A Harder Line with Beijing? Let’s Hope Not.
It was hoped at the outset that high-level meetings this week between Washington and Beijing might go some way toward bringing the crisis in Ukraine to an end. Instead, in both President Joe Biden’s Friday conversation with President Xi Jinping and Jake Sullivan’s earlier lengthy meetings in Rome with ranking Politburo member Yang Jiechi, the US side spent its time outlining the various ways it was going about punishing Russia economically—treatment Beijing said afterward it considered increasingly "outrageous." That this was Washington’s emphasis, totally omitting any appeal to the Chinese to use their influence with the Kremlin to force an end to the crisis, suggests Washington is ready to escalate against Beijing—which it has hinted for weeks that it would do.
As state propaganda organs in China promote a staunchly pro-Russian narrative of events, and indeed, official Chinese Communist Party statements hold North Atlantic Treaty Organization expansion and Western actions more generally responsible for the present crisis, Biden is putting Xi in what is probably an unnecessarily difficult position. Having just made a very public commitment to Russia, stating essentially that friendship between the two states has "no limits," Xi now faces the possibility of financial sanctions of unknown but probably significant severity or tariffs should he provide any aid to the Kremlin perceived by Washington as helping the war effort in Ukraine. This includes providing any military equipment, something Secretary of State Antony Blinken claims Vladimir Putin has requested, though Beijing has denied this.
While it is true that Russia is not so isolated as Washington and the American corporate media would have the public believe, the narrative is correct in one crucial way: as it pertains to possible sanctions against China. Unlike Russia, a commodities exporter, China is the world’s largest manufacturing exporter. And so, while it is true that countries such as Brazil and India may ignore the West’s sanctions against buying Russian oil, such countries could never hope to fill any gap in durable goods purchases from the Euro-Atlantic states. Overlaying maps of the richest countries per capita and those participating in sanctions against Russia provides a stark visual example of which markets are the most valued—at least for now.
Granted any such move risks mutually assured economic destruction, something many have long held would be a safeguard against any real souring of relations between Beijing and Washington. But the relationship is at arguably its lowest point since the Taiwan Strait Crisis, Tiananmen Square—possibly even the death of Mao Zedong. As the Biden administration has so far refused to articulate precisely what sorts of sanctions or tariffs might be forthcoming were Beijing to violate Washington’s various prescriptions, we can only speculate, but the American public has already shown itself surprisingly willing to commit itself aggressively both economically and militarily in Eastern Europe—and it isn’t exactly a secret that Washington views the present crisis as analogous to a hypothetical future one over Taiwan.
So what is likely to happen?
On the one hand, Beijing recently enacted an antisanctions bill that threatens any Chinese entity with expropriation or fines for complying with international sanctions without Beijing’s consent. On the other hand, Beijing has stated publicly that it wants to avoid US sanctions over what is going on in Ukraine, and given the nature of the sanctions, it would be relatively easy for China to do so if it chose to pull back slightly from Moscow at this moment. However, Beijing is increasingly angry at what it sees as an aggressive US push to somehow include China among the offending parties in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
As Nicholas Mulder explained in his recent book The Economic Weapon, the first to look at sanctions' historical and legal development, sanctions were conceived of in their modern sense—as an alternative, even more effective means of waging war—late in the nineteenth century. Apart from Beijing’s own criticism, Putin has called the West’s sweeping sanctions against Russia’s economy a virtual declaration of war. The further application of sanctions should therefore be the subject of serious debate, not something taken lightly or for granted. Although it has become something of a default reaction of Washington to slap sanctions on the likes of Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, or Russia, these were economies where the US had little at stake.
This is not the case with China.
The development of sanctions as a tool legally distinct from the blockade warfare from which it grew has been a hallmark of the liberal rules-based order, with the use of sanctions steadily increasing over time. Despite this increase in use, most observers, including Mulder, readily admit sanctions rarely work as intended—meaning they rarely prevent or change behavior, particularly when the target country is large or powerful. The frank truth is that they have often been overused and counterproductive.
Apart from a mutual dislike of a meddling US, Moscow and Beijing have different, sometimes conflicting goals and are situated differently within the current global order. While Moscow now needs Beijing more than ever, Beijing only ever wanted Moscow onside to the extent that it helped balance against the Americans. If the US is seen to overtly seek to punish Beijing, this will only move it closer to Moscow.
At the very least, therefore, the US leadership should be more restrained in its attempts to smother Russia, if only out of self-interest. Already the US's actions have alienated longtime allies in the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere. Under the right circumstances, dedollarization could gain altitude. With the possibility of future commodity trades being conducted increasingly as alternatives to the dollar and world trade fragmenting into hostile blocs, the future would be a lot poorer for all of us—particularly here at home if American leaders continue piling on the debt in a higher–interest rate environment.
The answer, whatever it is, is not to widen the scope of an already undesirable and unnecessary conflict far from our shores.