20 Ways China Is Losing the Ukraine War


In the spring of 2022 after the contours of the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine had become clear, the impact on China also became apparent. Altogether, this article identifies twenty conclusions on why the war and the responses to it have dealt China a serious blow. It groups these points under the headings Sino-Russian relations, US ties in China’s neighborhood, and trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific linkages. The conclusion shows that in the security, economic, and national identity dimensions China is losing. Counterarguments aired at the outset of the conflict are noted, but they have been fading quickly.

What claims were raised that China would benefit from the war? First, some argued that Washington would be distracted, losing its focus on the Indo-Pacific. Yet this did not happen, as seen in Joe Biden’s hosting of a US-ASEAN summit and travel to Japan and South Korea in a short span of May. Biden laid out a long-awaited Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), clarifying US resolve, as shown in his Ukraine policy. Second, speculations arose about a sharp “Turn to the East” for Russia, leaving it even more dependent on China, as if a “Grand Strategic Triangle” is all that matters, where losses in the Russo-US leg result in corresponding gains in the Sino-Russian leg. This misses the diminished value of a weaker Russia to China and the price to be exacted in Sino-US ties. Success for Russia in the war was presumed to give impetus to China’s aggressive aims, but when Russia found itself mired in a troubled endeavor, China saw no advantage. The case that China could move more quickly on Taiwan is belied by the need to be warier.

Yan Xuetong’s Foreign Affairs article, “China’s Ukraine Conundrum” indicates Chinese recognition of the price the war is exacting on their country. He admits that Russia has caused a strategic predicament for China. This candor directed at foreign audiences acknowledges that “neutrality” comes with a cost, more so given narratives echoing Russian grievances or war accounts. Having declared on the eve of the war “no limits” to Sino-Russian relations, Beijing is hardly positioned as an innocent bystander. It is inextricably joined with Putin’s Russia.

Three dimensions reveal the price China is paying for its handling of the Ukraine war. On the security dimension, China is isolated in the face of stronger US alliances, linking Europe and Asia. In economics, decoupling with Russia has ramifications for reorganizing supply chains with China and lowering vulnerability to it. Finally, China is suffering a loss in soft power; its image is sullied by association with Russia’s discredited war.

In the concluding section I look back at how China ended up in this predicament. Its roots go back to the mid-80s, especially to the response to Mikhail Gorbachev’s “new thinking” on foreign policy. China dug itself into a deeper hole in the late 2000s, as it discarded Deng Xiaoping’s dictum cautioning patience in foreign policy. Finally, Xi Jinping bears a huge responsibility through his choices, including yoking China’s to Putin without limit. While policies toward Moscow have been critical, they reflect a broader set of attitudes to great power relations

Below I point to three overall topics covering the twenty losses China is facing: (1) how Sino-Russian relations have evolved and are affected; (2) how US relations with countries in the Indo-Pacific are being reshaped; and (3) how long-separate theaters (the trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic) are being conjoined—an unexpected and rapid consequence of a war.

How Have Sino-Russian Relations Been Affected by the War?

1. Distrust—always a serious problem—has deepened.
Chinese were not coordinating on the plans for the war, and as they insisted, were not informed of the decision at the Putin-Xi summit on February 4. Given the mobilization on the border of Ukraine and shared US intelligence indicating that a Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent, China had to have weighed this possibility. Yet, it is no surprise that Putin would not alert Xi in advance—that is the norm in a bilateral relationship of surprises.

Despite the grounds for considering it to be a strategic mistake for Xi not to have tried, as best we know, to warn Putin off of such a reckless adventure, Chinese are not likely to have reproached themselves for passivity. Seeing the results, however, they have ample reason to fault Putin’s blunder, with its serious ramifications for their own country. How can one trust a close strategic partner who makes such a fundamental mistake on such an important matter? Xi was further embarrassed by agreeing with Putin to call this a relationship “with no limits.” Moreover, Putin’s judgment in his intelligence about Ukraine and bravado about his military must be questioned in Beijing. This is not a basis for further trust.

2. A timetable for challenging the world order is disrupted.
The primary mission of the Sino-Russian partnership over the past quarter century—increasingly acknowledged during the past decade—has been to transform the US-led, liberal international order. If China’s timetable for action is not fully understood, there is little doubt that it is a long-term plan, avoiding both precipitous action and indiscriminate alienation of critical economic partners. Putin’s rash resort to war is clearly at odds with China’s agenda. Indeed, his error has made Ukraine a cautionary tale, precipitous and not unavoidable, as Putin claimed. It has backfired on Russia and left China’s timetable in obvious shambles.

The prime test of a close partnership—let alone one called closer than an alliance—is strategic coordination to achieve joint goals. There has been no hesitancy for a quarter century in trumpeting the shared objectives of Beijing and Moscow. Yet in the most critical decision taken by either state, no meeting of the minds is visible. As a result, Russia has thrown China’s strategy askew.

3. Echoing Russia’s narrative of the war tarnishes China.
Faced with the choice of repeating Russia’s rhetoric or endorsing Ukraine’s position, driving a sharp wedge between it and Russia and reinforcing the US and NATO arguments, China was cornered with no exit in sight. Its image takes a hit from rhetoric contrary to its professed support for sovereignty and territorial integrity, but Xi cannot turn against Putin. To do otherwise would be to exonerate the United States for not only NATO expansion but building up alliances in the Indo-Pacific. Putin has put China in an untenable position, from which signals distancing China from Russia have done little to extricate it.

Putin’s pretexts for going to war and fabrications about the course of the conflict put China in a bind. The nature of the partnership is now perceived differently, sullying China’s image. Losing control of the narrative that these ties are defensive casts a dark shadow. Guilt by association gets compounded by parroting a false line.

4. Limited support for Russia is a blow to the relationship.
China’s unwillingness to provide arms—when Ukraine is flooded with NATO weapons—and to let its companies be targeted for violating economic sanctions is a blow to Sino-Russian relations. Promising an alliance-like bond with no limits, Beijing responded to the first serious test with strict limits, which were conspicuous in their contrast with the way real alliances addressed the same war.

Given the hyperbole about how close Sino-Russian relations had grown, the seeming neutrality of China—in its abstentions at the United Nations, refusal to endorse Russia’s territorial objectives, and lack of arms and economic back-up—cast in doubt the state of the strategic partnership. This left Russia more isolated, but it also left claims that buttressed China’s power under new doubt. Just the image of not being in lockstep damages the aura of this relationship. Chinese go further to put distance between the two—even saying that China is “neutral” on the most important decision Russia has made—neither removes culpability nor sustains the long-desired image of ever-closer relations. This is the worst of both worlds, straining ties in both directions.

5. Decoupling from the global economy is echoed in China.
As the United States led countries to decouple from the Russian economy, some saw a dry run for what would occur if China were to launch a war against Taiwan. Of course, most economies are much more deeply integrated with China, and similar separation is not considered possible. Yet the growing tendency to reduce the level of vulnerability to China in supply chains and in products not widely produced elsewhere gained new momentum. If companies were burned by imprudently investing in Russia when sanctions might follow, the same lessons registered in reliance on China.

To the extent that China fosters economic dependency as a tool for pressuring states to satisfy its various demands—as seen in South Korea, Australia, and Lithuania, among other states—this weapon in China’s arsenal will lose some of its lethality. Although many focus on the differences between Russian and Chinese ties to the outside world, the overall message from global mobilization to weaken the Russian economy over the long run is impactful. In this context, Sino-Russian economic ties offer scant comfort.  

6. Divisions within China into pro- and anti-Russian camps hurt unity
In most foreign challenges Chinese leaders maintain unity, but for Russia’s war in Ukraine, as acknowledged by Yan Xuetong in Foreign Affairs, this proved difficult. Of course, censorship applies, and coverage in open sources is kept within tight restraints, but a fear of severe negative consequences and uncertainty about the degree of China’s commitment to Russia leaves room for some debate. As Yan said, China has little to gain from joining the international chorus condemning Russia, but debate on the degree China should support Russia is somewhat easier, if mostly shielded from domestic audiences.

A policy debate in China on Russia was long not considered helpful for the bilateral relationship. No debate was permitted on North Korea of late either. The fact that some degree of debate is countenanced in this case shows that the situation is so serious it outweighs possible fallout for the relationship. One reason for censorship was the pent-up critique of tsarist imperialism and its humiliating consequences for China, which alarms Russians about the possibility of territorial claims in the Far East. The invasion of Ukraine stoked reminders of that legacy, which had to be a major source of criticism of Russia, which could damage relations.   
As Yan writes,
On WeChat and other social media platforms, Chinese citizens have coalesced into opposing camps: one for Russia and the other against. Soon after the conflict began, some anti-Russia Chinese netizens began rehashing the unfairness of the 1858 Treaty of Aigun, which ceded roughly 230,000 square miles of Chinese territory to Russia. The political sensitivity of this historical event has in the past made Beijing wary of supporting any Russian efforts at territorial expansion. In this case, however, Beijing must give sincere consideration to the anti-Russian sentiment among some Chinese citizens.”

7. Historical judgments leaving Sino-Russian ties fragile are tested.
Despite insistence to the contrary, Sino-Russian distrust over history is pronounced. On the surface, China has forgiven Russia for humiliating the “Middle Kingdom,” joined in historical verdicts on the revolutionary movement in China and World War II, and swept aside the residue of the mutual incriminations of the Sino-Soviet dispute. Below the surface, there is fear that a tiny spark could start a fire on the ashes of the dispute and unleash harsh invectives, as briefly occurred in 2020 over Russia’s celebration of the anniversary of Vladivostok, taken from the Qing. The realization that history is a powder keg permeates relations, which makes Putin’s war, justified by history—and by joint declarations with Xi against fascism and Japanese militarism—a risk for future ties.

The Ukraine war may be viewed by the mainstream as a response to the provocations of the West, but its failure touches on memories not only of Tsarist imperialism but also of Khrushchev’s infringement on the sovereignty of China. Thus, it brings sensitive issues in Sino-Russian relations to the surface. This puts stress on a pillar of the relationship.

8. Unbalancing the strategic triangle strikes a blow against China.

As far as Sino-US relations have sunk recently, China’s strategy did not envision a sharp tilt toward Russo-US war by proxy. This is not seen as in China’s interest or something China had anticipated. As the triangle of greatest strategic importance—and a preoccupation of Chinese for a half century—such an abrupt transformation was unplanned and, more seriously, unwelcome. It is a reminder of 1958 when after Khrushchev visited China Mao decided to shell islands under the administration of Taiwan, apparently to disrupt Soviet-US relations. Whether Putin had the same disruptive aim in mind, he has put Xi on the spot, forcing his hand. China’s lukewarm support for the war does not bode a similar shock for relations between Moscow and Beijing, but it strains ties.

The strategic triangle of the 2020s is often called a “marriage” of two powers against a pariah in the United States. This underappreciates two realities: the marriage is troubled with a low level of trust, and the need for the United States and its allies in China is far greater than in Russia. Xi Jinping has gone much further in alienating the US and some allies in recent years, heartening Putin, but this is now compounded by the war Xi faces a difficult choice in deciding how to recalibrate the triangle.

9. Seeing US policy to Russia or China as containment was an error.
No matter how eager US administrations were to “reset” relations with Moscow or Beijing toward a “win-win” direction, Chinese insisted that the US aim was containment. The Clinton, late Bush, Obama, and Biden overtures to China were interpreted as contradicted by limited US moves to bolster alliances. Similarly, every US initiative to improve relations with Russia drew China’s scorn as belied by actual intentions to contain Russia. In insisting that the US had essentially to disarm to prove it had shed its “Cold War” mentality. China encouraged Russia to think the same way. A downward spiral ensued, in which Beijing blamed the US side but actually abetted more Russo-US strife.

In the 1990s when Russo-US relations were at their peak China rushed to drive a wedge between the two. Obama’s “reset” around 2010 drew further Chinese warnings of US deceit. In 2022 when Biden strove to break the slippery slope in US ties to Russia, China again warned of insincerity. Some might interpret this wedge-driving in the strategic triangle as natural great power behavior, but it was pouring fuel on the fire of Putin’s obsession with using coercive means to redress supposed historical injustice. China’s mindset had a contagious, dangerous effect.

The mindset that Washington has only sought to weaken Russia and China is a mischaracterization of US policy. Coverage of the war is in the same vein: the US provoked Russia through NATO expansion as if NATO, as well as the US alliances in Asia, threaten the security of the countries threatening their neighbors and driving them to seek greater US and alliance support. The fact that the Biden administration strove for months to avert Russia’s invasion through security talks is ignored. Likewise, the charge that the US is now deliberately escalating the war rather than helping Ukraine to reach an agreement that does not reward aggression is omitted. What does China’s criticism of “adding fuel to the flames” mean other than an appeal to let Russia claim a victory through a political settlement that rewards aggression with a territorial prize. Similarly, Chinese claims that no matter what China did to condemn Russia the US would still be determined to contain China through its Indo-Pacific strategy, distorting US defensive intentions.

10. China drew a limited lesson of weak Russia acting precipitously.
The Chinese calculus centered on comprehensive national power is that there is a right time to act, but they have long been concerned about Russia’s weakness and rashness. Because Russia is valued as the essential partner in pressuring the US, Chinese have humored it as if it were more powerful than it really is and made this case to showcase the combined Sino-Russian clout beyond what many believe. Lessons are being drawn from this inflection point in history as they were from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet there is a danger of again drawing the wrong conclusions. Gorbachev was a traitor, misled by faulty ideological interpretations, and now Putin is imprudent, influenced by a legacy of Tsarist and Soviet imperialism and misjudgments over what is required for national strength. This thinking limits spillover to China, but it calls into question past decisions to put Putin on a high pedestal.

A well-rounded Chinese debate on the Ukraine war would appreciate the parallels between Russia and China and delve into the responsibility of China for Russia’s behavior. Censorship has been particularly intense on fundamental questions about Russia, given the strong leadership interest and the concern that negativity, including nationalist emotions, could set back the relationship. Building up Putin’s image as Xi’s closest foreign partner and warning against drawing parallels that could be interpreted as derogatory for Xi’s policies mitigated against warnings of Russian moves that could be harmful to China’s agenda and its timing.

How Have US Relations in the Indo-Pacific Been Reshaped?

11. US alliance expansion is seen as boosted due to the war.
China and Russia had parroted the same warning since the 1990s: any expansion or strengthening of the US alliance system in Europe or Asia is a threat to international security and their country’s security as well. When Moscow made this argument a central pillar of its justification for going to war, Beijing endorsed the charges. On the surface, this served to reenforce the Sino-Russian bond. Yet, this rationale proved to be counterproductive with implications detrimental to China too. Denying any accommodation with US-led alliances even earlier had resulted in countries feeling less secure and more eager for them. Russia’s war of choice doubled down on earlier threats, revitalizing NATO. The logic behind decades of warnings led to action opposite to what was sought.

China saw a spillover to the Ukraine war in its own backyard. Not only did NATO strengthen as a result of Russia’s behavior, U.S. alliances in Asia were galvanized to bolster Ukraine and, in the process, prepared to face a threat from China more cohesively and vigorously. Associated with Russia, China faced guilt by association as an alliance challenger.

12. China’s position is weakened with South Korea and Japan
Seoul sees a parallel between Russia’s attack on Ukraine and North Korea’s potential aggression against it. Having refused to criticize the North in 2010 for aggression, would China, after staying silent on the Ukraine war, oppose a war it launched? Public opinion and official policy were already perceived in China as shifting against it, a new, conservative president watching events in Ukraine poses a bigger risk. If China justifies Russian aggression, would it not condone the North?

Tokyo sees the US leading NATO to resist aggression and does not want to be on the sidelines for it too may seek allied unity in case of a direct attack or coercion inward Taiwan or in the South China Sea. Chinese see Japan repeatedly linking Ukraine to Taiwan, accompanying big shifts in its military posture and in supply chains to reduce vulnerability.

For Taipei, the connection between an attack on Ukraine and one on it is unmistakable. It now must do more to prepare for an attack and to rally others. Thus, images of a China threat are reinforced by extension. The US debate on the Taiwan Strait has turned negative for China too

13. China’s plans for Taiwan have been thrown into jeopardy.
Presenting its case for using force against Taiwan as a matter of “reunification,” Beijing counted on other countries choosing not to get involved apart from the United States and, to a lesser extent, Japan. Indeed, rather than an invasion, China’s actions would be treated as consistent with the principles of sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs. Recast in light of Russia’s claims of the right to seize Ukraine as lacking sovereignty, China’s logic is now suspect. Russia’s rationale casts a shadow on the way China has formulated its plans.

The means used to resist Russia’s war in Ukraine are a blueprint for resistance to Chinese coercion, including preemptive actions. The widespread association of China’s possible war with Russia’s actual war stems from at least four factors: (1) the juxtaposition of the two cases in Chinese and Russian rhetoric, as Beijing sought to arouse Russian anger toward NATO and encroachments into its sphere; (2) the impression that recently both Russia and China were preparing to proceed more aggressively and support one another rhetorically; (3) the fact that the US and Japan in the past few years, focusing on the threat of a “contingency” in the Taiwan strait, had rallied support for that cause and transferred the alarm to the actual war in Ukraine; and (4) the realization that China had joined Russia, calling the atmosphere a “new cold war,” thus heightening tensions and putting states on guard.

14. Spillover from US policies toward Russia hit China hard.
Beyond the impact on the great power strategic triangle, of most interest to China is the impact on the Indo-Pacific region. It seeks to mitigate that impact, e.g., by softening policies toward India. Yet there is recognition that rather than diverting the US toward Europe in a zero-sum manner the Ukraine war has reverberated in extrapolation of measures used against Russia to China. If Ukraine has been added to the US priorities on rebalancing to the Indo-Pacific and competing with China, the effect is not to transfer interest from one region to the other but to follow a new playbook in both arenas of alliance strengthening, reducing vulnerability to pressure, and planning for new confrontation.

Beijing takes note of how Western companies are fleeing Russia and considering contingencies for reducing their presence if the situation in the Taiwan Strait grows tenser. Rallying countries behind democratic values and resistance to aggression, the US is drawing clear parallels with the danger of China attacking Taiwan. Countering the regional loss is second to the minimization of great power costs and the damage to Xi’s image from changing course, but it also is a substantial concern.

15. China mistakenly took comfort from India’s neutrality,
If the situation in Northeast Asia is ominous for China’s thinkers, that further south in Asia may appear promising. Not only have few in Southeast Asia condemned Russia or welcomed the US argument that democracies are rallying against authoritarianism, India has reasserted its defense arrangement with Russia. This response, however, is more an indication of bolstering defense against China than distancing India from the US or the Quad, given a zero-sum view of Russia in the triad.

India calls for a multipolar region, but the US has done a better job in persuading it with Japan that it respects that goal than has China. Whereas some ASEAN states are prone to view the BRI as purely economic and China as less opposed than the US to ASEAN centrality, India adamantly opposes the BRI and steers the Quad toward a less US-centered security framework. Talk of economic resilience in supply chains is welcome in a state more accepting of protectionism and warier of military and economic pressure from China than ASEAN states. 

How Have Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic Ties Conjoined?

16. An unprecedented linkage of two theaters has occurred.
If Sino-Russian relations have had negative effects and China has lost ground in its own neighborhood, the most serious consequence of the war may be the conjoining of the two US alliance networks across the Atlantic and the Pacific. Chinese have counted on the absence of any united front, emphasizing the divisions between the US and its allies and the European powers and the United States. Suddenly, the divide has been bridged, reviving an international security community of the Cold War era. Now geostrategic dynamics are seen as interdependent in Europe and Asia. If a breach occurs in the regional architecture of one arena, the other is heavily implicated. Having objected strenuously to the Indo-Pacific label, as if that links domains that should be kept separate and railed against a purported “NATO of the East,” China has lost much of its leverage on Germany and others shifting their views of security in the Indo-Pacific after awakening to the Russian aggression.

Countries are increasing their military budgets sharply. They are more careful about exports of dual-use items. Reciprocity means that Japan’s support for Ukraine as part of the G7 and in coordination with NATO is likely to be a precursor of European support in Asia, if a contingency should arise. Great Britain has already signaled a growing role there.

17. No longer is Russia Europe’s problem and China Asia’s problem.
This prevailing view in recent years has been challenged by arms sales from Russia and evidence that sanctions against one or the other can be skirted by trade between them. In 2022, concern about linkages rose to an entirely new level, as attention centered on China’s support for Russia’s sanctioned economy and military machine. Asians who used to draw a sharp distinction between the two domains, e.g., Japan wooing Russia after its invasion of Crimea and the Donbas, have changed their tune. The reverse will take longer, given no comparable shock to the Ukraine war in Asia and the close integration with China’s economy of European states (unlike the limited integration of Asian states with the economy of Russia). It starts with wariness about economic losses.

The age of globalization is being challenged, as decoupling in critical sectors gains momentum. Much has been said about on-shoring in response to the Sino-US trade war from 2018 and the pandemic in 2020-21, but the Ukraine war is causing a close look at resilience in case of a geopolitical emergency. A new term “friend-shoring” has appeared, pointing to diversifying sources in order not to suffer from the impact of a crisis severing ties. Even more visible is the push to keep critical technologies out of the hands of China as well as Russia. A spate of new laws and actions ion economic security can be seen. The interconnection of two theaters in this sphere is clearly here to stay.

18. Cross-regional unity tilts the balance in soft power diplomacy.
With a revitalized G7 and the EU embracing values in their pushback against Russia, the US-led values agenda gained new momentum. In much of Asia the democracy versus authoritarianism dichotomy does not sell well. Yet Russia so discredits the authoritarian side that this contrast is easier to draw, and European backing gives it more weight. Both Japan and South Korea are sounding the values horn much more. Indeed, the simultaneous awakening of Japan and Germany is telling.

Ukraine’s nearly ubiquitous appeal, as seen in President Zelensky’s popularity, frames the soft power divide more starkly.  Lately, many have pointed to the overlap of thinking in the Indo-Pacific and EU, agreeing on the rule of law, digital openness, and democratic values. China was heavily responsible for its own soft power descent, as in its Xinjiang genocide and Hong Kong violation of its international promises. The significance of changing perceptions over values is that narrower calculations about economic interests or local security are overcome.

19. A strategy of playing on economic dependency is now challenged.
Beijing largely eschewed soft power and conceded that military power leaves it at a big disadvantage with Washington except in area denial or the adjacent Taiwan strait. The single most effective quiver in its bow has long been economic leverage, as a carrot and as a stick when its will is defied. Use of economic pressure on South Korea in 2016 may have been a tipping point and the supply chain disruptions of the pandemic reinforce talk of limiting dependency on China, but the Ukraine war is a wake-up call like no other about the costs of depending on a country that may start a war, leading to severe sanctions. China’s past strategy is now called into question. Trade deals are sustained, not technology leakage. Production in China survives, but diversification is required.

China has played the economic pressure card repeatedly with little push back. This has alienated US allies, such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, Norway, and Lithuania. The Ukraine war puts such actions in a new light. Countries are recalibrating their degree of dependency. In the process, they are thinking in global terms but wary of globalization.

20. The Ukraine war changes the US calculus for a global framework.
The Biden administration has raised the US from the depths of disdain for the US in the Trump era, which culminated a sense of malaise or decline through the 2000s and 2010s. US choices about wars, about economic policies toward China, and about values leadership failed to galvanize a broad consensus. That has changed since the fall of 2021. After being ridiculed for the way it left Afghanistan, the administration found its footing in the run-up to the Ukraine war and the war itself. It coordinates intelligence, military assistance, an economic framework, and an ideological message more convincingly than anything seen since the end of the Cold War. While some doubt the sustainability of recent US strategies given the threat of Trumpism, the turnabout is dramatic.

China for three decades has argued that the United States is a “paper tiger.” It is in decline. Multipolarity limits its leadership. Benefiting from strong support from Russia, China is forging a regional and global order, which the US opposes because it is obsessed with hegemonic control and containing China’s rise. The developments of 2022 are the sharpest refutation of China’s narrative in at least two decades. In 2000 Chinese were wavering in their assessment of the correlation of forces. Later, the transition from the US to China was taken for granted, but in 2022 that is no longer the case. Russia is the catalyst for a fundamental shift in thinking about the Sino-US relationship, whatever the resistance.


On three dimensions China has suffered a huge setback due to the Russian war in Ukraine. On the security dimension it faces a unified, determined, and now a vigilant set of alliances, which have in mind the defense of Taiwan from a similar assault. On the economic dimension China confronts a solid front of US-led supply chain reconfigurations and export controls, reducing its leverage over other countries, even if it forgoes early coercion against Taiwan or in the South and East China seas. On the national identity front China is now stigmatized by walking hand in hand with s pariah state, having hitched itself closely to Russia.

Spillover from Russia to China affects each of these dimensions. States regretting their tardiness in awakening to the danger of aggression by Russia are looking at China’s threats to Taiwan in a new light. Burned by huge losses from sudden economic retrenchment from Russia, states are consulting on how to reduce their exposure to a similar outcome in China, albeit with sober understanding of the limits of decoupling. Even as many states balk at kindling an ideological war against authoritarian regimes, they also are increasingly conscious of how national identity is twisted by Putin to justify going to war and how it is being rejuvenated by Xi Jinping in ways that must be resisted. New consciousness born of the Ukraine war leaves China floundering to regain momentum abroad.

Not only has China been badly wounded by the war, it bears some responsibility for abetting Putin’s hostile behavior, leading to the war. While China did not recognize the territorial conquests from Putin’s earlier aggression in 2008 and 2014, it repeated much of the rhetoric used to build the case for going to war. It is not an innocent bystander.

What accounts for China’s “defeat” in this war environment? The three principal factors are: (1) linking the destiny of the country to Russia, an impulsive strategic partner, in a manner uncontrollable by China; (2) fostering a worldview so hostile to US alliances that it became unthinkable to resist any charges that they are the cause of geopolitical problems and must be resisted in the most assertive way; and (3) impatiently speeding the timetable for overtaking the United States, not assessing the correlation of forces or balance of power carefully. These miscalculations can be traced to three stages in past thinking.

In stage one, from the mid-80s, Chinese let the legacy of socialist thought steer analysis of the Gorbachev era, the end of the Cold War, and the humiliation of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union to embrace of a grievance-filled country intent on revenge and reconstitution of its empire. Russia did not just turn against the West and become obsessed with taking action. It was encouraged by China from as early as 1992. Condemning Gorbachev as a “traitor” became a unifying theme in relations. If most observers have cited Gorbachev’s domestic agenda and treatment of the communist party as the source of China’s key grievance, this misses the intense anger over his “new thinking” about foreign policy, eschewing Soviet rivalry with the United States.

In stage two, in the late 2000s, China joined Putin in demonizing the United States and exaggerating the decline of the liberal, international order. Abandoning Deng Xiaoping’s timetable for biding its time, China acted rashly to condone provocations by North Korea and put pressure on US allies in Asia, welcoming parallel moves by Russia. The Sino-Russian consensus on the Korean Peninsula and the history of the Korean War fueled joint understanding of how to oppose US alliances.  

Stage three saw Xi Jinping offer Putin the support that emboldened him to act aggressively with little caution. Upgrading this bilateral relationship in 2017 to 2022 signaled that they agreed on a speedy challenge to the existing international order with one railing against NATO expansion and the other against such US -led initiatives as the Quad, the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” and trilateral security with Japan and South Korea. Accord on blaming the US for the failure of the Hanoi summit with Kim Jong-un epitomized the overlap between Putin’s increasingly unhinged rhetoric on Ukraine and Xi’s “wolf warrior” criticisms of other countries.

The roots of Chinese thinking can be traced back to the absence of reconsideration of Khrushchev’s “peaceful coexistence.” In the mid-1980s, attacks against Khrushchev’s foreign policy had accompanied the early critique of Gorbachev as well as the ouster of Hu Yaobang in part for his soft line toward Japan. The attacks on Japan intensified as having no right to be treated as a great power except for economics. With the victory of the hardline faction on June 4, 1989, there was little chance for a reversal although debate was apparent to the mid-2000s.

How badly has China lost from the Ukraine war? It is left rather isolated among developed countries, more subject to suspicion elsewhere, and yoked to a partner with much less strategic or economic value. These are enormous losses with no relief in sight. The negative effects are all the more telling because the assumptions behind Chinese hubris look ever more doubtful. China’s economy appears much weaker in 2022. Demography is turning unfavorable. Social unrest is seen in lockdowns not in keeping with the COVID-19 challenge. Finally, loss of confidence in Xi Jinping’s foreign policy judgment is palpable as many see what has befallen Putin, who risked so much for vain ambitions. We should not underestimate the debate under way in China over the Ukraine war, cognizant of how since the 1950s no country has stirred comparisons to China the way the Soviet Union and Russia have and are doing so again.

* This synopsis is drawn heavily from webinars, mostly organized by think tanks. It also relies on past writings on Sino-Russian relations and Chinese and Russian thinking, the subjects most pertinent to the points raised.

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