Could the Ukraine crisis lead to better relations between China and the West?

  • If the US and Europe want China to become a responsible stakeholder, they need to drop the threats and offer inducements, such as a revival of bilateral investment talks
  • Dispelling the notion of US containment would also improve public sentiment in both China and the United States, paving the way to improved ties

Both the United States and Europe are stepping up pressure on Beijing to support their blockade of Russia. Implicit in these messages is that China could also become a sanctions target or be ostracised if it did not support the Western alliance.

Beijing’s intention is to refrain from triggering retaliatory actions but not to step back from its special partnership with Russia. Its leadership argues that maintaining neutrality gives it more credibility as a possible mediator. This would put China in the same group as India and South Africa, which also abstained from the UN resolution condemning Russia on March 24.

Some in Beijing see the possibility of China coming out of this politically stronger. Russia would end up becoming more dependent on China. Beijing’s relations with the US might remain largely intact and its links with Europe strengthened as the latter seeks alternative markets.

There is also a possibility, however far-fetched, that a more fundamental and favourable shift in China relations with the West could result.

China’s reluctance to criticise Russia comes from seeing Nato’s looming presence in Europe as similar to America’s increasingly antagonistic posture in Asia. If the West wants to persuade Beijing to become what then US deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick referred to in 2005 as a “responsible global stakeholder”, it needs to offer Beijing inducements, not threats.

That inducement needs to counteract the narrative that China is also a target of US-led pressures – symbolised by the Aukus security pact and Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). This view of China in the crosshairs is reinforced by Washington’s instinct to threaten Beijing.

This includes warnings about shutting down Chinese hi-tech companies if they violate sanctions on Russia, and recent US actions in sending a warship through the Taiwan Strait and a delegation to Taiwan.

US President Joe Biden’s frequent references to the Ukraine conflict as being a battle between democracies and autocracies only add to Beijing’s insecurities.

It might be more effective to ask what Beijing might want from Washington to become more cooperative. But this requires the US political establishment to overcome decades of missteps on both sides and its impact on Americans’ attitudes.

A Pew Research Centre survey last year found that 76 per cent of Americans held an unfavourable view of China. But this was not always the case, especially a decade ago.

Negative sentiments grew largely on perceptions that China had become an economic threat, embodied in America’s huge trade deficits with China. With the 2008-9 global financial crisis, views turned more favourable as Beijing’s stimulus programme buoyed recovery in the US and Europe.

US views became unfavourable again after President Xi Jinping’s first meeting with Barack Obama in 2013. Xi wanted formal recognition that a more developed China warranted a “new type of major power relations”. But Washington was never willing to accept this.

Instead, secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s “Asia pivot” was seen by Beijing as a containment policy. China countered with more aggressive foreign policy actions, notably its expansionary claims in the South China Sea.

Donald Trump’s trade war also led to a sharp deterioration in US public feeling. It worsened last year as Biden advanced his belief that America’s democratic system was superior to China’s model.

American politicians are sensitive to voter views even as their actions help to shape them. Trump expressed increasingly anti-China sentiments during his tenure. Biden made it personal by calling Xi and Vladimir Putin “thugs”.

Every Washington pronouncement is seemingly tinged with anti-China rhetoric. All this has encouraged the two autocratic leaders to forge a bond beyond a mere marriage of convenience.

We are reminded of how leaders can alter public sentiment, given that this year marks the 50th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s trip to China. His initiative, driven in part by the desire to weaken China’s links with Russia, went against the deeply ingrained suspicions of Americans and his anti-communist credentials.

While some still question the wisdom of easing China’s integration into the international economy, the long-term consequences in terms of a sustained decline in global poverty, boost to growth rates and living standards, and shared technological advancement cannot be easily dismissed.

As the world’s largest trading nation, China needs a sound global financial system to prosper. Beijing is thus highly motivated to work with the West to moderate economic tensions.

Any improvement in the West’s relations with China might be facilitated initially by Europe. The US-China trade war obscured the fact that Europe’s economic links with China far exceed America’s. Germany, in particular, relies on China as a manufacturing base to export to other countries.

Persuading Beijing to intervene with Moscow would be more credible if Brussels signalled a willingness to ratify the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, put on hold because of China’s Xinjiang policies.

With the US, the first step would be to go beyond recent tariff exemptions to cut back on the trade war. Eliminating the tariffs, widely seen as ineffective, would be mutually beneficial since the most pressing concern among Americans is surging inflation.

Washington should also revive discussions on the bilateral investment treaty that Trump neglected while in office. That treaty provides a suitable framework for addressing oft-cited US concerns about China’s investment policies.

A much bolder step would be to signal a lowering of political tensions. How pure can Washington be about dealing with authoritarian regimes when overtures are being made to Venezuela, Turkey and Saudi Arabia for support on the Ukraine crisis?

A totally out-of-character move for Biden would be to turn the Quad into a cooperation framework by inviting China to discuss shared concerns such as climate change, tech standards and pandemic responses. It would help dispel the notion that the US is trying to contain China.

If, in turn, Beijing moderated its policies in the South China Sea for example, and re-established media relations, it would help to rebuild a more positive image with the US public.

Author: Yukon Huang is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, SCMP

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