Russia has few friends in the international community after its invasion of Ukraine. But China, which shares a 2,672 mile (4,300 kilometer) border with Russia, is among a handful of nations that have refused to condemn Vladimir Putin’s actions, while criticizing the West’s response to the crisis and its role in pushing tensions to a “breaking point.”
But Beijing did not offer messages of support to Moscow during the war, instead calling for peace talks and “maximum restraint.” The Conversation asked Joseph Torigian, specialist in Russia and China at the American University who has a forthcoming book on the power struggles in the Soviet Union and China after Stalin and Maoto unpack what lies behind Beijing’s delicate stance on Ukraine.
What’s behind China’s position on Russia and the war in Ukraine?
Chinese President Xi Jinping said on March 8 that he was “painedto see “the flames of war rekindling in Europe.” But China has been reluctant to criticize Russia.
The Russian Foreign Ministry on February 28, 2022 described China as one of Russia’s main remaining friendsand Moscow hopes that Beijing will continue to provide rhetorical and substantive assistance.
Beijing will be sensitive to Western attempts to create tension in the relationshipand Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently described links with Moscow as “solid as a rock”. He added that China and Russia “will always maintain their strategic orientation and steadily advance our comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era.”
Yet the invasion of Ukraine is problematic for Beijing. It is unclear what economic assistance China can provide to Russia. And the Chinese government will not put the financial interests of the country significantly in play to help Russia avoid sanctions.
At the same time, China is also trying to uphold its reputation as a responsible actor and protect its economic, trade and political ties with Europe. Underlying this, Xi met his German and French counterparts on March 8, 2022, to discuss a diplomatic solution to the war in Ukraine.
Beijing’s balancing act – seen in its decision to abstain of a United Nations Security Council vote condemning the invasion – will become increasingly difficult to sustain as the fighting continues, especially as the Russian military resorts to even more brutal methods and the Russian economy continues to deteriorate.
What was Beijing’s reaction to the sanctions against Russia?
Beijing has criticized Western sanctions against Russia, and he certainly does not want to see a complete collapse of the Russian economy. Such an outcome could foster instability in a neighboring state that Beijing sees as an important strategic partner.
But so far, China has not rushed to support the Russian Federation economically. China is very vulnerable to secondary sanctions – sanctions imposed on institutions with ties to the country under primary sanctions – and it is worth noting that some Chinese financial institutions have started to distance oneself from the Russian economy.
Meanwhile, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a development bank launched by China and in which it holds 27% of the voting rights, discontinued work in Belarus and Russia to protest the invasion of Ukraine.
It remains to be seen whether China will use creative and less visible methods to help the Russian economy in a way that would not put its biggest institutions at risk of being accused of violating sanctions.
Beijing will also likely learn lessons about its own potential vulnerabilities to sanctions should China, like Russia, ever provoke large-scale economic sanctions from the West.
What role does anti-Western sentiment play in Sino-Russian relations?
Russia and China endured decades of rivalry and hostility throughout much of the Cold War. But a rapprochement that has been in the making for decades has accelerated in recent years, relying in part on opposition to the West.
The governments of both countries hold similar negative views about America’s role in Europe and Asia. They also share a distaste for western democracy and a desire to make world public opinion more welcoming to autocracies.
But Washington isn’t the only factor pushing them together. In the 2000s, Russia and China finally fully resolved their long-standing territorial dispute on their common border. The two countries are also trading partners: Russia sells weapons, gas and oil to China, and China provides investment and consumer goods.
Close ties have been reflected at the highest level, with Putin and Xi developing a personal relationship which they are eager to showcase to the world. In July 2021, Wang, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs, describes relations between Moscow and Beijing like anything but a wedding ring but also better than a wedding ring. And then, in February, Xi and Putin signed a joint statement outlining their common positions on a number of issues.
What was the significance of this statement, just before the invasion?
The moment for the joint statement came on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, and Putin’s presence at that event stood in stark contrast to the absence of Western leaders, many of whom imposed a diplomatic boycott.
The document was signed at the height of pre-war tensions over Ukraine, and it included language critical of the US alliance system in Europe and Asia. This specifically described the common opposition of the countries to any “further enlargement of NATO”.
There were also a few suggestion in western media that the Chinese had been warned before this pact of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. The details of the conversation Putin and Xi had on Ukraine in Beijing are not fully known, but the joint statement certainly gave Western observers reason to believe that China’s behavior could have helped enable the Russian aggression.
Does China have a role to play in ending the war?
China has launched the idea of play a role of mediator, but exactly what that might mean remains unclear. Beijing is widely seen in the West as too pro-Russian, and it doesn’t have the experience of playing that kind of role in Europe.
There is certainly hope that China will pressure Russia to end the conflict. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in March that He had received assurances that “China is interested in stopping this war”, adding: “Chinese diplomacy has enough tools to make a difference, and we count that it is already involved”.
Western policymakers have signaled to China that Beijing will face costs if it is seen as a catalyst for Russia’s continued aggression. And Putin may be sensitive to any change in Xi’s position. But China lacks the will and ability to force Russia to back down completely. And both sides have reasons to try to manage any tensions that may exist at the moment.[Understand key political developments, each week. Subscribe to The Conversation’s politics newsletter.]