Why China can’t and won’t abandon Russia

While Russia continues its outrageous acts against Ukraine by annexing four eastern and southern Ukrainian regions, speculation abounds that its most powerful ally, China, is seeking to distance itself from Moscow.

Many pundits who hold this view cite a comment made by Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Uzbekistan on Sept. 15. At the outset of the talks, Putin said he understood that China has “questions and concerns” about Russia’s actions in Ukraine, indicating Beijing had expressed uneasiness about the situation there.

Putin likely was compelled to make the remark after Beijing protested Russia’s unilateral release of a comment made by a senior Chinese official on the war.

In early September, Li Zhanshu, chairman of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, visited Moscow and held talks with Russian officials. According to an official Russian description of the meeting, Li told a group of Russian lawmakers that China “understands and supports Russia,” particularly “on the situation in Ukraine,” a comment that caused a stir in the world.

Yet Beijing has not made any statement about Li’s remarks. It seems that Moscow disclosed Li’s “off-the-record” utterance without China’s consent.

China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee Chairman Li Zhanshu meets with Russia’s State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin in Moscow on Sept. 8. (Russian State Duma/Handout via Reuters)

Upset by the Kremlin’s move, Beijing expressed its displeasure to Moscow, according to sources familiar with Chinese diplomacy. China has officially taken a neutral stance toward Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, neither criticizing nor supporting the war. China clearly feared that Russia’s disclosure of Li’s comment could give an impression that it had changed its stance to endorsing Putin’s war of aggression.

Putin’s reference to China’s “questions and concerns” during his meeting with Xi was apparently an attempt to ease Beijing’s concerns by admitting that China had not offered unreserved support for his invasion.

Looking back, the Sino-Russian alliance reached its apex on Feb. 4, when Putin and Xi signed a joint statement declaring that their friendship had “no limits.”

But Xi imposed restrictions on China’s cooperation with Russia once Putin invaded Ukraine. Beijing has so far avoided any aid that could counter Western sanctions against Moscow, according to a senior U.S. government official. Although it purchases energy from Russia, China has seemingly refrained from offering weapons or high-tech products to its northern neighbor. It has been reported that Russia has expressed its frustration at China’s limited support.

The question is whether China will widen its distance from Russia and, if so, how far.

The future of Sino-Russian relations was a major topic at an international conference held in early September in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, a former republic in the Soviet Union.

Experts who attended the conference were roughly divided into two groups. One camp predicted that the close alliance between Russia and China will not last long due to the divergence in their long-term strategic interests.

Russia is seeking to carve out its future by destroying the existing order, while China is striving to expand its influence over other countries and international organizations within the system. The two have potentially conflicting interests, pundits said.

The other group said Russia and China will remain close allies because they share the common goal of encroaching on the U.S. sphere of influence.

Of the two views, the latter may be more realistic, and China is unlikely to split with Russia, at least in the short to medium term.

There are two reasons. One is their geographic proximity, as China and the former Soviet region share a long border. Despite their current close ties, China and Russia were often at odds in the 1960s, engaging in an armed border conflict in 1969.

If Beijing abandons Russia over Ukraine, Moscow would harbor a grudge against its giant neighbor for decades, creating a strategic nightmare for China, which would find itself in confrontation with the U.S. on the Pacific front and Russia on the north side of the country.

Even in the mid-1990s, when China and Russia started deepening their friendship, some Chinese officials remained cautious.

“Unlike the U.S., which is separated from China by the Pacific, Russia is a land neighbor China shares a long border with,” said a senior Chinese official in an interview then. “Russia may try to expand its sphere of influence in the future, heightening tension with China. The country will remain the biggest source of concern to China.”

The interview took place when Boris Yeltsin was the president of Russia. Given Putin’s repeated nuclear threats and violent behavior, China must be feeling a stronger sense of danger now.

The Soviet flag flies over the Kremlin at Red Square in Moscow in December 1991. The collapse of the Soviet Union that year left China as the sole socialist powerhouse. © AP

A second reason to expect the alliance to endure is the presence of the U.S., their common nemesis. China now aims to become a superpower on a par with the U.S. by 2050. For China, Russia is the only ally among the major powers that would support its fight against the U.S.

If Russia collapsed after losing the war with Ukraine, China would have to confront the West alone. It would be like a return to the era when the breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991 left China as the sole socialist powerhouse.

To prevent this nightmare scenario from coming to pass, China will have to keep providing diplomatic and economic support to Putin while holding back military aid.

Western democracies thus need to devise their strategies on the assumption that the China-Russia axis is unlikely to break down easily. In East Asia, Russia may take actions to promote Chinese interests regarding Taiwan and the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, which China claims as the Diaoyu.

What is vital for the West is to prevent Beijing and Moscow from deepening ties further. One way to do that is to keep close watch over China to ensure it will not violate sanctions against Russia. This approach could not only limit their bilateral cooperation but may also help sow discord between them.

Author: HIROYUKI AKITA, NIKKEI Asia

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