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On February 4th, at the conclusion of their day-long summit in Beijing, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping declared that the friendship between Russia and China “has no limits.” That same day, the Beijing Winter Olympics officially began, ending a little more than two weeks later on February 20th. On February 24th, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began.

There has been extensive analysis of the three major miscalculations Putin has made up to this point: (1) his overestimation of the readiness and effectiveness of his military machine; (2) his underestimation of the resilience and fighting spirit of the Ukrainian people; and (3) the speed and scale with which NATO and EU countries, along with many others, have come together to sanction Russia and to support Ukraine (in all ways short of direct military involvement on, or in the air above, Ukrainian territory). It is too early to tell whether a fourth major miscalculation may have to do with Putin’s misplaced faith in the degree of economic, financial and trade support which China would provide Russia to backfill against these sanctions).

But what about Xi Jinping? What is his calculus for advancing (his interpretation of) China’s interests through this crisis? And what miscalculations has he appeared to have made so far?

Xi’s first miscalculation was immediate and damaging. He is known to have had some discussion with Putin on Feb. 4th about the imminent “special operation” in Ukraine. It is not clear whether Putin lied to him or Xi simply failed to ask the right questions to take Putin’s measure. In either case, Xi Jinping is known to have been caught by surprise and ‘perturbed’ by the scale, duration and ruthlessness of Putin’s “special operation.” As described in my February 4th post “Four Seismic U.S.-China-Russia Shifts,” Putin’s move forced Xi, unexpectedly and very publicly, to choose between his new-found friendship without limits and adherence to China’s mantra-like stated policy of non-interference in the affairs of sovereign nations, as enunciated in 1954 in Zhou Enlai’s Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence (and championed explicitly with regard to Ukraine’s territorial integrity following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014)

Evidence of Xi’s miscalculation of Putin’s intentions in Ukraine became apparent in the initially hesitant and fence-sitting response by the PRC officials during the first two weeks of the crisis. On the one hand, Chinese officials refused to refer to the invasion publicly with any term other than Putin’s Orwellian “special operation” terminology; pivoted reliably to blaming the crisis on NATO rather than Russia aggression; blocked a series of actions from being taken against Russia in the U.N. Security Council; amplified Russian disinformation about the U.S. operating bio-military labs in Ukraine (a play out of the FSK, formerly KGB, playbook which suggests that Putin is contemplating the use of bio- or chemical weapons and is ready to throw sand in the world’s eyes by blaming the U.S. and/or NATO for their eventual use); and has even embedded Chinese journalists with Russian military units on the ground in Ukraine. On the other, China says its the friend of both Ukraine and Russia; talks about the need for the cessation of violence; offers publicly to mediate between the two sides while not actually taking any steps toward a mediation effort); and repeats the mantra of its Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence as if Putin’s actions in Ukraine were taking place in some parallel universe.

There have been other related miscalculatiions. For instance, the PRC Government has been repeatedly caught off balance by the Biden Administration’s aggressive use of classified U.S. intelligence findings, with his Administration quickly de-classifying key reports and pushing the information out into the public sphere, both domestically and internationally. This began with President Biden’s sharing in real-time with the world the U.S. intelligence community’s pre-invasion assessments that Putin had made the decision to invade. This very public use of previously hush-hush intelligence findings marks a clear break from past White House precedent and has also been aimed at China in recent weeks: first, in divulging the fact that Xi Jinping had prior knowledge of the invasion from his Feb. 4th meeting with Putin and that Xi had, in fact, asked Putin to hold off on initiating that military operation until after the conclusion of the Beijing Winter Olympics; and, second, in disclosing publicly on the eve of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s March 14th meeting with China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi the fact that Beijing had received requests from Moscow for military and economic assistance to aid its war effort. These and other revelations have punctured China’s contrived public posture and shown that, behind the peaceful resolution rhetoric and thin veil of neutrality in the conflict, the reality is that China is not sitting on the fence but has indeed been coming down on Russia’s side.

The initial confusion in China’s response and now the growing evidence of China’s support, up to a point, for Russia were probably to be expected : under-the-table support for Putin was inevitable given the top-down nature of Chinese government decision-making and the personal investment which Xi had made in Putin and Russia just weeks earlier. Just as powerfully through, China wants to keep some fig-leaf semblance of its Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence policy because its repudiation would roil China’s international relations, among others, with its Belt & Road Initiative partner countries. Equally, it does not want to run afoul of the trip wire of U.S.-led financial and economic sanctions by aiding Russia overtly with military aid, financial relief or with trade in sanctioned commodities like microchips, especially following the stern warning delivered by Secretary Blinken earlier this week.

Over the last week, there are signs that the Beijing leadership is trying to “elevate” its initial indecision and aloofness into what it believes can be a long-term winning strategy for coming out ahead of the West when flames die out and the dust settles from the Ukraine conflagration. The Zhongnanhai thesis is that it is not worldwide supporters of post-WWII liberal democracy that are rallying to support Ukraine as much as it is a “civilizational” struggle between a Russian identity promulgated by Putin and a Western identity and set of values represented primarily by the U.S. and Europe. The thinking goes that, if China stands back from this clash, it can pick up the pieces and emerge stronger than either of the two depleted civilizational antagonists. This accords with Xi Jinping’s decade-long championing of the rejuvenation, and even superiority, of Han identity and the Chinese model. In Xi’s thinking, this policy of studious and disciplined aloofness — limited to cheering on Russia with “dog-whistle” encouragement and forms of back-channel support it can get away with while seizing opportunities to denigrate the West to his domestic audience and to countries in Central Asia, the Pacific, and Africa — has two clear advantages: (1) it avoids any risk for Xi in decisively backing ‘a loser’ in Putin, an outcome already sealed in his international pariah status and increasingly likely on the battlefield even if Kiev is taken and the war shifts to an insurgency; and (2) it gives Xi space to attend to the many immediate challenges facing him in the run-up to the critical Party Congress this fall where he is bidding for a third, controversial term as President. Those challenges include: a sharp fall-off in economic performance (brought on in part by excesses of his own Common Prosperity policy introduced over the past year; rapidly rising Covid case-counts and lock-downs in Shenzhen and Donguan in the south, in Shanghai and in Jilin to the northeast; and the recent hardening of attitudes toward China throughout much of the world as ably analyzed by Elizabeth Economy in The World According to China and in her Jan/Feb 2022 article in Foreign Affairs.

The jury is out but I submit that this policy of official aloofness may well prove to be Xi Jinping’s biggest and longest-lasting miscalculation with regard to Ukraine. Xi may think in ethno-nationalist terms, but much of the world’s response is underpinned by non-Western allies such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore who have benefitted from, and are committed to upholding, the post-WWII order based on national sovereignity and the rule of law. In fact, it is Taiwan which represents and symbolizes the fullest repudiation of Xi’s thesis. Absent some mis-adventure by North Korea (which is a disturbing possibility) or a premature move by Xi to extinguish the symbol Taiwan represents (which I consider very unlikely in the near-term), Xi’s official ‘aloofness’ and sub-rosa support for Putin will be remembered by the world in the wake of the Ukraine conflict. There are times when a person, or a nation, must choose sides. Not choosing sides in such situations is, in fact, a choice that is noticed and remembered. Pretending not to choose sides while actually backing the ‘wrong side’ is morally repugnant. There is not a middle way.

As the U.S. and China continue to face off daily over technology and other issues, I have been listening, as my dog Max and I walk each day, to the brilliant History of Rome podcast series by Mike Duncan (2007-12).  One thing is clear from the endless wars which Rome undertook over the course of a millennium against the Latins, the Etruscans, the Samnians and the Carthaginians during the Republic; against each other during the Civil Wars; and against the Greeks, the Syrians, the Parthians and others during the early Empire (which is as far as I’ve gotten so far) – wars were started as often as a result of misreading – or cynically exploiting– an opponents’ real intentions as they were from any meeting of minds over the actual need for conflict. (Mind you – we’re talking here about the miscalculations that get conflicts started, not the logic which takes over once military actions have been initiated).

With that in mind, I am reminded of a March 2019 article by Katherine Epstein, a member of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study.  This article gives a clear overview of the attitudinal and behavioral parallels marking America’s 18th c. rise in a British-led world order and China’s emergence in the U.S.-led post-WWII global system.  A common structural dynamic is at play in both instances.

To Understand China, Look to America’s History

In challenging Britain’s hegemony a century ago, U.S. tactics look similar to Beijing’s today.

By Katherine C. Epstein
March 19, 2019 7:15 p.m. ET
Wall Street Journal

There’s been a good deal of hand-wringing in the U.S. over efforts by the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei to replace U.S. suppliers of advanced equipment and wire the world with its 5G network. Most analysis of China’s strategy turns on the conviction that the Chinese are trying to challenge U.S. commercial and geopolitical hegemony—they steal U.S. technology and then sell their plagiarized equipment at a lower price. Worse, they seek to build an alternative, China-led global telecom infrastructure, positioning Beijing to spy on the users and capture yet more U.S. commerce.

As a historian, I’m struck by the incompleteness of this analysis. Two crucial pieces are missing.

The first is any sense that the threat posed by Chinese control of a global telecom infrastructure might not be limited to espionage or (that other favorite metaphor) a “cyber Pearl Harbor.” The potential danger may be wider and deeper—and the World War I era shows why.

Before that war, like today, the global economy was highly integrated. This was the first era of globalization. Advanced industrial, urbanized societies depended on international trade, requiring uninterrupted access to the infrastructure that girded the global economic commons. Interruptions to that access had the potential to cause economic derangement, rapidly leading to social and political instability. In other words, control of the infrastructure conferred commercial advantage and it could also be weaponized.

A century ago, Britain acted on this insight. In addition to eavesdropping on enemy and neutral communications, the government acted to regulate the British firms that dominated the services necessary to conduct global trade: the global communications network, the financial-services industry (including commercial credit and marine insurance) and oceanic transportation. Britain used its control over the infrastructure of global trade not simply to spy on its enemy, nor to strike enemy military assets, but to mount a systematic assault on the whole of an enemy’s economy—in 21st-century parlance, a massive denial-of-service attack against enemy society.

Returning to the present, both the espionage model, which refers to targeted state spying, and the cyber-Pearl Harbor analogy, which refers to an essentially conventional military attack, fail to capture the systemic and social qualities of a certain type of attack. In this context, reflect on Russia’s efforts to interfere with U.S. elections. Partisanship aside, Moscow has managed, at relatively low cost, to reduce the confidence that Americans have in each other and the electoral process. It waged a successful psy-op, compromising not material resources but social confidence. Its campaign showed that foreign countries can manipulate information within global networks to sow distrust within American society.

What would a scaled-up version of this attack look like? What if it were carried out over a China-dominated information network?

The second missing piece is awareness that if China is trying to challenge (or escape) U.S. hegemony by stealing American technology and building an alternative global telecommunications infrastructure, this would be analogous to what the U.S. tried to do vis-à-vis Britain, then the global hegemon, and the other great powers in the World War I era. Americans tend to forget how powerful Britain was and how weak the U.S. remained before World War I.

In its drive for world status, America routinely pilfered foreign technology well into the 20th century, and it gained considerable strategic advantage from its theft. The 1912 Supreme Court case Crozier v. Krupp, which formally extended the power of eminent domain to intellectual property, concerned a German gun-carriage design the U.S. Army had plagiarized. That same year, a U.S. naval officer walked off with the plan for the British navy’s super-secret long-range torpedo. During World War I, Washington expropriated German chemical intellectual property held in the U.S., providing an enormous boon to America’s chemical industry.

In World War II, the U.S. received huge inflows of scientific and technological knowledge from Britain, then slapped secrecy restrictions on subsequent developments to prevent any flow back to Britain. Many more examples could be adduced. Historically, it might be said, Americans are an imitative people.

The U.S. came to appreciate the significance of controlling global economic infrastructure when Britain’s campaign of economic warfare against Germany in World War I caused huge collateral damage to the American economy. Companies like RCA worked hand-in-hand with the U.S. Navy to build a global telecommunications grid—perhaps similar to the way Huawei, run by a former Chinese army officer, may be working hand-in-hand with the Chinese army.

Wall Street cooperated with the U.S. government to develop a modern financial-services industry deliberately intended to help New York displace London as the world’s financial capital—perhaps similar to the way China has developed its own Swift payment-clearing system. Woodrow Wilson’s administration attempted to build an oceangoing merchant marine so the U.S. wouldn’t have to rely on Britain’s—perhaps similar to the way China is attempting to increase its control over the global oceangoing merchant marine.

In short, a century ago, the U.S. was the China of the age: an up-and-coming revisionist nation chafing against the established powers, importing and pirating what it could, free-riding on the security provided by the existing hegemon, and legitimizing its behavior with the pious conviction that it was on the right side of history. Could it be that the Chinese understand U.S. history better than Americans do?

It’s easy to be moralistic about China, but in the quest to find a sound U.S. strategy, we need less pearl-clutching and more imagination. Rising powers have compelling strategic incentives to control the sinews of global economic activity as well as to acquire foreign technology. Americans and their allies should ask themselves whether they would rather live in a world under U.S. or Chinese hegemony—and what they can do about it.

Ms. Epstein is a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., an associate professor of history at Rutgers University-Camden, and a director of the Naval Historical Foundation.

So, what’s the point? As  Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, would be quick to point out, the British themselves had established their naval-led Empire by upending Spain’s Armada, which had earlier navigated its way to world power status by stealing from the Portuguese the same “rudders” (mariner’s handbook of written sailing directions) which the Portuguese had stolen from the then-ascendant Arab empire.

Well, the point is that, as the U.S. and China edge ever-closer to an actual or pretextual spark of open conflict, we need to stay sharp-eyed.  Given the incalculable costs which outright conflict between the U.S. and China would exact from both countries and the world, it is a political necessity and a moral imperative to keep an accurate picture of the structural situation in our field of vision.  This is where Katherine Epstein’s article is useful.  A picture with gray-tones is always more accurate and revealing than a simple black-and-white picture.  Harder to argue in a sound-bite perhaps, but more consistent with the leadership we need.

 

 

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