With Russia commanding troops in eastern Ukraine, close ally China finds itself in a difficult position on the international stage as it tries to balance its close ties to Moscow with its own domestic concerns. and its desire to maintain a working relationship with Europe.
At the United Nations Security Council on Monday, China’s representative to the UN, Zhang Jun, urged restraint as tensions escalated following Moscow’s unilateral decision to recognize the two areas eastern Ukrainian separatists as independent.
Zhang said international disputes should be settled by “peaceful means” – a point China also made at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 19 and in a recent phone call between President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Beijing’s tone may suggest a step back from the recent assertive posture alongside Russia. After conducting joint military and naval exercises in late 2021, the two nations issued a 5,000-word long statement on February 4 against NATO enlargement. Both have called the security bloc a relic of the Cold War, although it has tried to turn to more burning issues, including the security of the Indo-Pacific region – China’s backyard.
Russia and China have also criticized the rise of new US-led blocs like the Quad, an informal alliance of the US, India, Japan and Australia as well as AUKUS , which deepens the existing security ties between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom.
The joint statement was accompanied by a $117.5 billion oil and gas deal to further consolidate their economic relations and also reduce Russia’s financial dependence on Europe.
“The Sino-Russian relationship is unusually close by historical standards. The West’s shared resentments bring Putin and Xi closer together, and common interests drive Sino-Russian relations forward,” said Ryan Hass, Senior Fellow and Michael H Armacost Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Program. Hass said it wasn’t a “pre-conclusion,” however, that the relationship would remain so strong.
Reconciling sovereignty concerns
Despite the current closer ties between Beijing and Moscow, analysts say China never intended to play a major role in the Russian-Ukrainian dispute, although it could find itself embroiled in the conflict by some players global.
Russia’s support for separatists in Ukraine has put Beijing in a ‘tough edge’, said David Gitter, president of the Center for Advanced China Research, as he takes a hard line against suspected ‘separatists’ in places like Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and the self-governing democracy of Taiwan.
China has never acknowledged Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, although Gitter said Putin’s use of “cultural and historical affinities” with Ukraine could provide some future legitimacy, as the Chinese Communist Party uses similar arguments to claim sovereignty over Taiwan.
Another reason is that despite its rapprochement with Russia, China still maintains close economic relations with Ukraine. Trade between the two countries amounted to $15.4 billion in 2020, according to the National Statistics Service of Ukraine. Among Ukraine’s exports to China are raw materials such as ore, slag and ash used in important domestic industries such as construction.
Similarly, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy presented Ukraine as China’s “bridge” to Europe, which is also an important market for Chinese products. In June 2021, Ukraine and China agreed to increase Chinese investment in Ukrainian infrastructure such as roads and railways that could improve supply chains.
With all of these strategic factors at play, China now finds itself in a “tricky position”, said Bonnie Glaser, Asia program director at the German Marshall Fund in the United States.
“China has always prioritized sovereignty in its foreign policy; he does not want to be associated with the action of Moscow. The cost of such an operation, in terms of relations with the United States and Europe, and its global reputation, is too high,” she said. “Yet he has an important relationship with Russia that he doesn’t want to damage. I see this as a major foreign policy challenge for Xi Jinping. »
Hass of Brookings agrees.
“If China provides public support for Russia and seeks to protect Moscow from international censorship after its invasion of Ukraine, it risks accelerating the formation of global blocs, with China and Russia on one side and much of the developed world on the other. China would attach itself to the weakest major power and worsen relations with all other major powers in the process,” he said.
However, some of the damage may already be done. Russia and China were recently described as “two authoritarian powers…operating together” by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who said the pair “don’t like the rules-based international order. They do not share our values, freedom, democracy. And that is also why they have tried to deny sovereign, democratic nations the right to choose their own future.
Similar remarks were made by EU Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen, who also said in February that China and Russia hoped to “replace the existing international order” with power, intimidation and coercion.
These statements come amid growing skepticism about China in greater Europe.
In 2020, the Pew Research Center recorded the most negative opinions towards China in key European countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom since the start of their investigation. The decline was partly due to COVID-19, but it also revealed a marked distrust of President Xi and “his ability to do the right thing about global affairs”.
Last year, the EU published its first-ever Indo-Pacific cooperation strategy in which it identified China as a potential challenge.
The group also recently imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for their role in alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang – some of the harshest measures taken since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. And some of its members in Eastern Europe – notably the Czech Republic and Lithuania – have sought to draw closer to Taiwan.
Agathe Demarais, global forecasting director at the Economist Intelligence Unit, warns that closer ties between China and Russia should be taken with a grain of salt.
“I think you always have to remember the disconnect between the statements that are made and the reality. Often when a country makes a statement they hope to shake the narrative or change it,” she said.
China’s leaders, particularly Xi, likely want a smooth sail until the 20th National Party Congress later in the year, when major policy decisions are usually announced. The event will also stand out as Xi seeks an unprecedented third term. Although Xi has laid the groundwork for this to happen, he still has several months left before he can be re-elected Communist Party chairman. Additionally, next month will be the National People’s Congress, another important political rally for Beijing.
Then there’s the fact that for many in China, Russia just isn’t such a popular ally, the EIU’s Demarais said.
Despite a close relationship between Xi and Putin, who have met more than 30 times since 2013, Chinese are more likely to remember the 1969 border dispute between China and the then Soviet Union. They probably have little appetite to support a Russian conflict, however the government may feel.
Gitter notes that despite China’s many concerns, the timing of Russia’s moves into eastern Ukraine has not gone unnoticed. After months of tension, it was only at the end of the all-important Winter Olympics in Beijing that Putin finally took action.
“One has to wonder if Putin directly or indirectly let Xi Jinping know that this was coming at their recent meeting,” he said, noting that the invasion didn’t steal any Olympic stars.
“It is not inconceivable that Xi has engaged China in materially undermining Western attempts to censor and sanction Russia while allowing himself room to pretend to adhere to UN Charter ideas like sovereignty and equality of nations in the pursuit of its other purposes.”