The rapidly rising cost for China’s embrace of Putin

Ohen Wang Jixian moved to Odessa, a port city in southern Ukraine, he never expected to find himself in the middle of a war. But as the 37-year-old software engineer picked up his mobile phone and began posting the reality of life under Russian bombardment online – howling sirens, booming artillery, buskers on the bustling streets – he quickly found itself under attack from a more surprising side: the Chinese government and nationalist trolls, who objected to Wang’s austere depiction of Russian aggression that angered Beijing’s official narrative.

Wang’s Weibo social media account was blocked for “spreading rumours” and strangers began issuing profanity-riddled threats on his Wechat account. “I’m facing a two-front war,” Wang told Voice of America. “The battlefield I face here is terrifying, but at least I can see the tanks. But the other battlefield behind me is even scarier… I don’t know who’s in it, but they all tell me they want me dead.

Read more: China’s support for Russian aggression against Ukraine confirms the West’s worst fears

China’s censorship of Wang and other independent voices on Ukraine underscores the contradictory stance that the government in Beijing has taken since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s February 24 assault on Ukraine: on the one hand, defend sovereignty, territorial integrity and the rules-based international order; on the other refusing to condemn Putin’s invasion or even call it one.

“For a great power like China, which is on the verge of becoming the largest economy in the world in less than 10 years, the most important thing is to find a balance,” said Zhou Bo, retired senior colonel of the APL and Senior Fellow at the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University in Zhou.

After days and weeks of in-depth questioning, China’s spokespersons have settled on one line: the war is caused by NATO expansionism, against which Russia is defending itself. In an emailed statement on March 18, the Chinese Embassy in London said Chinese President Xi Jinping had spoken with Putin on the second day of the conflict and “expressed China’s hope to see the Russia and Ukraine hold peace talks as soon as possible.” Putin’s escalation since then – including the near total destruction of the eastern city of Mariupol – hardly indicates that he took Xi’s words to heart.

On April 1, Xi met with EU leaders for a virtual summit with efforts to resurrect the Comprehensive Investment Agreement trade pact which is already stalled due to allegations of forced labor and human rights violations. human rights in Xinjiang province. The refusal to help end the bloodshed in Ukraine only adds to the unease.

China’s influence on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a controversial issue. A Western intelligence report claimed that senior Chinese officials had asked their Russian counterparts in early February to delay the invasion of Ukraine until after the Beijing Winter Olympics. However, Qin Gang, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, refuted this claim written in the Washington To post March 16, stating that “if China had known about the impending crisis, we would have done our best to prevent it.”

Of course, understanding China is like watching a magic show: sure, you can listen to the crackle, but never take your eyes off the hands. And that of China Shares reveal a cynical and risky bet to support Vladimir Putin. Xi has often spoken of a world shaken by “changes not seen in 100 years”. If Western sanctions targeting Russia’s economy, oligarchs and industry fail, it would confirm America’s decline as a superpower – and perhaps Xi would have less to fear from a backlash if he continued his own strategic goals, such as the reunification of self-governing Taiwan.

But it seems increasingly likely that Beijing is wrong in its strategic calculation. Putin’s offensive is collapsing (for now, at least), and NATO has rarely been more united as members announce a series of defense spending hikes. A defeat for Putin just after he and Xi declared a ‘limitless’ partnership at a high-level meeting before the Beijing Olympics would be embarrassing for the leader of the Communist Party of China just as he seeks a third term destroying protocol. And in Putin, China has an unscrupulous “partner” or, it is becoming increasingly apparent, without a sense of reality.

“It’s quite telling for China,” says Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London. “It pushed a lot of decisions on them a lot faster than they expected, forcing them to declare their hand in a way they didn’t want to.”

The high cost from the side of Russia

Beijing’s initial approach was to manage the crisis through inaction, on the principle that inactivity cannot be punished. But things are happening on a scale and at a speed that is forcing China to take more proactive stances. On the one hand, China does not want to align itself with Russia, which upsets and irritates the Western countries which remain its main trading partners. But on the other hand, Beijing does not want a continuation of American-led Western dominance, which it believes was already in decline.

China was quick to refute reports that Russia had requested military assistance. While it makes perfect sense that Putin wants to involve China in his conflict, Beijing has more to lose than gain from actively aiding the invasion of Ukraine. And any help would be mostly symbolic – although China retains close military ties with Russia, with the two countries holding frequent joint exercises, including naval maneuvers in the Mediterranean and the Baltic Sea – there is little interoperability between their strengths. Exercises in northwest China last year involving some 10,000 Russian and Chinese troops were the first to feature Russians using Chinese weapons and joint command and control. Going down more heavily on the Russian side will come with enormous costs, including the risk of harsh sanctions and international boycotts. It doesn’t make much sense for Beijing to pay this for Russia, which they see as a regional power with a limited sphere of influence, when China today is a global player with interests on every continent. , the only real rival of the United States.

Read more: How China’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could upend the world order

“If China and Russia entered into a military alliance, the whole world would change,” Zhou said. “Western countries, no matter how strong their economic relationship with China, will definitely follow America and stand with them. Then we will inevitably have two sides and a repeat of the Cold War. So it is extremely important for China to have this non-aligned relationship with Russia despite our friendship. And that’s entirely possible.”

Why Beijing won’t try to stop Putin

At the same time, if the West thinks it can shame China for isolating Russia, it is kidding itself. Beijing has for decades backed a rogue, ossified nuclear state on its border because dealing with Kim Jong Un is seen as preferable to a united Korean peninsula allied with the United States. If the threat of nuclear disaster combined with the fate of 25 million North Koreans who are victims of UN-designated ‘crimes against humanity’ doesn’t sway Chinese leaders, 4 million Ukrainian refugees won’t warrant a shrug. of shoulders. Beijing has proven that it will only act in the purest traditions of self-interest. And so, it is doubtful that Beijing will suddenly oppose Putin as he attempts to divide the world into spheres of influence, with NATO and America’s role severely diminished.

In this sense, joining Western sanctions is against China’s self-interest, given that giving NATO an easy victory would re-energize a newly confident, united and US-led Western alliance. China wants a less confident and less zealous West, and more unity and determination spell trouble. “Russia is behind this,” Brown says. “But it’s still not a solution for China to align itself with the West, because it actually leads to exactly what it doesn’t want. It just shows this rather torturous position they find themselves in.

The West is also likely to inflate Beijing’s influence on the Kremlin to distract from its own culpability. China has little demand for Russian products other than oil and gas. To be sure, bilateral trade grew 33.6% year-on-year to some $140 billion in 2021, when Russia was China’s second-largest supplier of crude oil, accounting for around 15.5% of China’s total imports. China. But the 10 billion cubic meters of gas China bought in 2021 is dwarfed by the 175 billion cubic meters Russia sold to Europe in the same period. To leverage the Russian economy, European leaders should look closer to home.

Ultimately, it’s a war that seems unwinnable, while perpetually tarnishing China’s international reputation, stoking antagonism in Washington and Europe. None of this speaks to the interest of China, being the self-proclaimed global superpower in waiting. And while China may be winning the domestic propaganda war at the moment, voices like Wang’s in Odessa – which has more than 100,000 Youtube subscribers – will grow louder and louder as the war will drag on and more and more people will ask questions. “[Ukrainians] are fighting for their homes… Why should they be bombed? he posted on March 4. ” It’s as simple as that ; it has nothing to do with NATO. People just want to be able to live their life.

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Write to Charlie Campbell at [email protected]


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