It was recently released that the Biden administration essentially begged China to try and sway Putin to not invade Ukraine. But this posture ignores the growing array of ties between Beijing and Moscow. To imagine that China would wish to support the U.S. against Russia is to imagine a shared set of interests between the U.S. and Beijing that does not exist. On this episode, Heritage expert Dean Cheng explains the details of this complicated maneuver, and why given the even greater economic and military ties that now link Moscow and Beijing, Washington needs to reprioritize strengthening the United States itself.
Tim Doescher: From The Heritage Foundation. I'm Tim Doescher and this is Heritage Explains.
Doescher: Russia's invasion of Ukraine, it's barbaric. We are seeing in real time, real consequences for real people because of Vladimir Putin's decision. It's hell. And while it's important to continue to be vigilant about the devastating consequences of this aspect of war, we wanted to dedicate this episode to another important aspect. You guessed it, China.
Clip: As most of the world has come together to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine, China has refused to call it an invasion. In a news conference earlier today, China's foreign minister blamed NATO for pushing Russia, Ukraine tension to a breaking point.
Tucker Carlson: Thanks to Biden's policies, Russia and China now form a block against the United States. This was the nightmare scenario. Now it's real. Just today, the Chinese foreign minister described Vladimir Putin as China's quote, most important strategic partner.
Doescher: It was recently reported that U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken turned to Beijing for help, supplying them with US intelligence and he beseeched them to ask Russia to stand down and not invade Ukraine. Uh-huh (affirmative), yeah. Now, there's a lot to be concerned about there, But perhaps the main question we should ask is, what would make the Biden administration think China would choose to help us over Russia?
Doescher: Did you know that Russia and China's trade is currently around $150 billion per year? And they have an agreement to grow that number to 250 billion by 2024. China also buys a significant amount of oil, the lifeblood of their economy, from Russia. Did you also know that Russia and China have for years been engaging in joint military exercises and support each other on votes at the UN? I'll ask the question again, what would make the Biden administration think China is going to choose us over Russia? Yeah. To go deeper, we're going to talk with Dean Cheng. He's a senior research fellow here at The Heritage Foundation. On this episode, Dean documents the ties between China and Russia, especially with the devastating circumstances currently happening in Ukraine. He makes the case that instead of the U.S. reaching out to a clear foe, we should be strengthening our alliances, friendships, and economic partners around the world. But first, here's Based.
Doescher: Dean, thank you so much for being back with Heritage Explains.
Dean Cheng: Thank you for having me. Always a pleasure.
Doescher: Well, obviously America has relationship with China, there's no question, robust trade especially, yet at the same time we also consider them an enemy. You make the point in your recent piece that it's been uncovered that for months before Russia's invasion into Ukraine, the U.S. was basically plying the Chinese with U.S. intelligence indicating that Russia was planning on invading Ukraine and as you say, beseeched the Chinese to tell Russia not to invade. Now again, I know we have a relationship, but I don't think it's that kind of a relationship and it works that way. And I don't want to pretend like I know everything so that's why I'm having you here. Make some sense of this.
Cheng: So the administration has maintained tariffs, it has maintained sanctions over a variety of technologies. We've imposed additional sanctions over issues like Hong Kong and the Uighurs. So why did they think that Xi would be willing to turn on one of his closer buddies when in fact Xi and Putin had even made a joint statement on the eve of the Beijing Olympics?
Doescher: Yeah. Talk a little bit more about, so obviously we have a, and you mentioned this a little bit, but talk a little bit more about China's relationship with Russia when it comes to trade. Because we think about our, you know, as we say, the addiction to China, going to Walmart and buying Chinese products and we rely on them for that. But from what my understanding is and from your piece, it's even deeper with Russia.
Cheng: It's deeper and goes back further.
Cheng: So for much of the last decade at least, ever since the Russians first went into Ukraine by annexing Crimea in 2014, the EU, the U.S., much of the West has imposed sanctions. Guess who's picked up the slack? It's been China. China has signed deals for Russian natural gas. China has signed deals for Russian timber. China has also signed deals [inaudible 00:06:29] with the Russians to buy certain weapons because if the Russian factories are going to stay open, they need customers and that's mostly China. So new fighter planes, SU 33 series, the kilo class submarines, the Chinese bought a bunch of additional ones, very advanced service to air missiles. So literally on the eve of this war, several things happened. The Chinese signed contracts for coal, a hundred million tons. By the way, that's going to 38 new coal fired power plants.
Cheng: These are the same kinds of plants that John Kerry is sure that the Chinese will shut down even as they're building new ones. You've got them cutting deals on a variety of other banking and financial instruments. Just real quick example here, Visa and MasterCard just announced that they were pulling out of Russia. Within like 48 hours, Chinese banks with UnionPay and Alipay were stepping in. Now, to give you a sense, you don't buy a house in 48 hours. You don't switch a country's credit card system in 48 hours unless there's been a lot of paperwork and a lot of other stuff already done long in advance.
Doescher: It's amazing. And more than that even, you talk about, I think as recent as 2018, they're doing military exercises together, like thousands of troops are interacting with Russia and thousands of Russians are interacting Chinese. I mean, this is deep.
Cheng: Oh, this is very deep. So 2018 was a huge one, 3,000 to 3,500 Chinese troops, 900 vehicles, 30 aircraft.
Doescher: Oh my gosh.
Cheng: But in 2021, August of 2021, Russian troops went to China and did a massive joint exercise. And that one was unique because you actually had on Russian TV Russian troops coming out the back of Chinese armored personnel carriers. Now to give you a sense of how radical that is, we don't do that with our NATO allies. If you take a look at British troops, they ride into battle in British armored personnel carriers and they come out alongside Germans or Americans. But you don't have German troops coming out the back of British carriers. You don't have American troops riding into battle in Dutch armor personnel carriers. This was a very deliberate political message. Hey world, Russia, China, militarily, we are close as close can be.
Doescher: Since Russia invaded again, since they invaded Ukraine again, most recently, how has China behaved? What has their behavior been like since they invaded? We were trying to work with them beforehand, but then the invasion happened again, and what has their behavior been like since?
Cheng: It's been fascinatingly mixed. So we see the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson taking a question from Western journalists about the Russian invasion and lecturing, actually yelling at the reporter saying, "That is such a Western term, invasion." So on the one hand, that's okay, so they're on Russia side, right? Then they come out at a place like the UN and they abstain on certain votes and they basically say we value sovereignty and territorial integrity, which sounds kind of like they're pro Ukraine. Then we see them signing this a hundred million ton coal deal and lifting wheat import restrictions about Russia. And that would again suggest being on their side. But we're also seeing a lot of Chinese companies, private companies, and they do exist in China, pulling out or limiting their exposure in Russia and I would suggest that is because of the global crackdown on international financial transactions, the SWIFT network. So we've seen Chinese banks not willing to underwrite that coal deal. We've seen TikTok, a Chinese company, by the way, if it's on your phone, Beijing thanks you.
Doescher: That's a whole nother episode.
Cheng: That's a whole nother... But TikTok has joined MasterCard and Visa in pulling out. So it's a really interesting mixed set of signals that the government in Beijing leans clearly towards Putin, but it's not all in. I think that's a very important thing to keep in mind. They are not all in. And I think they are sort of waiting and seeing, particularly because the Russians haven't done well, certainly not done as was people had expected, but also because people often don't realize that there were significant ties between Ukraine and China. Ukraine had a bunch of technologies that they were willing to sell the Chinese, including rocket motors and things like that, and they sold food into China's a net importer of food and Ukraine is a huge exporter of grain. And so the Chinese were importing Ukrainian food. So I think for the moment, Beijing sort of waiting and seeing who's going to win before going more whole hog.
Doescher: I see a lot of mentions about how because of Russia's war on Ukraine, China might be emboldened in regards to Taiwan. Now I know that for me and many of our friends listening, that connection may not be a natural one. I was hoping you could go through that since you did mention that in your piece. Go into that just a little bit more. How does Taiwan, China, Ukraine, Russia, how does that all work together?
Cheng: So part of the connection is if Russia succeeds in taking over Ukraine, does that demonstrate Western fecklessness? Does that demonstrate Western inability to respond in a way that China's going to say, "Great. Now I know how ineffectual you'd be if I were to take Taiwan." A second piece of this is the more the U.S. and NATO are fixated on Ukraine, the less of our attention is likely to be in the Western Pacific. So there's a potential window of opportunity that opens with regards to if our best air assets, if a lot of our space intelligence assets are all devoted to Europe, were perhaps paying less attention. A third aspect, which is really sort of interesting is that Russia pulled a lot of its forces out of Eastern Russia, the forces that normally will be facing China to reinforce the war effort against Ukraine.
Cheng: What that means for China is two things. Their Western flank is relatively safe and secure. But two, if necessary, they could also now pull forces, air force units in particular missile forces out of Western China, most likely the Northern war zone, which is responsible for facing Russia and also Japan, and reallocate them in a anti-Taiwan campaign.
Cheng: The one other thing that I would mention to our readers and this brings us back to the finance aspect is that if these financial sanctions and things really cripple Russia's economy, I think the Chinese, who have been trying very hard to establish an alternative parallel system, is going to make that the absolute top priority. Because the lesson that they will take away from this is, before we go and try and take Taiwan, we have to make bulletproof our economy so no one can impose financial and other sanctions that could hurt us the way we seem to be hurting Moscow.
Doescher: Now you say in the light of all of this, the U.S. must reprioritize to strengthening ourselves. That is a very loaded statement. You're laughing right now because you know it is. My question is, and this is a loaded question, how do we do that?
Cheng: Well, let's see. How about-
Doescher: Especially given what's going on right now.
Cheng: No, because of what's going on right now, let's not spend even more debt. Let's not create even more debt. Because the funny thing about defense spending is it's not obligated money. It's not entitled money. It's not money that the government has to spend no matter what, unlike debt payments and social security payments and the like. It's discretionary spending. And the bigger the debt, with inflation comes rising interest rates, with rising interest rates means more interest payments, that starts affecting your discretionary spending. It means that we are not going to have the money to spend on new weapons if we're going to need them to deter either Russia or China. It means that why have we gone from being a net crude oil exporter to returning to being an importer? Maybe we should think about whether all the regulations and cancellations of this administration actually strengthen our own economy and our own national security.
Cheng: It means that we need to be paying a lot of attention. We've so far dodged a bullet in this war. There hasn't been the global cyber attacks that everyone had been worried about. You can still go and fill your car or truck at the gas station, your credit card still works. There was a lot of worry about that. But let's not get too ahead of ourselves.
Cheng: We've been lucky so far. The Russians have chosen not to do this. This is when we should be really tightening up our own cybersecurity across infrastructure, financial networks, energy networks, communications networks. And then finally we should be thinking about what we need to do with our allies, it's strengthening us by strengthening our relationships. And I would just suggest that when this administration truly seems to believe that it is better to get oil from Iran and Venezuela than Texas and North Dakota, that this is the classic example of not strengthening ourselves.
Doescher: Yeah. Well, Dean, this is actually massive and we are really, really grateful for you coming in and explaining them to us in a way that we can then share with other people. So again, thank you for being here.
Cheng: Thanks as always for having me Tim.
Doescher: And that's it for this episode of Heritage Explains. Thanks so much for continuing to listen to us, continuing to share us with your friends and your family, for rating us five stars, for leaving comments, all of the above that we say every week, we appreciate it. Now I've gone ahead and linked to Dean's work in the show notes so head over there if you want more information and we'll see you on the next episode.