Since President Xi Jinping was re-elected as China’s leader at the Communist Party Congress on October 23, 2022, there has been a noticeable change in tone from Chinese officials on the US. This change in tone coupled with Chinese restraint in supporting Russia in the war in Ukraine has led to speculation that China is changing course and turning away from Russia and back towards the US and the West.
But that speculation is challenged by recent events.
If China has been signaling the US, the US has slammed the phone down. The US responded in January by establishing a Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party. Both Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly supported the establishment of the new committee that will expose China’s "strategy to undermine American leadership and American sovereignty." Representative Mikie Sherill said, on her appointment to the committee, that the Chinese Communist Party "is a threat to our democracy and way of life."
If China is trying to improve relations with the US, then three recent events highlight the refusal of the US to even consider it.
After China made it clear, upon Nancy Pelosi’s arrival in Taiwan, that a visit by a speaker of the house crossed China’s red line and provocatively challenged Chinese-US relations, the US responded, not by adjusting its posture, but by announcing that the next speaker of the house would repeat the provocation. On January 23, 2023, it was reported that Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy is planning a spring visit to Taiwan. China has, once again, protested, "urg[ing] the U.S. to earnestly abide by the one-China principle."
Days later, on February 2, the US announced the completion of a deal with the Philippines that expands US access to Philippine military bases. The US will gain access to four more bases in addition to the five they already have access to. "With the deal," the BBC reports, "Washington has stitched the gap in the arc of US alliances stretching from South Korea and Japan in the north to Australia in the south," encircling China. Some of the bases, the BBC says, could be on the island of Luzon, "the only large piece of land close to Taiwan" other than China. CNN reports that the expanded access to bases "would potentially place US armed forces fewer than 200 miles south of Taiwan." China warned that the deal will "escalate regional tension and undermine regional peace and stability."
The US has also announced plans to deploy further Marine units to Japan and to establish a new Marine base on Guam.
Then just two days after that, the US military shot down a Chinese balloon they claim was a surveillance balloon. China claimed it was a civilian balloon used primarily for meteorological research. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has protested that "the US insist[ence] on using force [is] obviously overreacting and seriously violat[es] international practice." China has said that it reserves the right to "take further actions."
The Department of Defense has conceded that "whatever the surveillance payload is on this balloon, it does not create significant value added over and above what the PRC is likely able to collect through things like satellites in Low Earth Orbit." The US, of course, also has satellites that spy on China. Major powers, including the US, spy on each other and gather intelligence all the time. The Open Skies Treaty came into effect in 2002 and allows countries to conduct unarmed reconnaissance flights, at short notice, over other countries’ territory for the purpose of collecting information on their military forces.
As a response to the Chinese balloon, Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled his trip to China. Blinken was supposed to leave for China on February 3 for talks meant to improve communication and cooperation. Informing China of the cancellation, Blinken said the balloon "undermined the purpose of the trip," once again hanging up on China’s change in tone.
The change in tone from Chinese officials may not represent a radial shift in policy. The Russian-Chinese strategic partnership has never been directed against a third country, including the US, and it has always allowed both countries to pursue their own interests. China has always recognized the value of cooperation with the West and has always considered it important for achieving its economic ambitions.
Alexander Lukin, who is Head of Department of International Relations at National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow and an authority on Russia-China relations told me that it is conceivable that that the change in tone simply reflects the solidifying of XI’s power in the party. The need to look strong for the domestic audience has been succeeded by the need to solve real problems, and addressing the economy requires better relations with the West.
As for the perceived change in relations with Russia, Lukin told me that he "[doesn’t] see any change in China’s position on Russia." He points to XI’s recent announcement that he will visit Russia.
On December 13, 2022, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that XI and Putin are "in constant communication." XI also says that "China and Russia have maintained effective strategic communication" and that they "have maintained close coordination." He promised that China would "work with Russia to fulfill their responsibilities as major countries and play a leading role in injecting stability into a world of change and disorder.” XI added that China "will work with Russia to extend strong mutual support on issues concerning each other’s core interests, and deepen practical cooperation in trade, agriculture, connectivity and other areas.”
As recently as October 27, 2022, China reiterated that they "will firmly support the Russian side, with the leadership of President Putin, to unify Russian people to overcome difficulties and interruptions, to realize the strategic goal of development, and to further reinforce the status of Russia as a major power.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry said that “Any attempt to stop China and Russia from marching forward is doomed to fail" and that "China and Russia will deepen exchanges at all levels, and promote China-Russia relations and cooperation in all areas to a higher level. . . ."
And in their December 20, 2022 conversation, XItold Putin that "Under our joint leadership, the overarching Russia-China partnership and strategic cooperation demonstrates maturity and ability to withstand challenges in this new age." He said that China is "ready to build up strategic cooperation with Russia, providing each other with development opportunities and remaining global partners for the benefit of our countries. . . ."
In December, China and Russia carried out joint naval exercises that “further deepen the China-Russia comprehensive new-era strategic partnership of coordination.”
The increasingly close comprehensive partnership is not refuted by China’s restraint in helping Russia militarily in Ukraine. China has continued to support Russia diplomatically and economically. Expecting China to abandon restraint and come to Russia’s aid militarily is expecting too much. Neither China nor Russia believes in Cold War style alliances. Though their extraordinarily close strategic partnership approaches a quasi militarily alliances, it falls importantly short of a military alliance: there are no mutual defense obligations. The two countries will never oppose each other, but the partnership respects the right of the two countries to pursue their own interests. China would come to Russia’s aid only if China’s security interests were threatened. That could happen if China sees an existential threat to its strategic partner. But its restraint so far is consistent with the relationship.
Sadly, the US has been deaf to the change in tone in signals coming from China. As they did with Russia, they have chosen to continue to encroach militarily on China, encircling it and encroaching on its red line, Taiwan. Though its signals may suggest that China is changing course and moving closer to the US and farther from Russia, the US response has made the former impossible, and the continuing development of the Russia-China relationship has shown the latter to be false.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.