What will China do if Russia escalates in Ukraine?

There’s been a “quantum shift” in the relationship between the world’s two largest authoritarian powers, said former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

The shift is represented by the 5,300-word joint statement by China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin outlining their intended collaboration to redistribute global power. Former US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley—who joined Rudd at an Atlantic Council Front Page event co-hosted by the Asia Society and the Council’s Global China Hub—called the statement a “manifesto for their global leadership,” warning that Russia and China are making the case for taking charge of the international system—assuming a role they believe the United States has abdicated.

But as the crisis in Eastern Europe continues, just how far is China willing to go to help Russia? Are there parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan? And what should the United States do about this? Hadley and Rudd dove into those challenging questions at Thursday’s event, moderated by Susan Glasser of the New Yorker. Here are more highlights from the discussion:

Depends on your definition of ‘democracy’

  • Three aspects of the joint statement jumped out to Rudd: First, by coming out against NATO expansion it is “the first time” that China has issued “direct commentary” on the topic. Second, it amounts to an “explicit” China-Russia position opposing the AUKUS defense pact that will send nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. Third, it includes China’s endorsement for Russia’s proposed “long-term, legally binding security guarantees” in Europe. Taken together, the repositioning represents “China becoming a global security actor in a way which I personally have not seen them do before,” said Rudd.
  • Hadley noted that, contrary to public perception, the countries claim they are supporters of the international order as defined by the United Nations and even claim that they are democratic. “It shows the power of the democratic principle, that even Russia and China have to say that they embrace it,” he explained, arguing that while they certainly have “a different definition of democracy” than the West, they don’t plug authoritarianism as the new or better global model.
  • While the partnership has “good running room,” according to Hadley, China and Russia are going to “bump up against ultimately some constraints” over the Arctic, Central Asia, and nuclear capability, where their interests conflict. Rudd agreed but warned that it would be wrong to “assume that this will not get bigger and broader in scope over time,” and that it “behooves” the West to “see this as being enduring and consequential” for foreign policy.

Reading the Ukraine tea leaves

  • Hadley believes that if Russia were to invade Ukraine, “China will not formally endorse it” because it recognizes the Ukrainian government and largely opposes foreign interventions. But Hadley predicted that in such a scenario China would “blame the United States and blame the West for provoking it and for failing to take into account Russia’s legitimate security interests.”
  • And if the United States and Europe slap on sanctions, Hadley said that China will likely help Russia “circumvent or avoid or overcome” them. Rudd agreed, saying that Putin’s “principal concern with China” is to build financial support and access to financial markets if it is removed from the SWIFT international banking transaction system.
  • Hadley gave the Biden administration credit for “being very public about what Putin is doing” and for “the way [it] rallied the allies.” But he wished the United States “had left more ambiguity” about the possibility of a military response for Ukraine. He also said he thought the United States “should have moved heavier equipment [into Eastern Europe] earlier.”
  • Is a Russian invasion even likely? “Putin is not a bluffer,” Hadley said. “He may gradually pull back, but he’s pretty far out on this one.” Hadley added that the sheer magnitude of Russia’s troop movements makes it “very difficult for [Putin] to back down.”

Tracking Taiwan

  • Rudd noted that China is “not looking to Ukraine for… a template” of what it can achieve in Taiwan. “We shouldn’t overread the significance of [US] actions or non-actions vis-à-vis the Ukraine scenarios,” in Xi’s calculations on Taiwan.
  • China will wait until “they nationally believe they are militarily ready,” Rudd said, which would require the People’s Liberation Army to certify to Xi that its forces will defeat the US and Taiwanese militaries in a Taiwan crisis in which Washington intervenes. “Probable is not a word that Xi Jinping wants to hear,” Rudd said. “He wants to hear ‘definitely win.’” According to Rudd, that isn’t likely in the next year or even decade: It “lies in the 2030s.” Until then, China will be watching global crises like the one over Ukraine to update their analysis about American power, and Rudd added that he was concerned about “the aggregation of any perception of American lack of strategic resolve long-term.”

Friends and foes

  • Hadley explained that when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, the view in the George W. Bush administration was: “tomorrow will be Ukraine, and the day after it will be the Baltic States.” So “we threw US-Russia relations in the toilet,” he added. Now, Russia and China “have a better relationship with each other than either of them has with the United States. And that is our problem.”
  • But that isn’t attributable to anything the United States did, Hadley argued. “What really brings them together is a common threat not by what America did, but in some sense what America is. Their narrative is [that] the United States does not accept the legitimacy of either regime… and that they need to resist America and its democratic proselytization.”
  • While addressing these strategically aligned partners, the United States will have to be wary of “the real challenge,” as Hadley put it: Overstretching. “If we have to be engaged in a substantial way” in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, “the only way we’re going to manage is to do it with friends and allies,” he said.

Katherine Walla is an assistant director of editorial at the Atlantic Council.

Further reading

Related Experts: Katherine Walla and Stephen J. Hadley

Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China on February 4, 2022. Photo via Sputnik/Aleksey Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS.