How Far Will China Walk on the No-Limit Partnership Road with Russia?
Air Marshal GS Bedi (Retd)

It was business as usual for Russia when it struck Ukraine with missiles and UAVs just after President Vladmir Putin bid farewell to President Xi Jinping after their highly publicized three days meeting in Moscow.[1] Historian Sergey Radchenko summed up the visit quoting a Chinese proverb, which translates to “Loud thunder and few rain drops”.[2] “If you scratch further, even the thunder was not that loud”, he added.

Wang Wenbin, spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reaffirmed China's neutrality in the conflict by describing the visit as one of friendship and peace. [3]

China's future stance on Russia, at best, can be described as an educated guess based on previous events, what motivates their collaboration and whether it is on equal footing.

Did China know about the extent of invasion?

China and Russia announced a ‘No-Limits’ partnership on February 4, 2022, when President Xi hosted President Putin at the Beijing Olympics.[4]Beijing supported Russia's demand that Ukraine not join NATO, whereas Moscow opposed Taiwan's independence in any form.[5] After exactly twenty days, Russia invaded Ukraine.

It is hard to believe that Putin did not inform President Xi of his invasion plans, but the magnitude of his intentions must have escaped even the Chinese leader. In an article for The Washington Post, the Chinese ambassador to the United States (US), Qin Gang, claimed that China had no prior knowledge of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.[6] China neither warned nor planned the evacuation of its 6,000-strong population in Ukraine.

China’s Stance during the War

China has adopted a neutral stance in the war while standing firmly next to Russia. China abstained on three UN resolutions last year that condemned Russia’s invasion and annexation of Ukrainian territory despite Moscow's desire for Beijing to veto these resolutions. Beijing has also stated unequivocally that it does not support nuclear blackmail, following reports that Putin may resort to using tactical nuclear weapons.

Trade between China and Russia was an all-time high of $ 190 billion, and Russia is aiming for $200 billions of trade with China this year.[7] Russia has surpassed Saudi Arabia to become China’s top oil supplier.[8]

China offered a 12 point peace plan, which seems to be based on its Global Security Initiative announced in April 22. The plan does not have any concrete action points, the essence being that the two countries should grow trust that leads to ceasefire.

While some state-owned defence companies were reported to be shipping navigation equipment, jamming technology and jet-fighter parts to sanctioned Russian government-owned defence companies,[9] China has strongly denied the claim.

Drivers for China-Russia Partnership

Russia and China, as nations, do not have very strong cultural ties. Their alliance is forced by a shared apprehension about the US and West. US led expansion of the West seems to be the root cause of evil for both.

Russia is a strong nuclear power nation at China’s Northern borders and therefore, having peaceful borders with Russia becomes quintessential for China.

Russia is also a like-minded authoritarian partner for China in the five- member UN Security Council, with US, UK and France being completely different in their ideologies.

Russia’s natural resources are vital for China’s energy needs while Russia depends overwhelmingly on China for technology imports, from semiconductors to telecommunications equipment.

Is the Partnership on Equal Terms?

Based on various parameters, it is reasonable to assume that China will treat Russia as a junior partner in their relationship.

When Russia announced its intentions to exit from the International Space Station (ISS), it hoped to utilise Tiangong, the Chinese Space Station. According to Eric Berger, Senior Space Editor at Ars Technica, in the RUSI podcast series "War in Space" episode 9 aired on April 14, 2022, China did not even respond to Russia's request to raise the orbit of its Tiangong Space Station so that it could participate in it from their own launch site. [10]Russia has announced exit from the International Space Station effective from 2024.

China benefits far more from trade with Russia than Russia does. As of 2021, China accounted for 18% of total Russian trade, while Russia accounted for only 2% of China's.[11]

China's economy is the world's second largest eight times that of Russia and it is still growing, whereas Russia, ranked 11th in the world, has been hard hit by the ongoing war and sanctions.[12]The relationship can hardly remain equal under the circumstances.

According to Alexander Gabuev, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the trend line of China-Russia relations is getting thicker and bigger, but on China's terms in a way that benefits China more.

China’s Imperatives

Having launched the Global Security Initiative and mediating peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran, China will be concerned about its global image. China is well aware that its closeness to Putin comes at the expense of its global reputation as a responsible nation.

It cannot overlook the fact that its economic rise has been fuelled by its global integration. Pragmatism of China’s policy cannot side with invasion of a sovereign state. It has yet not supported Russia militarily, weighing the risks.

On the other hand, China clearly does not want Russia to lose this war or to fall into the democratic fold of the West. China understands that if it persuades Russia to withdraw from the occupied territories, the United States will be emboldened to force China to consider Xinjiang, Taiwan, or human rights issues in Hong Kong. Opposing Putin will not bring China closer to the United States. After all, the problems with the US did not begin with the war. They already existed, and the fundamentals will remain unchanged.

Possible Scenario

In all probability, if the war prolongs, which it is most likely to, China may have to take Ukraine in its fold and come out with something acceptable to both the countries. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has already expressed desire to meet Xi Jinping to discuss Beijing's proposals on ending the war in Ukraine.[13]

As per Li Mingjiang, Associate Professor at Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) Singapore, China has already missed an opportunity of showing a balanced approach between Russia and Ukraine. As per him, India did much better in this regard where it engaged both with Russia and Ukraine, and that China could have learnt from India and done better diplomatically.

According to Hoang Thi Ha of ISEAS (Institute of South East Asian Studies), the relations between Russia and China are not binary in nature. She adds that having close relations with Russia does not mean getting stuck with it. President Xi, therefore will exercise options that he considers are best in the interest of China.

The meeting between Presidents Xi and Putin cannot be brushed under the carpet as completely insignificant. Mike Pompeo, who was US Secretary of State in the Donald Trump government, in an interview to Fox News has warned the White house against downplaying the significance of the meeting. He said, “To hear the White House play this down as if it's insignificant or unimportant is an enormous strategic mistake. It may be a shotgun wedding, but they're still married”.[14]

What the rest of the world knows is what has been reported. What happened between the four walls is possibly still unknown. However, it is safe to assume that China will probably not go out of its way to end the war. President Xi may find it hard to go the extra mile to support Putin in a manner that the West is supporting Ukraine. He will sure stand by Russia to morally support President Putin during the war, but is most likely stop short of appearing as an ally in the invasion in case the war escalates. Of course, only time will tell.

References:

[1]https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2023-03-22/china-xi-japan-kishida-end-visits-russia-ukraine

[2]https://twitter.com/DrRadchenko/status/1638417473363140611

[3]https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/china-calls-xis-russia-visit-friendship-peace-98035761

[4]https://www.foreignaffairs.com/china/limits-of-a-no-limits-partnership-china-russia?check_logged_in=1&utm_medium=promo_email&utm_source=lo_flows&utm_campaign=registered_user_welcome&utm_term=email_1&utm_content=20230320

[5]https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russia-china-tell-nato-stop-expansion-moscow-backs-beijing-taiwan-2022-02-04/

[6]https://www.thequint.com/news/world/had-china-known-about-the-imminent-crisis-we-would-have-tried-our-best-to-prevent-it-qin-gang-wrote-op-ed-washington-post#read-more

[7]https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/currencies/china-russia-trade-190-billion-western-sanctions-oil-price-cap-2023-1?utm_medium=ingest&utm_source=markets

[8]https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/russia-surpasses-saudi-arabia-chinas-top-oil-supplier

[9]https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-aids-russias-war-in-ukraine-trade-data-shows-11675466360

[10]https://rusi.org/podcasts/war-in-space/episode-9-it-actually-rocket-science Running Time 25:30-26:30

[11]https://www.visionofhumanity.org/russia-china-relations-fact-sheet/

[12]https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/china-russia-relationship-xi-putin-taiwan-ukraine

[13]https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-64762219

[14]https://www.foxnews.com/media/mike-pompeo-sounds-alarm-china-russia-alliance-biden-making-enormous-strategic-mistake

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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