Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday, 19 February 2023


Russia Is Losing in Ukraine. So Is China.

A  year later, it’s clear that Xi Jinping’s decision to embrace Vladimir Putin on the eve of the invasion was a losing bet. 

Xi will regret listening to Putin. 

Xi will regret listening to Putin. 

Photographer: Sergei Bobylyov/AFP/Getty Images

One year ago, the “no-limits friendship” Chinese President Xi Jinping declared with Russian President Vladimir Putin looked to many in Beijing like a diplomatic masterstroke. United in their fear and resentment of American power, the Chinese and Russian leaders appeared to have struck a partnership that could effectively counter the US and its allies.

Xi, however, probably did not expect Putin to invade Ukraine before the ink on their “Joint Statement on International Relations” was dry. The geopolitical dynamics sparked by the war have since upended the Chinese leader’s strategic calculations, while the anticipated benefits of a Sino-Russian alignment may never materialize.

China may not be fighting in Ukraine. But it’s still losing.

Consider the arguments, including from prominent Russian analysts, that maintain China has gained enormous strategic advantages from Putin’s war of aggression. They note, first, that a Russia weakened by the war and Western sanctions is now more dependent than ever on China.

In addition, they claim the conflict has proven a costly distraction for the US, both in terms of attention and aid (which has topped $100 billion). The situation recalls the years after the Sept. 11 attacks. At the time, the George W. Bush administration was also intent on confronting China, which it had labeled a “strategic competitor.” Then the ill-fated US invasion of Iraq and the quagmire in Afghanistan consumed policy makers in Washington, DC. China enjoyed a strategic window of opportunity lasting almost two decades.

Both arguments are flawed. It is true that Russia’s dependence on China will likely grow if Putin stays in power. But nobody should expect the Sino-Russian strategic alignment to endure after Putin, 70, leaves the scene -- a certainty in the next two decades, if not much sooner.

Moreover, a weakened Russia is unlikely to sustain a long war, so its ability to distract the US may be short-lived. And, in any case, the US isn’t about to make the same strategic mistake twice.

In hindsight, the Bush administration erred because of its overly optimistic assumptions. As the world’s sole superpower, America could make Iraq a “cake walk” and then quickly return to the unfinished business of containing China, which then had a GDP roughly one-eighth of America’s economic output.  

Today, with China’s economy three-quarters as large as the US, American leaders no longer have the luxury of ignoring their main rival. The bipartisan howls of outrage over the flight of a Chinese spy balloon across the US are testament to how focused the US political establishment remains.

If the gains from Putin’s war are hard to spot, the price China has paid for its stance is real and substantial.

At the strategic level, the Sino-Russian partnership has done irreparable damage to China’s ties with Europe. Prior to the war, China might have had a realistic chance of keeping major European countries on the fence in its escalating rivalry with the US. But, once Russia fired the first shot, European nations understandably saw China as complicit in Russia’s aggression. 

Simultaneously, Washington’s unwavering support for Ukraine has once again demonstrated its indispensable role in Europe’s peace and security. The war has moved the EU closer to the US and farther away from China.

Russia’s invasion has also undermined China’s position on Taiwan. Prior to the outbreak of the war, few viewed an unprovoked Chinese attack on the island as likely. Putin’s aggression escalated fears that the same unthinkable catastrophe could befall Taiwan.

How realistic such anxieties are matters little. The ensuing attention to Taiwan’s fate has been hugely detrimental to China’s interests. Westerners eager to demonstrate their support have elevated Taiwan’s international visibility and status, which China has worked tirelessly to deny. Even worse, the prospect of war in the Taiwan Strait has energized US efforts to bolster Taiwan militarily and diplomatically, further hollowing out its “one-China policy.” 

Fears of a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan have also prompted Japan to double military spending in the next five years -- a change in policy no sensible Chinese leaders want to see.

Cumulatively, the shift in Europe’s stance toward China and the prospect of a war between mainland China and Taiwan sure to devastate global trade have injected an urgent and powerful momentum into the West’s “economic decoupling” with China. Alarmed corporate executives no longer need encouragement from Washington’s China hawks to reduce their dependence on mainland-based supply chains.


The strategic and economic costs to China are only going to mount. Xi has no alternative but to stick with Putin.

Abandoning him now would be seen as unforgivable treachery in Moscow, while having a marginal effect in patching up ties with Europe. Withdrawing Chinese support for Putin could also accelerate the latter’s defeat in Ukraine, which would allow the US to concentrate its undivided attention on China sooner.

Xi is trapped in a strategic dilemma, at the mercy of events. His erstwhile masterstroke is looking more and more like a losing bet.

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