Ukraine and the Future of US-China Relations

April 1, 2022 | 11:51 am
G. Kulacki/UCS
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will make it more difficult for the governments of the United States and China to cooperate. It is hard to imagine any of the world’s major problems, especially the existential threats of nuclear war and climate change, can be resolved if they don’t. 

The Chinese leadership has unambiguously aligned itself with Mr. Putin. It does not approve of his war aims or his methods. But it understands the frustrations that produced them. Neither government enjoys the perception of constant US pressure. Both want to break free of the elaborate network of diplomatic, economic, and military relationships they believe the United States government uses to impose its will on the rest of the world. 

Russia and China may not be alone. Thirty-five nations abstained from the UN General Assembly resolution demanding an immediate end to Russian hostilities in Ukraine, including India and South Africa, two influential countries who participated in President Biden’s anti-authoritarian Summit for Democracy.

Biden views Russian and Chinese efforts to circumvent US-led alliances like NATO and de-facto US control over the international banking system as a threat to what he calls the “rules-based international order.” Russian and Chinese leaders don’t believe the United States and its allies have the right to set global rules. That’s what the United Nations was created to do. It couldn’t during the Cold War, but Chinese and Russian leaders expected that would change in the post-Cold War era. 

Putin gave up that hope a long time ago and now seems obsessed with revanchist nostalgia. Chinese leaders, however, have invested a great deal in the UN system, as well as the World Trade Organization, and multiple regional arrangements that promote decision-making by consensus. With important exceptions­­­– all related to long-standing unresolved sovereign disputes with neighboring countries–Chinese leaders still appear eager to support the idea of a rules-based international order as long as they get to participate in determining the rules.

It is this key difference with Putin’s Russia that allows for the possibility of substantive US-China cooperation. Unfortunately, the Biden administration believes the world is embroiled in a long-term, life and death contest between autocracy and democracy. This Manichaean view of international affairs, reminiscent of the imagined contest between capitalism and communism that animated the Cold War, lumps Russia and China together as enemies to be defeated. Differences between the two appear less important than their similarities. 

The war in Ukraine is solidifying US and allied perceptions of China as an implacable long-term enemy, much like the Korean War did in the 1950s. Preparing for war with China is the top priority in the Biden administration’s new National Defense Strategy. This adversarial approach to US-China relations also inspired “competitiveness” legislation Congress will pass later this year. Combined, they are likely to make substantive US cooperation with China impossible for decades to come. That’s a luxury we may not be able to afford.

Global security is based on more than a balance of tanks, planes, and missiles. It is built on sustainable economies and stable societies. Both require international comity and cooperation. Fighting wars over historic grievances, ideologies, and lines on a map, at the expense of ensuring our economic and social welfare, has always been tragically misguided. But in a world full of nuclear weapons, with the catastrophic effects of climate change bearing down on us, it seems suicidal. 

Sixteen years ago, James Martin, a computer scientist and the author of the prescient Pulitzer Prize winning classic The Wired Society, wrote another book called The Meaning of the 21st Century. It began with this observation:

This could be humanity’s last century, or it could be the century in which civilization sets sail towards a far more spectacular future. Decisions that will lead to these wildly different conclusions have to be made soon.

James Martin

We met in Manhattan, not long before his untimely death in 2013, to discuss an early draft of a third book in which he argued that China, and its relationship with the United States, would determine how those decisions were made. He belived that if both sides went their separate ways the odds of survival turned against us, and the book started to build a case for extensive scientific and technical cooperation. I often wish fate had granted him the time to finish it.