At this point, we can tentatively conclude that China is not going to offer that military support Russia asked for last week. This is a huge win. Russia is evidently running low on supplies both fancy (missiles) and mundane (rations). If we keep China on the sidelines, Russia’s ability to sustain the war matters more than Putin’s desire to do so.
I’ve held off on this post because I am guaranteed to jinx myself and hit “Publish” just before we see the headline US Intelligence Says China Sold Missiles to Russia. But it is has been a week since we saw the dire warnings to that effect and a few days since Biden spoke to Xi. So far, not a peep about increased China support.
So lets chalk that up as a huge win for US diplomacy. Last week, the US fixed a very bright spotlight on China and its tentative moves towards supporting Russia (and making a quick buck in the process). Caught in that glare, the Chinese blinked and stepped back. Russia gets nothing. China is left to reconsider its own global priorities
Here are the chessboard moves. Start with the “official” leaks to the press. Remember these are done with a purpose.
- Sunday March 13 – US Discloses Russian Request for Chinese Arms.
- Monday March 14 – US Notes Intelligence Says Chinese Responded Positively to Russian Arms Request.
- Every day since then – silence.
The Diplomatic messaging was clear in those leaks.
- Sunday – We intercepted that Russian request for help and we are publicizing it to let China know we’re going to publicize the Chinese response.
- Monday – By the way China, we also intercepted your reply to Russia. So don’t think being extra-sneaky is/was going to help here. The world will know China intervened in Ukraine.
I’m assuming a decent chunk of the lead-up to and content of the Biden call with Xi detailed all the ways we could make life miserable for Chinese companies deemed to have provided that support. Cut off semi-conductor supplies, dollar payments, raw materials, etc…. The Huawei sanction model applied more broadly. We don’t have to formally sanction all of China, but we could interpret “support” pretty broadly to encompass 2nd and 3rd tier suppliers etc…
Public exposure would also undercut China’s standing in the world – especially Europe where China has been trying to gain influence.
Faced with the prospect of public exposure and economic risks, China has done nothing. Which is a great result for the US. Stopping something from happening is what Diplomacy is best at; Avoiding a problem or a crisis. This is why a lot of people under-value diplomatic action and over-value military action. Armed force “does” big noisy things that make the news. Diplomacy mostly stops bad, noisy things from happening. So give your local diplomat a pat on the back next time you see him.
FWIW, China’s own self interest pretty obviously does NOT lie with supporting Russia. They know who lost the last Cold War and why. I’ll get into that in a later post.