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Xi Jinping's game: more subtle than Vladimir Putin but just as worrying

Xi Jinping's game: more subtle than Vladimir Putin but just as worrying
Xi Jinping's game: more subtle than Vladimir Putin but just as worrying


Vladimir Putin and Xi Jiping, shaking hands in Beijing on May 16.
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jiping, shaking hands in Beijing on May 16.

From to after that Xi Jinping would declare unlimited association with Vladimir Poutine, and as leaders meet again in Beijing on May 16-17, the world will see what China's approach means in practice. It's not pretty. As we explained this week, Chinese companies are supporting Putin's war in Ukraine by selling items needed to make weapons to Russia. China's coast guard intimidates ships in the South China Sea, asserting false territorial claims. And Chinese spies are apparently meddling in Britain and other countries.

Xi's challenge to the world is more subtle than that posed by the hawkish Putin. But it's still a problem. Xi aspires to an order in which the strongest imposes right, letting China do what it wants. Their support for pariah states aims to challenge and divide the West, while avoiding direct confrontation. Its coercion in the gray zone in the South China Sea does not constitute war, but aims to weaken its enemies. China believes these tactics can be maintained without leading to conflict. The question for any country that supports global norms is how far it can let Xi go.

As for Russia, the Chinese leader has already gone far enough. Xi is ignoring Western calls to moderate his support for Putin, seeing Russia as an indispensable partner in his campaign to dismantle the U.S.-led order. The two countries have strengthened their military and commercial ties. The United States, for its part, has increased sanctions and imposed tariffs on China in other areas. What is most worrying is Chinese components and machinery reaching Russian arms manufacturers. Antony Blinken, the top US diplomat, said Russia would have difficulty moving forward in Ukraine without support from China. China is not participating in the crisis and is not part of it, Xi bristles. But a long war which tests the unity of the West benefits it.

On the other side of the world, it is the risk of a conflict caused by China that worries the United States and its allies. The South China Sea is larger than the Mediterranean, but it's increasingly difficult to cross without encountering Chinese coast guard ships doing dangerous things. Near two controversial sandbars, Chinese coast guards regularly fire on Philippine ships with water cannons powerful enough to bend metal. Further south, Chinese ships harass Malaysians in search of oil and gas in Malaysia's exclusive economic zone, waters that China considers its own.

The Philippines' defense treaty with the United States transforms Chinese intimidation into a superpower confrontation. This is also at stake Taiwan, who is preparing to inaugurate Lai Ching-te as the new president on May 20. China is increasingly acting as if the island's air and maritime borders did not exist. The United States and its allies are preparing for the worst-case scenario: a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. But for now, the greatest danger lies in the gray zone, where Chinese actions risk triggering an escalating spiral.

China's actions in Europe, Asia and elsewhere often fall somewhere between war and peace. A forceful response may seem like an overreaction. But doing nothing means ceding more and more ground to China. The first task for Western countries, therefore, is to denounce China's actions for what they are: a glimpse of the global order sought by Chinese leaders, in which no country cares or dares to challenge its power. Shedding light on China helps avoid complacency. (Before the invasion of Ukraine, European states were too slow to believe American warnings about Russia's bad intentions.) And information can change public opinion. Polls in some countries targeted by China's bullying suggest growing distrust.

All this makes a second task easier. The United States should support its allies, not out of charity, but because they are a superpower asset that China lacks. China and Russia's continued attempts to divide their alliances, from NATO to the US defense network in Asia, are a backhanded compliment. Autocrats respect strength, and strength is in numbers.

Finally, the West must take advantage of Xi's country's interest in stability. The Chinese leader is not willing to abandon Putin. But unlike his Russian friend, he does not benefit from the chaos. Blinken credited China with persuading Russia not to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Nor has China provided it with lethal weapons. Indeed, there are limits to their relationship, just as there are lines that China seems reluctant to cross in the South China Sea. Naive dreams of changing China are a thing of the past: its worldview of each country is too clear. But Xi's calculating approach to the world is also an opportunity. As China's economy slows, it wants to avoid a complete break with the West. The best way to moderate Xi's aggressiveness and gray zone bullying is to show that it comes at a cost.

2024, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.




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