If the White House actually thought it could publicly shame China into condemning Russia for invading Ukraine, perhaps this shows it is incapable of understanding the serious challenge it now faces from a Russia-China entente.
Two and a half months ago Moscow and Beijing described their strategic relationship as being so close that it "even exceeds an alliance." See: China Gives Oomph to Russia’s ‘Nyet’ on NATO.
How much longer can Washington and the rest of the West remain in denial that China’s President Xi Jinping is "all in" supporting President Vladimir Putin. Beijing’s recent behavior puts this in bas relief. It came through clearly on Monday in remarks by China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin. Asked "is it not time for China to clearly condemn Russia’s aggression," Wang gave a non-answer with unmistakable "nuance" showing that, at least so far, XI is standing with "best friend" Putin. Wang said:
"At the same time we recognize the special historical complexities on the Ukrainian issue and understand Russia’s legitimate security concerns."
(As observers of Chinese rhetoric know, "at the same time" means "BUT", and it customarily introduces the main point. When "But" starts a new, key sentence, one can readily recognize the essential thought that China wants to drive home.)
Wang Wenbin started his answer paying homage to China’s longstanding boilerplate principle calling for respect for "the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries." But how to square the circle – how to reconcile that august principle with China’s reluctance to criticize Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and with China’s insistence, rather, on the need to understand "Russia’s legitimate security concerns"? Would "inscrutable" be the correct word here?
Later, in answer to a question about Putin’s putting Russian strategic forces on alert, spokesperson Wang doubled down:
"I want to stress once again that, when it comes to European security, all countries’ legitimate concerns should be valued. When NATO has made five waves of eastward expansion, Russia’s legitimate demands should be valued and properly resolved. Relevant parties should exercise restraint and avoid further escalation of the situation."
Squaring the above-mentioned circle may require some special formula to de-inscrutable-ize it. But, what Chinese President XI Jinping has decided on in terms of policy and practical behavior is, on the other hand, clear as a bell. Three years ago XI described Russian President Putin as his "best friend." Professed friendship and rhetoric aside, the strategic relationship they have carved out is proving to be what XI described last December. XI told Putin that "in its closeness and effectiveness, this relationship even exceeds an alliance."
And on Feb. 4, with Putin in Beijing on opening day for the Olympics, China and Russia issued a far-reaching document stating that the two sides:
"reaffirm that the new inter-state relations between Russia and China are superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era. Friendship between the two states has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation."
This Is Diplomacy?
Beijing’s reaction yesterday can be seen as an outright rejection of White House spokesperson Jen Psaki’s admonitions to China on Sunday, although Wang did not deign to mention her name. Psaki, adopting the imperious – but benighted and self-defeating – tone used by colleagues Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan with Chinese counterparts in Anchorage last March, attempted to instruct China on how it should behave. See: White House calls on China to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In an interview with MSNBC Psaki made it clear Beijing should do more:"
"This is not a time to stand on the sidelines. This is a time to be vocal and condemn the actions of President Putin and Russia invading a sovereign country …
“But there’s (sic) also important steps for the Chinese leadership to look at themselves and really assess where they want to stand as the history books are written."
Whether the Chinese found Psaki’s remarks inscrutable or simply arrogant, the White House now has Beijing’s answer.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).