As the economy deteriorates ever further under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership, the Russia-Ukraine war presents trade and investment opportunities that may just allow China’s ruling elite to keep one step ahead of gathering social unrest and extend its rule.
That’s according to Gregory Copley, president of the International Strategic Studies Association in Washington, who spoke to EpochTV’s “Forbidden News” program on March 17.
The analyst said that while much of the rest of the world pulls business and cuts ties from Russia, Moscow may suddenly be willing to do business with China at prices highly favorable to the latter. But in the intricate balance of power, Russia’s territorial ambitions in Asia are by no means aligned with Chinese interests.
“The Chinese economy has been gradually imploding, and perhaps at an accelerating rate over the past eight years or so. So, what’s really significant about the war in Ukraine is that, in essence, it has saved the Communist Party of China and the People’s Republic of China [PRC] to a large extent, because it has driven Moscow back into the arms of Beijing,” Copley, also a contributor to The Epoch Times, said.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who spoke by phone earlier today with U.S. President Joe Biden about the Russia-Ukraine war and its ramifications for the U.S.-Chinese relationship, among other issues, stands out as one of the few world leaders not to condemn the Ukraine invasion unequivocally.
As the sanctions levied by other countries deal crippling blows to Russia’s economy, Moscow is likely to look to Beijing, which can now buy products badly needed by the Chinese public at significantly lower rates.
Copley noted that China is the largest energy importer in the world, as well as the largest importer of food. Demographics are the primary reason, he said. With about 20 percent of the world’s population and only seven percent of the world’s water, much of it polluted, food production in China is in poor shape, Copley said.
Hence China has imported food from the United States on a massive scale. This has not only been expensive but has put China in a dependent position with regard to America.
China is the currently top destination of Russian exports. Russia is China’s second-biggest oil supplier behind Saudi Arabia, accounting for 15.5 percent of China’s total imports in 2021. Russia is also a major supplier of gas and coal to China.
Since the onset of Russia’s invasion, Beijing has refused to denounce Russia’s actions or join Western sanctions. Instead, the regime has touted the Sino-Russian relationship as “rock solid” and pledged to continue normal trade relations with the beleaguered state.
In Copley’s analysis, this dependence has placed limits on China’s territorial ambitions and may even explain why Beijing has not yet launched an invasion of Taiwan. The regime considers the self-ruled island as part of its territory and has vowed to unite Taiwan with the mainland, by force if necessary.
“The PRC could not undertake any major military exercise, such as the invasion of Taiwan, because if it did, the United States would just cut off that food supply and you’d have China on mass starvation within weeks,” Copley said.
“The reality is that the Ukraine war means that Russia now cannot sell a lot of its agricultural output, its food products and surpluses, to the outside world. So that food will be available to the PRC at a lower price, perhaps, than they’re paying for U.S. grain imports and soybean imports,” he said.
Russia is also likely to divert to China energy products that it can no longer sell to Western markets, Copley said.
The availability of these badly needed products may help Xi finally bring to fruition a plan to wean China off U.S. dependence and bring about, if not the reality of total self-sufficiency, an economic model more in line with CCP preferences.
“What Beijing was thinking of doing under Xi’s plan was to cut China off from much of its foreign dependence and build an economy around internal circulation,” Copley said. “It’s an unrealistic view, and it didn’t work for Mao Zedong. You saw the massive starvation of the 1950s. To a degree, Russia can save the PRC from doing that,” Copley said.
An economic model involving heavy imports from Russia may not qualify as an example of “internal circulation,” but at least alleviates China’s dependence on the United States and, potentially, frees its hand to take action against Taiwan.
“We’re seeing this potential, for those who would like for Beijing to get more autonomy from the Western world and dependence on Western food, and still get a large amount of food from Russia. So you’ve got this new economic bloc being forged between Russia and the PRC, and Iran and other nations,” Copley said.
Copley drew a contrast between the China of today, which he called 66 percent urbanized, and the China of the early years of the 20th century, which was only about 5 percent urbanized. The mass unrest that worsening social conditions and endemic starvation might cause would bring about the demise of the CCP within the next decade, he said. The shift to expanded trade with Russia and a few other nations has given the CCP a lifeline.
Foreign Policy Interests at Odds
The possibility of expanded trade with Russia does not mean that the two countries’ broader interests are in any way aligned, particularly in the realm of foreign policy. Russia has acted boldly where China has faltered, in Copley’s view.
“What we saw in the period immediately after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan in August last year was that China stumbled and failed really to be able to exploit the loss of American strategic presence in Central Asia,” he said. “They hoped to gain credibility with the Taliban and to build a pipeline across Afghanistan to Iran to get energy, but it proved to be a bit of a pipe dream.”
Meanwhile, Russia moved in with an offer of security to the five states of Central Asia, which included among its stipulations the use of Russian as their first language, and took a leading role in attempting to stabilize Kazakhstan after the attempted coup there in January. Copley sees Russia’s moves as an attempt to reestablish control of Central Asia and deny significant influence to Beijing.
“Russia is reluctant to let Beijing back into Central Asia. It put troops in Tajikistan, for example, not to stop the flow of Afghan refugees, but to stop the PRC from putting more troops into Tajikistan,” Copley said. “Right now, Russia does not want to give any ground to Beijing.”
In Copley’s view, longstanding territorial disputes between Russia and China, some extending all the way back to the 19th century, have not gone away but have grown even more pronounced. They are likely to continue as the economic balance of power between Russia and China shifts and trade with Russia provides a lifeline to the CCP.