Ukraine War Tests China-Russia Partnership as Beijing Eyes Taiwan

By Michael Washburn
Michael Washburn
Michael Washburn
Reporter
Michael Washburn is a New York-based reporter who covers U.S. and China-related topics. He has a background in legal and financial journalism, and also writes about arts and culture. Additionally, he is the host of the weekly podcast Reading the Globe. His books include “The Uprooted and Other Stories,” “When We're Grownups,” and “Stranger, Stranger.”
March 9, 2022 Updated: March 9, 2022

The Chinese regime’s failure to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unequivocally, while reiterating its support for negotiations, has prompted some observers to ask whether China may help Russia circumvent the enormous and unprecedented sanctions placed on the belligerent nation.

But helping Russia can potentially undermine Beijing’s own strategic ambitions, particularly with regard to Taiwan, and Beijing may simply want no part of the onerous and crippling economic fallout of Russia’s aggressive actions, said experts on Russian-Chinese relations.

Many people assumed that the deal announced on Feb. 4, whereby Russia agreed to a 30-year contract to supply China with gas via a new pipeline, and China would buy $117.5 billion in oil and gas from Russia, heralded an era of closer economic and political ties between the two nations and would help tip the balance in President Vladimir Putin’s favor when Beijing had to choose sides in any international dispute involving Russia.

Moreover, the senior political leadership in Moscow and in Beijing view their respective territorial ambitions in much the same terms, noted Stephen Ezell, vice president for global innovation policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. Putin sees the invasion and ultimate annexation of Ukraine as part of a process of restoring the former glory of the Soviet Union in the years before such figures as Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin chose to appease the West. Xi Jinping’s regime also harbors aims of absorbing self-ruled Taiwan.

So it might seem that Putin can rightfully expect help and support from Beijing as he seeks to subjugate Ukraine. Yet the reality has been more complex.

“Xi Jinping, at this point, has refrained from coming to Moscow’s aid in this crisis. I think they were probably surprised in Beijing about the actual invasion, and it puts Beijing in a very precarious foreign policy position. It certainly represents a challenge to Beijing’s perspectives on foreign policy,” Ezell said.

Diplomatic Imperatives

On Feb. 4, not quite three weeks after the deal’s announcement, Russia invaded Ukraine. On the same day, the United States and other countries swiftly announced a broad range of sanctions on Russia, and China thus far has partly complied with those sanctions, noted Ezell.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine directly contravenes the Chinese regime’s “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” that date back to the Sino-Indian Agreement of 1954, and at least in theory have been a foundation of Beijing’s international outlook since the early years of the Party’s rule over China, Ezell noted. The Five Principles include mutual respect on the part of sovereign nations for each other’s territory and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence.

“So, China has essentially built its foreign policy around the principle that any country’s territory is inviolable. The principle of recognition of sovereignty, of other countries not interfering in each other’s domestic policies has long been a part of Chinese diplomacy,” Ezell said.

The designs of the communist regime in Beijing on Taiwan may not present any contradiction here from the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) point of view,  because, according to the Party, the territory has always been a part of China. Hence, from the CCP’s standpoint, it is entirely possible for Beijing to view Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine as a violation of the Five Principles without incurring any charges of hypocrisy.

Further complicating the picture is the slow progress of the Russian military’s invasion of Ukraine and the deterioration of the situation into a quagmire.

“I think this crisis will weaken Russia. I believe Russia’s gotten itself into a quagmire. How is Russia going to hold down a population of 35 million people [in Ukraine]?” Ezell added.

“The picture that emerges is that China is walking a fine line, China has not endorsed the invasion and is giving only modest support to Russia,” he continued.

While the Chinese regime has not openly supported Russia, it has continually refused to denounce Moscow’s actions and label its actions an invasion. It has also refused to join in on Western sanctions. On Monday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pronounced that Moscow was Beijing’s “most important strategic partner,” saying the two countries’ relationship would not be “influenced by third parties.”

Epoch Times Photo
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his Azerbaijani counterpart at the Kremlin in Moscow on February 22, 2022. (MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

Tony Saich, Daewoo Professor of International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School and Director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, concurs that Beijing is wary of committing itself to the support of Putin in Ukraine and that the boldness of Putin’s aggression has been off-putting for CCP leadership.

“Certainly, Xi would have wanted a guarantee that there would be no increased dramatic actions before the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics,” Saich said in a recent interview with the Ash Center.

“China’s desire not to be drawn directly into support of an invasion is shown by its initial response and Xi’s and Putin’s phone call on February 25. Xi’s comments show continued support for Putin while trying to position China as a rational voice for calm,” he continued.

In the call with Putin, Xi made a point of emphasizing negotiations as a tool to resolve the crisis and reiterated certain points found in the Five Principles concerning respect for nations’ sovereignty.

Epoch Times Photo
A Ukrainian serviceman walks past the vertical tail fin of a Russian Su-34 bomber lying in a damaged building in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on March 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Marienko)

The Mess Putin Has Made

What may prove most decisive in dissuading Beijing from offering support to Russia at this juncture is the far-reaching consequences of Russia’s current imbroglio for itself and the world, according to Dory Wiley, President and CEO of Commerce Street Holdings and an expert on global trade and capital flows.

The current crisis has thrown into relief the world’s willingness to respond with sanctions and with indirect military aid, and the consequences for Russia are not lost on China as Beijing grapples with its own complex economic and social problems.

“Russia has issued a wake-up call that there is not a one-world government, that there are sovereign countries out there and they have different goals. Now you have the European Union sending arms and money for Ukraine’s defense, and you have Germany doing it individually for the first time since World War II,” Wiley said.

“And that’s what gets underestimated. Look at Russia, we’ve seen the ruble crash, the central bank double its rate, and 70 percent of its banking system get locked out of SWIFT,” he added.

Beijing may be wary of where sanctions and import-export bans might be directed next if Beijing appears to emerge as a collaborator or appeaser of Russia’s invasion decried around the world.

“Capital is fleeing China. The way China runs things, they’re losing a ton of business and supply chains to other countries in Southeast Asia. And investors may stop and look at what they’re doing. Do we have investments in China or in Russia, that are not for the good of our participants, for the greater good of our society?” Wiley said.

Michael Washburn
Michael Washburn is a New York-based reporter who covers U.S. and China-related topics. He has a background in legal and financial journalism, and also writes about arts and culture. Additionally, he is the host of the weekly podcast Reading the Globe. His books include “The Uprooted and Other Stories,” “When We're Grownups,” and “Stranger, Stranger.”