Will the Ukraine crisis help to improve US-China relations?

Some analyses say that US-China relations may actually improve given the need for the US and the West to seek help from China in dealing with Russia. However, other indications are that recent events are engendering greater mistrust between the two countries, especially now that Congress has approved an omnibus bill that includes banning the use of maps that inaccurately depict Taiwan.

Facing a common challenge of war and humanitarian disaster in Ukraine, the US and China could have put aside their differences and worked together to end this crisis soon. Unfortunately, the crisis has not brought the two powers any closer. Instead, it reveals deep-rooted problems in the relationship.

Unsurprisingly, the video call between President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping on 18 March featured the two leaders stating their positions on Ukraine, Taiwan and other issues, without specifying how to end the Ukraine crisis or narrow the differences between the two powers. In a not-so-veiled threat, Biden “described the implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia” during the call.

China finds itself walking a diplomatic tightrope in this crisis. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign nation, obviously violates the UN Charter and international law. Respect for sovereignty is one of China’s most cherished foreign policy principles. Yet, China has not been forthright in condemning the invasion in order to maintain the relationship with Russia, which is touted to be one that “has no limits”. Apparently, it is not in China’s interest to alienate Russia or have a weakened Russia today when China faces a hostile Western bloc.

Seeking China’s help while treating it as an adversary

China’s reluctance to sanction Russia is disappointing to many Western governments and observers since it is considered the only power wielding influence over Russia. Internal and external constraints prevent China from leading the mediation efforts to end the war. However, if China does not persuade Russia to halt the war soon, its international image may further suffer and its pledge to be a responsible and peaceful power will be questioned.

Ukrainian firefighters work amid the rubble of the Retroville shopping mall, a day after it was shelled by Russian forces in a residential district in Kyiv, Ukraine, on 21 March 2022. (Fadel Senna/AFP)


On the other hand, it is baffling that the Biden administration is seeking China’s help to punish Russia by publicly pressuring China while continuing to view China as the major adversary. China is America’s “pacing threat” according to Biden administration officials. Ret. Gen. Lloyd Austin, Biden’s secretary of defense, first used the term “pacing threat” during his Senate confirmation hearing on 19 January 2021. Since then, it has gained currency among US officials and military leaders.

During a discussion with Ret. Lt. Gen. Bruce ”Orville” Wright, president of the Air Force Association (AFA), titled ”China: The Pacing Challenge” on 3 March, General Kenneth Wilsbach, commander of the US Pacific Air Forces, and other panelists framed China as the “pacing threat” for America despite the ongoing war in Ukraine. On 9 March, US assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs Ely Ratner remarked at a congressional hearing that the People’s Republic of China is the Department of Defense (DOD)’s “pacing challenge” and that Taiwan is “the pacing scenario”.

Some scholars have suggested that part of the justification for the US not getting militarily involved in the Ukraine war is that the US can remain focused on the Indo-Pacific to deal with China.

Indeed, despite repeated calls by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy for NATO to impose a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine, including during his 16 March, 2022 emotional appeal to a joint session of US Congress, the Biden administration is unlikely to do so. A no-fly zone would create a situation in which US and NATO fighter jets will shoot down Russian planes. It would be tantamount to a declaration of war with Russia, which is something the Biden administration will categorically avoid.

Anti-war protesters hold placards during a demonstration against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in front of the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on 16 March 2022. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP)

‘Officially unofficial’ but ‘unofficially official’ US-Taiwan relations

Competing with China remains America’s priority in international politics today. Therefore, US-China relations are unlikely to improve in the near future. On the contrary, the national interests of the two countries remain far apart. An example is how the Taiwan issue is handled in the middle of the Ukraine crisis.

During his video call with Xi, Biden reaffirmed the US policy of “one China” and reiterated the US position of not supporting Taiwan independence. However, some observers argue that the US’s “one China” policy is evolving into a de facto “one China, one Taiwan” policy.

The Biden administration defines its “one China” policy as being based on the Taiwan Relations Act, the three US-PRC Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances, and in that order. The Taiwan Relations Act is a US domestic law regulating US “unofficial” relations with Taiwan. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have upgraded US relations with Taiwan. The unique US-Taiwan relations are perhaps “officially unofficial” but “unofficially official”. The Six Assurances were private commitments of the Reagan administration delivered to Taiwan when the third US-PRC joint communique was issued in 1982 restricting US arms sales to Taiwan. Now they have become part of the official US definition of “one China”.

No wonder Beijing is unhappy and has strongly opposed upgrading of US-Taiwan relations based on US domestic policies and in violation of US commitment to China. Beijing has been complaining about America’s hollowing out of “one China”. Recent US moves have aggravated Beijing’s concerns about Washington paying lip service to “one China”.

Two armed US-made F-16V fighters fly over at an air force base in Chiayi, Taiwan on 5 January 2022. (Sam Yeh/AFP)


On 11 March, President Biden signed into law a sweeping US$1.5 trillion spending bill, which includes a ban on the use of any maps by the US Department of State and its foreign operations that depict Taiwan as part of China. This provision was sneaked into the enormous spending bill by Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Wis.), which makes it difficult for Biden to veto. Tiffany has long advocated scrapping America’s “one China” policy.

Fostering a greater climate of mistrust

The Department of State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriations Act 2022 stipulates that “none of the funds made available by this Act should be used to create, procure, or display any map that inaccurately depicts the territory and social and economic system of Taiwan and the islands or island groups administered by Taiwan authorities”. In practice, China and Taiwan could well be marked in different colours on official US maps, indicating they are two different countries.

Taiwan’s government immediately thanked the Biden administration and US lawmakers for supporting Taiwan. Taiwan Legislative Speaker You Si-kun said that the ban would prevent US taxpayer money from being spent on maps that show Taiwan as a part of China; instead, the money will be used to support “honest maps” that indicate Taiwan is not a part of China.

Taiwan’s reservists take part in a military training at a military base in Taoyuan, Taiwan, on 12 March 2022. (Sam Yeh/AFP)


Interestingly, during the December 2021 Summit for Democracy convened by Biden, the White House reportedly cut the video feed of Taiwan’s digital minister after a map in the speaker’s slide presentation showed the island in a different colour to China’s, apparently to avoid antagonising Beijing who was already mad because Taiwan was invited to the summit while China was not. Veteran China hawks in Congress such as Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) attacked the Biden administration’s handling of the situation and called it “kowtowing” to Beijing.

Three months later, the Biden administration made a U-turn regarding the map of Taiwan, inflaming new tensions in the US-China relationship. It appears that the Biden administration faces heavy pressures from Congress on how to deal with China. Toxic political atmosphere in Washington, especially on Capitol Hill, makes it impossible to develop a sound and healthy China policy.

Contrary to expectations, the Ukraine crisis seems to have deepened the distrust between Washington and Beijing on many issues including Taiwan. The two sides also disagree on what roles the US, China, Russia, the EU and others can play in the new world order today. That a major global crisis has failed to unite the US and China in handling the common challenge suggests that it is unrealistic to hope that the bilateral relationship will improve any time soon.

Author: Zhu Zhiqun, Think China

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