Russian meddling in US elections: Did China know?

February 20, 2018 13:37
In his new year greetings to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said: “China seeks to promote international strategic coordination with Russia.” Photo: AFP

The indictment by Special Counsel Robert Mueller charging 13 Russian citizens and three Russian entities provides detailed allegations of what the Russians did when they interfered in the 2016 American presidential elections.

The interesting question is, did China know what Russia, its closest strategic partner, was up to? Would China have condoned such actions, which is contrary to its publicly stated principles.

China has insisted since the 1950s that no country should interfere in another country’s internal affairs. This month, when asked about the political turbulence in the Maldives, the Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesman asserted: “China will not interfere in the internal affairs of the Maldives, and this is also a basic norm governing the international relations enshrined in the UN Charter.”

Seeking to affect the outcome of another country’s presidential election is a blatant violation of another country’s internal affairs. Would China condone it on the part of its closest partner?

Of course, China has dozens of “strategic partners” and “comprehensive strategic partners”, but it has only one “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination”, and that is with Russia. While the exact words have undergone changes since the two countries agreed in 1996 to a “strategic partnership of equality, mutual confidence and mutual coordination in the 21st century”, over the years, as the relationship grew ever closer, the two countries have actually engaged in coordination of their actions in the world.

Thus, in the United Nations, they are known to vote in coordination on such key issues as North Korea and Syria. Outside of the UN, leaders of the two countries meet about half a dozen times a year for bilateral summit meetings, often on the margins of multilateral meetings.

China’s principle of noninterference has been seriously challenged by other Russian actions, notably by the Russian military intervention in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea into Russia in March 2014.

At the time, China was evidently embarrassed and the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, called on “the relevant parties in Ukraine to resolve their internal disputes peacefully within the legal framework”, adding that China respects “the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”.

However, within two months, Putin arrived in China on a state visit. The Chinese and Russian presidents signed a joint statement on “A New Stage of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination” to usher in an even closer period of bilateral relations.

Since then, ties between two countries have grown ever warmer. Moscow, facing sanctions in Europe, was forced into closer ties with China.

So, despite its principles, China seems willing to overlook Russia’s violation of international norms. At the end of 2017 President Xi, while sending new year greetings to his Russian counterpart, asserted that China was ready to join Putin in consolidating political and strategic mutual trust and expanding all-round pragmatic cooperation and said, “China seeks to promote international strategic coordination with Russia.”

The Russian leader agreed, saying that the two countries have conducted “rather effective coordination in international affairs” and pledged to deepen the comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination.

In the course of such a dense, continuous dialogue between the two countries, relations with the United States must have been a major topic of discussion. And what Russia did during the elections would certainly have been raised.

So, would China have opposed Russia if it knew about its attempt to influence the outcome of the 2016 elections?

This one is difficult. Judging by the Ukraine case, China would have preferred Russia not to have taken the action that it did but, in the end, accepted it. In this case, China may feel that events are not within its control and, in any event, most people are saying that the election’s outcome wasn’t affected, so nothing needs to be done.

Of course, China itself is doing quite a bit in the US in terms of influence operations. It is trying to increase its soft power, including funding Confucius Institutes at American universities to spread knowledge of the Chinese language and culture, it is controlling student bodies, the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations, through its consulates across the country, and using the media to push its cause. 

Thus, to some extent China and Russia both wish to shape American politics and opinion, to weaken American power and redirect American interests. But while the Russian actions were contrary to law, China’s actions seem to fall within the parameters of the law. Of course, there is always the chance that the law will change, given recent testimony by heads of the intelligence community and leading academics at congressional hearings.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.