That does not mean it’s perfect. China is still in the process of building its corps of noncommissioned officers, recruiting more college graduates and technical experts so as to be less reliant on conscripts and shift away from an officer-heavy structure. Also, there is always the possibility that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, which has impacted even the highest levels of the military, may begin to impinge on these reforms. But to date, it seems that those against necessary reforms have been largely targeted. In other words, Xi has not had to choose yet between his goals of consolidating domestic power and the professionalization of the armed forces.
The economic side is less about what has happened in the past six weeks than what will happen in the next six months or even six years. As tempting as it is in the case of Russia’s invasion, the impact of economic sanctions cannot be properly evaluated over a short time period. The need for a longer time horizon also applies to Russia-China economic comparisons, as it will generally require more extensive and more durable sanctions to deter or compel China than it would Russia.
Russia is thought, at least, to be highly vulnerable to sanctions applied to date. And it is certainly the case that China can be harmed by sanctions. Beijing is more integrated in global trade and finance than Moscow and thus has more to lose. But integration cuts both ways—compared with Russia, more countries would be harmed to a greater extent by equivalent actions taken against China. Further, China has demonstrated greater capacity to weather extended economic blows. This combination of features reduces the willingness of the United States and others to enforce durable sanctions, a fact that Beijing well appreciates.
The CCP survived three decades of worse poverty than experienced by the Soviet Union at the time, a self-inflicted depression in 1989-90 paralleling in some respects the events that ended the Soviet Union, the global financial crisis, and another partly self-inflicted economic wound via China’s determination to maintain its zero-COVID policy in 2021-22.
During more recent events, Beijing has been able to mobilize first greater capital resources than Moscow and then far greater. In 2020, the World Bank put China’s gross fixed capital formation at 20 times Russia’s. Xi attacked some of China’s richest citizens, as well as other elements of the private sector, in part because he believed them too intertwined with foreign capital. These were voluntary steps by China that mirror how the world currently seeks to punish Russia. Whatever their wisdom, Xi knows China can afford them, while Russia’s capability is in doubt.
Some Russian foreign reserves have been effectively frozen and some financials excluded from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), limiting international transactions. In the short term, these steps could have a similar impact on China, but they would be much harder to sustain.
Beijing has conducted currency swaps with dozens of countries that will want their renminbi to be useful. China also holds foreign government bonds in amounts that countries cannot ignore. U.S. Treasurys see the largest holdings, but there are also sizable quantities of Japanese government bonds, for instance. With official Chinese reserves upwards of $3 trillion, perhaps five times Russia’s, a partial freeze would quickly wear on governments and firms looking for bond buyers.
For any SWIFT restrictions that interfere with outbound U.S. portfolio investment, that volume stood at $85 billion in Russia and $1.15 trillion in China in 2020. The stock of U.S. direct investment was 10 times higher in China than Russia—companies willing to exit Russia would face leaving a lot more behind in a China contingency. Most broadly, the yuan can erode the role of the dollar; the ruble certainly cannot. Beijing lacks the will to allow free movement of the yuan and make it a true reserve currency, but heavy, durable sanctions might change that.
On the goods side, existing pressure to spare Russian vital exports would be more intense in China’s case. The loss of Russian oil and gas exports of $230 billion in 2021 threatens energy markets. Chinese exports are at least as important within chemicals, textiles, household appliances, industrial machinery, and consumer electronics. Would they all be exempted?
Certain Russian exports, such as palladium, play supply chain roles beyond their direct financial value. As expected from its manufacturing and export volumes, China’s supply chain participation is far larger than Russia’s, extending from inputs crucial to global pharmaceuticals to processed rare earths crucial to clean-energy applications. Russian ships have been banned from some ports. By tonnage, Russia accounts for a bit over 1 percent of the world’s commercial fleet, while China accounts for more than 11 percent. Banning Chinese ships would cause seaborne trade to noticeably contract, hitting supply chains that would already be strained by the diversion of Chinese goods.
Even an area of clear Russian advantage—lower import dependence—is double-edged. Inhibiting Chinese imports of iron ore or integrated circuits, for example, would hit the country hard. But China is such a huge purchaser that many producers would refuse to join a sustained embargo against it. As elsewhere, the barriers to Russian imports adopted thus far could hurt China only in the unlikely event that they are maintained for many months.
From how to remain in power to how to advance on the international stage, militarily and economically, the CCP has been learning what not to do from the Russian or Soviet experience for decades. Chinese strategists are unquestionably evaluating whether the nature of warfare has changed or if they failed to consider some critical factors necessary for success. Chinese economists are certainly looking to identify missed vulnerabilities based on how the economic dimension of the war in Ukraine plays out—and will work to address them to prevent exploitation by the United States and others.
Not that it will all be easy for Beijing. But China is already better prepared than Russia, economically and militarily. The steps to support Ukraine and punish Russia are immediately less potent in a China contingency. And an unfortunate side effect of the tragedy in Ukraine is that China has a relatively low-cost opportunity to learn—it may become a more formidable challenger than it would’ve been otherwise. The United States and its allies should realize that their effectiveness with regard to Russia is highly unlikely to translate. In a Taiwan contingency, the United States must be able to immediately implement both a stronger package of actions aimed at China and also a second package aimed at minimizing the long-term cost of the first.