A crisis. A special operation. Or a “new situation”. With these terms, but at no time the words “war” or “invasion”, has China described the events in Ukraine since last Thursday the Russian troops obeyed the order of its president, Vladimir Putin, and assaulted the neighboring country. This exercise in diplomatic contortionism underscores the dilemma of the Chinese Government, which is trying to support its strategic partner, but at the same time champion what has been one of its great principles in foreign policy, respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the states.
At the daily press conference of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spokesman Wang Wenbin reiterated on Monday his government’s opposition to the sanctions of democratic countries against Russia since the invasion, including the exclusion of that country from the SWIFT system of bank payments. “We are against the use of sanctions to solve problems, especially against unilateral sanctions without an international mandate. China and Russia will continue their usual trade cooperation based on the spirit of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit,” he said.
So far, China has adopted a position of relative ambiguity, in which it blames the United States and NATO for the conflict for not having responded to Russian “legitimate security concerns”, and does not condemn the invasion. On the other hand, it underlines the need for the conflict to be resolved through diplomatic channels, something that Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed to Putin in a telephone conversation last Friday. Both had met in Beijing on February 4 for the opening of the Winter Olympics, in a meeting in which they came to propose a new world order and stressed that their cooperation “has no limits”: that conversation has given rise to speculation about whether the Russian president informed Xi in advance of his plans.
“I don’t think Xi Jinping was fully briefed on the events to come, of course. And it may be that, in reality, the Chinese side does not fully support the invasion, which of course they do not call that, ”says Mikko Huotari, director of the German think tank Merics, which specializes in China. “I don’t think Beijing is very happy with the military escalation in Ukraine, or that it was prepared for that scenario.”
China on Friday voted to abstain from a UN Security Council resolution that sought to condemn Russia for the invasion. It was a position similar to the one he had taken on Moscow’s previous military operations in neighboring countries, in 2008 in Georgia and in 2014 over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “China will support Russia in the UN where possible”, at least “tacitly”, says Huotari.
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“Beijing tries to strike an impossible balance by pursuing three goals simultaneously: a strategic partnership with Russia, a commitment to its traditional principles of “territorial integrity” and “non-interference”, and a desire to minimize collateral damage from sanctions. American and European. Beijing cannot achieve these three incompatible goals,” Evan Feigenbaum, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, wrote on the institution’s blog. “China’s almost certain choice will be to abandon its principles, and prioritize practical considerations and its power politics.”
The great test of China’s effective position will be its behavior in the face of those international sanctions against Russia that it has branded as “illegal”. If it helps Moscow to alleviate their effect or even evade them. Already in 2008 and 2014 he offered him a lifeline with measures such as the signing of an agreement for the purchase of Russian gas worth 360,000 million euros. This month, the two countries signed more agreements for the supply of Russian oil and gas for the next 25 to 30 years worth a total of 117.5 billion dollars (about 105 billion euros). And in a symbolic gesture, China this week lifted the restrictions on the entry of Russian wheat, something that Xi and Putin had already agreed on in their meeting.
“It is a tactical and practical step to ensure the supply of wheat to China itself”, which is short on grain production for its population of 1.4 billion people, says Huotari.
In other economic sectors, Beijing could also extend its hand through its state banks Eximbank and China Development Bank. “In economic exchanges, it is a win-win situation for China, and it will make use of it. The finance sector will be key, although it is more complicated”, explains Huotari. Less than 20% of bilateral trade is denominated in yuan, and less than 15% of Russian reserves are in that currency. To the energy agreements already signed, one could add the one that has been negotiated for months for the construction of a new gas pipeline from Siberia, the so-called Power of Siberia 2. China could also become Moscow’s lifeline in the area of telecommunications and technology , although its semiconductor sector is not yet mature enough to be a viable substitute in the area of weapons.
For now, it seems that China remains cautious about possible financial aid. At least two major Chinese commercial banks — ICBC and Bank of China — have stopped financing Russian commodity purchases, Bloomberg reported this weekend. On Saturday, a senior US official indicated that for the moment Beijing had not moved. “The latest indications are that China has not come to the rescue” of Moscow, although doing so would inflict “profound damage” on the international reputation of the Xi government, according to the senior official.
From an economic point of view, “a closer trade relationship with China could offer some help in the event of Western sanctions, but it is unlikely that it can fully mitigate the impact of Russia’s growing decoupling from the European Union. This is the case in general, but especially for energy exports and pharmaceutical imports. In essence, the pivot from Russia to China cannot offer an immediate solution to Russia’s trade, although perhaps more and more in the long term, ”says Alicia García-Herrero, chief economist for Asia Pacific at Natixis, in a note.
The war in Ukraine is also testing the strength of the Sino-Russian alliance. Although they coincide in their aims —to establish a new world order in which the United States is no longer the first power—, their methods are different. Russia prefers destabilizing actions, while China presents itself as a reliable partner, a friend of stability and prudence. As pointed out in a videoconference organized by the Andrea Kendall-Taylor CSIS study center, from the Center for a New American Security, until now the friendship between the two governments “has become increasingly intense without either party having had to pay a price for it. That can be put to the test in this case.”
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