If China is rational, they will start pushing Russia to end the war in Ukraine sooner vs later. This is our single best hope for ending the war quickly. OK, hope is not a strategy. But “hope” is not why I see China reining in Russia. I see China acting in its best interests, which are best served by a quick end to this war.
First, an aside: On Feb 22, I argued that invading Ukraine wasn’t in Putin’s self-interest – “If Putin is rational, he’d played this mess out to the most face-saving “win” he’s going to get.” Taken as a prediction, I was wrong. Taken as analysis, I was “right” in that invasion was a huge mistake. I never write these pieces to be “right” in a predictive sense. It is too hard to factor in purblind stupidity and/or incompetence. I try to tease out what “should” happen (if people act rationally) not what will happen (if some people make stupidchoices). Take the below in that spirit.
China wants Russia as a weakened-but-productive vassal state. A dependent supplier of oil, wheat and other commodities. A semi-captive buyer of Chinese manufactures to balance that trade. China already has that win.
Putin has driven Russia straight into the (soon-to-be-uncomfortable) embrace of Chinese hegemony. His Ukraine blunder has destroyed Russia’s military credibility and surrendered its Great Power status. He is well on his way to destroying Russia’s economic importance. He has already permanently lost his best oil/gas markets. He has severed most economic and social ties to “the West.” The West can and will write Russia off as a player and a market. China will become Russia’s second-best (but only) customer, with all the dependency that implies.
So China has acquired a new vassal state. But China wants a useful, productive, power-additive vassal state. China has years of painful experience with the nuclear-blackmailing, economic basket case client state North Korea. Putin and The Cronies may see advantages (for them personally) in a North Korea or Iran scenario. But China does not want to drag another, Russian pariah client along in its quest for global hegemony. China now owns Russia. They will want to maximize the value of that asset.
Putin probably hasn’t figured the above out yet. Any more than he’d figured out his own best interests in Ukraine But his new Chinese masters will eventually yank the collar Putin has put around his own neck. A nice sharp tug towards ending the Ukraine war would communicate Putin’s new reality to him quite nicely.
Why would China want to stop the war now? There are a lot of reasons, but here is the over-arching one. It would keep Putin from tearing down more of the property he has just deeded over. Like a wastrel inheritor, Putin has run the place down far enough to lose his ancestral land. The new owners won’t want to run it down any further.
I’ll flesh out this argument further in subsequent pieces. The Chinese article below helped a lot in thinking this all through. Give it a read in full.
Hu’s long-term goal, like all Chinese Officials, is China’s long-term goal of replacing the US as global hegemon. He is arguing China’s selfish best interests, no more no less. Subsequent reporting clarified Hu was not stating “official Chinese” policy. Just one side of the debate among Chinese officials (of whom Hu is one). But in doing so he shines a very clear light on China’s self-perceived interests. Others in China may see the path to serving those interests differently. But they all likely agree on those end goals. I also think he makes a convincing case for taking his path forward.
Will Xi find Hu’s argument compelling? I have no idea. That wanders too far into the realm of prediction. As with Putin, I’ll stick to what Xi should do, not what Xi will do.
Possible Outcomes of the Russo-Ukrainian War and China’s Choice
On a final note, most (Euro-centric) China/Russia commentary I’ve seen puts too much weight on Russia’s interests. China’s interests are what matters now. Russia is a vassal state, not a partner. Yet another reason to read the above.