China’s Russia problem
The author is a Beijing correspondent at the JoongAng Ilbo.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine shows the collective goal of Russia and China: creating a balance of power by limiting the U.S. But the two countries’ calculations cannot be the same. Is China in the same boat as Russia? As the war continues, China’s agony is deepening.
In 1972, the United States shook the power balance between America and the Soviet Union by joining hands with China, whose relations with the Soviets were deteriorating. With U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China, America took the leadership from the Soviet Union and China found a window to the global market. After five decades, Russia is trying to confront the U.S. by joining forces with China.
As China — the world’s second largest economy — is having conflicts with the U.S., Russia tried to take advantage of the power vacuum. Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul explained that Russian President Vladimir Putin is using the script of Nixon and Kissinger to lure China to resist the U.S. China and Russia’s interests to keep America in check converge more than ever.
It seemed to start smoothly. After meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin before the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics on Feb. 4, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered special treatment, taking his face mask off for the meeting. Xi sided with Putin by saying that he opposes the continuous expansion of NATO. China also signed a $117.5 billion gas import deal with Russia for the next 30 years. Putin was convinced that he had China’s political backing.
But after Russia invaded Ukraine, China’s reaction became ambiguous. It tacitly backed Moscow by abstaining from a UN Security Council vote on a motion to condemn Russia, but Beijing turned to take a position as a mediator. During a phone call with Putin on Friday, Xi said he supports Russia’s attempt to resolve issues through negotiations. Xi showed no reaction to Putin’s explanation that NATO challenged Russia’s strategic interests.
On the previous day, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov that he understands Russia’s “reasonable” security concerns but China respects each country’s sovereignty and territory. It was unclear if Russia’s invasion was just or Ukraine’s sovereignty should be respected. Instead, the Chinese Foreign Ministry blamed the U.S. for escalating tensions and instigating a war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose during a meeting in Beijing on February 4, the opening day of the Beijing Winter Olympics. [TASS/YONHAP]
Such a situation reveals the strategic difficulty China faces. At an online discussion organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on Wednesday called “What’s Next for the China-Russia Relationship?” Evan Medeiros — the Penner Family chair in Asian Studies at Georgetown University and a former member of the National Security Council of the Obama administration — said that China faces “a strategic trilemma, trying to balance three very difficult sets of interests.”
According to Medeiros, the first is staying aligned with Russia. Last year, Putin made public that Russia was supporting China’s early warning system to expand its nuclear and missile defense capabilities. Putin stressed that the two countries’ relations were better than ever. China has been paying special attentions to Russia. Since 2014, the two countries’ trade, including of energy, continued to grow.
The second is maintaining Beijing’s foreign policy principles. Since 1954, China has maintained five principles, including mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. But China faces criticism for having failed to respect them in the Ukraine crisis.
Andrea Kendall-Taylor — former deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council (NIC) in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) — asked how China will answer questions about its failure to respect Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. She described China as a country whose words and actions don’t match.
The third is China’s friendly relations with Europe and developing countries. As of late last year, 84 countries, including Ukraine, have cooperated with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, Xi underscored that China and Europe are comprehensive strategic partners that share mutual interests. China is trying hard not to lose Europe and other friends.
Medeiros said it is a difficult job for China to balance such challenges. “I think the critical challenge, where the rubber will hit the road for China in managing this trilemma, will be in terms of sanctions and how much sanctions relief is China really willing to offer Russia,” he said. If the U.S. decides to impose secondary boycotts in addition to direct sanctions on Russia, China’s choice will become more difficult.
Meanwhile, Chinese media are rushing to report that Western sanctions on Russia will have limited impact. Cui Hongjian, director of European Studies at China Institute of International Studies, said Russia may adopt more currency swaps with other countries, carry out non-dollar payment settlement and raise the proportion of non-dollar currencies in its foreign reserves. “With those methods, it’s possible for Russia to decrease the proportion of U.S. dollars in trade payment settlement to 30 percent,” said Cui, according to the Global Times.
Li Jianmin, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, told the Global Times that it is unclear whether the United States could leverage its embargo to pressure Russia because the West has already blacklisted Russian military and high-tech companies since 2014.
On Sunday, the U.S. and its European allies removed some Russian banks from the SWIFT financial messaging system. The action means that Russia won’t be able to trade crude oil in U.S. dollars and the amount of yuan transactions between China and Russia is expected to grow further.