a dynamic region encompassing both East Asia and South Asia. He served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs under Condoleezza Rice during the second Bush 43 administration and as Vice Chairman of the Paulson Institute before joining Carnegie. Evan, welcome back, man. How are you?
Evan Feigenbaum: Hey, I’m fine. Good to be with you as always.
Kaiser: Yeah, thanks. I’m also delighted to welcome Alexander Gabuev — Sasha, who is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, where he leads a team that was originally at the Carnegie Moscow Center, but which was forced to close by the Kremlin in early 2022. And that was after nearly three decades of operations. So, he’s now based in the UK. Sasha has been writing prolifically on this very topic, and we are very lucky to be able to have him with us today. So, a warm welcome to you, Sasha.
Alexander Gabuev: Thanks, and pleasure being with you.
Kaiser: Great. Let me put my first question to Evan. So, how has your thinking changed or been refined over the course of this first year when it comes to China’s position in the conflict? Has anything surprised you or has Beijing’s behavior basically conformed to your expectations?
Evan: I think broadly speaking, it’s conformed to my expectations, but one thing that’s changed is that U.S.-China relations, which were already deteriorating in early 2022, have deteriorated even further across a whole array of dimensions in ways that I think explain some of China’s thinking and also some of China’s choices. If you rewind, Kaiser, to the conversation we had really, just within a few weeks of the war starting in February, 2022, I said to you that Beijing’s basic problem was that it was trying to reconcile interests that were fundamentally irreconcilable. At the strategic level, they had a partnership with Russia that was focused heavily on the United States and on a shared interest in counterbalancing American power, antipathy to American foreign policy, and back footing American foreign policy where they could, both in international institutions and in various regions around the world.
But then second, China had these principles of supposed commitment to sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs of other countries. Then third, and perhaps most importantly, China’s a major trading and investing power. And so, it had a very strong interest in assuring global market access. So, the problem they faced, and the reason I called them irreconcilable interests was that the more they leaned into their partnership with Russia, the more, quite intuitively, they would paint the sanctions target on their back. And conversely, the more they complied with sanctions, the more Mr. Putin would be dissatisfied with the nature, intensity, and velocity of his developing relationship with China. So, they performed what I predicted would be a kind of straddle, and I called it the Beijing straddle, where they would tack uncomfortably between these.
And that’s basically what’s happened. But I think it’s worth noting that U.S.-China relations have deteriorated even further. We just had this balloon incident last week where we see that even when the Secretary of State is set to go off to Beijing to hold talks at the very highest level, there’s so much antipathy between the U.S. and China that, I think from Beijing’s perspective, hanging on at the strategic level to a partnership with a country that also has an interest in counterbalancing the United States, that shares American, as I said, antipathy to American foreign policy, whatever Beijing’s tactical objectives, that remains valuable to them at the strategic level.
So, I think they’ll continue in various ways, not just to straddle, but to lean a little harder into that relationship with Moscow. And it may surprise us over the next year in ways that probably defy what we think is moral or logical, but make certain sense in the calculus of Chinese foreign policy.
Kaiser: Sasha, 抱团取暖 (bàotuánqǔnuǎn) is one way I’ve heard Chinese colleagues and analysts describe China’s attitude toward Russia, that they huddle together to keep warm as both feel that they’re sort of locked on the outside by a West that is implacably hostile to Russia and moving in that direction when it comes to China. Implicit in this is that there’s not a lot of love lost between China and Russia to begin with. They’re only doing it for the warmth. Does that description strike you as accurate?
Sasha: I think it’s pretty accurate. There is not that much emotion in this relationship. There are no shared values unless you would call natural cynicism a shared value between Russia and China, and love for bunny corruption and nice life for senior officials. But this relationship is very pragmatic. It’s partly haunted by history. It’s very asymmetric and increasingly asymmetric, where China has so much more leverage. And as we speak, China’s leverage in this relationship grows. Russia knows that. There is indeed no love lost, but the relationship, despite being asymmetric and despite being more favorable to China than it is for Russia, it’s still mutually beneficial. They share a colossal continental border that used to be a waste in terms of resources and a major security challenge for both the Soviet Union and China during the Sino-Soviet Split. And when the two pragmatic leaderships arrived at the helm of the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai in mid ‘80s, Dèng Xiǎopíng 邓小平 and Gorbachev decided that, “hey, it’s not worth it.” Let’s set the relationship on a path for resolving the long-standing territorial conflict and turn resources elsewhere, could be domestic, modernization, or even the military resources of the PLA and the Soviet army could be focused elsewhere.
The economies are mutually complementary. And then inside the UN Security Council permanent members group, these are only two authoritarian states that naturally have so many overlaps on the global agenda, be it storage of data, sovereignty on the internet, responsibility to protect, so many issues when Russia and China are naturally finding themselves in one bed.
Kaiser: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Look, there’s been this assumption for a long time that in this strategic condominium between Russia and China, in so far as there has been one that, as you said, China has the leverage. China is the senior partner; Russia is the junior partner. You argue that in a piece that you wrote in Foreign Affairs that was published back in August of last year that especially a weakened Russia coming out of this conflict is going to be effectively a vassal state of China. I think I’m oversimplifying, but I think that’s what you argued. But there’s something that Susan Thornton once said to me that has stuck with me, and I wonder what you guys think of this. And that is that, despite that obvious economic disparity between them, it’s actually Russia that’s been leading China around by the nose, as it were, just because it’s so disruptive and so unpredictable as an actor that it does seem to act as a spoiler and has just such a greater appetite for risk that it keeps its partner very much off balance and, as I said, ends up kind of leading it around. To what extent is there truth to that at all? I mean, and either of you could please jump in.
Sasha: I hear the description from the Chinese colleagues that Russian foreign policy is a typhoon, it’s a natural disaster. You cannot control it. You can adapt to it and then use some of the fallouts to your advantage. Like put the wind farms at the edge of this typhoon and use them to generate electricity.
Kaiser: That’s what I was thinking. Yeah.
Sasha: I think that the general view in Beijing that Russia acts irrationally, if Russia wanted to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence, chopping off Crimea and moving two millions of pro-Russian voters into Russia was a stupid move. Alienating the West and inviting sanctions was a stupid move. I think it’s the way that China and Russia build out their equities and toolbox for being a great power. I think China understands that it’s really the economy and the technology is the key. The military capabilities matter, but you need to build a robust economic fundamentals like being very Marxist in that, and then move up the layers of technology, and really dominate the cutting-edge technology that would have military applications as well. Russia doesn’t do much to diversify its economy and became a kind…
Sasha: … 21st-century economy. So, Russia punches above its weight using the tools that it has, which is military, and before the invasion, Russia believed that it has very strong conventional capabilities, some of the cyber, and just this ability to concentrate the resources and go after the goal that the Kremlin deems is important. And that’s definitely very different from what China does, in my view.
Evan: Yeah. If I could add to that, I mean, I think if you want to run that proposition that it’s Russia leading China by the nose, you have to put that to the test beyond just places like Ukraine, where Russia has disproportionate sets of tools that it can lean on, including military tools. If you look at other parts of the world, let’s take the Middle East as one example, or let’s take Africa as in another example, where Russian proxies have been active, where Russia has begun to return, in a sense, to playing a more global role, there is no synergy between the way Russia is pursuing its roles in those regions. And the play that China is extending to advance its own influence, I mean, I think about the Chinese play in Africa, it’s to be a trader, it’s to be a builder, it’s to be a lender, it’s to be an investor.
And because countries in those regions are focused disproportionately on their own interests, which, as you and I discussed last time, begin and end with growth, employment, upskilling, sustainability, innovation, and opportunity, China has advanced its influence in regions like Africa and the Middle East by pursuing and then putting forth an offering that tries, in China’s own way, to speak to that set of local agendas. That’s how China advances its influence. That is not at all how Russia has advanced its influence in Africa or the Middle East or anywhere else. Number one, because that’s not the Russian play. Number two, because Russia doesn’t have any offering, much less a complimentary offering. And so, it’s actually China pursuing its interest in a self-interested way that reflects the toolkit that I think Beijing has calculated can be most effective in advancing Chinese interests in these regions.
That has nothing to do with not only Russia “leading,” but it doesn’t even have China and Russia really in synergy, except at the most macro possible level, as I said, to the extent that they could backfoot Washington and provide some kind of alternatives. But I just see China as a much more salient actor globally, and I just see the toolkit as being much more strategically attuned to what governments, firms, financial markets, and ultimately people in these regions are looking for. And so, I don’t see Russia and China on the same page, much less Russia leading China around.
Kaiser: Very good. Evan, just staying with you for a second, you’ve pushed back pretty hard on people who’ve tried to take a more charitable view of Beijing’s position. I like your coinage — the Beijing straddle. You’ve also said pro-Russian neutrality, which I think I’ve often borrowed and used from you. If China hasn’t been supplying Russia with war material and hasn’t brazenly violated sanctions, aside from rhetorical support for the Russian position that NATO expansion represented a genuine legitimate security threat that maybe should have been taken more seriously, what are the ways in which Beijing has actually gone to bat meaningfully for Russia since the invasion? Is it just in the UN? What’s Beijing done concretely?
Evan: Well, first of all, there’s been some reporting recently, including in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere that suggests that China’s posture, including on enterprises, selling things to Russia that may have some military salience may be changing. That’s something that we’re going to have to keep an eye on.
Evan: But generally speaking, my view has been that China’s a very self-interested power. And so, the alpha and omega of China’s approach to Russia is what’s good for China, not necessarily what’s good for Russia. In the first instance, China has no interest in being a Russian proxy. And so, if you begin with the presumption that support for Russia means carrying Russian water and being a proxy, then yeah, I guess China’s not supporting Russia. But that’s not the correct standard to apply. I think because China is self-interested, what they’ve tried to do is to be supportive of Russia at the strategic level while minimizing support to Russia at the tactical and operational level, except in areas where China has a self-interest and can, not to put too fine a point on it, get away with it within the ambit of the Transatlantic and broader sanctions coalition.
Essentially, China’s trying to have its cake and eat it too. So, what have they done to support Russia? They have number one, endorsed Russia’s rationales for the conflict, and they have done it using Russian language and often amplifying what I view as Russian disinformation. We’ve heard even official Chinese spokesman run with these theories about supposed western bioweapons labs in Ukraine. That’s a talking point that China lifted from their friends in Moscow. They did not invent it in Beijing. Likewise, they’ve talked incessantly about NATO expansion being the rationale for how Russia views this, calling the United States and NATO the culprits —never fingering Russian aggression as the culprit.
They have, as you said, coordinated with Moscow diplomatically, including in United Nations votes. They have taken full advantage of discounted Russian oil. They’re not the only player to do that. Others have done that. But nonetheless, that has enabled Russia in some ways. And above all, they’ve enhanced economic linkages to Russia that do not violate Western sanctions. China-Russia trade actually rose in 2022 to 190 billion, which Sasha, you correct me if I’m wrong, I think that is actually a record, and it’s pretty staggering. That’s a 34.3% increase. So, if China were interested in showcasing its disapproval or of projecting opprobrium onto Russia’s actions, it would not be basically looking for every conceivable seam in here to basically have its cake and eat it. So, that’s what I see happening, and I think, as I said, that has a lot to do with what Sasha talked about, where there’s synergy between Chinese and Russian objectives. But also I do think it has a lot to do with trying to deal with a larger problem.
Sasha: I would put it in a somewhat different way. I agree with what Evan just said. I think that the thinking in Beijing goes this way: “Okay, let’s imagine we can throw our dear friend, Vladimir, under the bus. We join the sanctions. We maybe introduce sanctions of our own. We abandon Russian oil, Russian gas, and support Western gold in choking off the Putin’s war machine.” Does it really lead to fundamental improvements in China-U.S. ties? Will the U.S. say, “Oh, we were so wrong about China”?
Kaiser: They conclude, no.
Sasha: I think that their assessment is that yes, it might improve something, but we do not remove the deep sources of U.S.-China competition, which are entirely different.
Evan: Right. I want to circle back to where we started with your first question to me, which was the role of the United States in this, because the reality is, at the beginning of the war in February, March, April, 2022, I had umpteen conversations with people in China where they said, “Oh, we know what your game is. You’re going to deal with this Ukraine thing. And once you clear that away, we know you’re just going to come back and focus on us.” To Sasha’s point, we’ve all heard from Chinese who’ve said, “We know what your number one priority is, and in fact, we’re not stupid. We read your national documents. China is the “pacing threat,” the pacing challenge. Basically securitizing every and all aspect of U.S.-China relations. That’s your game. We’re realist. We understand that. So, what’s in it for us, other than to play the defensive game of avoiding painting a sanctions target on our back, for us to be perceived as enabling the pressure that you’re putting on Russia?”
That’s point number one. Point number two, to Sasha’s point, there is nothing I think that many people, particularly the more hawkish people in Beijing, think that they will gain in terms of broad scope improvements in U.S.-China relations from providing that kind of support to the Western coalition on Russia.
Kaiser: Not long after I had you on the show, Evan, just under a year ago, I had Maria Repnikova on, and one of the things that she said, and then she went on to argue in some pieces that she wrote, was that for China, it was never really about Russia and Ukraine, but ultimately about the United States. This seems to be very much in line with what you’ve said. I want to turn to Sasha here. You had this excellent thread on Twitter back in January that was inspired, it seems, by the Financial Times. This big piece looking at a potential Chinese foreign policy shift, and you laid out various pieces of evidence that Beijing clearly wanted to put out there to persuade Western observers that such a shift might be underway in the post Party Congress period.
Let’s go over this supposed evidence first. We have off the record remarks reported by the FT. You have a key foreign ministry appointment and a surprising demotion actually, and so forth. So, one of the talking points coming out of these background and off the record remarks is that Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 did not know of Putin’s plans for an invasion. I had actually argued this right after February 24th. I got a lot of pushback on this, though I never quite changed my mind about it. Seeing as China had no plan in place for an evacuation, I thought that was a pretty strong piece of evidence. A lot of citizens in Ukraine and no plan. And because this had been confirmed to me by unnamed Chinese diplomats that I had spoken to, they were absolutely insistent that China had not been read in. So, you seem to agree with this claim — Putin simply never told him in their February 4th meeting in Beijing. And your thread from January notes that Putin didn’t even tell his own prime minister or the governor of Russia Central Bank either.
And what’s more, you suggest that we have tended, I think, here in the West, to read too much into this no-limit partnership that Russians and Chinese understand this as just words. Can you expand on this a little bit?
Sasha: I think that Xi Jinping, indeed, we don’t have any evidence to suggest that he knew beforehand the scope and the magnitude of Russian invasion. Based on what I know, there was a very polite discussion just dancing around the subject. And the key goal on the Chinese side was to get some form of assurances that nothing will happen during the Olympics. The Chinese intelligence officers, their experts, their diplomats were asking around, reaching to multiple sources in Russia, including myself. And then all the time, when I try to explain to my Chinese colleagues and friends that, “Hey, the invasion is very likely, and these are the building blocks,” the Chinese colleagues, even the Russia watchers were all the time very dismissive. “Because, they said, “it’s just so stupid.” The downsides, even if the guy is successful, even if he takes Ukraine, even if he captures Kyiv in four days.”
“But that galvanizes NATO, that involves sanctions, that invites terrorist attacks on Russia’s home turf, because there will be Ukrainian patriots who will blow up metro cars in downtown Moscow. There are so many downsides. Why would he do that? He’s a rational man.” And that’s an overestimate where the Chinese just don’t understand the emotional nature of Vladimir Putin and the terrible, terrible experience that he had during COVID isolation, reading terrible Russian books on history and sitting with his files and playing ice hockey with his bodyguards. But here is one thing that when they say that Xi Jinping didn’t know anything, I think that’s a reality. The other part is that China had this narrative initially that Evan mentioned. They supported the Russian talking points, the biolabs, the justified Russian security concerns. War is terrible, and we stand by Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty, but by the way, it’s your, America’s, fault to bring hostile alliances to the doorsteps of your peer competitors. So, it’s your fault, and you go fix it.
I think that we see that around August, this discussion gradually evaporated from the briefings of the MFA, and then the tone of the official commentary became much more neutral, civilized, much more fact-based, and not that much pointing to the blame of the West. Then these diplomats who spoke to Western journalists, including the FT team, were trying to frame it that, “oh, we are not with the Russians.” But then, as you know, you need to 听其言而观其行 (tīngqíyán ér guānqíxíng), so you need to listen to the narrative, but also watch the actions.
Kaiser: Their behavior. Yeah.
Sasha: And the actions, the trade figures that Evan just mentioned, and it’s not only that the Russian exports to China grew because of the volumes and because of the high commodity prices, but also Chinese exports to Russia have grown. For example, we have now only 14 brands of cars in Russia. Three are Russian brands and 11 are Chinese. So, there is no legal way to buy a BMW or Volkswagen, but everything, everything you can imagine is just there half all and stuff. I think that the actions show that China very much gets the benefit of this relationship and very much gets the benefit of having more and more leverage.
Kaiser: Sasha, what do you make of the demotion of Lè Yùchéng 乐玉成, I mean, he’s now just the Deputy Minister at the National Radio Intelligent Administration. It’s the successor to the state administration of radio, film, and television. That’s a gigantic demotion. Is that words or is that action?
Sasha: We don’t know. I don’t think that the MFA in the Chinese system plays an important role when it comes to the assessment of what Russia will and won’t do. If that’s a demotion because he couldn’t predict the Russians behavior, I think that there should be a lot of hats flying in the Ministry of State Security.
Sasha: And then Wang Yi and many others who had, all the time, talked to their most senior Russian counterparts. Problem is that their counterparts also didn’t know that it’s going to happen. I’m sure that Sergey Lavrov was, the Russian foreign minister, was not aware till the couple of days before the Security Council meeting in Russia that set the motion for war preparation, that this is actually his boss’s plan B is to invade Ukraine.
Evan: The question of what Putin told Xi has always amused me because the Chinese, of course, have had the courtesy, even to inform the United States in the past of their military actions. You may remember when Deng Xiaoping came to Washington in January, 1979, he had a meeting with President Carter, and they talked about Soviet influence in Vietnam. And Carter talked about supporting military embargo and sanctions and this, that, and the other. And Deng basically said to him, “It’s not enough, and we’re going to teach them a lesson.” He basically forewarned the United States that a big invasion was coming. So, it’s always amused me, this question, because there may be people in China who are old enough to remember that, who say, “Well, we had the courtesy to warn the United States.” So, it should have been that the government of Russia had the courtesy to warn its partner, which actually was ostensibly a closer partner than the United States was to China in 1979, but didn’t. So, in the historical context, it’s kind of interesting too.
Kaiser: Yeah, yeah. Sasha, you’ve argued that Beijing was dangling the possibility of a more distant relationship with Moscow as we’ve seen with Scholz. As you say, the words, the language that some Chinese officials used during that period, December, January, first, can you lay out what is the impression that Beijing seems to have wanted to project, and why does it want to project that impression? I mean, this seems at least to be deliberate. This is a coordinated change in the image that it seeks to project. What was the immediate outcome that it sought? Was this just trying to open a wedge between Europe, which has lost a lot of strategic autonomy in Beijing’s view, and the United States? What was it trying to do with those visits?
Sasha: I think that China was aware that the No Limits partnership phrase created a big impression, particularly on the officials, decision makers, and experts who have never tracked China-Russia relationship. And I think that there is a reality where the expertise and depth of knowledge goes in pendulum. I remember just being new to Carnegie eight years ago, coming to The White House during Obama era, and then people on both China and Russia’s side of the NSC would tell me, “Ah, not much there. That is not of interest of the United States of America if Russia wants to enslave itself to China and wants to become China’s junior partner. Zero national security implications for us.” And then during Trump, you would sometimes hear that, “Oh, this is the axis of two authoritarian regimes that just lock hands to bring down the U.S. rules-based order.”
I think that this administration has a pretty good sense of what’s actually going on. You talk to various officials, and I think that the depth of understanding of what Russia-China relationship is about is very much there in various corners of the government, be it the intelligence community, the Pentagon, State, NSC. And there are experts, and I’m blessed, being part of Carnegie family, where we have a lot of people who know a lot of stuff about China, Russia. But then in European capitals, this partnership with No Limits created a huge impression. And then China’s goal was to really correct this image. Because a lot of pompous statements that Putin and Xi Jinping pronounce are just hot air. This is part of political culture that’s not a genuine affinity or a pronouncement of a genuine alliance type of relationship, but something else. It serves a very different purpose. And it’s mostly directed at domestic audience, and is a signal to the U.S. that once you push us, we might go deeper into integration. So, offer us some carrots not to go that way.
Kaiser: Yeah. This is clearly aimed at Europe. I mean, that there’s a big piece of it, and you’ve argued that Beijing does have some leverage when it comes to the Europeans. They’ve experienced a really abrupt and quite impactful decoupling shock with Russia. They weren’t ready for that, and they’re certainly not ready for the same thing with China, especially with the recession looming. So, you think maybe China needs to dangle this idea that they might be able to restrain Russia in order to get European leaders to come back to the table, make deals? Is that the play?
Sasha: I think that there are delusions that the European policy makers entertain themselves, or they want to pitch it to domestic population in order to justify some very selfish, pragmatic economic outreach to China. For example, in Germany, two important drivers of German economic prosperity have been access to cheap natural resources from Russia, particularly gas, which was very important for gas chemical and glass industry in many other parts of German industry. And then, of course, the exposure to the Chinese market. One of these pillars is gone, maybe forever. I don’t imagine that even when the war is over, Europe will buy this large quantities of Russian whatever, oil and gas and fertilizers. So, losing the other pillar, when you remember back in December, we thought that the world is entering a very likely recession, we just don’t know what the magnitude will be, was a terrifying prospect given the level of exposure and dependency of Germany as a country, and then some big German firms to the Chinese market.
So if you want to go there, what Chancellor Scholz did, if you want to go there on your own, ignoring your friend, Emmanuel Macron, who suggested to go together as two major leaders of European Union, you want to jump on this train and go there alone before anybody else, you need a cover. You need to say that it’s not for the benefit of the German big companies, but it’s for a bigger purpose. And this bigger purpose seems to be Ukraine. So, I’m going to convince Xi Jinping to exercise more pressure on his friend, Vladimir Putin, and do something good for Ukraine. And he squeezed this wording from Xi Jinping that use of nuclear weapons are unacceptable. It’s in the German readout, not in the Chinese readout. And like, what would you expect? Would you expect Xi Jinping to say it’s okay to use nuclear weapons? It’s like…
Kaiser: Right, and it’s incredibly cost-free for China to say that, right?
Sasha: Absolutely. It’s like saying sky’s blue, grass is green, nuclear weapons are terrible, shouldn’t be used. Do Chinese believe that they have that much leverage to convince Mr. Putin not to use nuclear weapons? Is he feels compressed, like, I don’t know, Ukrainian army is entering Crimea, and he believes that his whole legacy and the security of him personally and his regime is based on idea to keep Crimea? We don’t know. Nobody knows. I know that Evan and my former boss, Bill Burns, who is now director of the CIA, is very worried about this. And he flew to Turkey to talk to the head of the Russian intelligence just about those risks. So, this is something very serious. Chinese know that. And given the lessons they learned about Putin’s emotionality, I’m not sure that they are 100% convinced they have the arguments to persuade Mr. Putin, but they definitely want to entertain this idea in front of their European counterparts in order to help to drive this wedge between the Europeans and Americans.
Kaiser: That makes a lot of sense. Speaking of Russia’s military performance, what do we know of Beijing’s assessment of how the Russian military has performed during the war? I mean, clearly, they have to conclude that it badly underperformed in the early months and has continued to pretty badly underperform. But has their assessment changed after Russian strategy shifted? And do CMC analysts or PLA brass think that the forthcoming offensive, I think we’re all pretty sure there’s an offensive in the works, might turn things around for Putin? Or do we simply not have any indication? I don’t know if either of you are privy to what we know of what Beijing knows or what Beijing thinks on this issue.
Sasha: I’m not a military analyst, but if we know that the U.S. government was wrong in assessing the Russian military capabilities, like people overestimated the ability of Russia to perform high efficiency military campaigns. They’ve watched Crimea annexation, they’ve watched Russian performance in Syria and said like, “Okay, it’s definitely not what the U.S. can do, but it’s impressive, and probably they will be able to do that in Ukraine.” I’m sure that the Chinese didn’t have a better insight in the Russian military than the Americans did. So, probably people overestimated. I heard that from a couple of Chinese colleagues who watched the Russian military, that they were also wrong and they were ascribing powers and efficiency to the Russian army, which were never there. Looking back, it’s easy to see why the Russian army was so corrupt and so undisciplined and so uncoordinated, but that’s looking at the hindsight.
Kaiser: Yeah. Evan, you have a brand new piece in Foreign Affairs that you co-authored with Adam Szubin, in which you examine what lessons China might have learned from the sanctions imposed on Russia. It’s a great piece. Our listeners should definitely read it as we can’t cover all the ground that you do in that piece here in the time left. But the way I see it, there’s both a deterrent effect, the sanctions have obvious teeth, certainly much more than I think that China had expected at the outset of the war. By the first weekend, it was clear, with a SWIFT ban and everything that was going on. And also, China has experienced pain from various types of sanctions, whether Entity Listing over Xinjiang or import bands of goods that have supply chains that may run through Xinjiang. And of course, the whole assortment of tech and especially chip-focused export bans.
And now not just from the U.S. but from allies like the Netherlands and Japan. But there’s also, I think, as you point out in this piece, an effort on Beijing’s part to learn how to cope with severe sanctions. I mean, if it did come to that. And also an effort to learn how to wield the economic weapon themselves. I guess my question to you, Evan, is, is Beijing deterred or does it feel like, if it came down to it, it would be able to not only survive, but also to put the herd on the U.S. and its allies as well?
Evan: Yeah. Well, thanks for referencing the piece. This is an article I wrote in foreign affairs with my friend, Adam Szubin, who used to be the under Secretary of the Treasury, but also, for nearly a decade, was the Head of the Office of Foreign Asset Control at Treasury, which makes him essentially the sanctioner-in-chief for the United States. So, he really knows the sanctions landscape and also what works and what doesn’t. I think we were trying to really convey three points. One is that China’s posture towards sanctions, in general, has changed quite a bit. And quite apart from these questions of Russia and Ukraine, it’s worth noting this because China has loathed sanctions for many, many years. And they have this in common, not just with Russia, but with India, with Saudi Arabia, with others. They loathe them because China views the UN Security Council as the principal source of legitimacy in the international system.
And the reality is, even though they’ve sanctioned lots of companies and countries implicitly without actually calling these things sanctions, they have now transitioned in their posture to actually copycatting the toolkit that people like Adam used to use at OFAC. For example, the commerce department has a so-called Entity List that the United States has used against companies like Huawei or to go after Chinese artificial intelligence companies. Guess what? The Ministry of Commerce in China now has its own mirror image instrument that they call the Unreliable Entities List.
… List to restrict designated companies from accessing Chinese goods and investments. So, it’s a mirror image. Same thing with the way they’ve drafted legislation. They complain incessantly about what they call the long-arm jurisdiction of American extraterritorial application of sanctions, but guess what? In the Hong Kong National Security Law and in the so-called Anti-Foreign Sanctions Law, China now says that it intends to hold people criminally liable for activities they undertake that Beijing believes are directed against China, even on foreign soil. So, they have built extraterritoriality into their own legislation. They have tried to create dual compliance problems for our companies. Article 29, Section 4 of the Hong Kong National Security Law makes it a violation of the law merely to implement foreign sanctions against China and Hong Kong. All of this shows that China has gone from loathing sanctions to actually embracing sanctions.
And even though it’s early innings and they haven’t pulled the trigger; this is now an instrument of Chinese foreign policy that Adam and I thought was worth bringing to people’s attention because they have learned from the best and they’ve learned from the masters. And we can expect that China, I think, will start to pull these triggers itself, which comes to your very direct question. One thing they’ve learned from watching the experience of Russia is that the United States and its partners are no longer just sanctioning marginal economies. For a long time, comprehensive sanctions campaigns were directed at second tier countries, third, fourth, fifth tier economies, places like Myanmar, Sudan, Iran. If you were sitting in Beijing, you could probably presume that if you were a major power with a hugely significant global economy, you were probably immune to this. And so, one point we wanted to make was that the ferocity of the sanctions campaign, which went into overdrive basically in the space of a weekend, the sanctions on Russia collapsed measures that took 18 months to impose on Iran into essentially a couple days.
Freezing up Russian reserves, asset freezes, all sorts of bans, trying to do price caps on Russian oil — the Chinese now have to expect that that’s coming at them in the event, for example, that they decide to attack Taiwan. And for that reason, they will be looking to try to mirror Russia’s approach in trying to sanctions-proof its economy. And the second point Adam and I wanted to make is that you can make your economy less vulnerable, but sanctions proofing in this era is almost impossible, even for an economy China’s size. That brings me to the last point, which is that countries don’t make decisions about war and peace based only on fear of sanctions. But at the end of the day, what the United States and China and others really have to be thinking about is the strength of international coalitions.
U.S. sanctions on Russia would’ve been ferocious even without the partners, but they are vastly more effective because the U.S. has a coalition. To go back to the discussion you just had with Sasha about China’s diplomacy with Europe, in the global south, around the world, China as part of a sanctions proofing, or at least campaign to make China less sanctions vulnerable, will be trying to drive wedges in the American effort to build a coalition for sanctions against China. And so, ultimately, the strength of the coalition, rather than just the wheel of American foreign policy or the force of the measures that the state foreign exchange regulator in China or others take, that’s ultimately going to determine the effectiveness of this.
Kaiser: And that’s what you conclude in your piece. That’s your concluding paragraph.
Evan: Yeah. So, I think what you can expect is the U.S. is going to try to be building a coalition over the next few years, anticipating Chinese aggression against Taiwan. And China’s diplomacy will be geared in part to trying to drive wages in these American coalitional approaches. That’s not all about sanctions proofing, A lot of it is about the direction of U.S.-China relations, but it may or may not have effects in terms of the effectiveness of the U.S. sanctions.
Sasha: And my impression is that the next two years or year and a half are important in their view because this administration in the U.S. is putting so much emphasis on the Transatlantic Cooperation on China, that if you are able to disrupt this while Biden is in power, you don’t know what the approach will be of the next administration. If you have somebody like Trump who doesn’t build the alliances that skillfully as this team does or many previous administration have done, you might have a bigger room to play. So, disrupting this right now is also important.
Kaiser: Right. So, Sasha, as you’ve said before in a previous interview that you did with James King of the FT, so far the U.S. only has sticks and has offered no carrots at all to China. What are some of the carrots it might consider offering? I mean, what could we be doing better to incentivize China to play a more constructive role, or at least to induce China and Chinese enterprises not to do things that effectively support Russian war efforts? What are some of the inducements, the positive inducements we might offer?
Sasha: I never heard any single U.S. official talking about carrots. I think that all of the conversation is really about the sticks. It’s really about the secondary sanctions or putting various threats in place that would create incentive for the Chinese companies not to circumvent the sanctions. And for now, we see that everybody who is in the global technology business, everybody whose supply chain is so dependent on American IP, American tech, American equipment, is really doing a lot of work to try to not violate the sanctions, at least not in a kind of open way. And the problem with the evidence that the U.S. government has and shares with journalists like the Wall Street Journal piece, is that a lot of this trade is between sanctioned Chinese entities like Poly Technologies, sanctioned Russian entities, Rosoboronexport. The trade is conducted in Chinese RMB, and it’s a trade that’s done overland somewhere in the Russian Far East, not necessarily using big port.
So, what is there to sanction? You can chase some parts of the networks that are not sanctioned, but most likely Russia and China will recreate them and these networks will be sanction proof. The question to the administration is, do you go after other parts of the Chinese economy and technology sector and say, “They are not involved in sanction violation, but we sanction them to make a point”? I think that the legal basis there is very questionable. So, there is not that much that can be done in order to course-correct the mil-to-mil industrial complexes ties in Russia and China. But then on everything else, everything which is civilian and dual use, and where the Chinese companies really still depend on U.S. tech, there are a lot of tools, but they’re are not carrots. There are mostly sticks.
Kaiser: But still we’re talking only about sticks and not carrots. I mean, Susan Shirk suggested on this program that we should be doing more. The United States should be doing more to acknowledge China’s sanctions compliance, and that, that might actually be a start that China might respond positively to at least that pat on the back. What do you think? Do you think that would have any effect whatsoever?
Sasha: I don’t think Chinese will be overly impressed with this, frankly. I think that the root cause of problem is that there is a firm belief in China that the bipartisan consensus in the U.S. views China as the major competitor, as the most terrible evil country on the planet Earth, or not, but it’s definitely there. And there is not that much that China can do to change this. So, you need to kind of mitigate and avoid worst-case scenarios and buy as much time of a healthy productive relationship with the U.S. but as much as you can, knowing that the end post is still conflict.
Evan: Yeah. If I could piggyback on that, I mean, I think where the Chinese are positioned now is that they think that the U.S.-China cake is increasingly baked. They’re not blind. They can see the direction of domestic politics in the United States around China. They can see the securitization of, even things that, as we’ve discussed on previous podcasts, Kaiser, used to be easy bankable things in the U.S.-China relationship, flows of capital, of people, of technology, of data. These things increasingly are being sanctioned, yes, for reasons that have nothing to do with what you and Sasha were just discussing, right? The U.S. is going after Chinese artificial intelligence companies. It’s adding people to the Entity List. This has nothing to do with Russia. This has to do with technology competition, with military-civil fusion, with things that are in the nature of China’s development model, the Chinese system, the way the U.S. views it, and the U.S.-China competition.
China’s strategy with the U.S. I think is largely defensive and is increasingly focused on avoiding the worst outcomes. That’s inclusive of what we just discussed on Russia, not trying to be in the crosshairs of sanctions. Now, the other part of the strategy is really, if you think the U.S.-China cake is baked, to focus instead on the rest of the world. I think when China surveys the rest of the world, it’s relationships in the global south are looking pretty good vis-à-vis the United States. And so, that makes the real playing field for U.S.-China competition and for the growing focus of Chinese diplomacy, basically Europe, industrial East Asia, and Australia. And it will have probably, you will have noticed that in the last few weeks, interesting things are happening in Chinese diplomacy. You mentioned that Chancellor Scholz went to Beijing at the end of last year.
I expect several European leaders to follow suit, potentially President Macron of France, Prime Minister Meloni of Italy. There’s a soft underbelly in Europe, the Hungarians. There’s plenty of other countries that don’t share the American view of China. And frankly, the bar is not that high for China because most of the lower-hanging fruit has already been picked. By lower-hanging fruit, I mean investment screening, common sense export controls that ringfence European technology, not just on national security grounds, but things that, for instance, the Germans think are central to their competitiveness. That’s stuff the U.S. and Europe are coordinated on. There was no investment screening several years ago in Europe.
As we move to the higher-hanging fruit, there are greater opportunities for China not to like pick those countries off from the United States, they’re American allies, but to complicate the calculations for the United States in its coalitional strategy. When you come to Australia, I think there’s no country more than Australia that has mirrored the American zeitgeist toward China over the last few years. But it’s clear that Prime Minister Albanese would like to go to China at some point. The trade minister Don Farrell just had a video conference with his MOFCOM counterpart, Chinese are beginning to roll back restrictions, self-imposed, on Australian coal, on lobsters. Wine is going to come next; you may see barley. That is all part of, I think, the flip side of Chinese diplomacy.
So, when I look at the next year, I think it’s actually going to be a very interesting year for Chinese diplomacy. And the fact that it coincides with China’s reopening when business deals become possible, foreign leaders are visiting Beijing again, Mr. Xi is traveling the world — he’s been to the Middle East, he’s been to Central Asia, he’s been to Southeast Asia. China has more than one leader that can travel the world, scattering promises of largess and investment around the world. I think this is going to be a very interesting year. And if I were the U.S., I would not be self-satisfied about the strength of the coalitions that have been built beyond the lower-hanging fruit.
Kaiser: Well, if you want to keep up with Chinese diplomatic movements across what promises to be a very interesting year, you know where to tune in. And I hope to have both of you back on the show to talk about that. First of all, thank you both. Evan Feigenbaum, Sasha Gabuev, thank you for taking so much time out of your busy schedules to speak with me. Stick around, we want to make some recommendations. But first, a very quick reminder that the Sinica Podcast is powered by the China Project. As I hope you know by now, I work very, very hard to bring you guys the smartest and best informed voices here on Sinica — people like Sasha and Evan. I cannot do this without your support, though, so please take a second and become an Access member, a China project Access member.
We are running a trial promotion right now where for just a buck, you can get a month of membership. Try it out, check out the newsletter, sign up for the early version of Sinica. And hey, even if you don’t end up sticking around, it’s not like we’re going to change the secret RSS feed. So, you’ll still get the show without ads and early so it’s got to be worth it, right? Anyway, okay. On to recommendations. Here we go. Evan, you kick us off.
Evan: Well, I usually recommend cooking podcasts when I’m on this show, but I’m going to-
Kaiser: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Evan: No, I’m going to break the tradition. I’m going to recommend a boring book.
Kaiser: Oh man, okay.
Evan: Sorry. No, I’m going to recommend an exciting book of diplomatic history, but to people who are expecting cooking recommendations, they’ll be disappointed. I want to recommend a book by Philip Zelikow, who teaches at the University of Virginia and is a former counselor of the State Department called The Road Less Traveled. And the subtitle is The Secret Battle to End the Great War,1916-1917. And basically, in an era of great power competition where the prospect of war looms, and many people use analogies to the period between 1914 and 1918, Philip has this very interesting alternative history of how things could have proceeded in 1916 and 1917. And he describes, with archives, secret diplomacy that went on at the height of the war in 1916 that might have ended the war early. And it refocuses our attention, not just on the importance of diplomacy, as opposed to just waging war between armies, but also the fact that sometimes contingency matters in history.
And if you rewind the clock, it could have played back a different way. And so, as we think about that prospect now, it’s worth thinking through how the actions and choices that we make now can affect contingency in ways that may have effect on international history going forward. So, I recommend that.
Kaiser: Oh, fantastic. That sounds great. And contingency always matters in history, Evan. Always. All right, looks like a great book. I’ll check it out. Sasha, what do you have for us?
Sasha: Since this episode deals with Russia and Ukraine, and there are many Russians who now familiarize themselves with Ukrainian culture because we were never really exposed to the culture that existed next door in an imperial context, and like the stereotyped look of educated Russians on Ukrainian culture is, “that’s something which the peasants have,” like the lovely Ukrainians in their nice traditional clothing, but not somebody who has high culture. So, I’m reading, in an English translation, a collection of Ukrainian writings since 1965.
Sasha: And that has some really impressive collection of prose and poetry, and published by Penguin, which is really, really great. It’s interesting that I can read it in English. My Ukrainian is terrible. I can understand something, but it’s definitely a very different language. And you have to read it through English, but it’s really a rewarding read. I recommend that book.
Kaiser: And it’s called Writing From Ukraine, right?
Sasha: Writing From Ukraine.
Kaiser: All right, fantastic. Great recommendation. Very, very topical. I’m going to recommend some important media appearances by people I respect enormously. Recently, Jessica Chen Weiss has taken star turns on both the Ezra Klein Podcast, which was a few weeks ago, and on the John Stewart Podcast — The Problem with John Stewart. Fantastic. You should definitely listen to her appearances there. She’s just so steady and smart and sane and calm, and exactly what we need right now. Also Jude Blanchette wrote a very short op-ed in FT on February 10th, called Avoiding Catastrophe Will Be the True Test of Fractious U.S.-China Relations, where he really puts his finger, I think right on the main pathologies of both the U.S. and of China. It’s, again, very short, but very much on the mark. And anything Jude ever writes or podcasts, I have plenty of time for. Once again, gentlemen, thank you so much. What a really eye-opening conversation from both of you.
Evan: Thanks. And I always learn from Sasha, so it’s always great to do things with him.
Sasha: Pleasure being with you, and thanks for having me, Kaiser. Always great to connect to Evan for the podcast.
Kaiser: The Sinica Podcast is powered by The China Project and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or just give us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @thechinaproj, and be sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening, and we will see you next week. Take care.