The conventional wisdom is that when it comes to the war in Ukraine, China is walking a tightrope, a balancing act between its partnership with Russia and a concern that it not rupture completely its relationship with the West. To date, however, China has refused to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin, amplified various Russian falsehoods about Ukraine and placed blame for the war at the feet of the U.S. and its NATO allies.
Few people outside China know the country and the thinking of its leaders better than Asia Society President Kevin Rudd. Rudd was a student of China and the Mandarin language before entering politics in his native Australia. He served as Australia’s foreign minister and twice as prime minister. Rudd became president and CEO of Asia Society in January 2021 and has been president of the Asia Society Policy Institute since January 2015. His latest book is “The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the US and Xi Jinping’s China.”
Rudd spoke with Grid about that “avoidable war,” about the U.S.-China relationship, and about the current war in Ukraine and the extent to which Putin will be able to count on continued full-throated support from Beijing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: Lately, it looks like China is all in, in terms of support for Putin’s war. What’s going on there?
Kevin Rudd: Well, first, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have developed a relationship at the personal level, which is quite deep and quite influential. But then at the structural level, the nature of the China-Russia relationship means that the underlying Chinese interests point definitively in the direction of Moscow. They want a benign relationship with the Russians because of the length and history of the Russian-Chinese border. They want to be able to dedicate all their strategic energies to their principal global and regional strategic adversary, the United States, rather than having to divert some of those resources — military or otherwise — to handling the Russian question, which they had to at various other times in their history. And thirdly, Russia is a handy strategic partner to divert the United States to other regional conflicts, either in Syria or in North Africa or most recently in Ukraine.
So, I think people need to not have a romantic view about where China’s national interest actually stands on this, and where the personal interest on the part of Xi Jinping stands in terms of his desire to preserve his relationship with Vladimir Putin.
G: There’s one way to do what you just described — which is to abstain from votes, or not call it an invasion or a war, but the Chinese have gone further. Pushing the Russian false bioweapons lab story, for example, or the fact that China is giving directives to educators to teach that NATO and the EU are to blame for the war. I’m wondering, need it be that overt, for them to pursue those interests?
KR: The Chinese propaganda system usually has two gears: forward and back. It’s pretty difficult to nuance the propaganda, in terms of what you put out and what you allow to be put out. And there’s a reason for that — simply the scale of the system: 1.4 billion people, and then 5 million-plus working in the propaganda apparatus. So this idea of nuance in the state newsroom doesn’t quite exist.
Secondly, the national interest questions are as I described — so when the system locks on to defending Xi Jinping’s position on both Putin personally and Russia generically, it locks on. The only variation on this theme I’ve seen is a recent decision after Putin began to run into a military stalemate on the ground in Ukraine, when the Chinese propaganda apparatus began to allow more spontaneous social media comment from Chinese citizens that was more sympathetic to Ukraine. But I think that’s basically to present an impression to international audiences that this is a more neutral Chinese position. When I look at the core decisions of the Chinese state and what they say and what they do, I see evidence of about an 85-to-15 split, splitting very much in Moscow’s favor.
G: Well, since you’re doing the fractions, a different question: How much of this would you say is the strategic interest in a partnership with Russia, and how much a strategic interest in just bashing the United States and the West whenever possible?
KR: Well, the two sets of interests fold into each other. Since Moscow’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Russia has increasingly found that its only reliable long-term economic partner, and political and eventually strategic partner was China. So for those reasons, Beijing saw a huge emerging political and strategic opportunity with an isolated Russia. They grabbed it with both hands.
And now, as reflected in the Russia-China joint declaration of the 4th of February, which proclaims a limitless strategic cooperation in the future, you see the blueprint for a level of Russia-China strategic condominium which didn’t exist after the first Russian invasion of Ukraine, and serves both Russia’s interests and China’s interests — in particular China’s interests in rolling back against the United States, regionally and globally.
G: Given what’s happened in Ukraine, do you think there’s been any regret since the Feb. 4 agreement on the part of the Chinese?
KR: Let’s look at the tea leaves in China’s official commentary on Russia and Ukraine over the last month. When we look, for example, at the reported content of Xi Jinping’s engagement with Europeans — [French President Emmanuel] Macron and Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, and others — it’s plain if you read between the lines that there is some degree on the part of the Chinese of buyer’s remorse. But I wouldn’t overstate it. The Chinese know that because they’ve locked in so hard behind the Russians, there has been reputational damage in Europe and reputational damage in the rest of the world. Look, for example, at the strong votes in support of Ukraine in the U.N. General Assembly, with 143 nation-states, a large slice of whom came from developing countries. So for those reasons there’s a perception of reputational damage.
But the ultimate realist Chinese position is this: The Europeans will do as they’ve always done in the past, and that is suffer strategic amnesia in the future, and European outrage over Ukraine will last essentially until the next year’s Eurovision Song Contest. And then they will get back to business, trade and investment, and everything gets driven by the gravitational force of the Chinese economy. That’s the deep Chinese view, the skeptical view of European strategic solidity.
It’s up to the Europeans of course to prove them wrong.
G: Do you think there’s anything the Russians may do that would change the Chinese calculus?
KR: I think there are two things. If Putin was mad enough to cross the weapons of mass destruction threshold, and to threaten or actually use chemical weapons, or to threaten or use nuclear weapons, this, in my judgment, will be a bridge too far for the Chinese. China has had to engage in all sorts of twisting and turning ideologically and theologically, almost, to justify its current position in de facto support of Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s political sovereignty and territorial integrity, which violates article two of the U.N. charter, and to justify that within the framework of China’s 70-year long embrace of the five principles of peaceful coexistence framed by Zhou Enlai back in 1954, which includes respecting the political sovereignty and territorial integrity of other states. So there’s been a whole lot of, shall I say, diplomatic contortionism in order to render that position as being consistent.
I would imagine beneath the surface, if there is one level of conversation occurring between the Chinese Central Military Commission and their Russian counterparts right now, it’s simply saying: Comrades, we’re with you, but don’t do the WMD thing.
Second thing is, if the Russians find themselves in absolute military stalemate or the war starts to go decisively against them militarily, then fasten your seat belts for a one-minute-to-midnight ceasefire diplomatic offensive by the Chinese, who turn adversity into opportunity in order to demonstrate to the Europeans that our friends in Beijing have always had peace and moderation in their hearts. And so to partly salvage reputational damage suffered so far, they would be tempted to do that. But we would be incorrect, I think, to assume that they are likely to assume a substantive mediating role as opposed to a cosmetic one.
G: Other than getting abstentions and good rhetoric from China, what else do Putin and the Russians get from this relationship with China right now?
KR: Excellent question. A few things. One is China politically and diplomatically is able to help gather reasonable support in the Security Council and in other parts of the world in support of the Russian position. And there’s a very interesting case study here: Why did the United Arab Emirates, for example, join the Chinese in abstaining on the Russian resolution? Partly that’s to do with Russian equities in the Middle East. Partly it’s to do with China’s relationship with the Emirates and the Saudis, who also abstained in the General Assembly vote. So it’s not trivial to say that China is capable of leveraging international support for the Russian position and against this increasingly harsh and near-universal financial sanctions regime against Beijing.
The second level of support is to maximize trade, particularly in commodities — oil and gas and wheat, and to buy as much Russian product as you can, a) because it’s good for China, b) because the Chinese could agree to pay up front before deliveries are made and c) that actually helps the Russian net financial position. And none of that is prohibited by the existing financial sanctions regime.
But when you get to the meat of the sandwich of stepping around the financial sanctions of the use of the dollar-denominated financial clearinghouse system and the decision to put Russia outside of that, the decision to freeze Russia’s foreign exchange reserves held in third countries and the sanctions against individual Russian institutions — there’s no evidence that China has violated any of those. And China legitimately fears attracting secondary financial sanctions against itself, because the Chinese remain dependent on the U.S. dollar-denominated and dollar-controlled global financial system. That may not be the case by the time we get to the end of the 2020s. But it is the case now. So China has been very keen not to attract that incoming set of problems.
G: So let’s get to “avoidable wars” — since that’s the title and subject of your latest book, and one issue in particular: Taiwan. How do you think the conflict in Ukraine is being seen, first, in Taipei? Does this war change minds or behavior in Taiwan itself?
KR: It’s a really important consideration because the Taiwanese have not always acted in their own resilient national self-interest. So the observation, I think, that will be foremost from Taiwan is this: that Ukraine has maximized its support as a democracy in the world by the resilience of its asymmetrical warfare against the Russian invading force.
And that goes to the actual design of the Taiwanese defense force, its size and its ability to wage asymmetric warfare, as opposed to deploying its funds into capital assets on the high seas, on the water between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits. So there’s a question of both the quantum and the quality of the Taiwanese military acquisitions and the structure of its defense force, which, I think, will be seen very clearly by those in Taipei as underscoring the decisions they began to take about two years ago that changed the composition of their force, and to increase their overall long-term defense outlays.
I think the second is along these lines: At the end of the day, the message being pumped out to Taiwan, Hong Kong and others in the Chinese-language speaking world is not that we Chinese are terribly sorry for supporting the Russians. The message being put out by the Chinese propaganda apparatus in Asia is: Guess what, guys — the Americans didn’t militarily intervene to defend Ukraine. And that is a message explicitly targeted on a Taiwanese audience. So Taiwan will have noted that Ukraine was not a treaty ally of the United States because it was outside of NATO. The Taiwanese do have the Taiwan Relations Act, but it’s not a mutual defense assistance pact at the end of the day.
So this will, I think, cause them to conclude that in the future, if they found themselves standing alone, and leaving aside what the United States eventually did, by way of direct military intervention, their ability to hold on and prevent an effective blitzkrieg within Taiwan itself is fundamental to them garnering enough international support around their cause, as has happened with Zelenskyy and Ukraine. I think they’re probably the two significant takeaways from this.
G: Same question in Beijing. Do you think there’s anything in Ukraine that has surprised the leadership there?
KR: I think, knowing something about the way the Chinese construct their Taiwan policy, they’re on their own railway tracks and timetable of what they want to do with Taiwan, as determined by two factors.
First, have an overwhelming balance of military power in the Taiwan Straits. At present, they’ve got a favorable balance, but not a decisively favorable balance from the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] perspective, and they need more time to make that decisive. The Chinese do not want to have a risky adventure militarily across the Taiwan Straits, because if they did not prevail in such a conflict decisively, if they had an untidy conflict like we now see with the Russians, let alone were stopped by a combined American-Taiwanese force, it would be terminal for Xi Jinping.
But the Chinese have been working on building this overwhelming military balance of power in their advantage for a long time, probably since at least 2015.
The second is to render themselves invulnerable, or only partially susceptible, to a new range of financial sanctions against them arising from such an invasion. At present, they’re highly vulnerable on this because of their dependency on the SWIFT system, their dependency on the U.S. dollar-denominated financial system, and that’s going to continue until such time as the Chinese decide to float the Chinese currency, open their capital accounts, and make it a big globally traded currency so that they become invulnerable either to manipulation by a single speculative financial house, or from a nation-state doing as the Americans have done with Venezuela, Iran and now the Russian Federation. So that’s why I think the timetable comes much later.
But if there’s one sobering thing emerging from what we’ve seen so far it would be this: The Russians told us that they could knock over this country next door to them through a land attack within a week. That hasn’t worked. When you look at the dimensions of the amphibious challenge across the Taiwan Straits, that would make a Chinese invasion force arguably bigger than the D-Day landings, and more complex because that’s the English Channel and this is open ocean, which creates its own logistical difficulties. I think the boys running the PLA will be disappearing back into their bunkers for a while to take out their slide rules to work out how difficult this could actually be.
G: Can you say a few words about the U.S.-China relationship? Do you think it’s at a low historical ebb? And are there any glimmers of hope? Any patches of common ground?
KR: Well, if we were to apply the slide rule again to the state of the U.S.-China relationship measured against a stability index, as of the end of the Trump administration, and compared it with where we are now, I would argue it is somewhat more stable. Because back then — not that long ago, January of 2021, either side of the Jan. 6 uprising in Washington — if you’re in Beijing wondering what on earth the Trump administration would do next on Taiwan, on trade, on Huawei or anything else, this was massively unpredictable given the nature of the Trump administration and different signals being sent in different directions all the time.
But with the Biden team, it’s more stable. They have a more stable and predictable framework. It’s still hard-edged, it’s still strategic competition, though the administration perhaps doesn’t use that term every day of the week as the Trump administration did. But if you look at its essence, that’s what it is. So far what the United States has been doing from a Chinese perspective has been relatively predictable, even if it has been adversarial.
And secondly, despite everything that’s happened in the last 12 months in the U.S.-China relationship, and despite what’s now emerged with Ukraine, you’ve had in the space of 12 months, two virtual summits of some length between the two leaders. And this at least preserves a line of central communication at the presidential level. And by the time we got to the last year of the Trump administration, we were down to [U.S. Trade Representative] Bob Lighthizer as the only guy capable of talking to his Chinese counterparts. Against those measures, it’s more stable than it was.
The argument of my book, which is about avoidable war, and avoiding such a war through managed strategic competition and a framework to identify the strategic red lines between them, to allow nonlethal competition between the U.S. and China while still carving out space for strategic cooperation in areas like climate change, I think all that’s possible. It’s difficult given a hawkish Congress in the United States, and difficult also given the number of hawks who inhabit the halls of power in Beijing as well. But I don’t see it in the interests of either country to proceed down a path in the absence of such a mechanism, which would run the risk of blowing each other’s heads off if you have crises, escalation, conflict or war.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.