Congressional Seminar: China’s Geopolitical Balancing Act?
On April 28, 2022, as part of the project “Promoting Dialogue on Arms Control and Disarmament”, the Academy held a Congressional briefing panel to assess how China will seek to define its geo-strategic role in light of the war in Ukraine. Chaired by Steve E. Miller (Harvard University), the virtual event featured presentations by leading China experts Professor M. Taylor Fravel (MIT) and Professor Fiona Cunningham (University of Pennsylvania). The objectives of the event were to provide overviews of Chinese actions and policies toward both Russia and the U.S., and to elaborate what this may mean for U.S. policy, with particular attention to nuclear arms control.
The speakers analyzed the diplomatic, political, military, and economic responses of China toward Russia in the wake of the February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine. On balance, it appears that China has pursued a more neutral response across these realms than might have been expected, given the February 4, 2022, announcement of a “no limits” partnership between the two countries. Although Beijing has amplified Kremlin disinformation in its media and political announcements, in hard terms China has not helped Russia evade the wide-ranging sanctions regime imposed by the West and has largely abstained in key UN resolutions against Russia.
China has continued to criticize the role of the U.S. in the international system – which strains U.S.-China relations further – while seeking to repair ties with European states, to mixed reception. However, Beijing will have taken note of the rapidity and breadth of coordinated action by Western states and allies against Russia and given Russia’s implicit threats of nuclear weapons use, the role of these weapons in warfare will have been keenly considered by policymakers, with particularly salience for a Taiwan contingency.
The Ukraine war, however, may give China confidence that nuclear deterrence provides a shield for conventional action and prevents other powers from intervening. Although the People’s Liberation Army will conduct a deep and long study, one implication may be that China may be encouraged to use nuclear weapons early in a conflict to prevent any kind of intervention and follow this with a concentrated conventional force attack on Taiwan. China is undergoing a vigorous modernization of its nuclear forces – with a steadily growing arsenal, increased accuracy of delivery systems, and a higher state of readiness and diversity of forces – and is thought to now have the capabilities to threaten first use, providing further skepticism to its stated policy of no-first use. In the nearer term, it was thought that bilateral or multilateral strategic nuclear arms control talks were unlikely, but that emphasis should be placed on cultivating Chinese and Russian expert communities to engage in strategic stability discussions.
Finally, in question-and-answer, the issue of global order provoked reflections on whether the world is heading for a new period of bipolarity and what the implications would be for US policy. Countries, especially those in the global south, are faced with competing sources of economic growth and the U.S. could distinguish its approach from China’s by tying its commitment to providing long-term economic growth with prosperity that comes from peace and security.
About the speakers
Professor M. Taylor Fravel is the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science and Director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Taylor studies international relations, with a focus on international security, China, and East Asia. His books include Active Defense: China's Military Strategy Since 1949 (Princeton University Press, 2019) and Strong Borders, Secure Nation: Cooperation and Conflict in China’s Territorial Disputes, (Princeton University Press, 2008).
Professor Fiona Cunningham is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests lie the intersection of technology and conflict, with an empirical focus on China. Fiona’s current book project explains how and why China threatens to use space weapons, cyber-attacks, and conventional missiles as substitutes for nuclear threats in limited wars. Her research has been published in International Security, Security Studies, The Texas National Security Review, and The Washington Quarterly, and has been featured in the New York Times and the Economist.