What China can learn from German history

As Russia continues to bully Ukraine, Chinese leader Xi Jinping is trying to appear neutral while taking steps that reveal his support for Moscow. Under his leadership, Beijing criticized the United States for allegedly triggering the current crisis by expanding NATO; helped Russia spread conspiracy theories about Washington’s involvement in a nonexistent biological weapons program in Ukraine; opposed Western sanctions; and provided Russian President Vladimir Putin with a lifeline amid Russia’s deepening economic crisis.

Quoting a Chinese proverb, Xi told US President Joe Biden “Let he who tied the bell to the tiger’s neck untie it ‘only he who tied the bell to the tiger’s neck can untie it'”, meaning he considers Biden responsible for, and therefore necessary to resolve the current military conflict in Europe.

But despite these measures, Xi is still hedging bets. Rather than support Moscow in a UN General Assembly vote to condemn the Russian invasion, Beijing abstained. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi signaled respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He also hinted that China might be willing to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. And China has not yet recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea or the independence of the so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, two territories in eastern Ukraine where the Kremlin supports pro-Russian separatists who launched a war against the kyiv government in 2014.

There are indications that the Kremlin is pressuring the Chinese to come out of the fence. US intelligence revealed that in March 2022, Russia asked China for (likely lethal) help. The Biden administration moved quickly to warn Beijing not to respond favorably. Washington fears that if China leans to one side in this conflict, it would not only prolong Russia’s atrocious war in Ukraine, but also mark a tectonic shift in world politics, with Beijing and Moscow becoming military allies.

This prospect should not only worry Washington; this should also worry Beijing. In other words, Xi’s inclination to hedge is well-advised. To understand why, China should carefully consider an episode from the opening of the 20th century in Europe.

Waste the future

At that time, another power was growing in economic, military, and technological prominence, just as China is today. Its industries were advancing, its technology was advanced, and its military strength was increasing. Its neighbors and trading partners feared it would dominate the coming century. This country was Imperial Germany.

But thanks to a fateful choice made by the leader of the country, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany was fatally undermined. Rather, the United States dominated the 20th century. As historian Odd Arne Westad has argued, it would behoove Beijing to pay attention to how this geopolitical “self-goal” came about if China is not to be dragged into a similar abyss.

The decisions that led Germany to squander its advantages in the early 20th century were ultimately the responsibility of Berlin, even if the immediate cause lay abroad. In June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated. This murder was the work of a group of separatists supported by some members of the Serbian army. But Vienna, the capital of the failing empire, decided that rather than limit its response to the perpetrators, it would wage war on all of Serbia.

Sensing its own weakness, before commencing hostilities, the Austro-Hungarian Empire sent a delegation to Berlin, the capital of rising Germany. The aim was to seek German support for Vienna’s grumpy army in this risky venture.

German history offers a cautionary tale for Chinese leaders.

In the previous century, the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck had understood the need to be careful and to balance the European powers. Once he united Germany through a series of daring wars, he pursued a strategy of consolidation, not adventurism. But by the time the Viennese delegation arrived in Berlin, Bismarck was long gone. And, unwisely, Wilhelm II decided to throw his support behind Vienna. He gave what became known as a “blank cheque” to his colleagues in the royal family, assuring them of the strongest possible support.

Thus emboldened, the Austro-Hungarian Empire launched war against Serbia. As any modern history student knows, the situation quickly spiraled out of control. Other countries quickly mobilized to avoid being caught off guard in the event of war. As tensions rose across Europe, Berlin launched an invasion of the Netherlands with the aim of conquering France. The German objective was to quickly defeat the French, before Germany also became trapped in a two-front war with the Russians. One by one, countries around the world found themselves drawn into the resulting conflict.

The ensuing global conflagration – World War I – ended with the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the defeat of Wilhelmian Germany. Simply put: by supporting its belligerent and unstable neighbor in its military madness, Berlin has ultimately sacrificed its own future as a dominant power.

From Ukraine to Taiwan?

Just as the Austro-Hungarians sought Berlin’s approval before launching the fateful attack on Serbia, the Kremlin turned to China on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In February 2022, on the eve of the Beijing Winter Olympics, Putin and Xi signed a joint statement signaling their deep friendship, claiming to speak on behalf of “the international community” and decrying the tendency of a certain “minority”. (i.e. the West) “to resort to the use of force”.

But on closer inspection, the Putin-Xi deal was less than it seemed. The public joint statement that Putin obtained, although critical of NATO enlargement in general, says nothing specific about Ukraine. And it seems unlikely that Putin disclosed the full extent of his invasion plans to Xi, given that he even allowed some of the top Russian government figures to believe that the preparation for the invasion was not what a bluff.

Russia’s mounting problems since the true nature of Putin’s plans became known have surely confirmed for Beijing that Putin had committed a blunder of historic proportions, which raises serious questions about Xi’s own room for maneuver vis-à-vis live in Taiwan. It is unclear whether Xi was in a great rush to invade Taiwan before Putin’s war. If he was, he probably rethought the issue in light of the Russia debacle.

It seems unlikely that Putin disclosed the full extent of his invasion plans to Xi.

The damage Russia has suffered from Western sanctions – becoming an international pariah and facing a significant decline in its economic well-being – is a cautionary tale for China’s rulers, who, unlike Putin, derive their national legitimacy mainly on their economic performance. And the valiant Ukrainian resistance to the Russian onslaught has shown Beijing that Putin-style bets on hasty military takeovers are a sure way to invite military disaster. Even if Russia regains the initiative, risks remain for Beijing, such as further economic uncertainties and the more unthinkable prospect of Russia widening the conflict. China could hardly stay on the sidelines of World War III.

It’s time to choose

It is because of their awareness of such risks that the Chinese have walked a tightrope of benevolent neutrality: trying to help Russia while staying away from what is happening in Ukraine. However, as the world learns more about the untold atrocities committed by Russian forces during their invasion, this position is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. Beijing stands at a critical inflection point, one where Xi will have to make a choice: either draw his country away from Putin’s atrocious war and try to end it, or continue to risk China’s future by staying in the bad company of an unpredictable and dangerous actor.

It is time to choose, and the consequences for China of a wrong choice are clear. To continue to support Russia de facto is to further destabilize the international system that has fueled China’s meteoric rise. It also means facing real economic costs for China as its companies face the prospect of secondary sanctions. And the wrong choice will have serious reputational consequences, as Beijing’s flimsy mantras about non-interference are exposed as hypocritical cover for a revisionist neighbor who has unleashed an orgy of violence against a sovereign country. None of this is in China’s interest.

Instead of being dragged down by Russia, China should use its influence with Putin to persuade him to give up. As the German imperial experience suggests, there is no greater folly for a world power than to cater to the whims of a trigger-happy neighbor. It was Putin, not Biden, who tied a bell to the tiger’s neck. If Xi knows what is best for China, he will help untie it.