In a recent Wall Street Journal column, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy extolled his country’s potential to become "a major hub for information technology." Certainly, all civilized people are rooting for Ukraine to repel the Russian invasion and have its war-shattered economy roar back stronger than ever. But before U.S. taxpayer dollars are spent on Ukraine’s reconstruction, there’s a serious problem that must be addressed: The People’s Republic of China.
The Ukrainian resistance has been truly heroic. Moscow expected it to crumble rapidly. Instead, Putin’s three-day war turned into a protracted slog. Indeed, Ukraine now may even be in the process of turning the tables on Russia with a counter-offensive.
Much of this success has been supported by robust military and economic aid from the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Asian allies such as Japan. At war’s end, this will doubtless be followed by investments in and contributions to the sort of modernizing reconstruction Zelenskyy envisions. As he points out, there will be considerable profits to be made in this new Ukraine, especially if the country uses the transition to break the grip of endemic corruption that has bedeviled it for so long.
Those profits should be the purview of Ukraine, as well as the free societies that have been so unstintingly supportive. The United States, for example, has already delivered or pledged $53 billion in aid, with no end in sight. Washington understands the strategic advantage of handing Putin a defeat, but the Biden administration appears to have no idea how to achieve this happy outcome beyond asking for more money from the Congress, which has precious little oversight of how and why it is being spent.
This disconnect raises a potential—and significant—problem with the PRC. Zelenskyy has opened the door to Chinese participation in the reconstruction, thus setting up an unacceptable scenario in which American funds are used to pay Chinese state-owned companies for economic rebuilding and development projects.
Zelenskyy may hope that by being inclusive of the PRC, he will dissuade Chairman Xi from providing direct military aid to Russia despite the "no limits" partnership Putin and Xi announced shortly before the beginning of the war. He should immediately disabuse himself of this notion. Military intervention is not Xi’s style. But he is currently financing Putin’s war effort by gobbling up cheap Russian energy supplies Putin has diverted from Europe. We can expect that new levels of cooperation will be announced next week when the two leaders meet in Uzbekistan, none of which will be beneficial to Ukraine.
Xi does not see the conflict in Ukraine as an either/or proposition and will try to profit from both sides of the conflict. He will continue to bankroll Putin even as he angles for fat reconstruction contracts to go to state-owned Chinese entities that promise advantages, especially in information technology. Ukrainians need to know that a Chinese presence in their systems will not only invite PRC perfidy into all aspects of their lives, it will also deter U.S. technology firms from participating for fear of losing intellectual property. The United States and our allies must therefore place conditions on reconstruction assistance to Ukraine to keep China out of the reconstruction process—and taxpayer dollars out of the PRC’s coffers.
As Congress debates President Biden’s most recent request for Ukraine funding, they should bear in mind that assistance disallowing Chinese contracts has precedent in U.S. foreign aid. In the 2019 NDAA Section 889, for example, Congress determined that foreign assistance dollars could not be spent in countries that have Huawei, ZTE, Hikvision, Dahua, and other Chinese technologies as part of their infrastructures. This legislation reflects the U.S. government’s recognition that Chinese technology systems may be used by Beijing to steal valuable personal, commercial, and national security information wherever they are in use. This recognition should be broadened in any legislation related to funding for Ukraine reconstruction.
Similar restrictions should be placed on assistance from the EU, the UK, Japan and others focused on rebuilding Ukraine. While Congress can control the disposition of American taxpayer dollars only, Washington can and should wield tremendous influence over how our allies apportion assistance to Ukraine. The administration should bend every effort to assure than free countries to not deploy their aid in ways that could advantage China.
President Zelenskyy has built a deep reservoir of international support for his people and their future. He should maintain that level of backing by understanding that China is not a friend—indeed the PRC has sided with the bad guys. They should not be allowed to profit from the destruction in which they are complicit.
A Ukrainian parliamentarian recently sounded the alarm about the "strategic partnership" Ukraine formed with China 2011, given the PRC’s predatory role in the conflict with Russia. The U.S. Congress should heed the clarion call, and make sure that any reconstruction aid flowing to Ukraine does not wind up in the pockets of Xi and his cronies.
Bonnie Glick is the director of the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue University.