Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China has said all the right things in support of Russia, its professed strategic partner. Chinese officials have faithfully repeated Russian propaganda, refusing to describe the unprovoked attack on Ukraine as a “war” or “invasion,” while echoing the Kremlin claim that NATO’s expansionist desires are the root cause of the conflict.
But Beijing’s actions are telling a different story, underscored by the March 9 Foreign Ministry announcement that the Chinese Red Cross is supplying almost $800,000 in humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. The amount is small, but the gesture is significant in the current context: Chinese leaders are hedging their geopolitical bets.
It was just over a month ago that Russian leader Vladimir Putin met with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics. The two issued a joint statement describing bilateral relations as “superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era,” and cooperation as having “no limits.”
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, however, China’s behavior toward Russia has been circumspect and restrained, its officials proclaiming solidarity with Russia without following up in substance. Before Russian troops attacked, Chinese officials spoke against Western sanctions. But once the United States and European Union started imposing sanctions and disconnecting Russian banks from the SWIFT financial network, leading Chinese financial institutions began quietly adhering to the restrictions, according to the Bloomberg news service.
Another section of the February 4 Putin-Xi statement offers insight into China’s “say one thing, do another” approach toward Russia: The two countries endorsed a “need for consolidation, not division of the international community, a need for cooperation, not confrontation.” It goes on to say the two “oppose the return of international relations to the state of confrontation between major powers.”
Just weeks after publication of these sentiments, Putin decided unilaterally to blow up the post-World War II order, ushering in a new era of geopolitical confrontation that may prove just as fraught as the Cold War. Putin’s impulsive actions are also fueling a Western economic crusade against Russian-style illiberalism.
Xi likely feels embarrassed and used by Putin, and Chinese officials similarly can’t help worrying that, given the West’s restored unity of purpose, China’s global economic interests and geopolitical aspirations stand to suffer. It’s no surprise, then, that Beijing has been a vocal proponent for an end to the war. This conflict is very bad for Beijing’s business, tossing a monkey wrench into Xi’s Belt and Road vision.
The economic disparity in China’s relationship with Russia is another factor behind Beijing’s tepid response to Russia in the Kremlin’s time of extreme financial need. When it comes to commerce, Russia is an afterthought for China, accounting for merely 2 percent of Beijing’s overall trade turnover. To the extent that Beijing increases its trade volume with Russia amid the stifling Western sanctions, it will do so while imposing humbling terms on its supposed friend, purchasing energy, for example, at bargain-basement prices.
China’s strategic partnership with Russia was useful to Beijing only to the extent that it could widen the gap between the U.S. and EU, thus creating space for continuing Chinese economic expansion. This underlying pillar of the partnership has now come crashing down: Putin’s Ukraine adventure has forged the very geopolitical environment, namely Western strategic unity, that China desperately wanted to avoid. Virtually overnight, Russia has gone from asset to major liability for China.
Though unarticulated, the message that Xi is sending Putin with China’s evident reluctance to toss Russia an economic lifeline is: “It’s nothing personal, it’s strictly business.”
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