It has become fashionable in some policy circles to speak of the conflict in Ukraine in terms of a proxy war between the United States and China. According to this conventional wisdom, Russia is China’s closest ally, and by helping Ukraine fight the Russians, America is indirectly weakening China.
This narrative is overly simplistic. While Beijing views Russia as an important partner, it sees the war in terms of its own interests.
The CCP hopes to emerge as the conflict’s greatest beneficiary, and it’s happy to let Russia, Ukraine and Ukraine’s arms suppliers—especially the United States—pay the tab.
To be sure, the U.S. is right to support Ukraine. Russia’s brazen violation of the country’s sovereignty is a direct threat to Europe, and America’s Eastern European allies fear that if Russia isn’t stopped, they might be next.
Although Washington is under no obligation to provide for the defense of a non-treaty ally, completely abandoning Ukraine could cause vulnerable allies to question America’s commitment to security in the region.
Furthermore, weakening Russia is in America’s interest regardless of what it means for China. China is Washington’s most serious long-term threat, but that doesn’t mean it can ignore other threats. While it is important to put an end to the bloodshed in Ukraine as soon as possible, it’s undeniable that a key U.S. adversary is having its military substantially depleted without placing American lives at risk—in part thanks to the support Washington is giving to Ukraine.
Nevertheless, policymakers should have no illusions that their support for Ukraine will somehow inhibit China from challenging the global or regional order. The war may complicate some of Beijing’s short-term calculations, but it’s helping to advance its longer-term agenda.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, China and Russia are not allies. It’s true that the strategic partnership between these two countries has flourished in recent years and poses an increasingly grave threat to the United States.
But this partnership is based almost entirely on their mutual opposition to American global leadership. Aside from this and a few other areas of shared interest, Beijing cares little about Moscow. The "no limits" partnership they signed in February 2022 was just that—a partnership and nothing more.
China doesn’t do alliances. The country only has one formal ally—North Korea—and many in the CCP even view that as an unwelcome burden. Beijing eschews any agreement that would put it on the hook for another country’s security interests, especially when that country is a rival great power that may someday become an adversary.
Many forget that China and Russia share a 2,500-mile border, a long history of mutual hostility, and a range of conflicting geopolitical interests. Though mutual hatred of the American-led world order is pulling them closer together, they’ve never trusted each other. Just as the end of World War II resulted in a recommencement of enmity between the U.S. and its wartime ally the Soviet Union, China expects its relationship with Russia to eventually revert to rivalry.
Thus, while Beijing might view Russia’s military setbacks—as well as the strengthening of U.S. alliances in both Europe and the Indo-Pacific, which the war prompted—as a disadvantage in its struggle against American global leadership, it sees long-term benefits in a weakened Russia. Indeed, the weaker Russia’s military and economy become, the more it will become dependent on China, and the less of a threat it will pose in the future.
The fact that China is reaping this benefit without having to fight Russia on the battlefield is doubly welcome in Beijing. It also doesn’t hurt that the U.S. is depleting some of its own military resources by arming Ukraine. This hasn’t yet left the U.S. military at a serious disadvantage, but if the war is here for the long haul, it might.
That doesn’t mean Beijing welcomes the war or wants it to continue indefinitely. China is uncomfortable with the conflict and the prospect of further escalation. It especially fears the remote possibility of nuclear war or developments that would force it to become involved to preserve its interests—for example, if it assessed that Putin’s regime was likely to collapse. China doesn’t necessarily need Putin, but it would prefer to keep him around, as it can’t be sure that whoever follows him would be aligned with Beijing’s interests.
But the war is a fact Beijing can’t change, as well as an opportunity it doesn’t want to waste. It sees major upside if it can use the conflict to secure political and strategic advantages.
China is especially active in its efforts to control the international discourse around its role in the conflict. This is partially due to the devastating hit its reputation initially took in the developed world due to its refusal to condemn Russia or sign onto sanctions.
Beijing has since gone on the offensive, presenting itself as a neutral party that is striving to bring about peace while portraying the U.S. as a warmonger that is prolonging the conflict by providing arms to Ukraine. While few in the West take this narrative seriously, it has found resonance in the developing world, where many find it convincing.
Beijing’s calls for peace aren’t just rhetoric. China would love to portray itself as the international leader that brought this nasty conflict to an end. As unlikely as such an outcome is at present, China has taken concrete steps toward brokering a peace deal, and even dispatched a special envoy to work towards this outcome. These efforts may not bear fruit anytime soon, but when conditions eventually allow for a cessation of hostilities, China hopes to have positioned itself not only to dictate the terms of the settlement, but also to win a giant political victory and elevate its reputation on the world stage.
Until this is possible, however, Beijing is content to keep watching Russia and Ukraine slug it out. As long as the war doesn’t escalate to the point of directly threatening critical Chinese interests or destabilizing Russia’s regime, the CCP has every reason to believe that it will be the war’s greatest beneficiary, regardless of how much damage the Russian military sustains or who ultimately wins.
This piece originally appeared in Fox News