Ukraine tests China’s ‘limitless’ friendship with Russia

Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters/File
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, pictured during a signing ceremony in Moscow, June 5, 2019, recently agreed to a sweeping partnership, pledging to stand together against the West.

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Countries around the world have rushed to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. China is not one of them. 

Instead, Beijing has provided robust diplomatic support for Moscow – referencing Russia’s “legitimate” security concerns and declining to deplore the invasion at Friday’s United Nations Security Council meeting – while blaming the United States and NATO for creating the crisis. 

Why We Wrote This

Beijing appears to be throwing its weight behind Russia. The decision will impact not only the crisis in Ukraine, but also the global geopolitical landscape.

Although China has also reiterated calls for a diplomatic solution that upholds the sovereignty of nations, it’s prioritizing that Sino-Russian relationship, foreign policy experts say. 

“China is enabling Russia,” says Mathieu Duchâtel, director of the Asia Program at the Institut Montaigne in Paris. “I do see those declarations in support of territorial integrity and sovereignty as very cosmetic, compared to the support that China is basically providing to Russia for its actions towards Ukraine.”

Important questions remain over whether China will use its economic heft to buffer the impact of sweeping international sanctions on Russia, and what this all means for Taiwan. But what is clear is that siding with Russia comes with trade-offs, as Beijing risks further undercutting its efforts to build an image as a global leader promoting the common interests of humankind.

Countries around the world have rushed to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. China is not one of them. 

Instead, China has provided robust diplomatic support for Russia, while blaming the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for creating the crisis. “When NATO has made five waves of eastward expansion, Russia’s legitimate demands should be valued and properly resolved,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a press conference on Monday.

By siding with Russia, Beijing risks further undercutting its efforts to build an image as a global leader promoting the common interests of humankind.

Why We Wrote This

Beijing appears to be throwing its weight behind Russia. The decision will impact not only the crisis in Ukraine, but also the global geopolitical landscape.

How has China responded to Russia’s actions in Ukraine?

China abstained from a United Nations Security Council vote on Friday to deplore Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

In official statements, Beijing has repeatedly cast the United States as the “culprit” of the Ukraine crisis. “The person who started the fire should think about how to put out the fire as soon as possible,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told a Beijing press conference on Thursday, referring to the U.S.

China has also reiterated its calls for a diplomatic solution that upholds the sovereignty of nations – including Ukraine – and on Friday Chinese leader Xi Jinping spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin and called for a negotiated agreement with Ukraine, according to official Chinese news reports. “All countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity should be respected,” said Mr. Wang.

Yet despite China’s effort to walk a tightrope between these two somewhat incongruous positions – and avoid a complete unraveling of frayed relations with Europe and the United States – its priority of siding with Russia is clear, foreign policy experts say.

“China is enabling Russia,” says Mathieu Duchâtel, director of the Asia Program at the Institut Montaigne in Paris. “I do see those declarations in support of territorial integrity and sovereignty as very cosmetic, compared to the support that China is basically providing to Russia for its actions towards Ukraine.”

A key question is whether China will use its economic heft to buffer the impact of sweeping international sanctions on Russia, for example by boosting technology cooperation with Russian firms hit by export controls, experts say.

Beijing has vocally opposed sanctions, and while U.S. officials say it has complied with some, it has also moved to back Russia economically. Beijing lifted import restrictions on Russian wheat last week and also recently concluded a multibillion-dollar deal to buy Russian coal. China is Russia’s largest trade partner.

Chinese authorities will “help Russia to circumvent sanctions,” in part because “they want Russia to help them if they face sanctions from the West in the case of some contingency in the future,” says Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at The German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Ng Han Guan/AP
A Ukraine restaurant visitor holds the Chinese and Ukraine national flags as she poses for a photo on Feb. 24, 2022, in Beijing. China overtook Russia as Ukraine’s top trading partner in 2019, and the recent invasion threatens China’s economic interests in Ukraine, including grain imports and various infrastructure projects.

Why has China sided with Russia against the U.S. and NATO?

In a major advance in Sino-Russian relations, Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin met in Beijing in early February and agreed on a sweeping, long-term strategic partnership in which they pledged to stand together ideologically and militarily against the West. “Friendship between the two states has no limits,” the two countries said in a joint statement.

In the agreement, China explicitly supported Russia’s demand for an end to NATO enlargement, and both sides vowed to oppose the creation of regional security alliances. “Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions,” the statement reads. 

China’s stance on Ukraine reflects this growing allegiance between the two authoritarian states, experts say. But that allegiance may come with its own costs.

What risks does the Ukraine crisis pose for China?

Most immediately, Russia’s invasion threatens China’s economic interests in Ukraine, including grain imports. China overtook Russia as Ukraine’s top trading partner in 2019 as the value of total trade between the two countries ballooned to nearly $19 billion last year. Ukraine joined China’s global Belt and Road investment and infrastructure program in 2017 and Chinese firms are engaged in building rail, subway, port, and telecommunications facilities in Ukraine.

The economic fallout of the war for China could extend far beyond Ukraine, given the broad impact of sanctions and worsening relations with Europe, the U.S., and their allies, experts say. “The actions [China’s leaders] are taking with Russia today are clearly going to drive a nail in the coffin of their relationship with Europe,” and have also “seriously damaged” relations with South Korea and Japan, says Ms. Glaser.

The European Union in recent years has reevaluated relations with China, calling it an economic competitor and systemic rival. Beijing’s response to the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces underscores this widening divide, says Philippe Le Corre, a research fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Democracies have to band together and stand for their values,” Mr. Le Corre, who focuses on China-Europe relations, told an online forum on Thursday.

Perhaps the biggest risk is that Beijing’s leadership may have miscalculated by assessing that the West is in irreversible decline and so throwing in its lot with autocratic Russia, says Ms. Glaser. “They don’t understand the outside world as well – they are all drinking the same Kool-Aid,” says Ms. Glaser. “We could look back in a few years and say it is the biggest mistake that Xi Jinping ever made.”

How does China’s aim of reunification with Taiwan influence its calculations on Ukraine?

Beijing views Russia’s actions in Ukraine at least in part through the prism of its own intention to reunite with the self-ruled island of Taiwan, experts say. China’s support for Russia may be viewed as a down payment on reciprocal backing from Russia should Beijing mount a military operation to retake Taiwan. “A war in Europe is not going to help China’s interests. But … the Russia-China partnership is very important at many levels against the West,” says Mr. Le Corre. “If China was to attack Taiwan, it would need the support of the Russian leadership, and it looks like it would get it.”

Moreover, China will watch the intensity of the international and Ukrainian opposition to the Russian military invasion for possible lessons on a Taiwan contingency, experts say. “Sadly, I think one of the key elements China will be watching is whether a democratic society … will be able to conduct guerrilla warfare,” says Dr. Duchâtel. “China will watch the Ukraine war to find answers … and seek to fine-tune its preparation vis-à-vis Taiwan.”

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