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March 1, 2022

Ahram Online – Chinese Checkers

China will not openly support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but, united in their opposition to a US-led world order, both countries are seeking to set new rules.

Last Friday at the United Nations Security Council in New York, there was zero expectation that the US-proposed draft resolution condemning Russia’s “invasion” of Ukraine and calling on Moscow to pull back its tanks would be adopted. As one of the five permanent members of the world’s highest peace and security abritrator, Russia used its veto power to block the US resolution.

The reason the draft was adopted was for Washington and other countries to test how China would vote, considering its growing alliance with Russia on both the official and personal levels. Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have met no less than 38 times since the Chinese leader took office 10 years ago. The latest summit was on 4 February at the spectacular opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics, only three weeks before the Russia’s military attack on Ukraine. This has raised suspicions that Putin had given his close ally, Xi, a heads-up on his plans.

At the Security Council, along with India and the United Arab Emirates, China abstained from voting, while 11 countries supported the draft. The US was hoping to win 14 out of 15 votes, to send a clear message to Putin that he is isolated and rejected on the world stage. Yet a Chinese abstention remained a better option for Washington than a second veto at the Security Council, which would have been tantamount to Beijing taking concrete steps on the ground in support of Russia and Putin.

After Putin’s decision to march on the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, a week ago, US officials revealed that they had tried for nearly three months to convince Chinese officials to deter Putin from making this move, showing them detailed intelligence information to prove that Russia’s invasion plans were real – to no effect. They added that the Biden administration’s diplomatic outreach towards China in the attempt to avert war began after the US president and his Chinese counterpart held a video summit on 15 November. However, top Chinese officials downplayed the US threats, accusing Washington of dragging Putin into a war.

An extremely worrying sign for US and European officials indicating that the alliance between Russia and China has reached new, high levels was the statement released by both Putin and Xi after their 4 February meeting. The sweeping, 5,300-word statement declared there would be “no limits” to the two countries’ relationship and “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.” The two leaders called on the United States to abandon plans to expand NATO in Europe and deploy intermediate range missiles in Europe and Asia. There was no mention of Ukraine by name. Nor, in the light of China’s decades-long stand that Taiwan is an integral part of its territory, of Taiwan. But the two countries clearly supported each other in those conflicts.

China and Russia also denounced what they see as American interference in their internal affairs through fomenting “colour revolutions,” a reference to the public uprisings in former Soviet republics like Georgia and Ukraine that toppled pro-Moscow governments. “Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions,” said the statement. In a message directly aimed at Washington, the two leaders vowed “to counter interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries under any pretext, oppose colour revolutions” and “increase cooperation in the aforementioned areas.”

US and European leaders in turn accused China of working with Russia to overturn what they say is a “rules-based international order.”  European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Xi and Putin’s 4 February statement sought to replace rule of law with “rule of the strongest.”

After the Russian advance on Ukraine, the Chinese president was the first world leader Putin was keen to be in touch with to explain his move. In a phone call on Friday, Putin complained to Xi that the United States and NATO had ignored Russia’s “reasonable” security concerns and had reneged on their commitments, according to a readout of the call released by the Chinese state news media.  

Xi reiterated China’s public position that it was important to respect the “legitimate security concerns” as well as the “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of all countries. Putin told Xi that Russia was willing to negotiate with Ukraine, and Xi said China would support any such move. Meanwhile, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has released a series of stonewalling statements. It hasn’t endorsed the invasion, but neither has it condemned it. The ministry has repeated that the situation is complex, sanctions are useless, and the West is largely responsible for the war because it backed Russia into a corner by expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) into zones formerly under Russian control.

The day Russia started its military advance in Ukraine, the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, openly stated that the United States was the “culprit” behind the tensions. “When the US drove five waves of NATO expansion eastward all the way to Russia’s doorstep and deployed advanced offensive strategic weapons in breach of its assurances to Russia, did it ever think about the consequences of pushing a big country to the wall?” asked the spokeswoman. The next day, as Hua was bombarded with questions about whether China considered Russia’s “special military operation” an invasion, she turned the briefing into a critique of the United States. “You may go ask the US: they started the fire and fanned the flames,” she said. “How are they going to put out the fire now?”

Chinese officials also bristled at the US State Department’s comment that China should respect state sovereignty and territorial integrity, a long-standing tenet of Chinese foreign policy, considering Beijing’s own disputes over Hong Kong, Taiwan and  Tibet. Chinese Ambassador to the US Zhang Jun, said, “The current situation in Ukraine is the result of many complex factors. China always takes its own position according to the merits of the matter itself. We believe that all countries should solve international disputes by peaceful means in line with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter.”

Even though China wants to position itself as essentially neutral and advocates dialogue, its positions are actually a remarkable defence of Russia and reflect strengthening China-Russia ties. However, it is also conceivable that Beijing might seek to downplay its support for Moscow, for example by abstaining at the UN Security Council, to dampen the economic and geopolitical impact of Russia’s military move.  

China’s rise, after all, has rested on global economic interdependence and geopolitical stability in Europe and the rest of the world. China knows that openly supporting Russia’s invasion would seriously damage its already strained relations with the wealthy democracies that are its main trading partners, such as the United States, European Union countries, and Japan. Ties with these countries are already as bad as they have been since China began its policy of reform and opening in the 1970s. If China sided with Russia by offering economic relief or agreeing to veto sanctions in the UN Security Council for example, then it would be hard to salvage those ties. Instead, most wealthy democracies would perceive China and Russia as being in a 1950s-style communist alliance. This would make it almost impossible to restart engagement with China.

This dilemma is reflected in how the war is discussed on Chinese social media. On the most influential platform, WeChat, a senior Chinese media editor said China should voice its “understanding and a certain amount of support” for Russia because the United States ultimately pushed it to invade, but that China shouldn’t provoke Western countries by overtly supporting Russia.

US and European officials also worry that Russia’s commercial links to China will help the Russian economy however “unprecedentedly tough” the international sanctions they imposed. Their economies are complementary: China is a manufacturing power but resource-poor, so it needs Russian energy, while Russia has enormous energy reserves but needs investment and help broadening its economic base.  

It is unlikely that China will immediately offer aid to Russia, but it could easily become the long-term buyer of gas and other resources that Russia can’t sell to Western countries. On Friday, it announced that it would loosen restrictions on Russian grain imports, but this had been in the works for some time. 

However, changing the flow of resources will not happen overnight. Pipelines take many years to construct, so China can’t suddenly step in to buy sanctioned goods such as natural gas, which would have been carried by Germany’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline. But in the coming years, China can offset sanctions by becoming a no-questions-asked buyer of Russian resources.

Meanwhile, China has been firm in rejecting rising speculation in the Western, Japanese and South Korean media that the Russian move in Ukraine might encourage Beijing to make a similar move in Taiwan. Right after Biden took office early last year Taiwan was one of the key issues causing tension between the two countries, with Washington warning against any application of the “One China” policy to forcibly annex the island.

China’s foreign ministry repeatedly stated that “Ukraine and Taiwan are not the same.”  While Russia did recognise Ukraine’s independence after the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991, since the creation of Taiwan in 1949 China has insisted  that it is an inalienable part of its territory. But on a deeper level, the logic that drove Putin to take over Ukraine is similar to that of China towards Taiwan.

Both the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation are descendants of large, continental, multiethnic empires. The 20th century saw China lose Mongolia and Taiwan in the aftermath of the Qing dynasty’s collapse. China no longer claims Mongolia, but it still wants Taiwan and hasn’t ruled out taking it by force.

Russia fared worse when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It lost most of Central Asia, as well as territories in Europe, including the Baltic States, many parts of the Caucasus, Belarus, and Ukraine. Russia seems to have given up on recapturing Central Asia, but clearly wants segments of its European territories back. In any case, Russia’s situation is something nationalists in China can clearly identify with. So if Russia can grab chunks of Ukraine or install a puppet regime and withstand economic sanctions that could embolden nationalists in China to look to Taiwan with a view to doing the same.

However, Western experts on China believe that such a move is likely be delayed for the same reasons that prevent Beijing from openly backing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: China’s economic growth depends on maintaining positive ties with the rest of the world. It is such growing economic influence that will probably enable China to fulfil its ambitions in Taiwan, probably without using military means the way Putin did in Ukraine.

Looking ahead, China is expected to surpass the US as the world’s largest economy in 2030, according a recent study released by the British consultancy Centre for Economics and Business Research. Credit insurance firm Euler Hermes made a similar forecast. In 2020, China’s economy totalled $15.92 trillion, and the market research firm IHS Markit estimates that it reached $18 trillion last year on export manufacturing growth and capital for new projects. The US economy reached about $23 trillion last year, the market research firm said.

“There is no gold medal or anything like that,” CEBR’s Executive Deputy Chairman, Douglas McWilliams told Voice of America (VOA). “But when you’ve got more money to spend, you do have the ability to influence things, and China will have that ability to influence things.”

He noted that officials in Beijing are already leveraging their economy in disputes with other countries. China vies with four Southeast Asian governments over maritime sovereignty, contests a group of islets with Japan and has had territorial standoffs with India since 2017. China would also be better placed, he said, to advance its Belt and Road Initiative, a nine-year-old effort aimed at building land and sea trade routes through Asia, Europe and Africa in the form of infrastructure projects and investments.

“The result of that expectation,” China surpassing the United States economically, “has been a bolder PRC [People’s Republic of China] foreign policy that seeks to settle regional disputes in China’s favour and de-legitimize US regional and global leadership under the assumption that China is destined to set the new rules of international relations,” said Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Centre think tank in Honolulu.

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