Despite strong international appeals for China to stop supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is bent on providing much-needed political, diplomatic, and economic support, if not military, to the aggressor.
Over a month after the invasion and days after U.S. President Joe Biden warned his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, against offering a lifeline to Russia, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on March 31 and pledged that the two nations' “wish to strengthen bilateral relations is even more strong,” and their “confidence in developing cooperation in every aspect is even more stable.”
According to the press release issued by Beijing, Wang avoided the word “invasion,” and he accused the United States of having a “cold war mentality and bloc [NATO] confrontation.” He praised “the efforts of Russia and all parties to prevent a large-scale humanitarian crisis”—as if the invasion itself did not cause the crisis. He also stressed the adherence to the so-called “principle of indivisibility of security,” which was the Russian rationale for the invasion.
The press release also quoted Wang saying that China "always stands on the right side of history." In other words, the CCP provides a moral justification for its support of the Russian invasion.
Following the meeting between the two foreign ministers, Wang Wenbin, the foreign ministry spokesman, declared that “there is no upper limit to Sino-Russian cooperation for peace, no upper limit for maintaining security, and no upper limit to opposing hegemony.” The latter is a euphemistic reference to the United States.
These three points on "no upper limit" suggest that China would go all out to support the aggressor. The CCP has finally dropped its façade of neutrality, thereby nullifying all international efforts to rein in Russia.
The CCP is so adamant about supporting the aggressor because Xi sees eye-to-eye with Putin in many ways.
First, they share a similar hegemonic ambition. Putin wants to rearrange the world order to restore Russia's preeminence as a world power, while Xi wants to build a China-centric world.
According to the Feb. 4 joint communique signed after the Xi-Putin summit in Beijing, “the Russian side positively evaluates China's concept of building a ‘community with a shared future for mankind’”—which is Xi’s world dream—while “China positively evaluates Russia's efforts to promote the construction of a just and multipolar system of international relations.”
They see territorial aggrandizement as a symbol of restoring past glories. Hence Putin wants to swallow up the whole of Ukraine, claiming that the latter has always been part of Russia. Xi intends to seize Taiwan as a symbol of “the great national revival of China” and claims that the island is historically China’s.
Both leaders see the United States as the major stumbling block to achieving their respective goals of world domination. By identifying the United States as a common enemy, they offer each other support.
As in the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the CCP regards U.S. actions as an attempt to contain Russia’s “strategic space” ambition, compromise its “geostrategic environment,” and “block its development path” to “contain and suppress” Russia. These are the same accusations used in the CCP's narrative against the United States' China policy.
Besides these common policy objectives, Xi’s support for Russia also stems from domestic concerns. Strategically, by supporting Moscow now, Xi hopes to get the Russian quid pro quo if he gives the order to seize Taiwan by force. In addition to China supporting Russia, the United States would be bogged down in the Ukrainian quagmire, significantly reducing the military pressure on Beijing.
Politically, if Putin succumbed too easily to American pressures, the United States would be emboldened to take down Xi, bearing in mind that many U.S. pundits consider Xi to be the culprit of souring relations between China and the Western world. Thus, bolstering Russia is a way to preserve the CCP regime and Xi’s leadership.
Financially, Xi could capitalize on Russia being kicked out of the SWIFT system to enhance the development of the yuan-based Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS), which provides an alternative to the dollar-based international payment system. This is China’s long-cherished hope of breaking the monopoly, and hence financial dominance, of the United States. Although currently, CIPS is no match to the SWIFT in terms of transaction volume, it is attractive to countries that are potential targets of U.S. sanctions.
Economically, China could also capitalize on the isolation of Russia to secure several vital supplies, such as energy and grain, to bolster its stockpile. The Ukrainian invasion had already skyrocketed oil prices, and most predicted that it would lead to food shortage if the war did not end soon.
Under such a situation, China can expect to get Russian raw materials by supporting Moscow's war effort. This is very important as China is experiencing a looming food crisis. Thus, on Feb. 24, when Russia launched its full-scale attack on Ukraine, the China Administration of Customs announced that wheat produced all over Russia could be imported to China from that day onward. In contrast, only wheat from seven regions in Russia was allowed to enter China due to contamination problems. Thus, the CCP is lifting its ban on Russian wheat export as a gesture of solidarity and a practical measure to augment China's food stockpile.
But Xi’s love for Putin could be a one-way street. At a press briefing on Oct. 21 last year, Putin said that Russia didn't have plans to conclude a military alliance with China. Foreign ministry spokesman Wang may have been embarrassed and responded that “although there was no military alliance, bilateral relation was better.”
However, while slighting China in this regard, Putin signed a 10-year defense pact with India, which had numerous border conflicts with China. Moreover, according to the Feb. 4 joint declaration issued after the Xi-Putin summit, “both sides intend to develop cooperation within the ‘Russia-India-China’ framework.” In other words, while strengthening the Sino-Russian friendship, India should also be part of the arrangement. This clearly shows Putin’s preference regarding China and India.