On Russia, China is in a tight spot

China and Russia do not seem to be on the same page on the ongoing war in Ukraine
Last Updated : 23 September 2022, 11:52 IST
Last Updated : 23 September 2022, 11:52 IST

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China has recently expressed concerns about Russia’s war on Ukraine. At the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, Putin and Xi Jinping officially declared that the relationship between their two countries had “no limits”. Since then, the developments in Ukraine suggest that the “no limits” relationship cannot be taken at face value. During the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, China did not openly support Moscow. Technically, Beijing has stood by Ukrainian independence. China has a problem with openly taking on Moscow and hence has to discreetly voice its reservations behind closed doors with the Russians.

China and Russia do not seem to be on the same page on the ongoing war in Ukraine. From Russia’s point of view, on the positive side, Beijing has not joined in with the West in imposing sanctions on Moscow. This is too much to expect. However, on the flip side, China has not provided Russia any military aid worth mentioning. Moreover, China and Russia are not technically military allies, though they are both interested in offsetting US domination.

Putin and Xi met in person for the first time since the war began seven months ago at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, recently. At the meeting, Putin went to the extent of publicly saying that he understands China’s concerns regarding the war. The concerns have also to do with the global economic fallout of the energy crisis created by Russia cutting off gas supplies to Europe. However, China and Russia stand to gain by expanding oil trade, which could help reduce China’s dependence on Persian Gulf oil.

Beijing has not shown public support for the invasion. In a conversation with the diplomatic adviser to the French President, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said cryptically that “the Ukraine crisis has shown a long-term and complex trend which the world does not want to see.” The Chinese argue that Beijing has also been trying to facilitate peace talks between Russia and Ukraine to bring the war to an end.

However, Chinese officials have blamed the US and NATO for the Russian invasion. This is a position China has consistently taken right since the invasion commenced. China is conscious of the extent to which NATO expansion has triggered Russia’s security concerns. But the Ukraine war has resulted in a strategic dilemma for Beijing. It has to secure its strategic partnership with Russia on the one hand, while it has also to stabilise its ties with Washington.

Recent developments suggests that the war and western sanctions have been taking its toll on Russia’s economy and its influence as a security guarantor in Central Asia. This could open new avenues and possibilities for China. Some Chinese anticipated that the Ukraine war would shift the focus away from Taiwan to Europe. That has not necessarily happened.

Zelensky has been trying to build bridges with China with the intention of exposing Russia’s “tyranny” in Ukraine. The Ukrainian President is keen to have a direct conversation with President Xi Jinping. Zelensky contends that Chinese neutrality is better than China joining up with Russia. However, the US is not willing to accept the Chinese stand as one of neutrality. Rather it expects Beijing to condemn the Russian invasion. It is not easy to assess whether the war has weakened or strengthened China’s hands.

Moreover, since the Ukrainian invasion started, China has not signed any Belt and Road Initiative deal with Russia. This is probably the first year that this has happened since BRI was initiated in 2013. It may be recalled that in 2021, Beijing had signed $2 billion worth of infrastructure and construction deals with Russia. The war is likely to impact their implementation. The sanctions and restricted financial transactions could impact the flow of goods through Russia and Belarus.

It is not in China’s interest that the war prolongs, as it carries with it political and economic risks. A total Russian defeat would be disastrous for China as it would provide scope for a pro-Western democratic regime in Moscow, which will be detrimental to China’s economic and strategic interests in the region. A partially weakened Russia would lead it to increasing dependence on China. Under the circumstances, China is trapped in a very difficult balancing act.

China is caught between two mutually exclusive positions. By not openly condoning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Beijing is seeking to stand its moral high ground, but it is caught between the devil and the deep sea.

(The writer is Professor, Dept of International Studies, Political Science and History, Christ (deemed-to-be) University)

Published 22 September 2022, 17:38 IST

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