In recent weeks, there has been much speculation about the depth of China’s and Russia’s strategic alignment. Since early February, when the two sides issued a joint statement during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Beijing for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, the argument that Moscow and Beijing are not simply aligned , but in an open alliance against the United States and the West more broadly gained ground.
However, on closer inspection, China’s actions before and immediately after the invasion paint a mixed picture as to the extent of the bilateral relationship.
There is no doubt that Sino-Russian relations have deepened in recent years. A $117 billion deal signed during Putin’s visit to Beijing for Russia to supply China with oil and gas from the Russian Far East complements their strengthened energy ties following the annexation of China. Crimea in 2014. They also increased their military cooperation as well as their political alignment. against the perceived constraints of American “hegemony”.
Yet the Russian invasion of Ukraine looks set to confront Beijing with an uncomfortable choice. As Evan Feigenbaum of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has astutely noted, this presents China with a major challenge in balancing Beijing’s desire for a “strategic partnership with Russia”, its “commitment to the principles of long-standing foreign policy of ‘territorial integrity’ and ‘non-interference'”, and “a desire to minimize the collateral damage of EU and US sanctions”.
Beijing’s response to the current crisis clearly demonstrates the tension between its efforts to leverage relations with Russia to advance Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vision of a “new great power relationship” with the United States, a one hand, and his recognition that being seen as aligning himself too closely with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression will carry immediate costs to China’s interests, on the other hand.
On one side of the ledger, China has acted in a way that indicates, at the very least, Beijing’s tolerance of Moscow’s behavior. Prior to the invasion, China reportedly shared US intelligence on Russia’s military preparations with Moscow, provided by Washington as a way to convince Beijing of the real threat of Russian military action. Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that Western intelligence believes some form of consultation between Beijing and Moscow over Russia’s plans took place before the invasion, although the intelligence “does not indicate necessarily that the conversations about an invasion took place at the level of Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin.
After the invasion, Beijing also eased trade restrictions on imports of Russian wheat and soybeans, which, combined with increased Chinese purchases of Russian oil and gas, could provide Moscow with some level of insulation. against US and European economic sanctions. And while Beijing’s official statements on the Russian invasion repeated its longstanding position on the sanctity of state sovereignty and the need for a negotiated settlement, it simultaneously propagated Moscow’s position that NATO’s eastward expansion is the cause of the war. This was also repeated with great regularity in the state media.
There are indications that Beijing is uncomfortable with the prospect of becoming collateral damage to Putin’s adventurism.
Finally, China abstained in the February 25 vote in the United Nations Security Council to condemn the Russian invasion, which Russia vetoed, and voted against a motion to hold a debate on the situation in Ukraine at the United Nations Human Rights Council on 28 February. Minister Wang Yi later said China’s abstention from the Security Council was due to his belief that the Council’s actions “should contribute to a political settlement of the current crisis rather than incite new confrontations.” while adding that China sees economic sanctions as a “loss”. “lose” which “will interfere with the process of political settlement”.
On the other side of the ledger, however, there are indications that Beijing is uncomfortable with the prospect of becoming collateral damage to Putin’s adventurism.
Contrary to the New York Times article mentioned above, The Economist’s well-informed Dave Rennie noted on March 1 that, while we may never know what Xi personally knew about Putin’s plans, ” Chinese diplomats seemed surprised by Russia’s invasion. They were “visibly squirming” when approached by their Western counterparts in Beijing and at the UN in New York as the tanks arrived.
The reality, too, of Putin’s effort to redraw Ukraine’s borders by recognizing the independence of the breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk, not to mention the attempt to overthrow the government in Kiev with the ensuing invasion , clearly contradicts the assertion in the joint statement from early February that no state “can or should ensure its own security separately from the security of the rest of the world and at the expense of the security of other states”. But it is also fundamentally at odds with Beijing’s “core interest” in countering what it sees as “separatism” and foreign intervention in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Meanwhile, according to a senior US official quoted by Reuters, China does not appear to be taking steps to help Russia evade the latest US and European sanctions targeting Russia’s Central Bank and disconnect it from the global SWIFT transaction network. This is important, because according to the 2020 annual report of the Central Bank of Russia, 14% of its foreign exchange reserves were held in China. Russia could also seek to evade sanctions by using the renminbi rather than the US dollar for transactions with China, Ousmene Mandeng, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told the Financial Times, because “payments based on the renminbi will most likely be carried out by institutions outside the immediate sphere of influence of the West. But there are reports that two Chinese state banks have actually restricted funding for Russian commodity purchases, while the Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank (AIIB), in which China plays a leading role , also decided to freeze loans to Russia.
The fate of some 6,000 Chinese nationals in Ukraine has also emerged as a potential flashpoint for bilateral relations. The Global Times reported on March 1 that the Chinese Embassy in Kyiv was facilitating the evacuation of some 2,300 Chinese nationals via buses to Moldova and Poland. Given Russia’s apparent shift to siege warfare to capture major cities, including missiles and indiscriminate airstrikes against civilian targets, there is a clear risk that Chinese nationals will be killed or injured while they remain in Ukraine. Such a scenario would be, if nothing else, a blow to Xi’s and the Chinese Communist Party’s credentials as protectors of Chinese citizens overseas, as well as a black mark on Moscow.
The current situation bears many similarities to China’s equivocal response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, when it abstained from participating in a US-led Security Council resolution condemning this decision and criticized Western sanctions, while calling for respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial sovereignty. integrity. However, a stark difference between then and now is the more challenging geopolitical landscape Beijing faces today, including strategic competition with the United States, deteriorating relations with most of its Asian neighbors and economic impacts. of its response to the zero COVID pandemic.
In Foreign Affairs, Jude Blanchette and Bonny Lin argued that Beijing’s calculation seems to be that, so long as it does not provide military assistance to Russia, “at most it will suffer secondary sanctions for its political support and economy”, while benefiting from the fact that the United States and Europe will “turn their gaze away from Asia, giving China a freer hand in its neighborhood”. As Ming Jinwei, editor-in-chief of the official Xinhua news agency, put it in a leaked post on Chinese social media platform Weibo, Beijing’s operating assumption appears to be that “China must support Russia with emotional and moral support while refraining from stepping on the toes of the United States and the European Union”, so that in the future it can count on “the understanding and support of Russia when it struggles with America to solve the Taiwan problem once and for all”.
Such reasoning seems to seriously misunderstand how Russian adventurism in Ukraine will reinforce the perception of American, European and Asian states of China’s own revisionist goals. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenburg, for example, has previously described Russia and China as being aligned in an “attempt to control the fate of free nations, rewrite the international rulebook and impose their own authoritarian governance models”. The moves by Japan, Singapore and South Korea to also sanction Russia also reflect a growing perception that there are important links between the European and Asian theaters of strategic competition between the United States and its allies of a on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other.
In this context, Beijing seems to be in a position to have to choose between two bad options. Supporting “the world’s most toxic man”, as WPR columnist Howard French has dubbed Putin, not only openly risks alienating Europe and deepening rifts with Washington, but can also leave China vulnerable to political and economic sanctions. But moving away from Moscow would likely be a blow to a relationship Beijing arguably needs in a time of strained relations with nearly every other major power.
Which of these options Beijing ends up choosing depends on a deceptively simple question about what it values most: the hostility it shares with Moscow toward the current US-led international order and its complementary vision of ‘multipolar’ order to replace it, or narrow self-interest.
Michael Clarke is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Defense Research at the Australian Defense College and Adjunct Professor at the Institute of Australia-China Relations, UTS.