The upside for China will be that as Russia becomes more economically and politically isolated, Beijing will seek to profit from its dilemma, walking a fine line to skirt international condemnation.
London: If you want to find the most cynical and risible statement made in recent times, look no further than the “Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations…” issued on 4 February this year, the start of the 24th Olympic Winter Games in Beijing. Presidents Putin and Xi Jinping met in closed session just prior to the Games, when Putin assured Xi that he would not attack Ukraine whilst the Games were in progress, so as not to deflect from Xi’s glory in holding the event. Sure enough, just days after the closing ceremony, Russian forces entered the sovereign territory of a neighbour and started an unprovoked war that continues to the present day, with no end in sight.
But back to the Statement. It’s abundantly clear to any neutral observer that Russia and China are two of the most autocratic nations on the planet, yet here’s what they claimed in the document: “The sides (Russia and China) share the understanding that democracy is a universal human value, rather than a privilege of a limited number of States, and that its promotion and protection is a common responsibility of the entire world community”. It then goes on to claim that Russia and China have a “rich cultural and historical heritage in democracy, guaranteeing their people to take part through various means”. If you haven’t felt sick by the hypocrisy so far, this will do it: “The sides believe that the advocacy of democracy and human rights must not be used to put pressure on other countries. They oppose the abuse of democratic values and interference (sic) in the internal affairs of sovereign states under the pretext of protecting democracy and human rights”. So, before even the ink was dry, Russia attacked Ukraine under the pretext that it was protecting democracy and human rights from the “neo-Nazis” that were running the country. So much for the principle of non-interference signed by Vladimir Putin, living in his topsy-turvy world of contradictions.
But China, too, is culpable. The invasion was probably not Beijing’s preferred outcome, but now that it’s happened, China has decided to support Russia while leveraging the crisis for its own benefit. The two countries appear to genuinely share a perverted view that the West is the aggressor and that China and Russia are the victims. Just before the invasion, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Hua Chunying, sought to shift the focus from Russian action to American policy, claiming that the US was “the culprit of current tensions surrounding Ukraine”, and that China would not sanction Russia. In using the word “culprit”, Hua illustrated the gradual change over the past twenty years in China’s position on its core principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference. By fudging the choice in a haze of sly diplomatic language, Beijing has made it clear that the most decisive element of Chinese policy now is its lean towards Moscow. In making this choice, China appears to have accepted a potential cost in its transatlantic relationships in lieu of the clear cost of breaking with Moscow.
The upside for China will be that as Russia becomes more economically and politically isolated, Beijing will seek to profit from its dilemma, walking a fine line to skirt international condemnation. China relishes being the more powerful state in a lopsided relationship with Russia, one which turns their early Cold War experience on its head. Three decades ago their two economies were the same size; now China’s is ten-times larger than Russia’s. Xi Jinping is therefore happy to provide Vladimir Putin the public symbolism of equal partnership, as long as he wins on the material benefits.
From the time Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, Russia’s reliance on China has grown in proportion to its isolation from the US, Europe and the democracies in Asia, especially Japan. When the West first imposed sanctions in 2015, bilateral trade between Russia and China began to grow to the point where it has more than doubled. Western sanctions, the punishment for the war, will almost certainly make Putin even more pliable towards Xi. As you read this, Chinese officials will be drawing up a wish list while the war progresses, the most obvious being a demand for even more discounts for Russian energy supplies as Moscow’s energy weapon turns on itself with fewer European buyers. Beijing will not be bothered that it cannot backfill for all Russia’s lost trade. That’s Russia’s problem.
An immediate challenge for both China and Russia will be to further isolate themselves against sanctions by pursuing workarounds for the SWIFT payments system. Many experts were alarmed by the decision to push Russia out of SWIFT, except for energy-related transactions, as they believed it would simply drive them into Chinese payments platforms, thereby weakening SWIFT by making it less important globally. This could also jeopardise the world dominance of the dollar, with trade fragmenting into smaller currency blocs. China already has an alternative to SWIFT, called CIPS, which is used to clear transfers in Chinese renminbi. So, if Russia turns to CIPS for non-energy transactions, and China allows this game-changer, how long would it be before it also uses it for energy-related transactions? This would mean that many in Europe would have to adopt CIPS alongside SWIFT, increasing the dominance of renminbi transactions in global trade – a potential big win for China.
When America turned its military attention towards Iraq and Afghanistan, a period which consumed Washington’s strategic focus, Beijing considered the time as one of “strategic opportunity”. Policymakers in Beijing who hate the thought of a US rebalance to Asia, are now likely salivating at the thought that the Ukraine war will create another such period. It’s also likely that as a result of its increased reliance on China, Russia will have to display greater deference to Beijing when considering steps that might balance Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific, in particular any high-end arms sales to countries like India. There is also the likelihood that technological cooperation between China and Russia will increase, echoing what happened when US pressure on Huawei turned the company towards Russia. As a consequence, Russia will almost certainly decide to adopt more and more Chinese technological standards, separating itself even further from the West.
This year is a politically sensitive one for China’s leader, Xi Jinping, as he seeks a third five-year term. Russia’s attack on Ukraine presents him with a geopolitical mixed bag, with potential shocks to global financial and energy markets that could add to China’s existing economic headwinds, despite the strategic opportunities the war creates for China. “The longer the fighting drags on, the more it will exhaust Europe, America and Russia, and overall this benefits China”, said a piece on the website China Strategic, recently taken down without explanation. Its authors argued that China should stand by and watch the war, then emerge as a mediator or even a rule-maker in a new order. Others are more wary on the long-term strategic outcome of the war, arguing that as Europe has decided to increase defence spending, it will evolve into a new geopolitical force, more independent from the US, with strategic consequences for China. Some are purely pragmatic; “for the Chinese it’s simple”, they say, “this is not Chinese territory, this is not a Chinese war. Everything on top of that is a cool calculation of what benefits or hurts China – it’s a power-centric world view”.
In many ways, this war is a timely moment for China to consolidate the political slogan conceived by senior Communist Party officials during the pandemic: dongsheng xijiang—“the rise of the East and the descent of the West”. Putin’s Russia is no longer looking to the West, instead becoming the junior partner in a relationship with Xi’s China. By framing the war as the latest example of global disorder provoked by the West, China is carefully constructing a narrative to bring together those countries with long-standing grievances against America into a kind of mutual-protection arrangement, one that will benefit China the most. “If China ditches Russia, it is only a matter of time before America comes after China once more”, said a prominent Chinese geopolitical commentator last week. But whatever the end game, it’s abundantly clear that China stands to be the big winner from a war whose impact will be profound and lasting.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.