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Global Perspective: China losing int'l prestige by turning blind eye to Russia's invasion

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech at a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Youth League of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 10, 2022. (Yue Yuewei/Xinhua via AP)

By Ryosei Kokubun, former president of the National Defense Academy of Japan

    Fifty years have passed since the United States and China began improving ties after years of confrontation following the end of World War II. The process of rapprochement began in 1971 when Henry Kissinger, U.S. President Richard Nixon's special advisor, paid a secret visit to Beijing from Pakistan and met with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, setting the stage for Nixon's visit to China the following year. Half a century later, however, the atmosphere in Washington and Beijing is hardly festive.

    The thaw in the U.S.-China relationship can be traced back to the Prague Spring of 1968. In Czechoslovakia, then a satellite state of the Soviet Union, First Secretary Alexander Dubcek of the Communist Party and his supporters launched audacious democratization efforts. Their move triggered military intervention by Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev under the doctrine of "limited sovereignty," designed to justify the Soviet action as a measure to maintain the socialist bloc's unity. The Czech democratic movement was crushed following street battles.

    At that time, China was in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, purging "Soviet revisionists" including Chairman Liu Shaoqi. At the time of the Czech incident, Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong declared that the Soviet Union had degenerated into "social imperialism." While promoting the construction of shelters in preparation for nuclear war with Moscow, Mao sought to improve relations with the United States. The Czech incident became a major opportunity for the U.S. and China to become closer.

    However, in the case of Russia's recent invasion of Ukraine, China is clearly keeping its foot in the Russian camp while feigning non-interference. It also abstained from United Nations resolutions condemning Moscow's actions, thereby abandoning an excellent opportunity to improve relations with the United States. China's domestic media are even reporting daily that this situation is a "conspiracy" by the United States.

    Prior to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited China to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics, perhaps as part of the preparations for the military action. China appeared perplexed by Russia's unexpected invasion, but I also hear that internally there were many reactions favorable to Moscow.

    This is because the invasion shifted the world's criticism from China to Russia, and even the U.S. began to look to China to act as a mediator. China has been pro-Russia and was opposed to Kyiv's effort to move closer to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Although Beijing had no intention at all of accepting the role of mediator, it did not begrudge the fact that the world would be closely watching China's moves.

    Furthermore, it is said that there were people inside China who praised President Xi Jinping in connection with the situation in Ukraine. They said that Xi had successfully placed the Tibetan, Xinjiang Uyghur and other autonomous regions under strong surveillance and contained separatist movements there. He had also managed to place Hong Kong under political control and remove the seeds of democratization, they said. These regions are part of China while Ukraine is an independent country, but the two situations are similar at their core.

    The war against Ukraine, however, has gone in an unexpected direction. Russia is struggling, including in its cyber warfare maneuvers, and acts such as the massacre of civilians are being exposed. China appears to be subtly taking a position of noninterference in the affairs of Russia and Ukraine.

    Originally, the Ukraine issue was not of direct concern to China. Although Ukraine has a strategic location in China's "One Belt, One Road" international economic zone initiative, the country does not share a border with China, have strong economic ties, or have many religious connections. China's greatest interest is, above all, the continuation of Xi's rule at this fall's party congress. Toward that goal, a tug of war is underway over issues such as personnel reshuffles.

    China's response this time has left us with an extremely unfortunate impression. Beijing has tacitly approved Russia's aggression against another country and massacres of civilians, and has not said or done anything to stop or limit those actions. Both Russia and China are superpowers with veto power in the U.N. Security Council, and this attitude has amplified the world's sense of helplessness.

    It is nothing short of an irony of history that in this commemorative year of the 50th anniversary of U.S.-China detente, the rift between Washington and Beijing has widened even further. Currently, the two biggest bilateral points of contention are China's Communist Party system and the Taiwan issue.

    Regarding the former, in the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. did not believe that the Chinese political system could be changed. Kissinger saw China as one power that could counter the Soviet Union.

    That did not begin to change until the Clinton administration's "engagement" policy in the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton began to believe that China could be transformed into a society similar to America's. This was largely due to Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's decision to turn to a socialist market economy, as expressed in his 1992 "Southern Tour" speech. Deng made the move after carefully examining lessons from the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident of crushing pro-democracy demonstrators and the collapse of the Soviet Union. From a market economy to capitalism and then to democracy -- this was the vision of many people in China back then.

    However, in China today, people don't even want to mention the name of Deng Xiaoping, and despite the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the socialist market economy, everyone is tight-lipped about it, and Deng's "reform and opening up" policy is not talked about often. Instead, they emphasize "Communist Party leadership" and "Marxism." Even if some future improvement is possible on the economic front between the U.S. and China, it will be difficult to compromise on the political and security fronts.

    In relation to the Taiwan issue, China was initially pleased to see the U.S. give up direct military intervention in the Ukraine war. However, Ukraine and Taiwan have different historical backgrounds. The United States also emphasizes this point. Moreover, Ukraine shares a land border with Russia, but China and Taiwan are separated by the 130-kilometer-wide Taiwan Strait. A landing operation by Chinese forces would cause unimaginable casualties. With the Chinese army full of families' only children, would they be able to maintain the morale needed for the supposedly deadly battle of unifying Taiwan with the mainland? Would they be able to maintain stability in the Xinjiang Uyghur region and Tibet during Taiwan operations?

    In the Ukrainian invasion, the Russian military's weakness was exposed. It stems from its authoritarian command structure that relies on Putin's command for all its actions, according to a former Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) general. This is different from the U.S. military and the SDF, which have a system that allows unit commanders in the field to make their own decisions in contingencies, he said. Perhaps the Chinese military would not be able to do anything without President Xi's instructions.

    Mao Zedong condemned the Soviet Union's "social imperialism" at the time of the Czech incident, and made peace with the U.S. to deter the Soviet Union. From the perspective of Marxism-Leninism and socialist theory, Russia's recent invasion of Ukraine is clearly "imperialism." But this time around, China tacitly approves of the Russian action without direct criticism, while loudly proclaiming "socialism" and "Marxism." Beijing's words and actions are full of contradictions.

    China is losing the international reputation it has built up over the years. There is not much time left to regain it.

    Profile: Ryosei Kokubun

    Ryosei Kokubun received his PhD in law from Keio University. He served as the dean of the Faculty of Law and Politics and the director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at Keio, and was the president of the National Defense Academy of Japan from 2012 to 2021. Awards he won include the Asia Pacific Award's special prize in 1997, the Suntory Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities in 2004, and the Junzo Kashiyama prize in 2017. He is the president of the Japan Society for Defense Studies and a former president of the Japan Association of International Relations (2006-2008).

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