Editor’s Note: Ian Johnson is the Stephen A. Schwarzman senior fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He worked for 20 years as a journalist in China, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The war in Ukraine has prompted renewed appeals for China to get involved in an international crisis, with commentators discussing how the country is well-placed to negotiate an end to the fighting. Politicians have taken up the call too: the Ukrainian foreign minister reportedly asked China to get involved, while on Tuesday European leaders video-called Chinese leader Xi Jinping in an effort to keep him in the loop.
These ideas all make good sense – but are likely to fail. That’s because China, far from being able to act decisively on the world stage, suffers from a chronic leadership void that leaves it paralyzed to act in the face of global crises.
When the war started nearly two weeks ago, China’s response was mind-numbingly predictable: the West is to blame, sanctions are counterproductive, and “all sides” should use restraint (as if this were a quarrel among equals and both sides were to blame). At first, it was possible to see China as simply caught in a dilemma – forced to mouth platitudes because it was shocked at Russia’s behavior but unwilling to criticize its closest friend.
But 10 days later, foreign minister Wang Yi doubled down on support for Moscow, on Monday calling Russia his country’s “most important strategic partner.” In response to growing hopes that China might use its clout with Moscow to mediate, he said the country might do so “when the time is right” – in other words, not in any meaningful timeframe that would stop the bloodshed.
China’s reticence isn’t new. For decades, western leaders pushed China to be a strategic partner or stakeholder in the global international order. Many have imagined that sooner or later China would rise to the occasion, and in an emergency such as today’s its diplomats would use their good offices to solve a global crisis.
But the reality is that China is so obsessed with a narrow set of issues that it is unable to be more than a character actor on the international stage, appearing in a few specific roles but otherwise out of its depth.
China reacts forcefully around two domestic issues, mainly: Taiwan and human rights. Countries that do not toe China’s line on Taiwan – that it must return to China, regardless of what its residents think – are hounded mercilessly. See, for example, China’s economic pummeling of Lithuania, which had the temerity last year to allow Taiwan to use its name on a representative office that it opened in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. China insists that countries only allow Taiwan to call its offices “Taipei,” after its capital city, as if it were just a province.
On the other core issue of human rights: Anyone who argues that they are universal is meddling in China’s internal affairs. To this end, China supports other countries that are also criticized for violating the declaration, arguing that these are their internal affairs, too.
But on most other issues, China doesn’t really care. Drugs, terrorism, public health, climate change – China has interests in all these issues but rarely takes the lead. At best, it offers a few ideas and then follows deals hammered out by other countries.
This myopic focus on domestic concerns is especially pronounced under Xi Jinping, the least cosmopolitan leader to have run the People’s Republic in nearly half a century.
China’s current system was launched in the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping, who was willing to relax Communist Party control over society to allow China to flourish. Deng’s two hand-picked successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, had their flaws but possessed relatively similar ideas about broadening the Communist Party’s appeal and pursuing better ties with neighbors.
Xi has none of these instincts. Raised by one of the country’s founding fathers, he is the first leader to be born and raised in the People’s Republic. He has a relatively limited education – not his fault because it was due to the political turmoil of the Mao years – but still telling. Once the turmoil ended in the late 1970s, his well-connected father put him on a track to success, with one careerist job following the next.
Xi’s vision is essentially to recreate the Chinese Communist Party of his father’s generation. Soon after the party took power in the 1950s, so the myth goes, it was incorruptible, popular, and firmly in charge of society.
To that end, Xi’s main goal is to strengthen party control over the economy, politics, education, and minority areas such as Xinjiang, or relatively autonomous regions, such as Hong Kong. In its own way, Xi’s vision is ambitious in his effort to turn the clock back on 40 years of reforms, but it is a limited and inward-focused ambition. As the Australian scholar Geremie Barmé puts it, it is an “empire of tedium.”
This is why it is illusory to think that China can play a constructive role in Ukraine. On paper, it makes sense. China is Russia’s last major market now that the West has largely cut ties with them. Xi’s diplomats could easily get Russia’s ear and suggest, ever so subtly, that some sort of settlement would be beneficial to all sides.
It would also be in China’s best interests to take such a step. China grew rich in the international order that Putin seeks to destroy. Ultimately it needs to compete with the world’s leading countries, and to do that it needs an open world system with a free flow of capital and ideas. Slumming it with dysfunctional states like Russia only drags China down.
This could still happen, and China might set aside its domestic priorities to help end the crisis. But doing so would require a seismic shift. Playing the middleman would require China to distance itself from Russia, after boasting that their friendship has “no limits.”
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Instead, China is likely to act neutral but continue to show most of its sympathy for Russia, not Ukraine or the democracies fighting to save its independence.
That’s because everything Xi has implemented at home has been to stifle free thought, not unleash it. He views the democratic world with similar distrust. He hopes China will supplant them but with home-grown innovation and not a robust exchange of ideas and products. It is a self-centered world vision, one where ties are mainly zero-sum: you win, I lose.
In this context, if the West is embroiled in a dispute with Russia over Europe, then China wins. Becoming involved in foreigners’ disputes makes no sense. Better to stay out of the fray, see who is likely to win, and then cut deals.