In a photo of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin taken in Beijing, just before the Olympics in February, the two clasp hands and smile to the camera. After the meeting, Xi and Putin declared in a joint statement that their countries’ relationship had “no limits” and “no forbidden zones.” As more than 150,000 Russian troops massed at Russia’s border with Ukraine, the statement also pronounced Beijing’s and Moscow’s shared opposition to the idea of Ukraine joining NATO—or in Xi’s and Putin’s terms, NATO’s “expansion” into Ukraine. The Russian army invaded four days after the Olympics’ closing ceremonies, bringing severe economic sanctions against Russia and global outrage against Moscow—and in turn, intense pressure on Xi. The United States has threatened China with sanctions if it gives any direct military or economic aid to Russia. How is Beijing handling these tensions?

Victor Shih is the Ho Miu Lam Chair in China and Pacific Relations at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of Factions and Finance in China: Elite Conflict and Inflation. Shih sees the war as putting China’s leadership in a very difficult position. The country needs trade with the West far more than it does with Russia, so supporting the invasion could undercut Beijing’s economic power. At the same time, Xi has a substantial interest in helping Putin, not wanting to see his strongest partner weakened—or potentially overthrown. Putin knows this and is counting on it to ensure substantial aid from Beijing. As Shih sees it, all of this is leading to a pivotal moment for China, forcing it to alter its behavior in significant ways and even reconsider some of the foundations of its geopolitical strategy.

Michael Bluhm: How do you see Beijing responding to the war in Ukraine?

Victor Shih: This is a very delicate moment for Beijing.

Putin and Chinese leadership—and this goes back to before Xi Jinping took power, to Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin—all believed that the U.S. was a dominant power that sought to undermine, if not overthrow, dictatorial governments—especially post-communist dictatorial governments like China and Russia. Beijing and Moscow found common cause in resisting this.

In China, the approach was to build economic strength, watch, and prepare. But this approach came to an end during the Xi era. Part of it was because Beijing saw the United States reorienting in the late Obama years—the United States pivoted toward the Indo-Pacific region and began to talk about the need to compete with China.

But Ukraine puts China on the spot: Russia started a hot war consistent with its narrative that a U.S.-led NATO alliance is trying to undermine Russia and the entire Eurasian authoritarian bloc.

Bluhm: How much support is China giving Putin?

Shih: I don’t think it’s an either-or choice for China on supporting Putin—it’s a continuum. Beijing can choose to back Russia 100 percent, by sending weapons systems, maybe military advisors, and defense-oriented aid on a massive scale. The other extreme is agreeing with everything the U.S. wants to do, which I also find very unlikely.

Taine Noble

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