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Russia’s War Is A Political Minefield For China

  • China’s relationship with Russia is quickly becoming a thorn in the side of President Xi Jinping.
  • Beijing’s unwillingness to condemn Russia for its aggression in Ukraine could push it further away from Europe and the United States.
  • Xi Jinping has big ambitions for his Belt and Road Initiative in Europe, and the fallout from Russia’s actions could jeopardize his plans. 

The United States has now put Beijing's close relationship with Moscow in the crosshairs -- as I reported here -- by leaking intelligence reports about Russian requests for military equipment from China in a bid to dissuade the Chinese from more strongly backing the Kremlin.

But while these allegations show potential new depths of support for Russia amid its war in Ukraine, they also clearly illustrate whose side Beijing is really on: China's.

Finding Perspective: There's no denying that China's backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin has put Beijing under new pressure.

The leaked information -- which both China and Russia have called "disinformation" -- came the night before an intense, seven-hour meeting in Rome between U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan and Yang Jiechi, China's top foreign-affairs official.

China's unwillingness to criticize Moscow for its war and its decision to support Russia in spreading propaganda and conspiracy theories has also put its relations with Europe at stake. Just a week ago, there was chatter out of Brussels about Beijing helping to bring Moscow to the negotiating table, but that seems to have faded.

All of this adds up to a strategic headache for Xi Jinping's government brought by refusing to ditch Moscow.

But despite frustrations with the Kremlin's war and the collateral damage it has brought (and could still bring), a prevailing view out of Beijing still seems to be that this will likely be short-term pain and that China is still positioned to emerge from the current crisis largely unfrayed in the long term.

For Chinese policymakers, one of the lessons learned so far appears to be that the West is becoming more united and that Russia will be needed in Beijing's corner, regardless of whether Moscow kicks up mud on China right now.

From such a view, Beijing may be able to strengthen its position and leverage over a weakened Russia and could benefit from a European Union and United States more focused on tackling problems in Eastern Europe than in the Indo-Pacific.

Why It Matters: The increased Western pressure is no doubt worrisome for China, but Beijing currently sees little upside in turning away from Russia.

Now, China's path forward is by no means certain and the scenario outlined above could also boomerang on Beijing, leaving it more isolated and under more pressure internationally than it would have predicted just a month ago.

In the meantime, China is looking to ride out the storm by behaving cautiously while still preserving its close coordination with Russia.

How things play out from the Ukraine war will no doubt be a fateful decision for Xi and for China as a whole, but it looks like Beijing has charted its course.

Expert Corner: The Future Of The BRI In Europe

Readers asked, "Does Russia's invasion of Ukraine derail China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) ambitions with Europe?"

To find out more, I asked Andreea Brinza, vice president of the Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific:

"Overall, the war will negatively affect China-Europe relations, including the future of the BRI in Europe, as European countries are disappointed that China has only engaged in attacking the United States and spreading fake news, without playing any concrete role in ending the fighting.

"China's exports may suffer due to lower consumer purchasing power in the West and especially in Europe. At the same time, the railway routes of the BRI could also be affected by possible bans on products that transit across Russia, or even because some companies might stop deliveries via freight train through Russia. These routes were the most successful side of the BRI in Europe and without them, China will lack a BRI success story in Europe.

"But the war in Ukraine may not only endanger these rail routes but could also especially affect China's relations with Central and Eastern Europe. This part of Europe, which was quite important for China in the past, as it was seen as a possible gateway to the EU, is now on the verge of a possible NATO conflict with Russia. Thus, the perception that China is aligned with Russia has only proven to these countries that standing firm with the United States and NATO (by banning Huawei and canceling Chinese-backed projects) was the best thing to do. So, it will be increasingly difficult for China to promote projects or investments in this part of the world."

By RFE/RL

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Leave a comment
  • Peter B on March 17 2022 said:
    Although they have to be careful not to antagonize the USA and Europe the fact that China is one of only a few countries Russia can sell oil, gas and coal to is a huge win for Chinese energy security. They now have more leverage over Russia than any other energy exporting country.

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