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Xi Jinping drew closer to Russia on the eve of war in Ukraine - The Economist - 26.02.22

Will he come to regret it?

Article from the Economist - Feb 26th 2022

SOME SAW it as a pivotal moment in China’s relationship with Russia, and indeed in the crisis over Ukraine. On February 19th Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, speaking by video link to a conference in Munich, declared that the “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity” of countries should be protected, adding, lest anyone misunderstand, “Ukraine is no exception”. It sounded like an affirmation of international norms, just as Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, was about to shatter them.

But three days later, after Mr Putin recognised two separatist enclaves within Ukraine as independent republics and promised to deploy Russian soldiers to defend them, it became obvious that Mr Wang had been presenting only a veneer of high-minded diplomacy. As America and Europe imposed sanctions on Russia, condemning Mr Putin’s assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, China called on “all sides” to exercise restraint and “avoid continued escalation of the situation”.

On February 23rd the foreign ministry’s chief spokesperson, Hua Chunying, said America was making the situation worse by “sending weapons to Ukraine, heightening tensions, creating panic and even hyping up the possibility of warfare”. Ms Hua, an assistant foreign minister, accused America of expanding NATO to Russia’s doorstep, asking “Did it ever think about the consequences of pushing a big country to the wall?”

Two weeks earlier China had been even more emphatic in its support for Russia. On February 4th Mr Putin came to Beijing for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. That day he and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, issued a joint statement that signalled the countries’ strongest ties for 70 years. There were “no limits” to the friendship between the two countries, the statement said, and “no ‘forbidden’ areas of co-operation”. It held up the two authoritarian powers as the true guarantors of “genuine democracy”, while deriding unnamed countries for seeking to impose their “democratic standards” on others.

Crucially China, for the first time, joined Russia in opposing further expansion of NATO, buttressing Mr Putin’s demand that Ukraine be kept out of the alliance. As Russian troops were massing on Ukraine’s border, Mr Xi was binding himself more closely to Mr Putin. Will he regret that choice now that war has broken out?

Russia and China have been growing closer for more than two decades. Trade surged by 35% last year to a record $147bn. China has become the largest market for Russian exports after the EU, buying $79bn of them in 2021, mainly oil and gas. An earlier round of sanctions against Russia in 2014, after Mr Putin’s previous invasion of Ukraine, prompted growth in economic ties with China. An increasing wariness of America and its allies in Europe and Asia has also fostered military ties. Last year the pair held big joint exercises.

Even so, the rebuke of NATO, at such a perilous time for European security, was striking for a country that often prefers to sit on the fence. It risks widening China’s rift with the West. Mr Xi seems to be girding for years of tension with America and its allies, and so wants to cement closer ties with Mr Putin, even if Russia’s behaviour flies in the face of China’s typical rhetoric about non-intervention.

Mr Xi surely would have preferred that Mr Putin had not launched a full-scale war. It will push democracies together and destabilise a global order in which China has thrived. But he has cast his lot with Russia, and probably believes he will not pay too heavy a price. China can be expected to abstain from any UN resolutions condemning Russia, as it did in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea. And as they have done in the past, Chinese diplomats will call for an end to the hostilities on all sides, rather than singling out Russian aggression. Indeed on February 24th Ms Hua took issue with a journalist’s use of the term “invasion” to describe events in Ukraine.

The Chinese “will double down on stating, ‘We support the territorial integrity of Ukraine’,” says Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, a think-tank. “But then I don’t think they will criticise Russia for what Russia is doing now.” China will instead continue to rebuke America. In her comments a day earlier, on the eve of war, Ms Hua called America “the culprit of current tensions surrounding Ukraine” and accused it of pouring oil on the flames in an “immoral” way.

Mr Xi may feel comfortable about showing solidarity with Mr Putin because any Western sanctions imposed on Russia will probably have only limited effects on its economic relationship with China. Mr Gabuev says he would expect China to adhere to the legal requirements of any Western sanctions, such as not banking with blacklisted oligarchs. Nonetheless China will find plenty of ways to keep business flowing.

Huawei, a Chinese telecoms giant, should be able to sell 5G technology to Russia, whereas Ericsson and Nokia, two Western competitors, may be locked out. China’s development banks can lend to Russian enterprises with less fear of running afoul of financial sanctions targeting commercial lending. And the two countries have steadily reduced their reliance on the dollar to settle trade, part of Russia’s efforts to insulate itself from American sanctions.

Western restrictions on the purchase of oil and gas from Russia could be highly disruptive. But it is unclear whether the Biden administration wants to take a step that would increase energy prices and compound inflation ahead of mid-term elections in November. China may also see the suspension on February 22nd of Nord Stream 2, a natural-gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany, as a chance to get a better deal in negotiations over building a pipeline from Russia to China, to carry gas from the same fields that supply Europe.

But there are risks to Mr Xi’s cosying up to Mr Putin. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Jude Blanchette and Bonny Lin of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank, argue that a “tighter Beijing-Moscow axis would further encourage China’s rivals to balance against it”. That includes Europe, where attitudes appear to have hardened since February 4th. Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of NATO, on February 15th described the “two authoritarian powers” as “operating together”.

This perception troubles Chinese analysts. Yang Cheng of Shanghai International Studies University says China worries it could be “treated as Russia’s accomplice”. But he says that perception is the product of the imagination of America and its allies. China’s opposition to NATO expansion, he adds, stems from empathy for Russia, in the pressure they both feel from the West.

Mr Yang says this “in no way” means that China supports the current developments in Ukraine. But the West’s tendency to view China and Russia as tied together is “dangerous”, he says. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that will turn the world into a dangerous situation that could be colder and longer than the cold war.” ■

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition of the Economist under the headline "Choosing sides"

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Xi Jinping drew closer to Russia on the eve of war in Ukraine - article from the Economist
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