Xi and Putin say the opposite, but the partnership between China and Russia is not truly “limitless”. Here because. The Economist Insight
For most of those caught up in the horrors of Ukraine, time is not on their side. Every hour brings new agonies for the Ukrainian government and people. With each passing day he exposes, with greater clarity, the miscalculation of Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, when he launched a targeted war against a country he has largely underestimated. For America and its allies, admiration for Ukraine’s resistance is tempered by fears that it may not last forever as Putin escalates the killings.
On the contrary, a great power, China, and a study on patience. Privately, his officials project confidence that time will deliver a post-war solution that is very much to China’s benefit. Since the February 24 invasion, China has rejected repeated calls from foreign governments to work more actively to persuade Russia – her “rock solid” friend – to end the chaos. It did not go beyond appeals for restraint from all sides. Western impatience is manifesting itself. On March 15, the Spanish foreign minister called on China to exert its “influence over Russia”.
China likes to present itself as a peace-loving giant opposing foreign incursions. In Beijing and the UN, its envoys were left visibly squirming in the aftermath of the invasion, after dismissing American warnings of war as lies. Frightened by Russia’s subsequent ineptitude on the battlefield, they pestered foreign interlocutors with questions about the fighting. Meanwhile, China has maintained a pro-Russian pseudo-neutrality stance, muttering about the need for peace while echoing Putin’s arguments that he is defending Russia against America and its expanding NATO alliance.
Western governments now fear that China may have decided to “sit back and watch the disaster,” as one diplomat puts it. In their analysis, China expects Russian brute force to prevail within weeks. Only once Putin has avoided humiliation, perhaps by taking the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, can Chinese leaders be expected to be more assertive about the need for a ceasefire. Then they could offer to rebuild Ukraine’s destroyed cities, hoping that China’s economic weight will force other countries to forget weeks of Chinese indifference to Russian crimes – writes The Economist.
China has good reason to want a result that satisfies Putin. The humiliation of the Russian leader – or worse yet, his overthrow – would leave the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, personally exposed. Xi signed a joint declaration with Putin less than a month before the invasion, declaring that “the friendship between the two states has no limits”. He also expressed opposition to any further NATO expansion and the building of American alliances in Asia. He described their political systems as “genuine democracy” and portrayed efforts to promote the Western version of it as a “serious” threat to global peace. This is a high-stakes year for Xi, who hopes to secure a third term as Communist Party leader in 2022, violating recent retirement rules.
But no matter how the war unfolds, China will treat its relationship with the Kremlin as a means of increasing Chinese power, not Russia’s. America reported sharing information with allied governments, showing that Russia has asked China for drones, surface-to-air missiles and other military aid. The Chinese Foreign Ministry called the reports “disinformation”. Xi has no desire to share the blame for Putin’s war, however “best friend” he may be. There are signs that China is rushing to take advantage of a distracted West by attacking Taiwan, the democratic island of 24 million people that China claims as its own. Unlike Putin, who seems happy to stage dramatic challenges to the global order, Xi seems more cautious.
One reason is economic. The heads of Chinese state-owned companies are viewing the war with unease. Many have substantial activities not only in Russia, but also in Ukraine. COFCO, a government-owned food giant, counts Ukraine as an important base. China Merchants Group, a state-owned company, owns port terminals in Odessa, a Ukrainian city on the Black Sea coast that is on high alert for a Russian attack. In 2020, Kharkiv, a city in northeastern Ukraine, agreed to purchase 40 wagons for its subway from the Chinese state railway group, CRRC. With Kharkiv metro stations filling up with families sheltering from Russian attacks, the contract is in jeopardy.
Russia likes to brag about its trade links with China. On February 4, while visiting Beijing, Putin unveiled an oil and gas deal worth $ 118 billion for many years, announcing it as part of an “eastward pivot”. China denounces Western sanctions against Russia. But its economic ties with Russia will be increasingly limited.
Oil and gas dominate the trade relationship. Russia is China’s third largest gas supplier. China bought nearly a third of Russia’s crude oil exports in 2020. But the recent energy deals between the two countries are unlikely to be a quick fix to Russia’s economic misery. China imported only 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Russia in 2021 through the Power of Siberia, the only pipeline connecting the two countries, far below the 175 billion cubic meters imported from Europe. Although China has an appetite for fossil fuel exports canceled from Europe, the related fields are not connected to China by a pipeline, making it difficult for lost sales to be recovered elsewhere, analysts at Gavekal, a research firm note.
For most other Russian products, Chinese demand is minuscule. Europe and America sold about $ 490 billion worth of goods to China last year, six times what Russia sells to China. Weapons are the only Russian products that have strong appeal in China. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a cash-strapped Russia saw the advantage of maintaining close ties with China. He began selling tens of billions of dollars worth of excess weapons to his former Cold War opponent, including jets, submarines, helicopters, destroyers and missiles.
These sales dropped sharply after 2006, partly because Russia opposed overt Chinese cloning and partly because China wanted more cutting-edge weapons, which the Kremlin was unwilling to sell. But Russia swallowed its doubts when the West imposed sanctions on Russia to punish it for taking Crimea in 2014. It agreed to sell China’s superior equipment, including missile systems and fighters, on the condition that China you buy in bulk to allow Russia to make a decent profit before the technology is inevitably copied.
China can now demand faster transfers of advanced Russian equipment, especially submarine and air defense technology. It could take advantage of Russia’s economic situation to put pressure on the Kremlin to withhold such weapons from India and Vietnam. Both of these countries are China’s rivals, but so far this hasn’t deterred Russia from selling them weapons.
Western sanctions are making it difficult for Russia to purchase technology. But it is not certain that China can fill the deficit. Take, for example, the aviation industry: Russia is in dire need of equipment to make it work. America alone sold more than $ 880 million worth of planes, engines and parts to Russia in 2021. Moscow’s hopes of China taking action were dashed on March 10, when a Russian aviation official told media premises that Chinese companies refused to sell aircraft parts to the country. The aviation officer was fired for making this revelation.
The decision by Chinese companies to stay away from Russia suggests fear of the sanctions America could impose on them if they did business with Russian companies or individuals who are targeted by Western sanctions. China’s aviation industry is almost completely dependent on American technology to produce parts, says Richard Aboulafia of Teal, an aerospace consulting firm. Other potential technology providers in China likely share this anxiety about America’s possible response.
Russia can look forward to greater Chinese involvement in its oil industry following the decision by Shell and BP, two Western oil majors, to withdraw due to the invasion. Chinese firms would bring powerful financial backing, but they would not be able to match the technology expertise of Western firms, says Ben Cahill of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think-tank. And dependence on Chinese companies would give China “a lot of influence over Russia,” says Mr. Cahill. “They will probably lead a difficult negotiation.”
State media in China touted the departure of Western multinationals from Russia as a business opportunity for Chinese companies. For some, it can be. A Chinese company, Xiaomi, already has a share of close to 40% of the smartphone market in Russia. It will likely benefit from Apple’s shutdown of operations in Russia. But Xiaomi’s sales in the country only contribute 3% of its global sales. The precarious state of the Russian economy could discourage it from making new investments.
State groups are said to be looking for possible takeovers in Russia as Russian asset prices drop. Chinese banks could support the financing of yuan-denominated trade with Russia using the CIPS, China’s cross-border payment system. But Chinese companies are aware of the risk to their reputation in other major markets if they were to enter Russia. And Chinese lenders risk being hit by sanctions.
Even so, the Chinese Communist Party sees political benefits at home from the war: it has helped fuel the nationalist sentiment that pleases the party. Chinese officials have fueled this sentiment with anti-American rhetoric, and by backing Putin’s claims that Ukraine is a Nazi-infested puppet of the West. Official media and nationalist websites portray Russia as a victim of the same Western bullying that China has long endured. State television and the Chinese foreign ministry have repeated and amplified Russian disinformation, in particular about Ukrainian laboratories which are said to be secret centers controlled by the Pentagon for researching biological weapons. Online, expressions of sympathy for Ukraine are often obliterated by censors.
Asked to describe China’s strategic goal, diplomats from more than a dozen embassies in Beijing are almost unanimous. They say China wants a world order built around spheres of influence, with China controlling Asia, Russia vetoing security deals in Europe, and America being pushed back to its shores. If such an order is aided in existence by Russia’s war in Ukraine, so be it. But China’s overriding interest is her own rise, and whether she is blocked by America. As they see it, the main global competition is between a rising China and a declining America that is too racist and vicious to allow an Asian giant to become her equal.
Beijing officials respond to the foreign horror of China’s stance on Ukraine with a mixture of swagger and blandishness. America is the subject of bluster, with scholars and government advisers claiming that the war exposed President Joe Biden’s weakness and fear of Putin’s nuclear arsenal. They predict that the sanctions will fail to break Russia’s will – a point of great concern to China, which knows she would face similar punishment if she invaded Taiwan.
On the contrary, European governments with markets and technologies that China wants to access, particularly Germany and France, are being targeted with an offensive of charm. Europeans are told that America wants to profit from the war, while Europe pays the price of soaring oil and gas prices and a flood of Ukrainian refugees. It is time for Europeans to seek more autonomy from America and deepen ties with China, the message from Chinese officials and academics runs.
In fact, China has more to gain than any other country from Russia’s isolation. Xi and Putin can share a bond as nationalist strongmen, who both feel under siege by America. Both are obsessed with the threat from democratic opposition movements, denouncing the protests from Hong Kong to Moscow as American-controlled color revolutions. But it wasn’t long ago that Russian leaders were intensely wary of becoming dependent on China, a neighbor with an economy and population ten times the size of Russia.
Over the past 20 years, Alexei Venediktov, the founder of Ekho Moskvy, an independent radio station recently closed by Russian authorities, has conducted an informal but informal poll. Whenever he saw Putin, or one of his security advisors, he named three threats – China, Islamic terrorism and NATO – and asked them to classify them. In Putin’s first two presidential terms, from 2000 to 2008, Islamic terrorism was at the top, followed by China and NATO. After 2008, the order changed: China was seen as the greatest threat, followed by NATO and Islamic terrorism. After the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the pivot towards China, the order changed again: NATO, then Islamic terrorism, then China. For Putin, the invasion of Ukraine is not just an attempt to recapture historic Russian territory. It is a war on the West, and China is the most powerful partner that Russia can see.
If Putin is willing to strengthen China as a champion against America, Chinese experts see opportunities. “Before, the Russians only talked and talked about cooperation” in places like the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, says Wang Yiwei of Renmin University. Russia still dominates this region, including through a trading zone controlled by Moscow, the Eurasian Economic Union. But perhaps, says Wang, Russia “will have to think about looking east now, and not worry too much about Chinese influence.”
Russia may also need to give China more space in the Arctic, suggests a Beijing diplomat. China sees that region as a new strategic frontier. It wants to have access to natural resources, including fishing grounds. He would like to lay digital cables through it to connect Asia and Europe. There may be opportunities for Chinese companies to build ports along Russia’s northern shores as climate change opens up new shipping routes. “A weakened Russia will be more malleable,” predicts the diplomat.
China will maintain close military ties with Russia. These have been central to their relations in the post-Soviet era, with the two countries often staging military exercises together. To the dismay of some NATO countries, their navies have been maneuvering in the Mediterranean and Baltic. An exercise involving some 10,000 Russian and Chinese troops in northwest China last year was the first to have a joint command and control center and Russian troops using Chinese weapons.
But as the balance of power shifts increasingly in China’s favor, many analysts expect military exchanges to become increasingly in tune with China’s needs. America and its allies fear that Russia could help China modernize and expand its nuclear arsenal, and build a combined early warning system covering both countries. “Nuclear weapons is an area where China thinks Russia still has superior capabilities in certain areas, and has richer operational and training experience,” said Zhao Tong of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beijing.
Still, the two sides are far from establishing the kind of interoperability that America and its allies have been building for decades. Their weapon systems are not widely compatible. Language differences are also an obstacle: few on either side speak both Chinese and Russian. They don’t have a mutual defense treaty. Russia supports China’s stance on Taiwan, but would likely look the other way if she attacked. Neither country wants to get involved in the other’s conflicts. They are operationally ready for more than one joint counter-terrorism, humanitarian or evacuation mission.
A question that Chinese leaders face now is whether the benefits of such exercises are worth the political costs, not only in the West, but among developing countries, many of which are also practicing with China, but have denounced the invasion of Russia into Ukraine. China may prefer to postpone or scale back joint exercises with Russia rather than suspend them entirely. Russian concern for Ukraine may provide a convenient respite. Based on the calendar for the past few years, the next big combo exercise should take place this summer or fall. It is not clear if there will be one.
As rockets rain down on Ukrainian cities, Chinese diplomats have been busy dealing with the difficult perspective of their wait-and-see approach to Putin’s war. On March 16 Qin Gang, the Chinese ambassador to America, wrote in the Washington Post that: “The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is not good for China. If China had known about the impending crisis, we would have done our best to prevent it ”.
Alas, diplomats note, there are no signs that these pious words correspond to Chinese actions, with real pressure on Mr. Putin to stop the killings. Russian ferocity may be embarrassing for China, but a humiliating end to Mr. Putin’s invasion would be even less welcome if it avenged America and the West. Meanwhile, China has begun lobbying sanctions designed to make Putin pay for his crime, especially if they could target Chinese companies. “Neither war nor sanctions can bring peace,” said Mr. Qin. While much of the world seeks an urgent end to Ukraine’s agonies, China is taking its time and thinking about the future.
(Extract from the press review of eprcomunicazione)

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