Russia and China’s leaders have met more than 30 times since 2013, but the Ukraine crisis is a test of the relationship.
As Russia orders troops into eastern Ukraine, close ally China finds itself in a difficult position on the international stage as it tries to balance close ties with Moscow with its own domestic concerns and a desire to retain a working relationship with Europe.
At the United Nations Security Council on Monday, China’s Representative to the UN Zhang Jun called for restraint as tensions escalated following Moscow’s unilateral move to recognise the two breakaway areas in Ukraine’s east as independent.
Zhang said international disputes should be settled by “peaceful means” – a point China also made during the Munich Security Conference on February 19 and in a recent phone call between President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Beijing’s tone may suggest some backpedalling from recent assertive posturing alongside Russia. After conducting joint military and naval exercises at the end of 2021, the two nations issued a lengthy 5,000-word statement on February 4 against the enlargement of NATO. Both called the security bloc a relic of the Cold War, although it has tried to pivot to more hot-button issues including the security of the Indo-Pacific region – China’s backyard.
Russia and China also criticised the rise of new US-led blocs like the Quad, an informal alliance of the US, India, Japan and Australia as well as AUKUS, which deepens existing security ties between the US, Australia and the United Kingdom.
The joint statement was accompanied by a $117.5bn oil and gas deal to further cement their economic relationship and also reduce Russia’s financial dependence on Europe.
“The China-Russia relationship is unnaturally close by historical standards. Shared resentments of the West pull Putin and Xi together, and shared interests push the China-Russia relationship forward,” said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow and the Michael H Armacost chair in the foreign policy programme at Brookings Institution. Hass said it was not a “foregone conclusion,” however, that the relationship would remain so strong.
Balancing sovereignty concerns
Despite the current closer ties between Beijing and Moscow, analysts say China never intended to play a major role in the Russia-Ukraine dispute, even though it may find itself lumped into the conflict by some global players.
Russia’s support for separatists in Ukraine has put Beijing in a “tough spot”, said David Gitter, president of the Center for Advanced China Research, as it takes a hard line against suspected “separatists” in regions like Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and the self-ruled democracy of Taiwan.
China has never recognised Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, although Gitter said that Putin’s use of “cultural and historical affinities” with Ukraine might provide some future legitimacy as China’s Communist Party uses similar arguments to claim sovereignty over Taiwan.
Another reason is that despite growing closer with Russia, China still has a close economic relationship with Ukraine. Trade between the two countries amounted to $15.4bn in 2020, according to the State Statistics Service of Ukraine. Among Ukraine’s exports to China are raw materials like ore, slag and ash used in important domestic industries like construction.
Similarly, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pitched Ukraine as China’s “bridge” to Europe, which is also an important market for Chinese goods. In June 2021, Ukraine and China agreed to expand Chinese investment in Ukrainian infrastructure like roads and railways that could improve supply chains.
With all of these strategic factors at play, China is now in an “awkward position,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia programme at the German Marshall Fund in the US.
“China has always prized sovereignty in its foreign policy; it does not want to be associated with Moscow’s action. The costs of doing so, in terms of relations with the US and Europe, and its global reputation, are too high,” she said. “Yet, it has an important relationship with Russia that it doesn’t want to damage. I see this as a major foreign policy challenge for Xi Jinping.”
Brookings’ Hass agrees.
“If China provides public support for Russia and seeks to shield Moscow from international censure following its invasion of Ukraine, it risks hastening the formation of global blocs, with China and Russia on one side and much of the developed world on the other. China would be tethering itself to the weakest major power and aggravating relations with all other major powers in the process,” he said.
Some of the damage, however, may already be done. Russia and China were recently described as “two authoritarian powers… operating together” by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who said the duo “don’t like the rules-based international order. They don’t share our values, freedom, democracy. And that’s also the reason why they tried to deny sovereign, democratic nations the right to choose their own future.”
Similar remarks were made by EU Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen, who also said in February that China and Russia hope to “replace the existing international order” through rule by might, intimidation and coercion.
The statements come amid growing scepticism towards China in greater Europe.
In 2020, the Pew Research Center recorded the most negative views towards China in key European countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the UK since their survey began. The decline was due in part to COVID-19, but it also revealed a marked distrust in President Xi as well, and “his ability to do the right thing regarding world affairs.”
Last year, the EU released its first-ever strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in which it identified China as a potential challenge.
The group has also recently imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for their role in alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang – some of the harshest measures taken since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. And some of its members in eastern Europe – notably the Czech Republic and Lithuania – have sought closer ties with Taiwan.
Agathe Demarais, global forecasting director at the Economist Intelligence Unit, cautions that closer ties between China and Russia should be taken with a grain of salt.
“I think you have to always remember the disconnect between the statements that are made and the reality. Many times, when a country makes a statement, it is hoping to shake the narrative or change it,” she said.
China’s leadership, especially Xi, probably want smooth sailing until the 20th National Party Congress later in the year when major policy decisions are usually announced. The event will also stand out as Xi is seeking an unprecedented third term in office. While Xi has laid the groundwork for this to happen, he has several months to get through before he can be re-anointed as chairman of the Communist Party. Moreover, next month is the National People’s Congress, another important political gathering for Beijing.
Then there is the fact that for many in China, Russia is simply not that popular of an ally, said the EIU’s Demarais.
Despite a close relationship between Xi and Putin, who have met more than 30 times since 2013, Chinese people are more likely to remember China’s 1969 border conflict with the then-Soviet Union. They probably have little appetite for supporting a Russian conflict, however the government may feel.
Gitter notes that despite China’s many concerns, the timing of Russia’s moves on eastern Ukraine has not gone unnoticed. After months of tension, it was not until the all-important Winter Olympics in Beijing had ended that Putin was finally moved to action.
“One has to wonder if Putin directly or indirectly let Xi Jinping know this was coming during their recent meeting,” he said, remarking that the invasion failed to steal any Olympic limelight.
“It is not inconceivable that Xi committed China to materially spoiling Western attempts to censure and sanction Russia while still allowing itself the flexibility to pay lip service to UN Charter ideas like sovereignty and the equality of nations in pursuit of its other objectives.”