Since the first shots were fired in the early hours of February 24, China has walked an awkward line of supporting Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine while attempting to distance itself from the destruction Russia's military has inflicted.
On February 4, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Beijing on the sidelines of the Olympics and the two signaled new depths to their partnership, saying ties between their countries had “no limits” as they unveiled a massive strategic document.
But after one month of war in Ukraine, the partnership has been thoroughly put to the test.
Sweeping Western sanctions have crippled Russia’s economy and left the Kremlin under unprecedented pressure internationally.
Beijing has avoided extending a political or economic lifeline to Moscow, but China has also provided diplomatic cover for its partner and its state-run media have pushed Russia’s narrative of the invasion to audiences at home and abroad.
This has left the West increasingly focused on China’s ambiguous role amid the crisis, which is set to grow as U.S. President Joe Biden kicks off a four-day trip to Europe on March 24.
Through summits and meetings with NATO, the Group of Seven (G7), and the European Council, Biden is set to keep up the pressure on Russia over its invasion and forge a common front with Europe toward China before a planned European Union summit with Xi on April 1.
Washington has warned Beijing against providing material support to Russia and European leaders hope they can press China to act constructively to help bring an end to the bloody war.
But how deeply has the Ukraine war changed China and Russia’s growing partnership?
To find out more, RFE/RL asked six leading experts about what one month of war has taught us about the nature of the Beijing-Moscow relationship and where it might be heading.
The Xi-Putin Relationship Is Too Big to Fail
Steve Tsang, director of SOAS University London's China Institute
China and Xi were taken by surprise by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, not that it happened, but that it was executed so poorly.
A true believer in the superiority of their authoritarian systems, Xi undoubtedly thought that Russia would launch “surgical” strikes or use coercive pressure for Putin to get his way in Kyiv without damaging China’s substantial relations with Ukraine. Russian failures so far have harmed China’s interests and diminished Chinese respect for Putin and Russia.
Even when the Russian invasion turned into a mess, China could have taken advantage of it by taking on a peacemaking role.
If Xi could persuade Putin to end the conflict, he would have gained international acclaim and made China look great again. Even if he should fail, Beijing would still have earned international gratitude for trying. But China did not even try, despite its talk of neutrality and a wish for the conflict to end quickly. Chinese professional diplomats can see the value of this option, but they can’t get this past Xi.
The reality is that China’s policy is dictated by Xi and he supports Putin. Allowing a fellow Leninist strongman to fail could encourage challenges to his own authority in China. Xi also shares Putin’s commitment to making the world safe for authoritarianism and challenging U.S. global leadership. It means we can’t expect China to play a constructive role in Ukraine, as Xi’s focus is not what is best for the world or China, but rather what is best for him as the strongman of China.
Look To China's Actions, Not Its Words
Ryan Hass, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and forme director for China on the U.S. National Security Council
Beijing’s initial assumptions about the potential benefits China may derive from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are becoming less tenable by the day.
At the outset, many strategic thinkers in Beijing reportedly believed Russia’s invasion would divert American focus to Europe. They assumed the toll of war would diminish American power and potentially strain transatlantic unity. They also expected that Russia would become more isolated and dependent on China, giving Beijing leverage to extract concessions from Moscow, much as was the case following Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014.
Instead, one month into the conflict, transatlantic unity is arguably as strong as it has been at any point since the 1991 Gulf War. The speed and scale of Western sanctions on Russia exceeded Beijing’s expectations and Russia appears on a trajectory of becoming a rapidly depreciating strategic asset in the international system.
As the world’s leading importer of oil and a leading purchaser of food and commodities, China is also being disproportionately harmed economically by volatility in global markets for such goods.
Chinese officials with whom I have spoken are willing to acknowledge privately that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has harmed China’s interests. Even so, do not expect China to publicly condemn Russia’s behavior.
Instead, Chinese officials almost surely can be counted on to lend public support to Russia. While words are important, actions matter more. The key measure of China’s role in the conflict will be what China does -- and does not do -- to demonstrate its support for Russia.
China Has No Plans To Ditch Russia
Melissa Chan, Berlin-based contributor to The Global Reporting Center and former China correspondent
We’ve seen so many analysts dissect every comment from Chinese diplomats and every tweet from state media for a sign of a shift in China’s position, believing that the terrible images of war crimes in Ukraine would surely drive Beijing to distance itself from Russia.
One month into the conflict, however, the fact is that China will still not call what is happening an “invasion.”
Troublingly, we see a convergence of doublespeak to outright conspiracy theories being touted by both Chinese and Russian diplomats and state media engines -- domestically and abroad -- and through proxies on social media. Beijing and Moscow now share the same messaging in a way that disinformation specialists have previously not observed.
Chinese diplomats have used some language that appears to distance the country from the Russian offensive, and Beijing has denied that it will provide arms to Moscow. We have seen Chinese scholars weigh in with diverse opinions, but the relationship between the two countries is not determined by these voices -- it is largely determined by two secretive and isolated men: Putin and Xi.
We really don’t know much about either man’s thinking. Attention has been given to Putin’s COVID bunker mentality, but we should remember that Xi has lived and operated similarly for the last two years. Unless Beijing renounces its declaration made during the Winter Olympics that its relationship with Russia has “no limits,” we should not assume otherwise.
The View From Ukraine
Yurii Poita, head of the Asia-Pacific Section at the Kyiv-based Center for Army, Conversion, and Disarmament Studies
While Beijing will continue to diplomatically and informationally support Moscow in the future, the last month has shown that China-Russia cooperation has quite clear boundaries which the Chinese leadership is not yet ready to cross. This mainly concerns avoiding military and military-technical aid to Russia as well as significant assistance in overcoming sanctions.
In Ukraine, Beijing’s so-called “pro-Russian neutrality” does not cause much enthusiasm. In the expert community, it is believed that China, with its tacit consent for Moscow’s war, also bears its share of responsibility for the Russian invasion and even that China’s lack of condemnation of the Kremlin’s actions indicates an indirect support for Russia’s war crimes.
In practice, as long as China does not provide military or other direct assistance to Russia, this will be more or less acceptable for Kyiv. Officially, the Ukrainian government will maintain friendly relations with Beijing as much as possible.
However, if China wants to be a truly global and responsible player, it must take a position consistent with international law. Otherwise, one way or another, its position in Ukraine, Central and Eastern Europe, and the EU will be significantly undermined.
In Ukraine, the discourse in China’s state-run media is also perceived negatively, as it mostly repeats pro-Russian narratives and disinformation and also excludes Ukraine's participation in the war, instead framing it as Russia's confrontation with NATO, the United States, and the EU.
China should understand that Ukraine is a sovereign state. It is not a Russian gray area or a puppet of the West. Ukraine has its own national interests, and this should be taken seriously by Beijing.
A Bet That Isn't Paying Off
Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, fellow at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan and former adviser to the European Parliament
A month into the war, Putin’s gamble has turned into a strategic dilemma for Xi.
For now, there is no easy exit for Beijing, there are only difficult questions to address. What role will Xi choose to play and how can he reconcile his interests to uphold sovereignty, territorial integrity, and his geopolitical agenda for global leadership while maintaining cooperation with the EU?
Moscow and Beijing have thrived for years on the EU’s lack of political will to act to protect its interests, undermining the bloc and discrediting democracy without having to face any consequences -- until Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
This aggression has led to a level of coordination and joint action in Brussels that will have far-reaching consequences not just for the EU, but also for China’s ties with Russia and for China’s role in the world.
The path Xi takes regarding Putin’s war will put China’s global image and credibility on the line, forcing Xi to reexamine the value that China’s “strategic partnership” with Russia holds for Beijing.
Should Beijing choose to help Moscow circumvent international sanctions, there will be a high price to pay once secondary sanctions on China start kicking in. Xi risks finding himself entangled in an international security situation that leaves Beijing more closely scrutinized than ever before.
Undermining European and global security might finally have real consequences for Beijing and Moscow.
The Ukraine War Will Have Global Ripple Effects
Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute
While the durability of the China-Russia relationship is not in itself surprising, the sharpness and degree with which Beijing seems willing to back Moscow as the situation on the ground drags on and the West pushes with ever-stronger sanctions highlights how tightly bound both countries are at the moment.
Few of the details that have emerged have been very surprising: Chinese firms are still not willing to place themselves in the crosshairs of American sanctions, while the reports of possible desired arms sales from China to Russia have yet to be confirmed.
This crisis is also showing how the Moscow-Beijing dynamic will echo in ways that will confuse the democracies versus autocracies narrative that the West likes to advance.
What has perhaps been less noticed is the way in which India and Pakistan have been interacting and seem to support Moscow. In many ways, this gives China cover for its support for Moscow, while also opening up an interesting dynamic in South Asia that could complicate attempts by the West to use India as a keynote Asian ally in their confrontation with China.
In terms of whether the views of each other have changed: I would suspect the Chinese might now be slightly less in awe of their Russian military counterparts but, at the same time, they remain the most battle-hardened army around that China is able to do exercises with. This suggests an interesting possible future dynamic in the military-to-military relationship.
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