China’s deepening ties with Russia will come with heavy geopolitical and economic consequences should the Ukraine crisis escalate, analysts say.
While the two powers have recently intensified their so-called comprehensive strategic partnership, Beijing has not offered its full support for Moscow’s military encirclement of its neighbor.
And there have been signs Beijing is worried that a Russia-Ukraine confrontation might not be in China’s national interest while its relationship with the West is deteriorating and its economy is slowing down.
The country called again Friday for a political resolution of the crisis. “Efforts should be made on the basis of the Minsk-2 agreement to properly treat the reasonable security concerns of all sides including Russia through dialogue and negotiation,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin.
Debate on response
The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Beijing is weighing how much it will support Russian President Vladimir Putin on Ukraine. According to people with knowledge of the matter, the report said, China’s top leaders have debated how to respond to the crisis without hurting China’s own interests.
“I can’t see how China could support Russia in any sort of meaningful way and not do rather significant damage to the U.S.-China relationship,” said Michael Hunzeker, an assistant professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. He spoke to VOA in a telephone interview.
The U.S. has recently strongly criticized China’s support for Russia.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan accused China of giving a “wink and a nod” to a Russian invasion of Ukraine and said, “I believe that China will ultimately come to suffer consequences as a result of that in the eyes of the rest of the world, most notably in the eyes of our European partners and allies.”
Dustin Walker, a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told VOA he believed that Europe would see China’s support for Putin’s brinksmanship on Ukraine as further evidence that China is a systemic rival, leading the region to “rethink its relationship with China.”
A possible Russian-Ukrainian confrontation would also test the relationship between Beijing and Moscow. If China, fearing repercussions for its own economy, were to comply with Western sanctions against Russia, Walker noted, it would be seen by Moscow as an unreliable partner.
Walker pointed out that in the joint statement issued after Xi and Putin met at the Beijing Olympics, China explicitly opposed NATO enlargement for the first time, but didn’t mention Ukraine.
That “has to raise the question whether Putin asked for something that he didn’t get from China,” Walker said.
Experts also note that China did not recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, as it places fighting against separatism at the heart of its national security.
In Beijing’s diplomatic parlance, China and Russia maintain a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination.” Russia remains the first and only major country to establish this type of partnership with China, said Craig Singleton, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
With China’s economy rapidly cooling, Xi will be focused, at least for the foreseeable future, on maintaining economic stability, which is something that Putin may or may not be inclined to respect as he pursues his interests in Ukraine, Singleton said in an email exchange with VOA. “China and Russia will find it incredibly difficult to synchronize their strategies,” he wrote.
War undermines stability
China also has important financial ties with Ukraine. It is Kyiv’s largest trading partner, and the two countries have had a strategic partnership since 2011. Ukraine joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure plan, even before Russia did.
While China is also the EU’s largest trading partner, the relationship is believed to be at its lowest point in decades. When Beijing began trying to sanction EU member state Lithuania over its policies toward Taiwan, the EU rallied to Vilnius’ defense, suing China for coercive trade practices at the World Trade Organization.
China exports almost 10 times as much to the European Union and Britain as it does to Russia, noted Singleton in a recent article published by Foreign Policy. He said Xi, in recent months, has personally stepped in to try to soothe relations with Europe because China needs enhanced ties to help it weather the current economic storm.
Some analysts believe that an extended showdown with Moscow over Ukraine could distract the United States from its vaunted “pivot to Asia,” leaving China more space to expand its influence in the region.
Hunzeker, the George Mason University professor, acknowledged that such a development would be advantageous to China. But, he said, “I don’t think we’re going to play into that sort of mistake.”