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#Analize / Mălina Mîndruțescu

What does China stand to gain from the Ukraine crisis?

As Russian President Vladimir Putin left Russia and participated in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics, one of the few leaders in attendance, it begs the question: how is China thinking about the Ukraine crisis?

Most world leaders refused to attend the Olympic Games, boycotting the sports event as a way of protesting against China’s human rights abuses and treatment of the Uighur community, Mr Putin sees an opportunity for the two world powers to collaborate and find common ground on its most important shared interest: its resistance to the West.

As the Ukraine crisis continues to heat up and Russia refuses to back down, this strategic partnership seems like an unlikely, but timely friendship among two countries whose shared past was more ominous than appeasing. During the UN Security Council meeting over the Ukraine crisis, which took place on Monday last week, Russia and the US clashed once again, the latest attempt in a long diplomatic marathon that has been taking place since early January.

With the hostility between the US and Russia growing bigger, the liberal order’s biggest foes are beginning to find a shared purpose, especially in the context of the Ukraine crisis.

lavrov blinken

Photo source: Getty Images


As the US and European allies have threatened to impose unprecedented financial and economic sanctions on Russia, if it engages on Ukraine, China may come as a friend in need. Western efforts to set an example out of Russia by punishing and isolating the power if it acts on Ukraine, these efforts might be undermined by the support of China.

During a phone call between the two leaders in December, Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed that Mr Putin’s demands for a commitment from NATO that Ukraine would never join the Alliance were sensible. Amid the buildup of more than 100,000 Russian troops at the Western border with Ukraine in the recent month, China has been mostly silent.

The collaboration between the two countries encapsulates a range of issues. On the military side, there seem to be ever more frequent and substantive joint exercises, collaboration on weapons development, regular consultations on military and security issues and long-running military personnel exchanges. These are enabling the two militaries to jointly operate in real wars.

“They have introduced a joint command system, there are codes and signals that both Chinese and Russian forces can read, and intelligence is frequently exchanged between the two,” says Alexander Korolev, an expert in the Russian-Chinese security relationship at the University of New South Wales for The Financial Times. There have even been talks of a new space race, as Russia and China aim to triumph over America and create a joint moon base to counter NASA.

On the diplomatic side, senior Chinese and Russian diplomats have agreed to step up coordination on Asian affairs. The agreement was reached on Tuesday during a virtual meeting between Liu Jinsong, head of the Asian affairs unit at China’s foreign ministry, and Ovchinnikov Alexey Mikhailovich, who heads the Russian foreign ministry’s Asia-Pacific department, according to a news report by South China Morning Post.

Recently, Beijing and Moscow have also often sided with each other at the United Nations Security Council, countering the US and its allies on issues such as Syria while rejecting Western criticism over human rights violations.

wang yi lavrov

Photo source: Russian Foreign Ministry


Thus, a strenghtening of bilateral relations between Russia and China seemed only natural, as the East-West divide deepens. Their tactical alliance has taken on more urgency since US president Joe Biden came into office with a pledge to assert US leadership on the world stage.

Under Mr Biden, Washington has repeatedly singled out Russia and China as the biggest threats to the rules-based international order, as it rallies allies to unite in an apparent ideological battle between democracy and autocracy.

While not part of a formal alliance together, Beijing and Moscow have nurtured diplomatic and defensive ties into a strong partnership that looks set to deepen as Putin heads to China to hold a summit with Xi and attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics on February 4.

For Russia, a pivot towards the world’s largest economy was a natural reaction, following economic sanctions fllowing the 2014 annexation of Crimea. These actions deeply hindered Russia’s economic performance.

On the Chinsese side, Beijing was more than happy to embrace closer ties with its northern neighbour as tensions escalated in almost every aspect of its relations with the US. Trade, Taiwan and human rights abuses are just a few in a long series of economic, strategic and political issues, where the US and China disagree on.

But, naturally economics has been at the forefront of this strategic partnership between Russia and China. “Economics has been at the center of their strategic partnership. Bilateral trade passed $100 billion in 2018, and the goal is to double it by 2024.

The two countries have also deepened energy cooperation, including a $400 billion deal to transport natural gas from Russia and multiple joint nuclear power plant projects in China. Moscow is also Beijing’s largest arms supplier, providing 70% of China’s arms imports between 2014 and 2018”, according to a CNN news report.

The Ukraine crisis is especially important for China, as the country is paying extremely close attention to how Western unity on the issue unfolds. As we’ve seen in the case of Germany, where dependence on Russian gas is high and the approval of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline badly needed, that the newly established coalition government took a more reserved approach to Russia, tiptoing and changing the discourse, as huge interests were at stake.

xi putin

Photo source: Reuters


During last month’s diplomatic effort surrounding the crisis, China also seems to have sided with Russia. During a call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned the United States and its allies not to “hype up the crisis” around Ukraine and called for a peaceful resolution to the escalating crisis, saying Russia’s “reasonable security concerns should be taken seriously”.

“Regional security cannot be guaranteed by strengthening or even expanding military blocs,” Wang said, according to a Foreign Ministry statement, in reference to demands issued by the Kremlin that Ukraine not be allowed to join NATO, stated in a Radio free Europe report.

As it turns out, both China and Russia are aware of the fissures that already exist within the transatlantic Alliance. As the Russian-Chinese partnership grows stronger and Western allies split between political interests over the Ukraine crisis, China and Russia have only to gain from this.


Photo source: Getty Images

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