Despite Meeting with U.S., China’s Russia Ties Still Bind

By Joseph DeTrani, Former Special Envoy for Six-Party Talks with North Korea

Ambassador DeTrani served as the U.S. Representative to the Korea Energy Development Organization (KEDO), as well as former CIA director of East Asia Operations. He also served as Associate Director of National Intelligence and Mission Manager for North Korea and the Director of the National Counter Proliferation Center, ODNI.  He currently serves on the Board of Managers at Sandia National Laboratories.

OPINION — Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to meet with visiting Secretary of State Antony Blinken was a wise decision.  It conveyed to the world that China wants stability in its relationship with the U.S., concerned that Sino-U.S. tension could and would affect global stability.

The fact is, however, that China is aligned with a revisionist Russian Federation that invaded Ukraine, a sovereign nation that gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994, in return for security assurances from Russia, the U.S., and the United Kingdom.  And Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, continues, already having led to thousands of Ukrainian casualties and massive social and economic devastation. How China – or any country – can justify an alignment with Russia is incredulous.

It wasn’t too long ago that we were hearing from many in China that the U.S. was a superpower in decline.  Citing the Thucydides Trap – when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power – resulting in a violent confrontation, many in China were convinced that China was destined to overtake the U.S.  They were wrong.

Responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it was U.S. leadership that united allies and partners in Europe to come to the aid of Ukraine.  It’s that aid and support to the courageous Ukrainian people that helped halt the Russian onslaught and has Putin facing a humiliating defeat in Ukraine. This is the Russia that China is aligned with.


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President Xi Jinping’s thirty-five-minute meeting with Secretary Blinken reportedly was substantive.  China’s earlier 12-point proposal to end the war in Ukraine called for a ceasefire and peace talks and the lifting of sanctions on Russia, while stating upfront the need to respect the sovereignty of all countries: “Universally recognized international law, including the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, must be strictly observed.  The sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all counties must be effectively upheld.” Clearly, Russia is the aggressor and in violation of the United Nations Charter.  On this, all responsible countries agree.

Now is the time for China to use its leverage with Russia to get Putin to end the war in Ukraine and return the occupied territories they invaded.  That would be the beginning of a just end to the war, with reparations to help rebuild a devastated Ukraine.

After the Covid lockdown, China has been pursuing an aggressive outreach to Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa.  It’s projecting an image of a great power, interested in good relations with all countries, committed to global stability.  For China, that translates into maintaining a robust economic relationship with the United States and the European Union, while maintaining close economic and geopolitical ties with all countries.  The IMF assessed that China’s economy could grow at a rate of 5.2% in 2023, as compared to 3% in 2022.  Of course, this assumes an uptick in industrial productivity and a focus on breakthrough new technologies.  Given China’s demographic challenges and a projected decrease in populations growth, with the need to create enough new and challenging jobs for China’s recent college graduates, it’s imperative that President Xi focus more attention on China’s economic well-being, ensuring access to markets for Chinese goods and services and encouraging greater foreign direct investment in China.


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No doubt, Premier Li Qiang’s visit to Germany and other European countries is in line with this pragmatic outreach, as was Politburo member Wang Yi’s recent successful efforts to negotiate an historic agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

China’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait could upend Xi’s efforts to ensure global stability.  In September 2015, President Xi assured President Obama in the White House that “relevant construction activities that China are undertaking in the Spratly Island do not target any country and China does not intend to pursue militarization.”  Since then, however, China has militarized the islands and reefs in the South China Sea.  And since former Speaker Pelosi’s August 2022 visit to Taiwan, China has infringed on Taiwan’s air and sea integrity, with naval and air incursions.  Recently, we’ve seen videos of a near collision between Chinese and U.S. warships in the Taiwan Strait and the near collision of a Chinese J-16 fighter jet that flew directly in front of the nose of an RC-135 plane “in an unnecessary aggressive maneuver.”

This is happening almost daily, with China continuing to refuse to reconstitute a hot line between our two militaries to ensure we don’t accidentally stumble into conflict.

The Blinken visit to China represented some progress with China.  But more must be done.

This column by Cipher Brief Expert Ambassador Joe DeTrani was first published in The Washington Times

The Cipher Brief is committed to publishing a range of perspectives on national security issues submitted by deeply experienced national security professionals.  Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views or opinions of The Cipher Brief.

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