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Will Xi Arm Putin? Has a Cold War Already Begun?
“The Chinese want to find a way to keep Putin in power because Xi Jinping feels very comfortable with Putin. These two leaders are bonded in a way that we have not understood.”
Today’s show covers the scariest US-China news story in years: reports over the past week that “the US has intelligence that the Chinese government is considering providing Russia with drones and ammunition for use in the war in Ukraine.”
Would China really do it? What does that mean for the world if the US and China end up on opposite sides of a proxy war?
To discuss, Georgetown’s Dennis Wilder joined ChinaTalk. He is a longtime CIA veteran who served as an NSC director on the China desk under the Bush administration, spent six years under Obama editing the President’s Daily Brief, and concluded his career in government as the CIA’s Deputy Assistant Director for East Asia and the Pacific.
We talk about:
The logic behind Xi and Putin’s close personal relationship, and how that dynamic may create foreign policy which flies in the face of “rational” IR theory;
A weapons expert’s take on why China’s weapons manufacturers think they can get away with shipping arms to Russia;
Where Xi’s interests in making sure Putin doesn’t lose come from — in particular, a future Taiwan contingency;
What to make of China’s recently proposed twelve-point “position paper” on the Ukraine war.
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Even Autocrats Need Friends
Jordan Schneider: What is Xi thinking?
Dennis Wilder: Let me start somewhere where people often don’t start on this subject — and I think they’re overlooking something very major here. When we talk about China’s attitude toward Russia, we talk as if it’s a very pragmatic, hard-headed decision on the Chinese part to straddle the subject of Ukraine, to try to have a semi-neutrality on Ukraine while still somewhat supporting the Russians.
I think that’s all true — but I think what is missed is the personal dimension of Xi Jinping and his relationship with Putin. The reason I think that’s important is because Chinese foreign policy today is not made by the Foreign Ministry — it is made by Xi Jinping. What Xi Jinping says, goes.
If you look at what Xi Jinping has actually said about Putin over recent years: he’s been calling Putin “my best friend and colleague.” He has repeated that line in every meeting.
Xi Jinping is not a warm fuzzy guy, he doesn’t show emotion, and he never calls anybody a friend. I dare you to find anything anywhere of Xi Jinping calling anybody else in this world — even people within his inner circle — a friend. This is not something he does.
[Ed: Xi did call Biden a 老朋友, or “old friend,” in December 2021.]
I think what it shows is that he has really a personal bond with Putin — he sees himself and Putin in the same place. In other words, they both are under extreme pressure from the United States and the West. They both have a system of government that President Biden and others clearly disdain. And they both feel that, if given the chance, the West would take them down.
So I think these two leaders are bonded in a way that we have not understood — and there’s good reason why we don’t understand it: the inner circle of Xi is very small.
The other thing I would do — and this is a little bit of psychological analysis — Xi’s father, who was a party revolutionary who fought alongside Mao, went to the Soviet Union to study heavy industry in the 1950s. His father’s attitudes shaped his attitudes, and I think Xi has a deep-rooted admiration for Soviet values, history, and culture.
When I look at what other scholarship is on this, they try to do it from a very international-relations point of view. And I think a lot of history is shaped by these personal dimensions.
When we look at Xi’s attitude and his relationship with Putin: they have met thirty-nine times since Xi came into office — far more meetings than any other world leader. I believe there have been nineteen meetings with US leaders in the same time period.
One anecdote that comes from The Wall Street Journal: Apparently a report was sent to Xi by Tsinghua University — which is his alma mater and is the MIT of China — that argued that Russia’s economy had no future, implying there was little gain for China in a closer relationship, according to people who knew of it. President Xi wrote in the margins of the report, “Nonsense.” That is the kind of thing that we need to look at. This man feels very bonded to President Putin — and they have reasons to be bonded this way because of their joint feelings about how the world, and particularly the West, is treating them.
Jordan Schneider: It’s hard for me — sitting here as a person who doesn’t run a country of a billion people — to imagine how it would be if Vladimir Putin was the guy who understood me the most.
Maybe it’s similar to how CEOs of companies say, “I have dinners with other CEOs because they’re the only ones who understand the pressures that I’m under — and I can’t speak equally to my subordinates because they’re my subordinates, and I decide how much I pay them, and I can hire and fire them.”
Kim Jong-un doesn’t seem like the person you’d want to chat with; same goes for Fidel Castro, Burmese military junta, and so on. And I feel that Iran is just such a different universe that Xi is not really going to be able to vibe too much with Khomeini.
But now that you say it, you kind of see that it’s lonely up top. And to have one person who’s sort of on your wavelength, sees the world in a similar way, who you’ve been actively working together on deals for a decade now — the fact that Xi has a soft spot in his heart for Putin makes some sense.
Dennis Wilder: You have to think about it from the point of view that Putin feels and has said that the decline of the Soviet Union was one of the worst things in his life. And Xi Jinping would agree. The Chinese have studied the decline of the Soviet Union and have been very clear that they’re not going to make the kinds of mistakes the Soviet Union and its leaders made. One of the things that they point to is tearing down your heroes of the past in Communism — that once you start doing that, you actually destroy Communism itself.
So they have actually a lot in common: they can discuss Marxist Leninism together. Do you think Biden discusses Marxist Leninism with Xi Jinping? I don’t think so.
One other myth I would like to take a shot at: the idea that Xi Jinping now sees Putin as a junior partner in the relationship. I don’t think that’s true. I think he sees him as an equal. I think he still admires Russia. I think he sees Russia as a country with a huge nuclear force, huge capabilities — having a rough time, no question about it, in Ukraine, but not necessarily that the Russians are lesser to China; I think it is a true relationship of equals at this point.
And then it seems like Putin didn’t tell Xi he was about to invade a country. That’s not what friends do to each other.
Dennis Wilder: No, they don’t. I think that Xi probably would have been very disturbed with his friend. I think Xi would also have been disturbed with his intelligence services, because they probably told him — even though the Americans were putting out the information that Putin was deploying a massive force of 130,000 to the borders of Ukraine — that they thought he was bluffing to some degree, that he was using military coercion without invasion. The Chinese certainly would not have taken on an invasion of that sort. It was out of their realm of possibility — and I think the intelligence services in China probably misled Xi.
I also think, though, that the “no limits” friendship idea is personal to Xi Jinping, because you hear from Foreign Ministry people in China that they’re very uncomfortable with this term and this idea — and again, I think that shows Xi’s personal involvement.
Now, once the invasion occurred, China had to straddle this issue: on the one hand, China is very sensitive to the issue of sovereignty and territorial integrity because of the issue of Taiwan, the issue of the Indian border, and the issue of the South China Sea — there are a lot of areas where China is asserting its territorial integrity; in that sense they’ve had to be somewhat critical of the Russians, but not too critical. At the UN, they abstain in many of the UN votes rather than voting with Russia on these issues.
But at the same time, they are very much convinced of Putin’s position that NATO enlargement and pressures brought by the West created the conditions where Putin felt he had no choice. In that sense, they are very much on the side of the Russians because they feel that the West, as it does with China, finds every way to put pressure on and constrain China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and other countries. So for the Chinese, this has been a rough road.
One of the things the Biden administration felt it had done well during 2022 was keeping China out of the conflict. Very early on, the administration laid down the marker with China that it shouldn’t get involved militarily with lethal aid to Russia — and I think the White House was very pleased with how that turned out. So China has not violated our sanctions on Russia, largely because China saw the kinds of extreme sanctions that were put on the Russians; China has had so many sanctions put on them and didn’t want another set of sanctions. China has bought oil from the Russians, but only within the constraints on Russian oil sales put out by the United States and the West.
So for a long time, China was behaving within, shall we say, the bounds that were acceptable to Washington.
And then something happened.
The Artillery-Shipment Temptation
Jordan Schneider: We’ve had at least one Chinese company get sanctioned for supplying satellite imagery to the Wagner Group of all people. And over the past few days, we’ve had really concerning reports of Secretary Blinken doing the same thing that he had to do a year ago — presumably back then he hoped he wouldn’t have to do it again — of telling the Chinese, “Look, we know you’re thinking about this, and you really, really shouldn’t cross the line that we set.”
So what’s going on here?
Dennis Wilder: I think it’s pretty simple. The simple answer is Putin’s forces have failed, and the battlefield situation is extremely tenuous for Putin: it’s not clear that this new offensive is going to work, and there is a real danger, from the Chinese point of view, that Putin might be in some way defeated on the battlefield, that he might have to withdraw — but even worse, that if he withdrew and then people within Russia were angry about this, that he could be toppled from the government. And nobody knows what kind of Russian government would come after Putin; it’s very difficult to predict what the succession would be like.
The Chinese very much want to find a way to keep Putin in power, because Xi Jinping feels very comfortable with Putin. They are now looking at, I think, how they could get Putin the kind of help he needs.
Now, let’s look at a couple of weapons systems. I am a former military analyst, so I’m a bit wonky about this — but stick with me. Let’s talk artillery and artillery shells. Artillery shells are terribly important on this battlefield because it is trenchlike warfare right now, and the number of shells each side is using on a daily basis is phenomenal. And the Russians are running out: they have gone to the North Koreans for some artillery shells — but China has a massive capability for artillery shells.
If I’m the Chinese and I think about artillery shells, here’s what I think: “If I don’t put my factory markings on the shells, and I ship them on some of these rail cars that go constantly between China and Russia, how are the Americans going to figure this out? How are they going to know that these are my shells?”
There is almost no way to tell an artillery shell and where it comes from: first of all, they explode upon contact, so picking up the fragments of the shells isn’t going to help you damn bit; secondly, you would have to get the casings — but if you’re clever about this and you don’t put Chinese markings on the casings, they could be from anywhere.
So the area I worry most about is this kind of covert assistance, where the Chinese think, “We could get away with this; this is not that hard to do.” And companies in China — believe me, I have followed them ever since they started arm sales in the early 1980s — are very clever at this. They send military equipment all over the world, covertly. We’ve caught them sometimes; we haven’t caught them other times. They know how to do this. They know how to sterilize rifles and artillery shells and all of these kinds of things so that you can’t tell the origin. They know what we look for when we’re looking for the origin of equipment like this. So my biggest worry is that they will think they can covertly get some of this stuff into Russian hands.
The step beyond that which is interesting: if this Der Spiegel report is right — and Congressman McCaul also said this — that China is thinking of sending drones to Russia, then that’s a very different thing: it’s very difficult to hide that these are Chinese drones. You can see already the way that the Ukrainians were able to figure out the Iranian drones and show evidence of it. I think it would be very difficult to hide the fact that these are Chinese drones — but China could sell them to third countries and claim, for example, that they had no idea that Iran was going to sell them on to the Russians. There are a lot of ways you can do this with some degree of plausible deniability.
By the way, drones would be incredibly effective for the Russians: they’re very good drones; there’s very sophisticated drone technology in China — much more sophisticated than what the Iranians have provided to the Russians. These could be battlefield gamechangers, and that’s exactly why Russia wants them.
And that’s exactly why China is tempted. What we’re dealing with now is a Chinese cost-benefit analysis: how much is it worth to do this? Is this what we need to do? Is Putin in such a dire situation that we’ve got no choice but to do this?
Jordan Schneider: So many interesting dynamics at play here. One, we have the “face dynamics” of Putin having to be like, “Guys, I’m on my last leg here. Please help me out.” Another is the “friendship dynamic.”
And another thing I think is really interesting: on the one hand, you can scrub out the markings and put them on different trains and put them under bananas or whatever — but what’s clear through this reporting over the past week is that this decision doesn’t happen anywhere but from the top. And however much people want to dis American intelligence capabilities in China, it’s clear that that decision could not be made without America realizing it.
So even if you can’t create a bullet-proof Department of Justice indictment on whoever is managing the factory that’s scrubbing off the Chinese characters, I don’t think that we’re in a world in which America wouldn’t know pretty quickly that China has changed its policies toward arming Russia — because they would make this decision only if it was large enough to potentially have a battlefield impact. I don’t think you can end up really hiding that sort of thing for too long.
Dennis Wilder: I would agree — but I would put it a bit differently. I want to be clear that I’m not reading intelligence nor do I hold clearances right now — but if I had to bet money, our intelligence is probably coming more from inside Russia than it is from inside China. We seem to have very good intelligence on the Russians and what they’re doing, and I would think that if the Chinese made the decision, we would probably see it reflected first on the Russian side.
I agree totally with your point that this is not going to be hidden completely from sight — there’s no way to do that. But of course, what the Chinese are looking for is plausible deniability, right?
Jordan Schneider: It would be really funny if the Chinese actually had no interest in doing this at all, and they were just saying to the Russians, “Yeah, we’re thinking about it…” — to just put them off. If that’s what America is picking up and freaking out over, even though Xi is like, “No way! I don’t want to bet on this losing horse; this a terrible idea” — but they just don’t want to tell it to the Russians. I hope that’s the case! That’d make me feel a lot better.
Dennis Wilder: I want to add one element to this that nobody talks about and which I think is really important in Xi Jinping’s calculation: the Taiwan contingency. We all know that Xi Jinping is building up his capability in case he has to invade Taiwan or take military action or blockade or whatever against Taiwan — that’s quite clear. And 2027 is the deadline he apparently has given the military, according to Bill Burns at the CIA.
Now, if you’re China and you’re thinking about a war with Taiwan, who’s going to be on your side in that war? The Japanese, South Koreans, and Australians aren’t going to be there with you. The Southeast Asians are going to hide in a hole somewhere, not wanting any part of either side in that conflict. You have North Korea, Iran — but you also have Russia. And Russia has shown very clearly, and has demonstrated on many occasions, that it’s with China on this issue. In fact, when Pelosi took her controversial trip to Taiwan last August, Russian foreign minister Sergey V. Lavrov said that this was “a manifestation of the same course” the US has taken on Ukraine.
So from the Chinese point of view, there’s another big reason to stick with brother Putin: when that war comes — if it comes, let’s hope it doesn’t — Russia will be very useful. It will be useful at the United Nations. It may be useful militarily. Remember that Chinese and Russian bomber aircraft now train together: Chinese and Russian bombers go through the East Sea all the time — in fact they did one of their joint exercises while Biden was in Tokyo for a Quad summit last year. They’re not disguising the fact that their militaries are working together; so that’s another factor.
Jordan Schneider: So, one theory of the case for Xi deciding to do this beyond just the friendship aspect: he is already convinced the Cold War has reached another level, and he wants to get there faster than the US does?
Dennis Wilder: Maybe the way to frame that, if I can give it a try, is that Xi has concluded that we are in a new Cold War, that this is the moment when the new Cold War starts — and given it’s the new Cold War, then it’s worth it to be willing to take whatever pressure the United States decides it has to take in terms of sanctions against China. Because he needs to keep Russia viable; he needs to keep Putin viable.
And Xi needs to keep them viable because China is now involved in, shall we say, the great global conflict with the United States — or to put it in Biden’s term, the democracies versus the autocracies. This has now come to an ideological battle — it’s no longer at a lower scale, but rather a new Cold War. And China must take a lead; China must take a stand.
US-China Relations Drops Its Floor and Its Ceiling
Jordan Schneider: Let’s stay on the dark timeline for a second. So Xi believes all of that and ends up making a decision to send drones, artillery, RPGs, and so on to Russia. What do Biden and the Europeans do? How irrevocably does this change the dynamic and relationship between China and the rest of the world?
Dennis Wilder: With the United States, I think it would be pretty devastating to what’s left of the relationship. Biden has clearly indicated that he wants to build a floor under this relationship and doesn’t want it to get to the level of conflict, doesn’t want to move it from strategic competitors to strategic rivals.
This would be an indicator that China doesn’t see that floor as necessary at this point, that there are bigger equities involved here than just playing nice with Washington, that Washington has to be backed off — and one of the ways of backing Washington off is to help Putin, if you will, win his war, whatever that means (I’m not sure I know how to define a win in Ukraine, but help Putin certainly not lose his war).
That would really make it very tough for the United States — given the current attitudes in US Congress and to some degree the polling data on American public attitudes — for the Biden administration to find a way to put a floor under the problems in the relationship.
It would be devastating to the relationship with the Europeans. Already, it has been remarkable how much change there has been in attitudes in capitals, such as Berlin, on China. It used to be that economics ruled. That isn’t the case anymore: there are a lot of different voices in Berlin now on how to deal with China.
So it would be a tectonic shift if the Chinese began to all-out support Putin and his war in Ukraine.
Jordan Schneider: So — living in some hypotheticals for a second — what falls out of that tectonic shift?
Dennis Wilder: First of all, the Biden administration, NATO, and others would have to decide the price that they’re going to try to make China pay. Do they, for example, do some of the things they did to Russia in terms of banking sanctions, cutting them off from SWIFT, other kinds of sanctions against individuals and companies? How far do they go in trying to make China pay?
Now, the difficulty is that it was fairly easy when we did this to the Russians. While there were certain business equities of American companies in Russia, it’s nothing like the thousands of Starbucks, McDonald’s all over the place, the involvement of Walmart in the Chinese economy — there are very big American players with very big stakes. And I can tell you that those companies are starting to sweat right now, because they certainly do not want that kind of pressure on them.
Look at Apple. If the United States government were to tell Apple that it has to somehow back off of manufacturing in China, there’s nowhere for Apple to go right now that can replace those Foxconn factories. People talk about India, but India doesn’t have the infrastructure yet for that kind of thing; they can do some things, but it would have a huge effect on the American consumer.
So Washington would have to make the decision to put pressure on the Chinese, to make the Chinese pay a price. The question is, “How high a price would we really be willing to put on the Chinese, given that the Chinese economy is so integrated with the American economy?” After all, last year we had the highest year of trade between China and the United States, ever.
Jordan Schneider: Another dynamic I thought of: the floor falls, but the ceiling also drops pretty dramatically — because already today, there’s basically no room in the dialogue or discourse for ever proposing anything remotely constructive with respect to China.
We just had “balloon gate” — yes, the balloon stuff is bad, but there’s a world in which we can kind of write it off as, “Look, it’s just intelligence gathering. Countries gather intelligence. Yes, it wasn’t nice they flew a balloon, but it is what it is.”
Arming a country that you have sworn to defend and are sending tens, hundreds of billions of dollars of materiel and intelligence to support — that’s a very different strike on the side of anyone who’s considering proposing more constructive things.
Dennis Wilder: There’s no residual trust between Washington and Beijing anymore. The balloon incident underscored how little trust there was between the two sides: we couldn’t even get Blinken to Beijing for what would’ve been, one could argue, useful meetings, because nobody on the US side wanted, politically, to take that kind of step due to of the nature of the relationship.
So we are in a place where the channels of communication have shut down. China doesn’t believe us on our one-China policy anymore; we don’t believe them on peaceful unification with Taiwan. There are fundamental areas where we have completely lost the ability to come to any kind of common ground.
China’s Two Cents on Peace
Jordan Schneider: All right — we’ve talked dark timeline. Let’s talk slightly less dark timeline.
Xi as peacemaker — is he going to swoop in and earn his Nobel Prize? What’s going on here?
Dennis Wilder: Ha, I’m sure he’d like to earn one.
First of all, the way the Chinese rolled this out was interesting and instructive: they don’t even call it a peace proposal; they call it a position paper. They rolled out — without any Chinese leader actually speaking publicly about it — this twelve-point plan.
Now, the twelve-point position paper on political settlement really was timed very poorly: neither side is ready for serious talks at this point. Putin hasn’t shown an interest in talks at all, and certainly Zelenskyy has not shown an interest in any kind of ceasefire or talks. It was kind of a stunt on the first anniversary of the war, rather than any kind of reflection on battlefield conditions — and that lessens its utility.
It does backhandedly criticize Russia on the question of respect for sovereignty under the UN Charter; that’s something the Russians probably weren’t happy to see. But it also backs Moscow in that it says the “legitimate security interests and concerns of all countries must be taken seriously and addressed properly.” China tries to have its cake and eat it, too, in this position paper.
My own view is that Zelenskyy reacted really cleverly — he had a savvy way of reacting to it, in which he said, “Great. Good to see your proposal. Let’s sit down and talk about it.” Of course, Xi Jinping has not talked to Zelenskyy since the war started — and so Zelensky threw it right back at him. He kind of said, “Right back at you. You put a proposal on the table — great. So sit down with me. Let’s have a video chat. Maybe you can come here to Kyiv” — which I doubt.
Jordan Schneider: Wait — can you imagine the world in which Xi goes to Kyiv and a bomb falls twenty feet away from him?
Dennis Wilder: Yeah, it’d be great — why not? That train ride isn’t that bad, is it? The ten hours?
I don’t want to be overly critical of the Biden administration on this, but I think the Biden administration’s response was too dismissive. It wasn’t useful to backhand the Chinese and say, “There’s nothing here; there’s nothing to see.”
Because the problem with that is you let the Chinese off the hook at that point. The Chinese can now say, “Well, we tried. We tried to be a peace negotiator, and what did you do? You rejected us. You don’t really want peace. You want this war to continue indefinitely.” And that’s what the Chinese keep saying about the US position.
And so, while I think the Chinese proposal, there’s not a lot of “there” there, to be honest with you, I think we can more cleverly use it. I think we should follow Zelenskyy’s lead on this — let Zelenskyy take the lead in trying to talk to the Chinese about this, and in that way you hem the Chinese in a little bit. If you take the position Washington has taken at this point, then what’s in it for China to continue to take a position of neutrality — if you’re just going to dismiss them at every turn? I think there was some danger in the initial very quick reaction out of Washington.
Jordan Schneider: I would absolutely give Xi his Nobel if this war could end in a way that works out.
I did like the line in there saying, “Nuclear weapons must not be used and nuclear wars must not be fought. The threat or use of nuclear weapons should be opposed.” The idea that that’s a statement in 2023 that you can applaud is sort of mind-blowing — but hey, give it to them. It’s a nice little “chill out, Putin” line, which I think is something that the US could say, “Good. I’m glad you don’t want World War III. Positive here. Thank you. Appreciate it.”
Dennis Wilder: I would only add — and I think this shows where the Chinese true colors are on this issue — they haven’t been willing to talk to Zelenskyy, but they had in February the first visit from the Iranian president in twenty years. And then they have just announced that Lukashenko is going to Beijing, which is his first visit to China since 2016.
I think this shows where China really is: the fact that they don’t even dare talk to Zelenskyy, but they’re going to invite all of the pariah states to come to Beijing and have these discussions — that shows Chinese neutrality is not real.
Jordan Schneider: About assigning probabilities to our central question, “Will China do it and really start to send arms to Russia?”: your central argument is that the worse Putin is doing and the likelier it is that a failure on the battlefield leads to real chances of him not being in power in two or three years — that’s the number-one driver.
Are there factors number two and three, or does that one outshine everything else?
Dennis Wilder: I think that is the big factor. Another factor — which is very cynically Chinese but I think is real — is that the more the United States is involved in a conflict in Ukraine and in Europe and has to expend its energies in resources on the conflict there, the better for China. Because the United States has talked about pivoting to Asia, more troop presence in Asia — when in actual fact we have not changed our force posture very much at all in East Asia. And we are sending troops back to Europe; we are also using up our defense industrial capability to supply the Ukrainians. And it is clear that Taiwan is second in line. There are billions of dollars of US arms sales to Taiwan that are going unfulfilled at this point because of Ukraine.
So is it in the interest of China for this war to continue? I would argue that it is in some ways, because it preoccupies NATO, it preoccupies the United States, and keeps some of the pressure off the Chinese.
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Outro music: Руський корабль, by BURLA