China expert on Ukraine and Taiwan: “China is in a dilemma”

China expert on Ukraine and Taiwan: “China is in a dilemma”

According to Cheng Li, the country is suffering from the Ukraine war: it has no interest in a bloc confrontation, but neither does it have any interest in a Russian defeat.

Xi Jinping raises his fist

What is its strategic goal? Chinese President Xi Jinping at his swearing-in ceremony Photo: Mark R. Cristino/epa

Wochentaz: Mr. Li, in your book about the middle class in Shanghai you write that China is not monolithic. There is a self-confident layer that speaks up. But just at the National People’s Congress, Xi Jinping was unanimously elected to a third term. Is not that a contradiction?

Cheng Li: Chinese society has become increasingly pluralistic. There are different voices and perspectives. You could see that during the Covid lockdowns. Shanghai has the largest middle class, which is subject to some foreign influence. The relationship between the middle class and the state is in a period of transition.

is a leading Chinese-American expert on China’s political elite and society. He grew up in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution and studied in the USA from 1985, where he received his doctorate from Princeton University. Since 2014 he has headed the China Center of the Brookings think tank in Washington and advises governments, companies and organizations on China.

There was not a single abstention in the vote on Xi’s unprecedented third term.

The people’s congress is made up of elites, government and party officials. I wouldn’t read too much into it. On TV you saw so many delegates praising Xi Jinping to a degree that reminded me of the Mao era. At the same time, it can be seen that social media in China is very different. There are a lot of more or less subtle and sometimes sarcastic criticisms of this monopoly.

At the People’s Congress, Xi promised “a Great Wall of Steel”, i.e. a militarily strong China. Is this a cause for concern for the West?

Well, Xi Jinping said a lot of things. He also spoke that China should contribute to global peace and much more. But of course his strong narrative is: Mao Tse-tung led China into insurgency, Deng Xiaoping made China rich, and Xi Jinping is making China strong. Military modernization is one of its most important projects, along with poverty eradication, green development and anti-corruption. The Communist Party strengthens the military-industrial complex and the defense industry. Should the world worry? We should pay more attention to this kind of development.

Xi also accused the US of “blocking” Chinato encircle and suppress”. A look at the map shows a number of US military bases near China, for example in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Guam. So is there any truth to Xi’s accusation?

It’s no secret that the US wants to contain China and many people in Washington are even talking about regime change. US President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific coalition-building strategy even includes Taiwan as a non-NATO ally. So you decide all that, sell more weapons to Taiwan and send more military trainers there. And Japan and South Korea are participating in US military exercises.

Xi will be in Moscow next week and, according to unconfirmed reports, plans to call Ukrainian President Zelensky afterwards. What is Xi’s strategic goal?

Instead of siding with Russia, China wants to play an important mediating role. Relations between China and Ukraine are actually not that bad. Many Ukrainian scientists live and work in China. China’s aerospace industry has benefited from them, even China’s first aircraft carrier was built in Ukraine. China is also providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine. But China-Russia relations are in some ways pretty good too. Above all, it is the common enemy, the United States, that has brought Beijing and Moscow together.

What are Beijing’s interests regarding the war in Ukraine?

China is suffering economically from the war. It also reinforces a current narrative that is damaging to China: “Today there is war in Ukraine, tomorrow there will be war in Taiwan.” It sounds like an attack by China is already planned and inevitable. But that is not China’s official policy. Also, the view that the Cold War is back, that is, a bloc led by China and allied with Iran, is not in Beijing’s interest. China is not interested in this kind of provocation.

The reason China hasn’t condemned Russia for attacking Ukraine is because Beijing thinks: If we condemn Russia, we should also condemn NATO expansion. Of course, China doesn’t want Russia to be completely defeated now, because if that happened, China could be next. This is the dilemma facing China.

China is more interested in a multipolar world than two blocs?

Exactly. With regard to climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, cybersecurity and counter-terrorism, China is trying to play an important role: Beijing’s diplomatic offensive – the 12-point plan for Ukraine, mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. We’ll see if China can also use its own leverage and incentives to launch another round of negotiations between Israel and some Arab countries. It’s all part of a campaign to try to change China’s bad image and avoid isolation from a US-led coalition. China is addressing the Global South, but especially European countries. But it seems that Europe is not ready yet. I don’t know if the time is right for China to really play a positive role.

Rather, the US government accuses China of planning arms deliveries to Russia. What is it?

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I am unable to answer this question. I have no evidence.

How do you interpret the motives of the US side?

Gossip and criticism of China is common in Washington, costs nothing and is used strategically. Chinese arms shipments would certainly reinforce a negative public view and make European countries even more angry and suspicious of China.

US General Mike Minihan warned in January that China would attack Taiwan in two years. Is this realistic?

I don’t think this officer spoke for the US government. I really don’t see any clear evidence that the Chinese have a clear plan to attack Taiwan. On the other hand, of course, no Chinese leadership could survive politically if it allowed Taiwan to become independent. In the end, nationalism always prevails.

The US, in turn, is concerned about China’s military buildup, which could pose a real threat to us. So it is a reaction spiral in which fear and hostility reinforce each other. Fears of a Taiwan war are growing, but such perceptions sometimes influence reality. But again, that doesn’t happen. You have to put that in perspective. The Taiwan war threat is there, but not very great.

What do you mean by “putting that in perspective”?

I’m a bit surprised by the fear in Europe that Beijing will attack Taiwan. This fear has more to do with the war in Ukraine than with the situation between China and Taiwan.

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