- The ever-deepening relationship between China and Russia has played a significant role in the current crisis in Ukraine.
- Many in the West see a connection between Russian pressure on Ukraine and Chinese policy towards Taiwan.
- Though China seeks a peaceful resolution of the crisis, diplomatically it has supported Russia in its efforts to redraw the European security architecture.
With tensions rising on the Russian-Ukrainian border and Chinese pressure on Taiwan showing no signs of diminishing any time soon, it is perhaps as good a time as any to take stock of the relationship between Beijing and Moscow. As readers of my own work and this blog will know, I have always regarded the relationship as being a deeply serious one, and whether one prefers to describe it as a ‘strategic partnership’ or an ‘alliance’ doesn’t really matter very much. To all intents and purposes, it has now become what Putin described it as being in December 2021: the ‘best’ it has been in ‘history’. A senior Chinese figure (the Foreign Minister no less) went even further earlier in July. Russia and China, he proclaimed in a somewhat ‘unusual turn of phrase’, were not just allies, but ‘better than allies’!
“Henry Kissinger may have been able to drive a wedge between the two deeply divided countries back in the 1970s. It is most unlikely that his successors will be able to achieve the same diplomatic feat fifty years later.”
Even policy-makers in Washington may at last have woken up to the fact that the relationship has developed into something serious. Naturally enough the few remaining sceptics remain sceptical. Thus, according to a couple of pundits, the relationship (like China itself) may have ‘peaked’ by late 2021, while another writer of some note – Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations – insisted that the ‘marriage’ between the two countries was a ‘bad’ one, so bad perhaps, that the tensions between the two might readily be exploited to Washington’s advantage, very much as happened during the Cold War itself. But as Mark Twain might have pointed out (and I paraphrase) even if history rhymes from time to time it rarely if ever repeats itself! Henry Kissinger may have been able to drive a wedge between the two deeply divided countries back in the 1970s. It is most unlikely that his successors will be able to achieve the same diplomatic feat fifty years later.
Sergey Radchenko summed up the change with brilliant clarity. Driving a wedge between China and Russia’ simply ‘won’t work’ today, he declared. Not only would it ‘be a singularly bad idea for Russia given that a positive relationship with China not only has tangible economic benefits for Russia (China is Moscow’s number one foreign trade partner) but also helps the Russians to leverage their global influence. It would [also] be a bad idea for China, which values Russia as by far its most significant partner with global influence in an otherwise generally hostile neighbourhood’. The Chinese President clearly agreed. Describing Putin as his ‘best friend’, Xi Jinping has waxed lyrical over the years both about the relationship as well as the fact that in the period between 2013 and 2019, he had visited Russia six times and met with Putin ‘nearly 30 times’.
Of course, like any relationship there are stresses and strains. Thus Russia with a GDP around the same size as Italy’s is bound to be concerned by the growing gap between its own rather small, energy-dependent economy, and that of China’s. The prospects for Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union also look dim when set against China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing in turn is concerned that Putin’s current conflict with the West over Ukraine, could pull it into a conflict it would rather avoid, especially given its own increasingly close ties with Kiev.
Even so, as in 2014 and now in 2022, China has made it perfectly clear with whom it stands and why. As the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made clear, Russia’s complaint that its security concerns had always been ignored by the West was an entirely legitimate one. This is why Russia’s demands for a new European security architecture – which excluded for all time Ukrainian membership of NATO – should be ‘taken seriously’. He went on: ‘all parties’ (by which he really meant the US and its allies) ‘should completely abandon the Cold War mentality and form a balanced, effective and sustainable European security mechanism through negotiation’. Wang then stressed that ‘regional security cannot be guaranteed by strengthening or even expanding military blocs’ (by which he meant NATO). He also added for good measure that Washington should not only stop interfering in what he obviously implied was Russia’s legitimate sphere of influence, but also ‘stop playing fire’ in Taiwan as well.
“Even if the two situations could hardly be described as identical, it is reasonable to see some kind of connection between events in Ukraine and China’s perspective on its own ‘near abroad’.”
The linkage made between the crisis in Ukraine and the Taiwan dispute was not accidental of course. It is one that has been made by several Americans as well. Michael McCaul, a senior republican, even warned that ‘failing to deter Putin would embolden autocrats and weaken U.S. credibility’ from Kiev to Taipei. In the same spirit, Seth Cropsey (a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute) insisted that Taiwan and Ukraine were interlinked as part of the ‘larger political competition for Eurasia’ being fought out between China and Russia on the one side and the United States and the West on the other.
Others have been a little more sceptical. Ukraine, they note, is not Taiwan, while Beijing’s relationship with Taipei is quite different from Moscow’s with Kiev. Nonetheless, even if the two situations could hardly be described as identical, it is reasonable to see some kind of connection between events in Ukraine and China’s perspective on its own ‘near abroad’. China has certainly not been a detached observer. Indeed, it may well hope to benefit from the crisis. Beijing may have been cautious at times in ‘showing its hand’. Xi’s economic advisers would also be concerned not to alienate the EU, China’s second largest trading partner. Still, in its own strategic playbook in which it sees itself engaged in a long-term global competition with the United States – which takes in the Euro-Atlantic region as well as the Pacific – anything that helps weaken or even distract the US has to be regarded as a plus.
Moreover, even if Beijing has been urging both sides to seek a diplomatic solution, coverage in the Chinese press – on this as on most other things – has been distinctly critical of the US. Certainly, there is no lack of suspicion about western intentions in China with officials attacking the West for its disinformation campaign involving all sorts of calumnies, from claiming that Beijing requested Moscow not to invade Ukraine while the Winter Olympics were still on, through to its various attempts ‘to drive a wedge between the two countries’. Such efforts it claimed not only amounted to ‘fake news’; their only consequence, officials pointed out, would be to push the two countries even closer together.
From the West’s perspective therefore the situation could not be more difficult. First, there remains an outside chance – perhaps a very real one – that Russia will take some kind of military action. Secondly, the crisis has also exposed differences within NATO both about Russia’s likely course of action (will it invade or not?) and how to respond to it (economic sanctions or military aid to Ukraine?) Moreover, in spite of all its tough talk, the US is clearly not keen to become engaged militarily. And to make matters even more complicated, the West and the United States together do not just confront Russia alone but a Russia locked into a significant relationship with China. Whether or not this reduces Putin’s military options remains to be seen. On the other hand, with China standing alongside it diplomatically – even while Xi continues to ‘hedge his bets’ – it has choices now it could only have dreamed of a few years ago.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.
“The President of Russia arrived in China on a state visit. 02” by The Presidential Press and Information Office is licensed under CC BY 3.0.