China’s Great-Power Play – WSJ

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Beijing for many years played down whatever ambitions China harbors to become a great power, and the past three weeks have shown why. President

Xi Jinping,

in one of his boldest strategic moves, cast his lot with Russian President

Vladimir Putin

before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Xi now finds himself embroiled in a global uproar that will be neither easy nor cheap for China. It deserves the global scorn it is receiving.

Messrs. Xi and Putin in early February declared their friendship has “no limits,” and Mr. Xi is honoring that pledge. While Beijing makes half-hearted bows toward neutrality in the war, Mr. Xi has exerted no pressure on Mr. Putin to stop it. China’s propaganda on Ukraine has a decided pro-Russia, anti-American tone. Beijing is resisting sanctions on Russia (as much as its banks can without jeopardizing their access to dollars). It may yet supply arms to Russia to support the war.

Mr. Xi must view the West’s closure to Russia as a boon for China, which stands ready to buy as much energy and other resources as Mr. Putin is willing to sell. It’s a bonus that China might be able to pay for them with Chinese yuan, which Beijing has long wanted to make a global trade currency.

Above all, this conflict gives Beijing a new opportunity to put itself forward as the leader of a global faction hostile to democracy, economic freedom and U.S. leadership. China’s economic heft now gives it the means to try this gambit, and Mr. Xi’s desire to block any breeze of freedom within his own country is motive enough.

Beijing may also calculate it can “win” in Ukraine no matter what happens. If Mr. Putin conquers the country, Mr. Xi will have picked the winning horse. If the invasion fails, the West and America’s Asian allies may still be demoralized by a partition of Ukraine—and Russia will be a reliable supplier of natural resources to China for as long as Western sanctions persist.

Yet the nature of Great Power politics is that none of this will be cost-free for Beijing. By picking a side China by definition antagonizes those on the other side—including its own neighbors and economic partners.

Within days of Mr. Putin’s invasion, Japan renewed a debate about nuclear sharing with the U.S., South Korea elected a more pro-American president, and several traditionally neutral Asian countries joined Western sanctions on Russia in a signal to Beijing. Germany, long among China’s closest friends in Europe, is reconsidering its economic relationship. Mr. Xi’s alliance with Mr. Putin will also harden attitudes toward China in the United States.

China’s new friends could also prove to be a headache. The U.S. discovered after World War II that the price of global leadership is substantial economic support for followers. If Beijing’s plan is to adopt Russia as some sort of client state, is it really ready to take responsibility for an impoverished and badly governed economy of Russia’s scale?

Nor will Mr. Xi’s great-power play be an obvious boost to the domestic political stability he craves. Every other great power has discovered that such a prominent global role comes with incessant internal debates about how to wield such power. Such a debate may be simmering under the surface now.

The pot boiled up briefly last week in an unusual public essay in which prominent think-tank scholar

Hu Wei

warned that Mr. Xi’s Russia policy may backfire by encouraging other countries to ally against China. Beijing now appears to have censored that essay, but the questions it raised are sure to linger in a year when Mr. Xi is set on securing another five-year term as the country’s leader.

***

President Biden and Mr. Xi are scheduled to speak by phone on Friday, and U.S. national security adviser

Jake Sullivan

met with Chinese officials in Rome this week with Ukraine on the agenda. Little has leaked about what happened in that confab, other than that Mr. Sullivan issued a warning not to assist Russia.

That’s the right message, but China has already assisted Russia—and betrayed Western Europe. Its acquiescence in Mr. Putin’s invasion has shown that it puts the desires of a marauding dictator above its trading and diplomatic relations with the West. China has picked the wrong horse, and it has shown again, as in Hong Kong, that it can’t be trusted.

The West should respond accordingly as it seeks to defend Taiwan and the free world’s interests from the Communist Party.

Wonder Land: Virtually the whole world has committed to repelling Vladimir Putin’s invasion in a kind of spontaneous, crowd-funded alternative to the Armageddon tripwire. Images: AP/AFP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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