Roger Garside is a former British diplomat and author of China Coup: The Great Leap to Freedom.
Nine days after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Hu Wei – a leading scholar and researcher serving as the vice-chairman of a think tank linked to China’s State Council, the country’s chief administrative authority – urged Xi Jinping to move away from Russia and toward the United States.
“Vladimir Putin may be unable to achieve his expected goals … the blitzkrieg failed, and Russia is unable to support a protracted war and its associated high costs,” wrote Mr. Hu, in an article published in the U.S.-China Perception Monitor, first in Chinese and then in English.
“China cannot be tied to Putin … China can only proceed by safeguarding its own best interests, unloading the burden of Russia as soon as possible,” he wrote. “China’s top priority is to make appropriate strategic adjustments accordingly, to change the hostile American attitudes toward China, and to save itself from isolation. The bottom line is to prevent the U.S. and the West from imposing joint sanctions on China.”
The Chinese version was not blocked by censors for a whole week, during which the article was read by hundreds of thousands of Chinese netizens.
Mr. Hu’s policy advice wasn’t ultimately adopted, but his predictions have been proved correct. He has now published a new article, on the anniversary of the invasion, retracting nothing. China, he writes, is “in a dilemma with not much room to manoeuvre politically.” Should it abandon Mr. Putin’s regime, or supply the weapons and money Russia needs if it is to avoid defeat?
Without China’s support, Russia’s prospects are dire. Its battlefield performance has been a deadly shambles, and the oil and gas prices sustaining Moscow’s war have nosedived. The costly invasion has prompted Moscow’s expenditures to soar, plunging its budget from a surplus of US$25-billion when the war began, to a deficit of US$25-billion in January.
To finance its deficit, Russia has drawn on its National Wealth Fund, which was created primarily to support its pension system. In December alone, the government spent US$35.1-billion of the fund’s assets, representing about a fifth of its holdings. In February, Moscow was forced for the first time to sell gold and Chinese yuan to staunch the hemorrhaging.
If China does not ride to Russia’s rescue, and Russia falls to both military defeat and economic disaster, the Chinese Communist Party will have lost its only major ally in the global struggle between democracy and autocracy.
The consequences of this for Mr. Xi personally must give him nightmares. His opponents at home and abroad will never let the world forget that he met with Mr. Putin to reaffirm their “friendship without limits” just 20 days before the invasion. According to a Western intelligence report, senior Chinese officials suggested at the time that Russia delay its “special military operation” until after the Beijing Olympics.
If Ukraine and its Western backers are victorious, Mr. Xi will be deeply implicated in the failure of his comrade Mr. Putin. But weapons and finance on the scale needed to boost Russia at this point would bring the full wrath of the U.S. and its allies down on China.
In this desperate situation, between the devil and the deep blue sea, Mr. Xi’s regime is trying to present itself as a peacemaker. On the anniversary of the invasion, China published its “Position on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis.”
But Mr. Hu dismissed it: “The position paper consists of 12 points, all of which consistently echoed China’s previous viewpoints on the Russo-Ukraine confrontation, including proposing a ceasefire, jumpstarting negotiation and opposing the use or the threat to use nuclear weapons. Yet the paper contains no specific implementation plan or any operational measures,” he wrote.
“At this time, the battlefield momentum and the moral advantages are both in the hands of Ukrainians. To call for negotiation under this circumstance holds no realistic foundation. The publication of this document will not bring about any real impact on the progress of the Russo-Ukraine War.”
Ukraine and NATO will not start negotiations at this time. If the Ukrainian counteroffensive succeeds, then – in Mr. Hu’s words – “the postwar world landscape will be radically altered, the current structure of the United Nations will be reshaped, Russia will no longer be a great power, and the external environment, which China confronts, will become increasingly vicious.”
Could Beijing, at this stage, adopt Mr. Hu’s advice to “save itself from isolation?” Until now, Mr. Xi has rejected this course, and instead opted for ineffectual posturing as a peacemaker. But if Mr. Hu’s vision comes to pass, the consequences for Mr. Xi and his regime would be far-reaching.