China, as expected, has adopted a complex stance on the crisis between Russia and Ukraine. It has two main goals: to gauge the US reaction to a possible crisis between Beijing and Taiwan; and to prevent NATO as such from meddling in the Indo-Pacific, one of the main issues that needs to be settled between now and the NATO summit due to be held in Madrid this June. Although it aligned itself with Russia at the recent UN Security Council meeting and at the talks between the Russian and Chinese Presidents, and both regimes share a desire for a new international order with a less powerful US, China does not back Putin, or his viewpoint, 100%. It defends the territorial integrity of states, given that it is also affected by this issue. And, of course, it seeks to safeguard its own economic interests.
Xi Jinping described Vladimir Putin as his ‘best friend’ and the latter spoke of ‘unprecedented relations’. Following their meeting on 4 February, on the eve of the inauguration of the Olympic Games (the first meeting between the Chinese President and a foreign leader since the start of the pandemic), China and Russia published a lengthy joint declaration –released by the Kremlin– in which they recapitulate some of their major concerns, and emphasise in particular, in case there was any doubt, that they stand against ‘the formation of closed bloc structures and opposing camps in the Asia-Pacific region and remain highly vigilant about the negative impact of the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy on peace and stability in the region’.
Both reject interference in internal affairs, especially in issues such as human rights and the meaning of democracy. The joint communiqué unapologetically states that they ‘share the understanding that democracy is a universal human value, rather than a privilege of a limited number of states’. The Chinese regime has been arguing for some time that what it calls its democracy, works. It is part of the ideological campaign waged against certain liberal democracies that allege internal problems.
Whether NATO, in addition to the US, should turn its focus not only towards China but also towards the Indo-Pacific region as a whole is one of the essential issues for the renewal of the Alliance at the Madrid summit in June. If there is a shift of global power towards Asia, the Alliance wants to counterbalance and participate in it, despite the fact that its initials (North Atlantic) do not reflect this. China has entered NATO’s core agenda. For now, there is no general agreement among the 29 allies about NATO’s role in the Indo-Pacific, the most reluctant being France, still smarting from the informal English-speaking AUKUS alliance (Australia, the UK and the US, which is also critical of the Sino-Russian communiqué) and the scuppering of its nuclear-powered submarine contract with Canberra. Meanwhile, all this is dividing Europe –the EU and Europe more broadly– at least as long as the tension and non-invasion of Ukraine persists. This is convenient for both Russia and China, which is making inroads into Eastern Europe and Central Asia thanks to its Belt and Road Initiative, to disapproval in Moscow. As well as seeking to thwart NATO, China wants to prevent the US, which is also an Asiatic power in military terms, from constructing a network of alliances against it in Asia.
At the UN Security Council’s recent meeting on Ukraine, the Chinese Ambassador, Zhang Jun, toeing the official line, argued for ‘Russia’s legitimate security concerns to be taken seriously and addressed’. China does not normally talk publicly about the European security order. But this time, in the joint statement, it declares that ‘the Chinese side is sympathetic to and supports the proposals put forward by the Russian Federation to create long-term legally binding security guarantees in Europe’. And it opposes the expansion of NATO.
China supports Russia, but not an armed Russian invasion of Ukraine. In fact, China abstained in the Security Council in 2014 when there was an attempt to condemn the invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea by Russia, which Beijing has never formally recognised. Indeed, it has strengthened its trade ties with Ukraine, especially in terms of grain imports, but also in the area of infrastructure. A direct link by train and ferry between China and the Ukrainian port of Chornomorsk (formerly Illichivsk), on the Black Sea[HM1] , was opened in 2016, bypassing Russia. China has also invested in a new metro line in Kiev. In other words, ties between China and Ukraine are strengthening, with the goal of increasing bilateral trade by 50%, and an annual total of US$20 billion envisaged for 2025.
As pointed out above, with the Taiwan issue in mind, China advocates territorial integrity. It deems Taiwan to be part of China, whereas Taipei seeks to diversify its foreign policy with its technological leverage. China could win international diplomatic prestige if it helps to defuse the crisis in Ukraine. Furthermore, the Chinese regime does not want the crisis between Russian and Ukraine to overshadow its Winter Olympics, which were unveiled in a somewhat muted way owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, in a ceremony subjected to a diplomatic boycott by various countries, including the US. As it did in the Summer Olympics of 2008, China would like to use the games as a global showcase for its capabilities, under the slogan of a ‘shared future for the whole of humanity’. Underlying this, however, is the geopolitical, technological and ideological rivalry that characterises our age.
China could be of great assistance to Russia in the event of sanctions, buying more crude oil and gas and other raw materials and manufactured goods, and helping it with the yuan as a substitute for the dollar, use of which may be closed off to the Russians. That said, Moscow is looking for a new European and to some extent world order, as is Beijing, which is also pushing for a regional order in Asia aligned to its interests and concerns. Putin’s Russia wants to restore its status as a great power, whereas China aspires to be a superpower, the only one that can successfully challenge the US across a range of fields. Apart from its oil and gas, Russia is economically much more closed than China, which is more dependent on global markets.
Although the two powers have converged more than at any time since the Chinese communist revolution, including in the military realm, neither the interests of the two states nor their own national interests are completely aligned. But this crisis makes Russia even more dependent on Beijing (when for many years it was the other way round). This is a poor outlook for the West.
Image: Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping shaking hands. Photo: Press Service of the President of the Russian Federation (CC BY 4.0)