‘There are no forbidden areas of cooperation’, claimed Presidents Putin and Xi Jinping in their meeting in Beijing in February at the beginning of the Winter Olympics. In what was Xi’s first face to face meeting with a foreign leader for almost two years and a remarkable public appearance of an often isolated Putin, they criticized NATO expansion, declared joint support for the One China policy, and issued a joint 5000 word declaration of their friendship.
Fast forward to a month after Russia initiated its invasion of Ukraine and the Chinese position remained ambiguous. Certainly, Chinese media had been supporting Russia’s invasion with unsubstantiated claims, including that the US own biolabs in Ukraine and have been breeding animals to spread infectious disease. The personal closeness of the two presidents should also be considered. They share a certain affinity as autocrats who have fought to the top of their respective political systems, with President Xi recently extending his rule into an unprecedented third term in office. They also share similar world views, having been born within a year of each other in the middle of the Cold War.
Nonetheless, the Chinese government has sought to separate itself from Russia’s actions. Writing in The Washington Post, the Chinese ambassador to the US emphasized how much China had to lose from the conflict as the largest importer of crude oil. He claimed that China had no prior knowledge that Russia was going to invade Ukraine and that they would have sought to prevent it had they known in advance. Despite this, the article possesses a tinge of ambiguity. Its assertion that ‘the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, including Ukraine, must be respected’ could simultaneously suggest the need to protect the sovereignty of Russia, in line with Russia’s accusations of Nato aggression.
Fast forward to more recent months, and the relationship appears even more strained. Though not outright abandoning China’s defence of Russia, at the recent G20 Summit President Xi rejected the weaponization of food, energy and any consideration of nuclear war – a clear riposte to Putin’s recent rhetoric while avoiding direct condemnation.
Fundamentally, President Xi is engaged in a balancing act. On the one hand, his relationship with the Russian president brings significant strategic and economic gains. Only in their meeting in February did they sign an agreement for Russia to supply 10bn more cubic metres of gas to China each year, in addition to the 38bn that it already supplies.
On the other, significant economic penalties are at stake. Should China choose to supply Russia with military aid as Russia has requested, China’s close economic relationship with Ukraine would be in tatters and significant sanctions from the West may follow. This risk of isolation would not do any favours for China’s global influence and strategy. For example, since 2013 China has been engaged in the Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure project aimed at connecting countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa through overland trade corridors and maritime shipping lanes. Such investment has received accusations of being a form of economic imperialism, or debt-trap diplomacy; for example, Sri Lanka has recently had to lease a key port to the Chinese government for 99 years after failing to repay its debts. China has already invested about $210bn into this project, with estimates suggesting that this will reach up to $1tn. International cooperation with China is key for this project’s success, and overt support for Russia in Ukraine could impede this.
Earlier in the year, President Xi’s relative silence on the issue had been enough to attract accusation of his being an accomplice to the invasion. Suspicions that China may provide material support to Moscow remained high. Now however, as Russian military setbacks continue, the Russian army continues to target the Ukrainian civilian population with strikes and blackouts, while reports of torture and atrocities continue to surface. Putin continues to weaponize food and energy, while his rhetoric regarding nuclear war remains unwavering. If the recent G20 Summit is anything to go by, President Xi’s balancing act may soon be coming to an end.
Featured Image – Paul Kagame on Flickr