Beijing Seeks to Play ‘Robust,’ ‘Mutually Beneficial’ Relationship With Russia to Its Advantage, Panelists Say

Beijing Seeks to Play ‘Robust,’ ‘Mutually Beneficial’ Relationship With Russia to Its Advantage, Panelists Say
A demonstrator wears a hat with a Ukrainian flag at an anti-war protest in front of the European Union headquarters, in Barcelona, Spain, on Feb. 24, 2022. (Nacho Doce/Reuters)
Michael Washburn

The regime in Beijing has walked a fine line since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago, refusing to condemn the invasion unequivocally while engaging in introspection over its stance on the war and looking for ways to consolidate its position as the more senior, or dominant, partner in a mutually beneficial China–Russia relationship.

While Beijing may not unequivocally condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin for his aggression against Ukraine, Chinese leaders are concerned about how small and emerging nations view China and so the country has its own geostrategic reasons not to commit to Putin’s victory. It seeks to stay on his good side while quietly strengthening its own hand in other parts of the world.

That’s the view of speakers taking part in a Feb. 15 panel discussion, “China–Russia Relations One Year Into the Ukraine War,” held under the auspices of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The moderator was Paul Haenle, former White House China director on the National Security Council during the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama; the panelists were Alexander Gabuev, a Carnegie senior fellow; Li Mingjiang, an author and professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore; and Hoang Thi Ha, a senior fellow and co-coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Program at ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Beijing’s Interests

One year into the Ukraine war, Russia and China still enjoy a strategic partnership that’s advantageous to both parties, Gabuev said. But this reality has more to do with Beijing’s failure to perceive opposition to the Ukraine war as serving its own interests than with any principled opposition based on tenets of sovereignty and international law, he argued. He described Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s approach and strategy as somewhat opportunistic and Manichean.

“I think that the partnership is the same, and the trend line is the same. It’s getting increasingly asymmetric, with China having more leverage and more options in the relationship rather than Russia,” he said.

“China benefits somewhat more than Russia, but Russia benefits as well. And that’s a relationship that will not be an alliance but will be an increasingly close cooperation and increasingly on Xi Jinping’s terms.”

It’s in Xi’s interests to keep Russia strategically close to China to prevent a scenario that may be hard to envision now, in the midst of the Ukraine war but is still a future possibility: namely, a shift on the part of Russia to a more pro-Western and pro-democracy stance. Such a development might jeopardize China’s access to Russian natural resources, on which it currently enjoys a discount, according to Gabuev.

“Let’s zoom out and see where China’s interests are with regard to the war. It has a partnership with Russia that is important. Russia is a large neighbor to the north. Having a stable, peaceful border with Russia is quintessential for China,” he said.

“If Russia turns into a pro-U.S. democracy and applies to join NATO, that’s a strategic nightmare for China.”

Beijing may not have rushed to condemn Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine. However, in Gabuev’s analysis, Chinese officials are reluctant to side with the Western democracies here because, if they were to give in to pressures on the Ukraine issue, they fear what further demands may be made of them.

Western governments have a wide range of requests to which they would like to see Beijing accede, from ceasing the genocide against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province to becoming more transparent about the use of money from foreign business partners to fund the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

“Imagine that China throws Vladimir Putin under the bus, imposes sanctions, and says the barbaric imperialist onslaught against Ukraine is unacceptable, and China joins hands with all the other civilized members of the international community. If that leads to Putin’s downfall, will it fundamentally improve the U.S.–China relationship?” Gabuev asked.

“The answer is no. The expectation is that the West will just pocket this concession, and say, ‘Okay, China, what about Xinjiang, what about Taiwan, what about IP theft, what about PLA spending, what about human rights in Hong Kong?”

Xi and others in the regime in Beijing are conscious of the fact that Russia is a nuclear power that hasn’t decisively ruled out the use of nukes on the battlefield in Ukraine. That adds to their sense that their self-interest doesn’t include antagonizing Putin, he said.

Passive Tolerance

Li agreed that Beijing doesn’t see the Ukraine war as a direct threat to its own interests.

“They have done their best not to be perceived by Moscow as having betrayed the strategic partnership,” he said. “Fundamentally, I think the relationship remains robust.”

At the same time, officials in Beijing are protective of their interests. Even though they may hesitate to criticize Putin publicly, they may be undertaking some introspection and thinking about how they could have better played the scenario to their own advantage, according to Li.

“I think people in China realize they could have done better to make it clear that China was not really supporting Russia, there were some differences, and also, in terms of actual diplomatic actions, China could have learned from what India did. India, in the month after the invasion, was trying to be neutral, but it did do some things to be critical of Russia and also to engage with Ukraine,” he said.

Beijing may be trying to walk a fine line now, but Xi’s ultimate goals are to maximize China’s interests, and a defeat of Putin’s forces on the battlefield wouldn’t be an intolerable outcome for the Chinese leader, Li speculated.

“I think China is likely to continue its wait-and-see policy, and watch the situation in Ukraine closely. Even if Putin and Russia is defeated militarily, and Russia becomes a much weaker power, that will be acceptable for Xi Jinping and China,” he said.

Guarding China’s Reputation

Hoang agreed that Beijing’s self-interest doesn’t call for full-blown support for Putin’s war.

“China’s approach to the war in Ukraine and how to deal with other players is not binary, in terms of either/or. Having a closer relationship with Russia doesn’t mean being stuck with Russia,” she said. “I think China is not going to extraordinary lengths to keep Russia from losing the war.”

One consideration for Beijing is China’s standing among the nations of the developing world, according to Hoang. The regime in Beijing is concerned more about its own interests and the respect it enjoys in the eyes of those emerging powers than about placating Putin for the sake of doing so.

“Although many developing countries have ambivalent views about the war in Ukraine, it doesn’t mean they agree to the invasion of a sovereign state,” she said.

Michael Washburn is a New York-based reporter who covers U.S. and China-related topics for The Epoch Times. 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.”
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