How close are China and Russia?
Under the rule of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, China and Russia have become increasingly isolated from the west – and closer to each other.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came just days after Xi and Putin cemented a significant partnership on the sidelines of the Beijing Winter Olympics – the first in-person, bilateral meeting Xi had attended since the pandemic began.
A joint statement from the two leaders said the bonds between the two countries had “no limits” and there were “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation”. It called on the west to “abandon the ideologised approaches of the cold war”, and expressed support for each other’s stance on Ukraine and Taiwan.
Analysts say that the leaders believe they are stronger united.
“Beijing’s rationale for the China-Russia relationship is that both countries confront a hostile west and both will be better able to withstand western pressure by standing together than apart,” says Ryan Hass. a Brookings Institute scholar on China and Asia. “Without Russia, the thinking goes, China would be alone to deal with a hostile west determined to obstruct China’s rise.”
“It’s worth bearing in mind that China and Russia do not have perfectly aligned interests,” says Hass. “China has a lot more to lose… than Russia. China sees itself as a country on the rise with momentum behind it. Russia is essentially fighting the tides of decline.”
Did China know about the invasion of Ukraine in advance?
The timing of the partnership signed between Russia and China has raised questions about what China’s government knew of the invasion. Some analysts and US officials have suggested it was likely Beijing knew of the Russian plans for Ukraine but not the extent of them, and have been caught somewhat by surprise. Beijing denies this. In the Washington Post on Wednesday, China’s ambassador to the US said any assertions it “knew about, acquiesced to or tacitly supported this war are purely disinformation”.
One of the first signs that there might be limits on the partnership came on 25 February, when China abstained from voting on a UN security council resolution which would have deplored Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia used its veto power to quash the resolution but China’s decision to not actively support the veto was reportedly seen as a positive sign by western officials.
Dr Courtney J Fung, associate professor at Macquarie University and associate fellow at Chatham House, says China wants recognition as a responsible major country, but is applying this selectively when it comes to the invasion of Ukraine. “China focuses on second order issues that result from the Russian invasion – like humanitarian aid, civilian protection, evacuation – and while these are of course important concerns, China is sidestepping efforts for it to mediate or resolve the crisis itself.”
What has China said about the war?
China’s government and state apparatus are not referring to it as an invasion or a war, with formal directives issued to state media. It is instead usually referring to it as a “situation”, “crisis”, or sometimes a “conflict”, and has emphasized a “complex historical background and context”. It has expressed supported both Ukraine’s sovereignty, and Russia’s “security concerns”.
Speaking to media after the annual “two sessions” meeting last Friday, Premier Li Keqiang said China was “deeply concerned and grieved” over the conflict.
“On Ukraine, indeed the current situation there is serious,” he said. “The pressing task now is preventing tensions from escalating or even getting out of control.”
Beijing has sought to present itself as neutral, and signaled it could act as a mediator, but Chinese media have also amplified Russian propaganda and conspiracy theories. Government spokespeople have also promoted an anti-western narrative, blaming the US and Nato for inflaming tensions.
China has struggled to navigate a path between its partnership with Russia and the huge global condemnation of the invasion. “China continues to back Russia through its comprehensive strategic partnership and to oppose Nato expansion and sanctions on Russia,” Paul Haenle, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told China File.
“At the same time, it is paying lip service to its principles of non-interference and positive relations with Ukraine.” Haenle said Beijing’s aims were incompatible, but in recent days had started to solidify its messaging into an attempt to straddle them anyway.
What does Russia want from China?
According to reports in US media, citing unnamed government officials, Russia has requested military equipment and support from China, as well as economic assistance as global sanctions and private sector abandonment starts to bite.
The initial reports didn’t detail the types of weapons Russia was seeking or China’s response, but drew warnings from the US that China would face “consequences” if it agreed. subsequent reportsciting US diplomatic cables to allies, said Russia had requested equipment including drones, armored vehicles, and surface-to-air missiles, and that China had signaled a willingness to agree.
Chinese officials angrily dismissed the claims as malicious disinformation. Liu Pengyu, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington said he’d never heard of such a request.
Is China likely to help?
US officials fear China has already decided to provide Russia with economic and financial support and is contemplating sending military supplies such as armed drones.
The Russian relationship remains important to Xi, and he is unlikely to jettison it in favor of aligning with a declining west, the director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Bonnie Glaser, told China File. But he must decide to what extent he’ll help the Russian economy as sanctions – which China has long opposed – kick in.
“China is likely to find ways to help Moscow mitigate the impact of the sanctions, without blatantly violating them. The playbook it has used to assist Iran and North Korea evades sanctions provides possible actions China can take.”
China has little incentive to provide direct military aid, says Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist with the Australian National University.
“Beijing’s preferences are: one, international stability; two, to ensure the Russian economy and polity does not collapse under the weight of the international sanctions, and three, to not be seen as an overt enabler of Russian aggression.”
Hass says it’s more likely that China will remain “rhetorically committed to showing support for Russia” but will largely comply with international sanctions against it, in order to avoid attracting secondary sanctions.
“I also expect China to remain cautious in providing any materiel support to Russia, given that such support would likely have limited impact on the outcome of hostilities in Ukraine, but significant impacts on China’s relations with the west.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism