As Joe Biden prepares to warn Xi Jinping against helping Russia, it is worth considering what the United States can offer China to divert it as well. Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, many analysts have pondered the implications of a new world order defined by an ever more threatening Sino-Russian axis. But a closer look at the history of their relationship reveals a potential opportunity to give Beijing reason to keep Moscow at bay. While Russia is desperate to destroy the current world order, China still has a stake in its survival, and the United States should exploit this to change China’s course.
As the world watches in horror as Russian troops surround kyiv and advance towards Odessa, the geopolitical structure appears to be reverting to the bipolarity of the 1950s, with a united West trying to contain a Sino-Russian alliance. Although China has publicly proclaimed its neutrality, its rhetoric so far has made it appear much more like an accomplice, with its state media echoing Russian claims about Western provocation, “denazification” and lack of civilian casualties. In retrospect, the Putin-Xi declaration of February 4 proclaiming a “limitless” friendship even smacks of the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 23, 1939. Despite the temptation this produced for Washington to treat China as an enemy, the Sino-Soviet alliance of the 1950s and how it broke up offer instructive lessons in how to deal with the fledgling axis today. China and Russia have in many ways changed places from what they were in the 1950s, which means that some of the tactics used by the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, known as relaxation, could help China today.
At the height of the Sino-Soviet alliance in the 1950s, although the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) posed threats to the world order, the Soviet Union was more of a status quo power , while China was more revisionist. . Having suffered some 27 million casualties in World War II, the Soviet Union was extremely wary of a new world war and, as the permanent holder of a veto in the Security Council of UN, it had an interest in preserving the world order. Meanwhile, China’s seat at the UN was occupied by the Republic of China, located in Taiwan, and Beijing was excluded from the UN. The leader of the PRC, Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, had a much more negligent attitude towards war, telling a world rally of Communist parties in 1957 that if a nuclear war broke out, China could lose 300 of its 600 million. inhabitants, but socialism would be victorious. In 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev proclaimed a policy of “peaceful coexistence”, saying that war between superpowers would be too dangerous to contemplate and that peaceful economic competition – not war – should determine the superiority of communism over relation to capitalism. It was the beginning of the end of the Sino-Soviet alliance. Mao and the Chinese saw this as a Soviet attempt to freeze the world order in place, a world order they desperately wanted to destroy.
China’s aggressiveness created problems for the Soviets throughout the 1960s, deepening the split and alienating Moscow from its core objectives. China encouraged Asian, African and Latin American military adventurism against the West while the Soviets had no choice but to follow. In May 1967, despite Moscow’s behind-the-scenes attempts to contain Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser, China’s overt encouragement of Arab militarism, at one point even offering to send a million volunteers to fight in the Middle East, helped provoke a war that hurt Moscow. interests. The most important case was Vietnam. While the Soviets discouraged North Vietnamese leaders from seeking to overthrow the government of South Vietnam, China encouraged them, and while the Soviets attempted to broker peace talks between Hanoi and Washington, China constantly pressured Hanoi to take a harder line. As one Soviet journalist sadly estimated, in Hanoi the Soviets provided 75-80% of the weapons but had only 4-5% of the influence. The Soviets even complained that the Chinese were making it difficult to transport weapons through China to Vietnam in the hope that the Soviets would be forced to transport them by sea, resulting in direct clashes with the US Navy. Moscow has grown increasingly frustrated that its formal ally’s recklessness is disrupting its own plans to normalize relations with the West to focus resources on its domestic economy.
Today, the roles are reversed. China, while not a status quo power in its own right, is nevertheless more concerned with its national economy, as evidenced by Premier Li Keqiang’s recent plan presented to the National People’s Congress to increase spending. to accelerate growth to 5.5%. Beijing also believes time is finally on its side in its quest to become the world’s dominant power. After all, most projections predict that China will eclipse the United States as the world’s largest economy by 2030. Russia, meanwhile, is desperate. Economic and demographic stagnation threatens to make this a geopolitical afterthought, and so Moscow seeks to disrupt the international order by any means necessary. The danger here is that it is too simplistic to speak of “Chinese” or “Russian” interests. As Ben Judah astutely observed, one of the reasons so many people did not foresee the Russian regime’s decision to invade Ukraine is that it is not really a regime anymore. Rather, Russia’s actions are increasingly the product of the whims of one man, Vladimir Putin. The Chinese regime has not yet been gutted to this point, although Xi Jinping is trying to lead China down this path. As the situation in Ukraine shows, one-man dictatorships are even more dangerous and unpredictable than one-party regimes.
So what should the United States do? Exploit this gap between a desperate and reckless Russia and a more stable, status quo China. It should also seek to prevent China from going down the path of personalist dictatorship. To accomplish both, the United States should give China greater participation in the current world order. Although US-China relations have become increasingly hostile in recent years, threatening China with sticks without supplying it with carrots can only strengthen Beijing’s resolve and affirm Xi Jinping’s dark vision of an anti-crusade. -Western Poutine. One thing China has done recently that offers an opening is to seek membership in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The CPTPP is a trade agreement that evolved from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was originally established between US allies in the Pacific, but from which Donald Trump withdrew in 2017. Although it seems like a strange time to accept China’s candidacy is exactly what the United States should offer as a carrot to China. Washington is expected to offer to help guide China’s bid and help moderate the negotiation process, relying on its alliances to pave the way for Chinese membership. Washington is also expected to eventually join the CPTPP itself. This will potentially help China achieve its national economic goals and give ammunition to Chinese leaders who oppose Xi’s divisive course. It also means, at a time when Chinese leaders are looking warily at economic sanctions against Russia and no doubt developing strategies to make themselves less vulnerable, tying China more tightly to the global economy and therefore making the threat of sanctions more formidable. As Don Corleone so aptly said, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”. It’s time for the United States to bring China a little closer.
Jeremy Friedman is the Marvin Bower Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. A Russian historian, he has published two books on the history of the Cold War, the most recent of which Ripe for Revolution: Building Socialism in the Third World (Harvard University Press, 2022).