UPDATED ON: MARCH 16, 2022 / 11:45 AM / CBS NEWS
In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Chris Johnson, senior fellow at CSIS, about the Chinese perspective on the Russia-Ukraine War. Morell and Johnson talk about how the crisis in Ukraine affects China’s view on Taiwan and how China would like the conflict to end. Johnson says that in Ukraine, chemical weapons “would probably be a dividing line for the Chinese, although it wasn’t in Syria.”
- How Russia-Ukraine war is affecting China’s view on Taiwan: “The Chinese were not ever going to view the situation in Ukraine as an opportunity, while the U.S. and the West are distracted, to invade Taiwan … My sense is the only way it’s really affected China’s view, and it’s important to highlight this, that Taiwan has its own cadence. It’s on its own timeline of sorts within the Chinese brain. And I don’t think that that is affected at all by the developments on the ground in Ukraine.”
- China’s perspective on how war should end: “In terms of how they’d like it to end. I think they would like to see Putin show a little more leg in being seriously willing to negotiate … I think ultimately, they would love to see Russia just pull back and somehow try to neutralize that portion of Ukraine through negotiation. I think that’s probably quite fanciful on their end of things.”
- Russia’s potential use of chemical weapons: “We seem to be at a juncture where Putin is certainly continuing to try to amass the force that he would need to really go at Kiev and the other large cities very, very strongly. If in the process of doing that, it’s not going well, or they continue to have the logistical problems and other things that we’ve been seeing that make them less effective militarily and they were to consider using chemical weapons. My sense is that that would probably be a dividing line for the Chinese, although it wasn’t in Syria.”
“Intelligence Matters” – Chris Johnson transcript
Producer: Paulina Smolinski
MICHAEL MORELL: Chris, welcome again. You and Sue Mi Terry are competing for the most frequent guest on Intelligence Matters.
CHRIS JOHNSON: I meant to count this morning to see if I was in the lead, but I didn’t get around to it
MICHAEL MORELL: Chris, we are living through a very difficult time in Ukraine. The intimidation of the Russian military buildup, the invasion itself, which we’re still going through, the use of some of the most brutal of attacks by the Russian military. And you and I are now going to look at that all from the perspective of China, which I think is incredibly important. And maybe the place to begin, Chris, is by starting with the broad Russia China relationship before Ukraine occurred. You know, how would you have described it at that time? And what was it based on?
CHRIS JOHNSON: I think I would have described it as a partnership of mutual interest and a partnership of mutual grievances. And note that I didn’t say that it was a marriage of convenience, which I think is too dismissive of what’s been happening in the relationship, certainly over the last decade, maybe even a little bit longer ago than that. But more importantly, I think in the current context of what we’re seeing with Russia and Ukraine, I also didn’t describe it as a new axis, as certainly the Trump administration implied in its national security strategy in 2017 by describing the Chinese and the Russians as sort of on the same level in terms of our new strategic competitors. And interestingly, and perhaps troublingly, explicitly now being shaped by some in the Biden administration. Or at least it seems they’re trying to convince us that it is a new axis, perhaps all of the old axis powers.
In terms of how I would have described it, the mutual interest side of the relationship is very clear. You know, China needs oil, gas, wheat, other commodities and in various ways, military technology and Russia has all of those things. And I think, as what is currently playing out in the Ukraine situation highlights, Russia needed and needs stability on its far eastern frontier to be able to focus on shoring up its western near abroad. Or at least that’s certainly how they see it. And then obviously, of course, especially in the current context, they need Chinese cash.
As to the set of mutual grievances, my sense is they both certainly share a disdain for the U.S. led international order, and they don’t think that the U.S. and its allies should be able to dictate either the governance system that countries can choose for themselves. And they certainly don’t like the U.S. abusing, as they put it, its dominance of the world financial system -as the Chinese refer to as long arm jurisdiction- to punish governing systems that they don’t like. In terms of what else it is based on, in my mind, obviously, the big elephant in the room, and there’s just no denying the importance of the personal relationship between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. And in my sense, that’s really composed of three things. The first is, well, the base point is that when each of them look at the other, they basically see themselves. And I think that’s a very important piece of the puzzle.
MICHAEL MORELL: And if you like yourself, you’re going to like somebody like you.
CHRIS JOHNSON: Exactly. We all like people like us, right? But you know what do they see when they look at the other guy? The first thing I think they see, I think, is somebody who is strong and large and in charge within their system, just like they are. The second is that I think they both, in different ways of course, but they both have this sort of certain messianic quality or a perception of themselves as a man of history, man of destiny out to achieve great things for themselves and for their country. And I think most importantly, they both share a desire and a commitment to going to the mattresses, if necessary, to protect those systems.
And then just a final word on the Russia China relationship as it existed before this crisis. I’ve noticed that I think a lot of it is sort of generational as well because how else can you explain all the different analytic takes and so on on what that relationship is like. I think for older analysts who either directly participated in the rapprochement between the U.S. and China in the 70s or where heavily influenced by it. They tend to emphasize the challenges, the distrust, the historical grievances and in the relationship. And I think much younger analysts tend to view it almost the opposite that this is indeed a new axis. And I think people in my cohort perhaps kind of see it as somewhere in the middle more like what I described as this partnership of both mutual interest and mutual grievance.
MICHAEL MORELL: Do you think the Chinese knew about Putin’s plans in advance? Do you think Putin told Xi what he was going to do?
CHRIS JOHNSON: I don’t think he told him what he was going to do. You know, there’s been obviously a lot of speculation that could have happened at the opening ceremonies. You know, they had a meeting on the margins of that and rolled out this declaration that we’re all scrutinizing now for what it might mean. So I don’t think he explicitly told him in part because I just don’t think that’s their relationship. And perhaps equally, if not more interesting, there was a lot of speculation before that meeting that Xi Jinping might tell Putin, don’t do it. And my sense of that is that not only Xi Jinping, but I think most Chinese would see that as almost rude. What I do think he probably told Putin, however, was if you’re going to do it, make sure you have something approaching a passable justification. And of course, in there, you know all the facts, propaganda that’s a pretty broad definition. But something if you want any support from me that I can hang on to. And I think we can debate, you know, whether what’s happened would fit that category or not.
MICHAEL MORELL: And as the Chinese were watching the military buildup, probably getting information from Russia. How do you think they thought this was going to play out before it started?
CHRIS JOHNSON: There’s been a lot of controversy over that too, I think. And the general view that’s out there, certainly in the media and so on, is that they were surprised. That they thought he was just building up as part of a bluff. That’s not my sense. My sense is that certainly at the very top levels of the leadership and I would include President Xi in that there was a sense that he would go in. And I think it was that not only would he go in, though, but that he would remain in the East. So focus on the eastern parts of Ukraine, certainly not sweep in with five different points of attack, you know, as we’ve seen. And I think their assessment, as you said, based on the intelligence that they would have been getting from the Russians about the Ukrainian military, they thought it would be quick and over fast because of Russian military superiority.
MICHAEL MORELL: Do you also think they were surprised by the Western response?
CHRIS JOHNSON: Most definitely. Yeah. No question. My sense of it is that in the grand scheme of things, the Chinese really were not focused that much and probably still aren’t on what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine. You know, from a sense of China’s interests, obviously, they have to pay attention to what’s happening to tactically position themselves. But my view is that they had two primary areas of focus, both of which were what we might call second and third order effects. Which would be first, would the U.S. actually back up the rhetorical chest thumping that was happening in the run up to the invasion about very strong financial sanctions, technology restrictions, things like that. And the second was, could the U.S. manage to keep in their mind those unreliable Europeans on side as part of a multilateral coalition given the scale of the threat to European security, which is obviously significant. They cannot be liking the answers to either of those questions or observations, at least how many days we are now into this conflict.
MICHAEL MORELL: A U.S. that did not respond with tough sanctions and a west that did not come together would have served Chinese interests, correct?
CHRIS JOHNSON: Yeah, or certainly could have given them, sent them wrong signals about things they might be considering. I’m sure we’ll talk about Taiwan and some point here.
MICHAEL MORELL: Since the invasion, we’re now a couple of weeks into it, how do you think the Chinese assess what’s happening, whether it’s in their interests? Has their view evolved in any way? Where do you think they are today in thinking about what’s going on?
CHRIS JOHNSON: My own view is that their view hasn’t changed, or at least the way they’re prosecuting that view hasn’t changed. So there’s been a lot of speculation in media takes and elsewhere. Each time there’s a phone call between President Xi and we had one with the chancellor of Germany and the president of France. His foreign minister has done the same thing with his equivalents in those countries. In those discussions, they’ll often say things, ‘well, we would like peace and dialogue to be the solution here and that it is in everyone’s interest that this end.’ And so on and so forth. And that’s often interpreted as the Chinese pivoting, seems to be a word that’s used a lot away, from Russia or having second thoughts about their embrace of Russia and so on. I don’t read it that way. To me, it’s about the fundamentals of what the Chinese are communicating. And if you read their media every day, which I do, you can see that it still blames the U.S. for the crisis.
There was just a really hard hitting and fascinating in a way, People’s Daily piece earlier this week about the U.S. as the Empire of Lies, for example, which is straight out of Russian propaganda as well. So no real sense that they are rethinking, if you will, in a meaningful way. And I think in terms of your question about whether they view this all as in their interest. My sense is that unsurprisingly, they’re very conflicted on that score. They certainly wanted to and want to reap the benefits of what they described in their February 4th declaration as their no limits partnership with Russia without, in theory, doing damage to the relationship with Ukraine. Not so much as Ukraine itself, although they did have certainly some trade relationships there and so on. But mainly as it relates to Europe and the hope that they could keep the Europeans kind of onside, if you will, as part of the balancing act.
My sense, however, also though, is that during the leadership deliberations that the Chinese had that occurred. There was this period, and I think it was the second week of the Olympic Games in Beijing, where the top leadership, the Politburo Standing Committee, just disappeared from the headlines and so on. And these days, that’s very unusual for Xi Jinping to disappear from the media for a week’s time and his colleagues as well. And my guess is that surely Xi Jinping would have told his colleagues that whatever would ensue on the ground, it would be in keeping with his correct, important word, ideological framing of the set up, if you will, of the international system and the global order these days.
And there, we need to emphasize this phrase that they often use: change is unseen in a century. And in the West, when that phrase is used, it’s usually interpreted as well this is a reflection of Chinese hubris. The east is rising, the West is declining. It’s our time, et cetera. But there’s an inverse to that. The Chinese are good communists, so therefore they’re interested in contradictions. And that is that they fear and they’re anxious about the chaos that will ensue in the international system as the current hegemonic U.S. inevitably declines in their mind. I think we saw a manifestation of that. A lot of analysts, myself included for at least the early going, thought that the Chinese would have a difficult time backing the Russians the way they have because it is in such conflict with their long standing principle of focusing on sovereignty and territorial integrity. And of course, Ukraine is a sovereign country. But I think their assessment of this piece of the changes unseen in the century tells them that the New World Global Order is a multipolar one where that is governed exclusively by pure power politics. And as such, they were quick to jettison those those principles in order to advance what they think is their strategic interest.
MICHAEL MORELL: I’m wondering given the February 4th communique, given the language about a strategic partnership with no limits. Are there folks in the world who are placing any responsibility for what happened here on China?
CHRIS JOHNSON: Oh yes, in our own country. As I mentioned–
MICHAEL MORELL: -but more broadly than here in the U.S.
CHRIS JOHNSON: I think abroad they are as well, certainly the trend line. I mean, this is going to be a very difficult one. This is the aspect I think that’s going to be the hardest for the Chinese to escape, if you will.
MICHAEL MORELL: Do you think they realize that now?
CHRIS JOHNSON: Well, that’s a good question as to A. how much it is dawning on them. My understanding is that within the system, this is certainly coming up in leadership deliberations. Have we blown it here? Or will this now mean that we’re lumped in, you know, with the Russians forever because that’s not what we want. Some, I think, largely in the security and intelligence services are suggesting to the leadership that, well, what we’re seeing in Europe is really all about Russia. And so take the case of, say, Germany, for example, because that’s one that they do very much pay attention to. My guess is those guys would be saying this is about the relationship with Russia, a wake up call for Germany and other European countries as to, in theory, how close, if you will, militarily Russia is to them. And so there’s that backlash against Russia. But that may not necessarily translate to us. And then I think there are others in the system, I would put them more in the diplomatic and foreign policy adviser community, who don’t like the cozying up with Russia, who are trying to say, ‘no, this is a really big deal. And so we need to alter the policy.’
MICHAEL MORELL: So I’m wondering if they’re missing a big point here, right? And I’m wondering to what extent this should be a wake up call for them. Despite all of their talk and all of their thinking about the decline of the U.S. and the West. We’re in the middle of displaying really awesome power by the United States and our allies-
CHRIS JOHNSON: -and resilience-
MICHAEL MORELL: -and resilience. So I wonder to what extent that is resonating in China and to what extent they’re thinking about that?
CHRIS JOHNSON: Oh, most definitely. I’m sure that they are. And interestingly, you know, again, a lot of observers tend to say, ‘Well since they started using these phrases like the east is rising in the West, it’s declining and so on that just shows that they certainly believe we’re in terminal decline.’ I think that is their conclusion. That’s certainly Xi Jinping’s belief. But I think it’s very important to dissect that a little bit and try to understand why and how that came into being. You know, you’ll recall, obviously, after the global financial crisis in 2008, there was a large community of Chinese analysts and certainly some in the leadership who were saying, ‘that’s it. It’s the death nail for the United States.’ Interestingly, my understanding is that Xi Jinping, who was vice president at the time and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, was one of the few people in the leadership who were arguing that let’s not count the United States out and their ability to rebound from these sorts of things. But then we elected Donald Trump. And I think in his mind and in the mind of a lot of the other leaders, that was the final straw in terms of demonstrating- not that we weren’t powerful- they still think we’re powerful- but that we were broken, if you will, internally. And in fact, that’s a bad combination, still very powerful but broken and therefore unpredictable and dangerous in their mind.
MICHAEL MORELL: And do you think in any way they’re reassessing the broken part?
CHRIS JOHNSON: I don’t think so, because I think they understand that our domestic situation is still highly problematic. Obviously this is looking like a win. For both those things, we highlighted: the unity amongst ourselves and our allies and the seriousness of purpose with which the United States can still execute when it wants to. But on the other hand, I think they feel that that is not changing the fundamentals of our domestic politics and that whether this Fall with our midterm elections or in 2024 with our next presidential election, a lot of those characteristics will continue to be dominant no matter how well we do in this particular scenario. I also would say that my guess would be that as the Chinese are weighing this in the balance scale, they have to be probably putting some pretty heavy weight as well on Putin’s side of the scales, right, that he has made a massive strategic blunder here. And therefore, they’re not going to give the United States I don’t think more credit than their due.
MICHAEL MORELL: And I guess that some of the debate in the United States whether what Putin did was the right thing or the wrong thing, you get the small group of people who say, Go Putin, right?
CHRIS JOHNSON: Well yes there is that
MICHAEL MORELL: They read that right as us America broken?
CHRIS JOHNSON: Yes, they certainly would. And I think the other thing that’s interesting just to come back to, as do they see this in their interest and how they might frame the situation. If you’re Xi Jinping and the leadership and you accept this idea of this multipolar pure politics world. And you also accept that, arguably for the first time really since the Mao period, their assessment is that major power war is not only probable. It might be likely. And with the threats that Putin has been issuing and so on, it could be nuclear. Therefore they have to guide themselves accordingly. And in observing what Putin is doing in Ukraine. My guess is with that intellectual framing, they see what he is doing as totally in keeping with what we might call a great power playbook or a Cold War style playbook. And what they’re doing is clearing, if you will, the U.S. and Naito out of their near abroad.
MICHAEL MORELL: The Russian economy is in serious trouble. Deep, deep impact from the sanctions. Will the Chinese give the Russians an economic lifeline?
CHRIS JOHNSON: I think most certainly, but not a blank check. And I think that’s an important distinction to make. So there are several factors. Obviously, China has a huge thirst for Russian energy products, gas, oil, et cetera. As we saw in the context of the meeting on the margins of the Olympics, you know, large deals were signed again for natural gas and so on, so that, I’m sure, will continue. The Russians are losing market share and people who will be willing to buy those goods, and I think the Chinese will take as much of it as they can get.
Interestingly, a key agricultural product, especially in this year, will be wheat. The Chinese are looking to have the worst winter wheat harvest in the history of the People’s Republic of China. That is not a good thing. In a year where you have a party congress coming up in the Fall, where Xi Jinping is looking to extend his tenure into a third term. Average Chinese people, if they can’t get wheat to make noodles and so on, that’s a that’s a serious stability problem for the leadership. So in those areas, let’s call it the commodities and the minerals and the energy, I think the way they’ll probably do it is to put the emphasis on using their policy banks rather than their commercial banks. The commercial banks are too exposed to the U.S. dominated financial system to take those kinds of risks. But the policy banks, which aren’t as exposed in that regard-
MICHAEL MORELL: What’s a policy bank?
CHRIS JOHNSON: It’s things like China’s Import Export Bank, China Development Bank policy. All countries have these policies. But there’s operate in a unique way.
MICHAEL MORELL: Do you think that the situation could get so bad in Ukraine, Putin uses chemical weapons or, God forbid, a tactical nuclear weapon? Do you think it could get so bad that China would distance itself from Russia? Or are we stuck where we are now?
CHRIS JOHNSON: I think if he were to go to those kind of lengths, I mean, I suppose my sense is that what the Chinese are thinking, and what the whole world really is thinking is that the next, 7 to 10 days, are pretty critical. And we seem to be at a juncture where Putin is certainly continuing to try to amass the force that he would need to really go at Kiev and the other large cities very, very strongly. If in the process of doing that, it’s not going well or they continue to have the logistical problems and other things that we’ve been seeing that make them less effective militarily and they were to consider using chemical weapons. My sense is that that would probably be a dividing line for the Chinese, although it wasn’t in Syria. And so that’s an interesting thing to think about. On the tactical nuclear weapon issue. I have to think that that would be a very difficult one for the Chinese to be able to stand by them.
And just coming back to the economic piece, talked about commodities and so on, where I don’t think the Chinese will throw them the lifeline is on the technology restrictions. So the U.S. use of the foreign direct product rule to deny certainly the Russian military and other key government agencies access to technologies and equipment. As we saw in a piece in The New York Times the other day, where Secretary Raimondo from the Commerce Department did an interview and indicated that Chinese companies like SMIC, their chip manufacturer, and Lenovo, the computer maker, and Xiaomi, the mobile phone maker, the U.S. is sending very unambiguous messages that if they were to seek to help the Russians get around those restrictions, it would be bad for them. And if you’re a company like SMIC in China that has been on a knife edge of being put on the Entity List and so on all through the Trump administration and even into the Biden administration, my sense is it’s not worth it to you to help the Russians evade those restrictions.
MICHAEL MORELL: I want to switch gears here a little bit and talk about U.S. policy and what we are doing and what we’re not doing and what we should be doing. And I really wanna talk about two things. One is I have a sense, I don’t have any inside information, but I have a sense based on what senior policymakers are saying and kind of reading between the lines that in their mind, this is not just about Russia and Ukraine, but this is about democracy versus autocracy. And if that’s the case, first, do you get that same sense that I do? Number one and number two, if that’s the case, doesn’t that make it more difficult for China and how to position itself?
CHRIS JOHNSON: Yeah, I think it does. And I agree. I think that’s certainly possible. One thing that’s been interesting, you know, just to observe, is the statements from the. U.S. signs seem to be getting sort of more and more ambitious, if you will, in terms of what our goals and aims are, perhaps what we might like to see out of this crisis. That Putin having clearly made what seems to be a pretty serious miscalculation. Perhaps that’s something where ultimately there could be a situation where he’s no longer in charge of Russia or there’s some sort of shift.
I think the autocracy vs. democracy, us versus them framing is very important here. Because when you frame a relationship, especially with a country like China. I think in my sense, Russia certainly deserves this at this point in that they have invaded another sovereign country and unleashed the biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe, arguably since World War Two. That makes a lot of sense. When you apply that same framing to the Chinese who haven’t done those things. Maybe need to put a ‘not yet’ in there, but they haven’t done those things. Then I think you deny yourself a pretty wide range of both tactical and strategic flexibility to pursue your own interests. And I do have concerns that that’s what’s going on. This is why I think we see this framing of a new axis, as I highlighted earlier, from some quarters in the Biden administration. I don’t think this is an official administration policy. I think they’re still battling this out internally.
MICHAEL MORELL: The second policy issue I wanted to ask you about is are there fissures in the Russia China relationship that we should be trying to widen? And if there are, do we actually have the ability to do that or not?
CHRIS JOHNSON: This is obviously the hardest thing to try to determine. There’s obviously instant analogies that come up in the period where we were able- the Chinese already split with the Soviets in the Sino-Soviet split in the 60’s. But strategically, they were not aligned with the United States at that time, and that was the coup. There is a thought and has been a thought for some time that perhaps we can work with Russia now against China.. And I think, as you mentioned, the sort of far right community previously, when they look at the Russians, they see people who are white and Christian and and very conservative socially. That appeals to some folks in our governing system. My view is it would be very difficult to try to identify those fissures and whether or not we could actually identify them well enough to be able to exploit them I think is a very risky game.
More importantly, I think the emphasis should really be more on if you want to achieve that kind of a result. I would say stop lumping the two of them in exactly together. Yes. Is China enabling what Russia is doing? They absolutely are. Does that mean that they should be fundamentally treated like them? I’m not so sure. The risk if you’re the administration is if you were to add some carrots, I mentioned earlier, there’s some big sticks
e don’t play ball. And you’re going into a midterm election and it gets out in the press that you had done that, charges of weak on China would probably be fast and furious.
MICHAEL MORELL: As you know, the focus of much of the commentary about China’s reaction to Ukraine has focused on Taiwan, with the question being what is China going to take away from Russia Ukraine with regard to its view that Taiwan is part of China? How do you think about that whole thing?
CHRIS JOHNSON: Well, it’s definitely on everyone’s mind, and rightly so, because there are some similarities between the two situations. What I don’t think we can take away is that and really haven’t. The facts have shown this, at least thus far, was that the Chinese were not ever going to view the situation in Ukraine as an opportunity, while the U.S. and the West are distracted, to invade Taiwan, for example. There has been some thinking along those lines. Nor do I think they would look at that situation and say to themselves, ‘Well, this teaches us certain lessons about would our military be as effective in an invasion of Taiwan or will we be suffering from the same problems the Russians are and so on?’ My sense is the only way it’s really affected China’s view, and it’s important to highlight this, that Taiwan has its own cadence. It’s on its own timeline of sorts within the Chinese brain. And I don’t think that that is affected at all by the developments on the ground in Ukraine. I think to the degree it matters, it would be those two areas that we highlighted earlier, which are the strength of the U.S. response in terms of sanctions and technical restrictions and so on and the ability to hold the coalition together. I think both of those things have to be impacting China’s thinking about their calculus on Taiwan. I think something that’s interesting, though, is that obviously the Politburo discusses ‘so what about Taiwan’ on a pretty regular basis.
MICHAEL MORELL: Sure.
CHRIS JOHNSON: And you know, well before this crisis and so forth. My sense is they had discussions along these lines. And again, interestingly, Xi Jinping himself and a few others, is my sense, were saying things like ‘Hey, let’s look at this carefully.’ This would not be Tiananmen again. Brent Scowcroft would not be getting on a plane and flying over here on a secret trip to basically tell us, it’s all good. There would be heavy, heavy sanctions. And of course, in the Chinese mind as well. And I think the current situation would only serve to reinforce this. There’s another issue for them that is every bit as existential and omnipresent for them as the Taiwan situation, and that is breaking through the middle income trap by 2035. And it’s very difficult for me to see how that would be served by a military attack on Taiwan.
MICHAEL MORELL: And maybe that has been reinforced in Xi’s mind by what has happened here.
CHRIS JOHNSON: Most definitely.
MICHAEL MORELL: I want to jump back to policy for one second, and you were talking about carrots and sticks. And I think that’s the right way to think about it. And then we had talked earlier about how there is a perception in the world that China bears some responsibility here for what happened given its strong support for Russia and for Putin. Do you think we should be fanning the flames of those views around the world or not?
CHRIS JOHNSON: No, I don’t, because I don’t think it’s in our interest per se. My view of it is- I think we’ve seen some evidence of this- a desire to suggest that the Chinese did have advance warning or that at least they attempted to persuade the Russians to delay the invasion until after the Olympics. I think there’s a lot of questions as to how authoritative and how accurate some of those assessments are. So my view is that, in that circumstance, they would be very much focused on trying to figure out what the next stage calculations would be.
MICHAEL MORELL: How do you think the Chinese would prefer for this thing to end given where we are now?
CHRIS JOHNSON: Quickly. Obviously every day, if you’re Wang Yi, the foreign minister, you know, you’re writing a very difficult thing trying to continue to balance issues. As I said before, how to think about keeping the Europeans onside. You’re trying very hard not to use the word invasion and so on. But at the same time, you’re picking up just pure Russian disinformation on things like these U.S. biological weapons labs in Ukraine and so on and so forth. You kind of get the sense they’re not trying that hard.
In terms of how they’d like it to end. I think they would like to see Putin show a little more leg in being seriously willing to negotiate. I think they’re very concerned that President Zelensky in Ukraine has perhaps become quite enamored with his, I guess you call it sort of almost rock star status or a Che Guevara type status, although that didn’t that didn’t work out too well for Che. In other words, they have concerns that both sides are pursuing a kind of maximalist approach to negotiations, and I think that unnerves them a lot. I think ultimately, they would love to see Russia just pull back and somehow try to neutralize that portion of Ukraine through negotiation. I think that’s probably quite fanciful on their end of things.
MICHAEL MORELL: Do you think they have any influence at all over what Russia does? Do you think Xi has any influence with Putin?
CHRIS JOHNSON: That’s a critical question. I think they definitely do. My sense is that they have absolute leverage right in a certain way and that if they too were to cut off purchases of Russian oil and gas, to not purchase commodities, we’re not letting them gain access to the banking system and so on. That’d be it for Russia. They have very few other outlets. So they have that absolute leverage. Because of what we’ve been discussing, though, especially their strategic framing and so on, they’re also absolutely unwilling to use that, except in real extremis.
MICHAEL MORELL: Chris, last question, which takes us away from Russia Ukraine, the US now has an Indo-Pacific strategy. Secretary Blinken put it out, quite frankly, without any fanfare at all, got virtually no attention from the media. We still have not seen a China strategy, at least not a public one. I don’t know if there’s a classified one or not. What do you make, first of all of the Indo-Pacific strategy and the lack of a public China strategy?
CHRIS JOHNSON: Yeah, I think you’re right. And to be fair to the administration, I think one of the challenges is that it sort of got lost almost in the backwash of concern about Ukraine. And then obviously what subsequently has happened with the invasion. So that’s not entirely their fault. I think one reason why the media didn’t perhaps give it a whole lot of attention, as you say, there wasn’t the same kind of buildup that you might typically see before the launch of a strategic report like that. So say an article by a senior official in foreign affairs to tee up where we’re going or something like that that would generate some of that interest.
I think also a lot of it is the content. It’s really mostly things that the administration has said before, such as, the Indo-Pacific strategy is not the China strategy. They say at that document, but at the same time it is very focused on China’s- I think the phrase they use was much more assertive and aggressive behavior. From my perspective, the interesting piece as well was this notion of shaping the strategic environment in which China operates, rather than trying to change Chinese views. I think that’s actually a very solid way to frame the situation. I think the challenge with it is that it’s another sign that the administration, now a year plus into its tenure, still hasn’t really moved off what we might call a surrogate China strategy, which they seem to have been following from the beginning of the administration.
MICHAEL MORELL: What do you mean by that?
CHRIS JOHNSON: What I mean by that is that there’s two pillars to it in my mind. The first is domestic strengthening. So build back better and the COMPETES act and building chips and all of that stuff, make ourselves more ready for the competition. And the second piece is coordinating and collaborating with our allies and partners. But what’s missing in the equation is you keep China at arm’s length like they’ll do anything to avoid directly engaging with China. And the problem is that China is such a big country, so influential and economically powerful and so on. You just can’t do that.
I personally thought we were beginning to see a shift in that at the time of the video chat between President Xi and President Biden at the end of last year. In that there was a notion of establishing these four new dialogues to discuss the important issues. But since then, we’ve seen all of that fall off the table. To be fair, largely through Chinese intransigence, but the result is the same. And then I think the other challenge for the Indo-Pacific strategy, of course, is there’s not really an economic strategy in there. There is the Indo-Pacific economic framework. And my understanding is USTR Ambassador Katherine Tai is about to go out to the region again to talk that up and have some discussions. But there’s nothing in there about market access issues traditional free trade issues. Obviously, we’re not going back to CPTPP. The framework that succeeded the Trans-Pacific Partnership when President Trump took us out of the TPP. And in the region, economics is security. So without that piece, they’re going to struggle.
MICHAEL MORELL: The other thing that’s missing is objectives, right? What we actually want this relationship to look like over the long term? And what are we willing to allow them to do? And what are we willing not to allow them to do? It seems like we’ve never made that clear.
CHRIS JOHNSON: I think that’s absolutely true. And to be fair to this administration, I think it’s been a challenge that’s been unevenly met, I guess is a fair way to say it, by each of the recent U.S. administrations, probably going back to the Bush 43 presidency, but certainly in the Obama administration and Trump and so on, which is taking the first step, which is every administration must do, which is as we would say in government, do a rack and stack of China’s global ambitions.
Where they tend to fall down is taking the next step, which is to be fair, much more difficult because it involves risk, which is to say ‘OK of those ambitions that we believe China to have which of them, to your point, might we be able to accommodate or live with, especially in a in an era where accommodation has become a dirty word.’ But I think it’s important in that the risk you run if you don’t do that second half of the exercise is you end up being so busy- the Trump administration would say rivaling, the Biden administration says competing with China across all domains that you lose focus. Whereas I think if you do that, here’s what we can live with, here’s what we can’t cannot. It allows you to draw much clearer red lines for the Chinese and to focus on the things that really are the building blocks of U.S. power and influence. One of them being the dollar’s role in the global financial system. And when you do things like partially unplug Russia’s central bank from SWIFT and the banking system, you send real signals alerting people to the dangerous side of that role of the dollar in global finance.
MICHAEL MORELL: Chris Johnson, thank you so much for joining us. It’s always a treat to talk to you