Russia’s recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine as independent entities and its decision to send ‘peacekeepers’ into these areas — termed an ‘invasion’ by Western powers — should engender a deeper consideration of the nature of the Sino-Russian relationship.
For a while now it has been argued in the West that Russia is the junior partner in its ties with China, and that there is an element of transactionalism in Sino-Russian ties, because of which is unlikely to last long. While there are elements of truth to these arguments, the fact is that both Russia’s sense of self and the care with which Beijing has so far handled the Russian relationship have meant that China’s economic might and growing regional political footprint have not yet led to the expected falling out.
One reason is plain geopolitics. The expansion of NATO for Russia and the continued presence of US-led security alliances in East Asia for China mean the two countries have a common interest in stymying Washington, and punishing those in their immediate neighbourhood that seek to partner with the US. At the 58th Munich Security Conference held a few days before the invasion, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had, for instance, criticised the continued existence of NATO as “a product of the Cold War”.
Another sign of the sync in interests came a little earlier when Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the opening of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. This was a particularly important sign for China was facing diplomatic boycotts from the West over its treatment of its Uyghur minority and other human rights abuses. Putin also, no doubt, delayed the invasion out of consideration for Beijing’s big moment.
Another reason is a desire for regime preservation in both China and Russia. Given their authoritarian nature, the Russian and Chinese regimes see competing political systems like liberal democracies as existential threats, and both have determined the other is the lesser evil than the West. Further, the US especially, has by its own actions — classifying China and Russia as “strategic competitors” without making a distinction between them — provided additional reasons for the two states to stick together.
Coming to the current crisis, there are several advantages that accrue to China specifically.
One, Russia’s actions insofar as they engender chaos and dysfunction in the West and divert attention away from China altogether, suit the latter’s interests very well. While there is little sign that the West/NATO has a military response lined up against Russia in Ukraine, Chinese analysts already believe that “at least in the next few years, the US will have to focus on Europe, and the ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’ will be reduced to an empty shelf and a slogan.”
Two, the current crisis offers the Chinese another opportunity to criticise the US for wrongs, real or imagined. In the run-up to the Russian invasion, the Chinese foreign ministry accused the US of “heightening tensions, creating panic and even hyping up the possibility of warfare” and called its behaviour “clearly irresponsible and immoral”. It also went on to ask, “When the US drove five waves of NATO expansion eastward all the way to Russia’s doorstep and deployed advanced offensive strategic weapons in breach of its assurances to Russia, did it ever think about the consequences of pushing a big country to the wall?” The statement looks like it is intended to cover China too, for a future contingency that might involve a forcible occupation of Taiwan.
Beijing has also stridently opposed Western economic sanctions against Russia on the grounds that these were “never fundamentally effective means to solve problems” and that they were “illegal” and “unilateral”. Never mind the fact that China has regularly employed economic coercion of its own from Norway to Australia to Lithuania.
Three, the lack of US/NATO willingness to deploy troops on the ground in support of Ukraine allows China to play up the unreliability of Western security guarantees in its own neighbourhood. Beijing has already tried to sow doubts in Taiwan about “the US promise of ‘defending Taiwan’ if the Chinese mainland would seek reunification by force”. Note once again, that this is simultaneously an attempt to normalise and legitimise the use of force by China.
Four, there are also potential economic gains for China. Western economic sanctions can push Russia to more fully embrace Chinese financial initiatives that are designed to undercut or rival Western ones. A greater Russian use of the Chinese Renminbi is a possibility. The crisis has already led to an appreciation of the Renminbi against the US Dollar. Similarly, if Western countries follow through with the idea of cutting Russia off from the SWIFT global financial payments system, it could lead to increased use of China’s Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS) instead.
Given China’s tendency to privilege naked self-interest over principles in its international affairs, seeking advantages from the crisis created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, comes naturally. However, given its international political weight and economic influence, and that it has deep political and economic ties to all sides in the conflict, it will also face both the weight of expectations of better behaviour and the pressure to contribute to a resolution. How China will walk this tight-rope remains to be seen.
(This is the first of a series of articles focusing on China vis-à-vis the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.)
Jabin T Jacob is Associate Professor, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, Delhi NCR, and Adjunct Research Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. Twitter: @jabinjacobt. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.