Strategic Insight 022/2023
27 July 2023
Re-examining Sino-Russia Relations in the Shadow of the Ukraine War
Whilst China has neither called out nor condemned Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s so-called ‘special military operations’ against Ukraine, it would be inaccurate to assert that Beijing has disavowed Kyiv’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Notwithstanding how Beijing has perpetuated Moscow’s narrative in attributing the war to the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and seemingly disregarded Europe’s fundamental security concerns over Russian military aggression, there are reasons to be optimistic that China-Russia divergences can be exploited when the time comes to return peace to Europe.
The death and destruction raining down on Ukraine in the now more than 500-day conflict in Europe has had far-reaching consequences in the continent and the world. Despite how European countries appear to have weaned themselves off Russian oil and gas – notwithstanding the passing off of Russian oil into Europe as Indian fuel imports – Moscow’s energy blackmail against Brussels and unprovoked annexation of a sovereign nation has helped the West pull more closely together and strengthened NATO.
Although some analysts have contrived to establish analogical parallels between Moscow’s blatant violation of Kyiv’s sovereignty and territorial integrity with the world’s other potential flashpoint concerning the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) designs across the Taiwan Strait – and despite how the Russian leader has betrayed signs of desperation by going so far as genuflecting on Beijing’s claims – the fact of the matter remains that any formal China-Russia alliance has yet to materialise. Verily, even if Russia is fast becoming a vassal of China, Beijing needs to tread carefully in its dealings with Moscow.
China’s Strategic Calculations
Since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, China’s official stance has been to be all things to all people: Vis-à-vis their western and Ukrainian counterparts, Chinese diplomats maintain how Beijing supports Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity; with their Russian interlocutors on the other hand, the party-state perpetuates Moscow’s position that it was supposedly the expansion of the NATO security alliance that provoked President Vladimir Putin to launch his so-called ‘special military operations’.
Under the preeminence of the western-dominated global political and economic systems, Beijing’s diplomatic strategy adheres to the view that a key obstacle preventing its collective ascendancy with other “non-western” and “non-democratic” countries stems from the lack of political endorsement from the world’s liberal democracies. As well as cooperating with other countries such as those in the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) bloc, Beijing’s long-term goal to subvert the extant international order would only have been reinforced by a weakened Russia whose interests have become more aligned with its own. Moreover, there is utility to be exploited from its resource-rich neighbour and the latter’s military-industrial complex.
Beijing and Moscow’s Convoluted Ties
Apart from Putin’s admission of his Chinese counterpart’s “questions and concerns” after a string of humiliating Russian reversals in September 2022, Xi Jinping appears to have largely stood by his fellow autocrat in the Kremlin. Still, China’s position on the war in Ukraine is an ambiguous one. Realising that anything but a contrarian position would deprive it of diplomatic space to manoeuvre between the belligerents – as was the case when Beijing similarly adopted an agnostic view on the Crimean Referendum in 2014 – China has so far refrained from criticising Moscow publicly.
At the elite level, the assertion that Xi knew in advance of Putin’s invasion plans prior to 24 February 2022 is likewise speculative. Indeed, despite how his decision to enter into a “no-limits” partnership with Russia at the Beijing Winter Olympics has been interpreted by some as China’s tacit endorsement of the subsequent attack on Ukraine, the lack of substantive evidence lends credence to the possibility that the Chinese leader was uninformed.
As it is, China-Russia relations continue to be impinged by mutual mistrust. Notwithstanding how Beijing and Moscow view the West and the liberal international order as antithetical to their authoritarian rule, there are good reasons why they are yet to enter into any formal politico-military alliance since the previous Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance between the former Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) expired in 1979.
As a Soviet proxy prior to the PRC’s founding in 1949, the CCP would be forced to defer its own national interests under pressure from Joseph Stalin to enter the Korean War in 1950 – in so doing, delaying China’s national development following the destructive civil war against the previous Republic of China (ROC) government. Most damagingly for China’s new regime, it even had to forgo its planned invasion of Taiwan and the chance to root out the remnant Kuomintang (KMT) forces there.
Likewise, the separation of Mongolia as well as parts of the Russian Far East from China had also been caused by either the Soviet Union or Tsarist Russia. Put another way, Putin’s imperial ambitions are incompatible with China’s revanchist dreams.
China’s Position: Siding with Itself and Itself Only
As well as refusing to condemn Russia’s war on Ukraine, Beijing (among others) has been profiting from the conflict by increasing its purchases of cut-price Russian oil and gas, so much so that Moscow eclipsed Saudi Arabia as China’s top supplier in 2022. Thus, although most European governments have in the interim reduced their reliance on Russian fossil fuels and imposed economic sanctions on Moscow, some of that lost trade has been offset by Asia’s major economies. However, to portray China as unambiguously siding with Russia, as many major (particularly western) media outlets have been doing, is to overlook the significant cleavages between the two sides.
As the short-lived Wagner Group rebellion against the Russian military leadership and the recent revelation of Xi Jinping’s contradictory views vis-à-vis Vladimir Putin over the use of nuclear weapons have revealed, by virtue of its proximity to its giant nuclear-armed neighbour, Beijing has had little choice but to handle the bilateral ties with the utmost delicacy. Given how the mercenary group supposedly approached the Russian nuclear base, Voronezh-45, in an attempt to acquire portable nuclear weapons, the potential for instability and chaos in Russia spilling across the China-Russia border is real. In other words, think North Korea, but multiply the threat level exponentially.
Likely driven by concerns over the impact of secondary sanctions from Washington and Brussels, Beijing has been careful thus far not to put itself in a compromising position as regards extending military aid to Moscow. From China’s perspective, Russian military adventurism has also provided strategic benefits by drawing away a part of U.S. military focus as well as diverted Washington’s resources from the Indo-Pacific.
An appreciation of the historical baggage between China and Russia helps us see that relations between the two are not ironclad. In view of how the protracted bloodshed in Ukraine is grinding on with no end in sight, with both belligerents now desperate to outgun the other, just as other countries party to the conflict have displayed certain weariness of late, expressing some empathy for Beijing’s sensitivities as regards Moscow will more likely yield Chinese support to help return Europe to peace at the earliest opportunity when the belligerents are finally ready for a political settlement.
James Char is a Research Fellow with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.
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